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February 02, 2005

on "constructivism" in education

"Constructivism" is one of the most influential words in the whole jargon of education--and a highly divisive one. It is a rallying-cry for many progressive educators and reformers, but an irritant to conservatives. Constructivists oppose the kind of scene in which a teacher stands before a disciplined class of children and endlessly tells them what is true. But they oppose that pegagogy for a variety of overlapping reasons, some of which I find more persuasive than others.

Creativity: Constructivists often see traditional pedagogy as excessively passive, because children are given everything ready-made in textbooks or by teachers. They want children to be creative, to generate their own works of art, narratives (including factual ones), rules and norms, clubs and other organizations, and social or service projects.

Child-centeredness: Constructivists often want educators to recognize the interests, goals, and "learning styles" of children at particular ages and in particular communities. Teachers are then supposed to tailor classroom experiences in order to capture kids' imaginations and interests. Education should "start where the kids are."

Pluralism: Constructivists emphasize that interests, values, and dispositions differ according to the culture, gender, and social class of students. Thus they oppose standardization, as epitomized by textbooks and "standardized" tests.

Experimentalism: Some constructivists want children to discover facts and methods through experimentation, not wait to be given answers. So, for example, it is better for students to re-discover an algorithm for solving a type of mathematical problem than simply to be taught how to solve it. According to constructivists, kids will remember and be able to apply the method better if they have "made" it themselves.

Holism: Constructivists oppose the separation of intellectual learning from social and emotional learning and ethical development. They see traditional pedagogy as narrow and dismissive of the "whole child."

Democracy: Many constructivists argue that democracy should not only be an outcome of education, but also an aspect of it. Students should share authority and responsibility in schools and classrooms (to various degrees) with adults.

Relativism/Skepticism: It is very common for constructivists to deny explicitly that there is any objective truth. They claim that people or cultures "construct" their own truths. Since many truths have been constructed, none is more objective or valid than the others.

I'd like to unpack educational "constructivism" into its components, because I admire some and quite strongly dislike others. For example, I'm in favor of creativity; this is a core value for me. However, I think it's an empirical question whether children use and remember knowledge best if they have re-discovered it for themselves. This may only be true of some knowledge and some children. Likewise, I think it's an empirical question whether democratically organized classrooms and schools produce the most competent and committed democratic citizens. They may, or they may not.

Relativism is my least favorite part of the constructivist package. Constructivists often deploy a relativist "epistemology" in the belief that it supports their practices. They favor creativity, democracy, experimentialism, holism, pluralism, and child-centerdness. They see "positivism" as the enemy of all these good things, and relativism as the one alternative to positivism that can support their pedagogy. The classic positivists believed that there were objective, verifiable, empirical (or "positive") facts, in contrast to theories, values, and metaphysical statements, which were merely subjective. In contrast, "constructivists hypothesize that it is the subject who actually invents reality and that knowledge is tied to an internal-subjective perspective where truth is replaced by ways of knowing."

But reality is obdurate. We can invent some things, but other things are real whether we like them or not. Although classical positivism is flawed, there are many ways to defend objectivity without being a positivist. No serious thinker has ever believed that the objective world is obvious, directly apprehended by reason, and uncontroversial. But denying it would be equally foolish. Thus I'm very unimpressed by assertions that "subjects invent reality."

Moreover, I think it's ethically bankrupt to pretend that people or groups can and should make up their own worlds. There are many white communities in which everyone would like to believe that chattel slavery was pleasant--or, at the very least, they would like to ignore it completely. The vicious wickedness of slavery is not part of their lifeworld. But it should be. If everyone "constructs" reality and individuals may decide what knowledge they want to create, then we have no right to challenge people to face uncomfortable realities.

In fact, relativism is bad for "constructivism," because two of constructivism's best components, experimentalism and democracy, require individuals to deal with a world outside themselves--a world not of their creation and not under their control.

Posted by peterlevine at February 2, 2005 10:29 AM

Comments

"Reality is that which, when we refuse to believe in it, doesn't go away" - Philip K. Dick

The distinction I've seen made is between education and training: liberals want schools to accomplish the former, conservatives want the latter.

And, from Philosoraptor:
"The extreme Left of the spectrum...tends to denigrate truth, reason, and objectivity on (preposterously shaky) theoretical grounds and reject them even as ideals.... On the right, it is common to pay lip service to the ideals of truth, reason, and objectivity, while in fact blatantly flaunting those ideals."

Posted by: Anna at February 2, 2005 03:30 PM

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