Monday, 28 June 2010

The constructivist theory of education. Part1; as used in schools

Until relatively recently, the accepted method of education in this country was that of the behaviourists. One set out to give knowledge to children and then rewarded those who learnt it. Those who failed to learn what was offered faced sanctions. These days, this type of education is not so popular, particularly in maintained schools. Now, the favourite theory is called constructivism. In this, teachers try to get children to learn by finding out the answer for themselves, often by discussion and experiment. This theory also underpins autonomous education. Autonomous educators, albeit frequently unwittingly, are following a constructivist theory of learning. I have of course simplified both theories dramatically. There are a number of difficulties with constructivism when used in education; I shall first look at the problem when it is used in schools.

To begin with, let us look at a class of ten year olds who are trying to discover which substances sink and which float in water. They are gathered round a tank of water and the idea is that they are going to learn by actually doing, rather than by being told. The only thing wrong with this scheme is that these are real flesh and blood children in a real life setting; children who are moreover oblivious to the distinctions between behaviourist and constructivist theories of education. They regard the activity round the water tank as a welcome break from learning. It is a chance to discuss last night's episode of Eastenders, see who can splash the most water on the floor and to pretend that the bits of plasticene, rubber and wood that they have been given are submarines. The whole process is enormously time consuming. An entire morning has been occupied with setting up, conducting the 'experiment' and clearing up after this session. What with all the talking and messing about, the small matter of which substances sink and which float will soon be forgotten. In other words, they have learned no science whatsoever from this science lesson.

It would certainly have been more effective if the children sat quietly while the teacher simply demonstrated the point which he wished to get across, but of course teachers today have a deep rooted aversion towards what they call 'Chalk and talk' and the rest of us call teaching. They are constructivists to a man (and woman).

Over at the local secondary school, a history lesson is just ending. The kids there have been learning about castles. For their homework they have been told to pretend that they are Norman Barons who have just invaded England. This is a very popular thing in schools. Pretend you are a ten year old Pakistani boy working for 25P a day; how would you feel? Pretend you are living in the Middle Ages and your best friend has just died of Black Death; how would that make you feel? Pretend that you are lady Macbeth..... Anyway, today the home work is to pretend you are a Norman Baron who wants to build a castle. Where would you build it and why?

Now the teacher is a constructivist who wants his pupils to figure out for themselves where and why the Normans built their castles. He can't just tell them; that would defeat the whole object of the exercise, which is to get the children to think for themselves. At the next lesson, the children have all made different guesses. One thinks that the castle should be built by a river which would provide drinking water. Another would site the thing in a forest, a third on an open plain. So it goes on. Eventually, after the home work has been discussed and a noisy row erupted between the kids who are each arguing for their own choices, the teacher is forced to tell them the real place that the Norman's built their castles, i.e. on high places with a good view over the surrounding countryside.

Now comes the interesting bit. A month later, an inquisitive adult who knew of all this foolishness asks the pupils where the Normans built their castles. Not one remembers. They all recollect the discussions about the subject, most can even remember what they thought themselves. Not one knows where the Normans really built their castles. In short, this history lesson has failed to teach any history at all. And that's constructivism in action folks, as it actually works, or fails to work, in modern schools.

This method of teaching in schools is astonishingly time consuming and singularly ineffective. Often, the children fail to learn anything worthwhile from the exercise. By this, I mean they not only fail to learn any science or history, but neither do they learn any useful, transferrable skills. No wonder many independent schools eschew this theory of education and prefer proper teaching; that's why their examination results are so much better. 'Learning' based upon the constructivist theory of education has replaced traditional teaching in maintained schools for purely philosophical reasons, not because it actually works better, it manifestly does not. It is one of the chief reasons why children leave state schools in such an ill educated condition these days.

Ah, you say, in schools this may be so. But what about a one-to-one situation in a relaxed domestic setting? Surely this method will yield better results when used in home education? We will look at this possibility tomorrow.


  1. simon says-why children leave state schools in such an ill educated condition these days.

    yet you want to send more children back to these state schools? by your support of Badmans ideas?

