Constructivism, or Constructivism? Part I

If you want to launch a feisty debate in your next faculty meeting, stand up and ask “who here supports ‘constructivism’?”

This question all but guarantees heated discussion, because …

… MANY people identify strongly with one side or another (“I definately DO!” “Well, I certainly DON’T!!”)


… people on one side often think ill of people on the other (“How can you possibly hold that immoral position?”).

We’re talking Hadfields and McCoys here.

Typically, this blog would look to research to resolve such a debate. Alas the debate resists a research-based answer, because we can easily find research supporting both positions.

A construction site: a 6 story building with scaffolding all around, a crane against a sunset

Whether you’re championing PBL or direct instruction or inquiry learning or Direct Instruction or guiding from the side or a knowledge-rich curriculum, you’ve got research to bolster your claim.

Is there any way out of this tangle? Will we always disagree?

A Fresh Place to Start?

In many fields, basic definitions can be helpfully straightforward.

If I’m a carpenter, I can tell you what a “nail” is. In fact, I can show you several. They’re right there.

If I’m a surgeon, I can tell you what a “pancreas” is. I can tap it with my scalpel. It’s right there.

When a mechanic repairs my car, she can show me the “rust” on my “carburetor.” See? Right there.

And so forth.

In psychology and education research, alas, basic definitions get really tricky.

How, exactly, do I define “attention”? Or, “engagement”? Or, heck, how do I define “learning”?

If I can’t define these core concepts, then I can’t develop a precise way to measure them. And research relies on precise measurements…

For that reason, we might start reexamining our Hadfield/McCoy fued about “constructivism” by looking at basic definitions.

What, exactly, does the word “constructivism” mean?

Take Two

This potentially pedantic question turns out to have helpful results.

We’ve got (at least) two fundamentally different ways of thinking about constructivism.

First: physical + social activity = mental change.

If students are up and DOING carefully designed activities — if they’re moving about and (preferably) interacting with other students — this combination of physical and social work leads to the construction of new mental models.

This kind of “active” classroom work — unlike the “passive” classrooms where students sit and listen to a teacher explain — results in learning.

In other words: we can tell by looking at the students in the classroom whether or not “constructivist teaching” is happening.

Secondmental change = mental change.

This second definition focuses on learning more than on teaching.

It says: OF COURSE students learn by constructing their own mental models. (Unlike The Matrix, reality does not allow us to download mental models into our students.)

If students have learned, they have constructed. ALL LEARNING is by definition constructivist.

So they core question is: what teaching methods produce that result?

If, say, a lecture results in learning, then a lecture is “constructivist.”

If a jigsaw activity results in learning, then it too is “constructivist.”

In other words: we can’t tell by looking at the students whether or not constructivist teaching is happening.

Instead, we can tell only if we determine how much they learned. If they learned, they constructed. Voila: constructivism.

Rethinking Strong Claims

This definitional muddle might explain some of the “are you a constructivist” debate.

According to the first definition, I’m a constructivist teacher if I teach in particular ways: my students are up and about, working and talking with each other and — as much as possible — finding their own way through a particular concept.

According to the second definition, I’m a constructivist teacher if my students learn.

In other words: EVERYONE wants to be a constructivist according to the second definition. The first definition, however, prompts the feud.

Champions of the first definition believe those methods result in the second result. That is: “physical + social” constructivism (“guide on the side”) should result in more learning.

Critics of the first definition believe that “sage on the stage” teaching results in more learning — more construction of mental models.

Once we separate these two ways of thinking about “constructivism,” we can ask:

“How might we use this distinction in research? Can we determine which approach — saging or guiding — results in more construction of new mental models?”

I’ve found a study that tries to do just that. I’ll summarize it in next week’s blog post…

Fischer, E., & Hänze, M. (2019). Back from “guide on the side” to “sage on the stage”? Effects of teacher-guided and student-activating teaching methods on student learning in higher education. International Journal of Educational Research95, 26-35.

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