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.