Here’s a sentence from a longer comment from “Jane,” a retired “35 year teacher.” She was commenting on this post about the great teaching going on in Rochester schools:
“Let me remind you that if these children are engaging in constructivist learning they’re making up their own meaning for the text and that is somehow acceptable.”
Jane knew I wouldn’t post her comment and she was right. It was just too full of bile and insults. But I do want to address her real point because it is the kind of misunderstanding you hear a lot.
There’s a good discussion of what Jane is talking about in a journal for the folks who develop curriculums for public schools. The article itself is pretty long, so I’ve pulled out some highlights:
Learners control their learning. This simple truth lies at the heart of the constructivist approach to education.
As educators, we develop classroom practices and negotiate the curriculum to enhance the likelihood of student learning. But controlling what students learn is virtually impossible….[A]s educators we have great control over what we teach, but far less control over what students learn….
We have identified five central tenets of constructivism (Grennon Brooks & Brooks, 1993).
- First, constructivist teachers seek and value students’ points of view. Knowing what students think about concepts helps teachers formulate classroom lessons and differentiate instruction on the basis of students’ needs and interests.
- Second, constructivist teachers structure lessons to challenge students’ suppositions. All students, whether they are 6 or 16 or 60, come to the classroom with life experiences that shape their views about how their worlds work. When educators permit students to construct knowledge that challenges their current suppositions, learning occurs. Only through asking students what they think they know and why they think they know it are we and they able to confront their suppositions.
- Third, constructivist teachers recognize that students must attach relevance to the curriculum. As students see relevance in their daily activities, their interest in learning grows.
- Fourth, constructivist teachers structure lessons around big ideas, not small bits of information. Exposing students to wholes first helps them determine the relevant parts as they refine their understandings of the wholes.
- Finally, constructivist teachers assess student learning in the context of daily classroom investigations, not as separate events. Students demonstrate their knowledge every day in a variety of ways. Defining understanding as only that which is capable of being measured by paper-and-pencil assessments administered under strict security perpetuates false and counterproductive myths about academia, intelligence, creativity, accountability, and knowledge….
This particularly interesting passage contrasts a poetry class in which the teacher does not allow her students to “construct their own meaning” with a science class in which the teacher does just that. You choose.
Recently, we visited a classroom in which a teacher asked 7th graders to reflect on a poem. The teacher began the lesson by asking the students to interpret the first two lines. One student volunteered that the lines evoked an image of a dream. “No,” he was told, “that’s not what the author meant.” Another student said that the poem reminded her of a voyage at sea. The teacher reminded the student that she was supposed to be thinking about the first two lines of the poem, not the whole poem, and then told her that the poem was not about the sea. Looking out at the class, the teacher asked, “Anyone else?” No other student raised a hand.
In another classroom, a teacher asked 9th graders to ponder the effect of temperature on muscle movement. Students had ice, buckets of water, gauges for measuring finger-grip strength, and other items to help them consider the relationship. The teacher asked a few framing questions, stated rules for handling materials safely, and then gave the students time to design their experiments. He posed different questions to different groups of students, depending on their activities and the conclusions that they seemed to be drawing. He continually asked students to elaborate or posed contradictions to their responses, even when they were correct.
And here is an expansion of the point Jane is making:
One critique of constructivism is that it is overly permissive. The other critique of constructivist approaches to education is that they lack rigor.
As constructivism has gained support as an educational approach, two main criticisms have emerged. One critique of constructivism is that it is overly permissive. This critique suggests that constructivist teachers often abandon their curriculums to pursue the whims of their students. If, for example, most of the students in the aforementioned 9th grade science class wished to discuss the relationship between physical exercise and muscle movement rather than pursue the planned lesson, so be it. In math and science, critics are particularly concerned that teachers jettison basic information to permit students to think in overly broad mathematical and scientific terms.
The other critique of constructivist approaches to education is that they lack rigor. The concern here is that teachers cast aside the information, facts, and basic skills embedded in the curriculum—and necessary to pass high-stakes tests—in the pursuit of more capricious ideas. Critics would be concerned that in the 7th grade English lesson described previously, the importance of having students understand the one true main idea of the poem would fall prey to a discussion of their individual interpretations.None of these conceptions is correct.
Both of these critiques are silly caricatures of what an evolving body of research tells us about learning. Battista (1999), speaking specifically of mathematics education, writes,
Many . . . conceive of constructivism as a pedagogical stance that entails a type of non-rigorous, intellectual anarchy that lets students pursue whatever interests them and invent and use any mathematical methods they wish, whether those methods are correct or not. Others take constructivism to be synonymous with “discovery learning” from the era of “new math,” and still others see it as a way of teaching that focuses on using manipulatives or cooperative learning. None of these conceptions is correct.
State and local curriculums address what students learn. Constructivism, as an approach to education, addresses how students learn.
Aside from calling the critiques silly, this is a responsible, thoughtful piece. If you are sympathetic at all to Jane’s comment, the full article is worth reading.