  2. This reminds me of Chris Woodhead's account of DH Lawrence's account of his (Lawrence's) infant teacher slamming a lump of clay in front of him and saying "There! Express yourself!" I can't see why a perfectly workable and effective pedagogical approach should be dismissed on the grounds that it is widely misunderstood and badly implemented.

    I attended a primary school that adopted what I suppose could be called a constructivist approach. Not only was the approach enjoyable - there was no bullying or truancy, for example - it was also successful in the sense that children from the school began to pass the 11+ for the first time. The key to success rests on the facilitator (aka teacher) setting up a rich and well-structured learning environment, and on the approach being used over a long period.

    The type of incident you describe with the floating and sinking experiment would not have happened in my primary school, because early on we learned how to gather information, solve problems, work together, and take responsibility for the smooth running of the school.

    Properly implemented 'constructivist' learning works extremely well; badly implemented, no pedagogical approach can be successful.

    In addition, pedagogy is not about one approach being always better than another. The type of approach should be determined by the knowledge or skill in question. Sometimes rote learning is useful, sometimes direct instruction, and at other times experience or exploration. There are some things that children really need to know whether they are interested or not, and other things that are not so vital and that can be negotiated.

    Independent schools, I suggest, get better exam results largely because they can select children who are likely to do well academically and they tend to be better resourced. State schools, by contrast have an obligation to educate all children, some of whom are highly unlikely to do well in public examinations. State schools have been constantly under pressure to conform to whatever political or philosophical model happens to be in vogue, rather than to a model derived on evidence-based research. Until we clarify the objectives for education, and identify appropriate approaches to meet those objectives, schools will continue to fail.

  3. Interesting points. Yes, lot of the time the problem is that such methods are used poorly. Also, some pupils react badly to this sort of learning and work better with a more traditionally structured classroom. Of course there are other reasons why children in independent schools outperform those in the maintained sector, but it cannot be altogether a coincidence that many reject progressive educational methods.

    One of my objections is that this sort of thing often begins with a set of assumptions and then tries to get the classroom to operate on those assumptions, rather than testing what is working and planning accordingly. For example, the abolition of corporal punishment in schools was undertaken not as a result of any evidence that it was ineffective, but from the perspective that it was, per se, undesirable. A similar process has taken place with the techniques of teaching which are being widely used.

  4. There appears to be little evidence in relation to the efficacy or otherwise of corporal punishment. Similarly the claims made for school uniforms. However, 'child-centred' educational methods were widely implemented in the first half of the 20th century and were often very effective. A significant amount of research took place, though whether it would meet rigorous standards of reliability and validity is a moot point.

    I feel a distinction should be made between instrumental child-centred approaches and ideologically determined constructivist approaches. Often proven child-centred education methodology is prematurely dismissed because the failure of some children to acquire basic skills is attributed to it.

    There is a populist assumption that all children should be able to read, write and do arithmetic or get 5 GCSEs or whatever, to a certain standard, and if some fail to meet this standard there is clearly something wrong with the overall educational approach, necessitating widespread and expensive changes to the system.

    My view is that some children will struggle to attain so-called basic skills until and unless the specific reasons for their struggling are identified and addressed. And the reasons are not always the underpinning pedagogical approach of the education system.

  5. "These days, this type of education is not so popular, particularly in maintained schools. Now, the favourite theory is called constructivism. In this, teachers try to get children to learn by finding out the answer for themselves, often by discussion and experiment."

    This seems a strange way to phrase this. My impression was that constructivism is a theory of how children learn rather than a particular teaching method or style. The theory describes how learning could happen in a lecture theatre just as easily as it describes learning in the hands on section of a museum. Various pedagogies have developed that try to take advantage of theory of course, but constructivism is a theory about what happens in the learner's mind rather than a method as such.

  6. "Also, some pupils react badly to this sort of learning and work better with a more traditionally structured classroom."

    Yes, some children prefer informal learning methods, others prefer more structure and some styles are more suited to particular topics than others. The beauty of autonomous education is that all styles are available to the learner who can mix and match styles and topics until they find what works best for them.

  7. "This seems a strange way to phrase this. My impression was that constructivism is a theory of how children learn rather than a particular teaching method or style."

    Yes, it was badly expressed. I meant to get across the idea that teachers are following a certain theory which affects their style of teaching.