Constructivism and Its Discontents: An Interview

About a month ago, I was interviewed by one of my doctoral students, Emmanuel Mensah, for his qualitative social science research project on constructivism and teaching. I was shooting from the hip in a casual, coffee-shop environment, but I think I managed to think through some things, and make some distinctions, that I hadn’t done before. My comments follow closely to a talk I gave at Wabash College in February, titled “The Teacher-Centered Classroom.”

For those who find the term ‘constructivism’ foreign, suffice it to say that nearly every teacher education program in the United States — and many of its schools, colleges, and universities — claim this term and its key (and painfully unclear) concepts as a dogmatic truth of sorts.

In this interview I call that “truth” into serious question.

  • arty

    Where I teach, I regularly hear students who have to explain social constructivism, as part of the process of their admission into the Ed program. To say that their explanations are generally confused does a disservice to the word “confused.” What I’ve observed , from listening to colleagues and students talk, is that Progressive era constructivism has gotten merged with the “social construction” language that emerged from engagement with postmodern arguments, and so questions about how best to teach things to students have gotten subsumed under concerns about displacing the “power” of the teacher. To my mind, Ian Hacking’s The Social Construction of What? is a pretty powerful corrective, since that book (as I’m recalling it from a reading over a decade ago) attacks the predominantly sloppy usage of the phrase “social construction”. Seems like Hacking came out not too long after the infamous Social Text affair, and Alan Sokal social construction of gravity. So, what I’m arguing is that, where I teach, two historically different “constructionisms” have gotten merged, and it is generally unclear as to how they are supposed to fit together, or even that these two different isms are in fact two different things, even if you can find ways to dovetail them. Do you think that this is generally true in the Ed establishment?

  • Petro

    I appreciate your thoughts. I think you have legitimate concerns with the proliferation in colleges of education of the breed of constructivism that you decry. Nevertheless, I think you overestimate the influence of these colleges of education, and educational philosophy in general, on the teaching profession and educational policy.

    In the widely-pervasive situation in which teachers are not being properly equipped to teach by colleges of education, most teachers default to a mix of two influences: how they were taught and what they learned from experiences in their practicum or for other teachers they observed. There is very little conscious consideration to philosophical approach in the daily work of a teacher.

    While this situation does not preclude the propagation of constructivism, the actual practice of most teachers is still a traditional approach of lecture, possible discussion, reproduction. This is particularly the dominant model in secondary education. The model that is primarily battling against this model is the skill-based model, guide, apply model, which is still not constructivism and is not truly student-centered. An actual application of constructivism is very rare in the general education scene and exists in practice right now mostly in the context of problem-based learning which is being sprinkled around with the STEM programs that are popping up. Constructivism has been prevalent in Gifted and Talented programs, but these programs have begun to be phased out over the last decade or so. Thus, teachers tend to continue to follow the rather traditional methods of educations that were established long before constructivism.

    School policy has also not taken an honestly constructivist approach. Constructivism is not behind NCLB. What drives NCLB and other “reform” movements is mainly a political battle over resources. This battle has many fronts including a front featuring people who would prefer to destroy the public education concept altogether as well as labor unions. Part of doing this is diminishing the role of the teacher and the teacher’s unions which have some political influence and represent one of the few unions with any significant political capital. Whether this is done through a mildly constructivist approach or some other philosophical ideal is immaterial to the desire for political power and control of resources.

    The only place that constructivism holds onto some sort of practical life is in the college of education. It was, at one time, the raison d’être of many positions of educational scholarship. This time is quickly coming to an end as the concept of educational research brings in private monies and squelches the mostly academic field of educational philosophy. Appealing directly to a philosophy is typically not scalable thus minimizing any real work to try to prove through the research route that a particular philosophy is the golden ticket.

    You do have a point that constructivism seems to be holding sway over the educational community in some respect. This sway, however, is illusory. Constructivism is merely in the language of policymakers, administrators, and education professors because it sounds good. Certainly all teachers should be focused on the growth of their students. Many, probably most, are. It sounds really good to use the empowering language of constructivism when trying to push forward any agenda, even if that agenda is contradictory to constructivism. Thus, you will hear the types of explanations that you cite being given for every sort of reform or non-reform. In practice, however, K-12 education at the classroom level remains more or less the same as it was with slight alterations to the content of what is being presented and some of the tools used to present it.

    • arty

      I certainly observed what you describe, when my wife taught in a K-12 environment. All the philosophy came from the administrators and the consultants, the really good teachers ignored most or all of it and did their jobs pretty much as they always have.

  • srocha

    Arty and Petro,

    You both raise really great thoughts and I have very little to add or detract from them.

    I do think, Arty, that there is a real confusion about the distinction between constructivism and the “social construction of reality” in education. The two are related on a certain reading of pragmatism, but that is not my reading. Richard Rorty would be the sort of reading I’m thinking of. But these (anti)metaphysical questions are the ones I noted as being rather beside the point, in this case. In the wider view, people tend to forget this in the other direction: there is a huge difference between postmodernism and progressivism. Even Rorty in this respect was a self-proclaimed bourgeois liberal.

    Oddly enough, Petro, you rightly point out that I may need to retreat even more still. I am very sympathetic and depressed about that. That is why I have such a bleak outlook on the future of the university. I think the category of “constructivism-light” is the one that fits your very well-placed observations. However, I am told that the USA is a distinctly anti-intellectual place in terms of excluding philosophers of education. Canada and Brazil and the UK, for instance, seem to find us much more useful than the US. Go figure.

    Thanks to you both,


    • arty

      So what, in your view, should be the role of philosophers of education? Descriptive, prescriptive, or what measure of both? Essentially, this is just a variant of the problem of philosophy in most academic fields. In my field, history, it reduces to the question of whether philosophers of history ought to describe what historians actually do, versus prescribing what they can/should do. My late mother in law taught for 30 years, and then went and got a PhD in education, and her view was that Education had more in common with diesel mechanics, as a vocational field, than it did with other academic fields. So, how do you conceive of your own role in this business of education? Are you describing what Petro’s old hand’s have always done? Are you theorizing about what they ought and ought not to be doing? (Incidentally, I share your pessimism about the future of the University, but my reasons have a lot to do with Philip Rieff, and Petro and I have already gone a few rounds over that…).

      • srocha

        What should be the role of philosophers of education? As you might imagine, my answer to that giant question is not as direct as it perhaps should be. It begins, I think, with the fact that I have very direct senses of what philosophy and education are that are not exactly “common sense.” However, in my soon-to-be-published Primer, I explain both what philosophy and education are, are not, and why I think it is important in simple, but careful, detail. The result of it all comes to a point in my teaching, but also my outreach beyond my classes. THAT, I think, is what philosophers of education must do: we must teach in the most rigorous and varied ways we can muster. In this case I see my role as a philosopher of education as teaching teachers about teaching, or at least teaching them about what teaching need not be overburdened by (e.g. neo-constructivism and constructivism-light).

        • arty

          Yeah, I realize that I asked a rather large question, so thanks for the concise reply. Let us know when your Primer comes out. I’m guessing that Petro is right, that space for your view will be limited, but that’s the way it goes. I belong to a decided minority of historians who think that philosophers ought to be able to tell historians how they can and can’t do their jobs, so I’m used to the lack of “room” myself…

      • Petro

        It’s more of an art than diesel mechanics. But artists need tools. Teacher education should give teachers tools to teach.

        There are economics majors and business majors though. There’s room for Sam. It’s not going to be a particularly spacious room though.

        I need to read that Primer.