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Are we allowing children to “make up their own meaning?”

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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.


  1. Several points on this, Bill. Constructivism is a theory of learning, not of teaching. It has morphed in the popular mind and in the minds of some educators who are, I think, too careless about language for anyone’s good, into a kind of teaching. But it isn’t. And as a result, its vehement opponents are able to get away with shoving everything they don’t like about progressive teaching methods into the “Constructivist” box and then dismissing it all en masse. One type of teaching is confounded with another, and the weaknesses of any one become the sins of all of them. And so it goes with educational conservatism when confronted with any idea that makes it uncomfortable.

    The key relevant idea in constructivist learning theory is so obvious that I remain incredulous 25 years after first encountering it that anyone would find it objectionable: people can’t have knowledge imparted to them by direct transmission. Everything we learn is filtered through previous constructs and experiences. Each new experience alters in some way the existing constructs. It’s a never-ending cycle of subtle changes.

    The part to attend to is that our constructs determine to no small extent how we experience and try to make sense of each new input. No two students are going to have the exact same exprerience when I teach a lesson on mathematical functions. Each understands or fails to understand or semi-understands in his or her unique way. And if I were to teach the same less a week later, or show it on video multiple times, each student’s experience would change in some small way upon successive viewings. As some ancient Greeks would have it, you can’t step into the same stream twice: the stream is different and so are you.

    What all of that leads to in terms of teaching, however, isn’t crystal-clear. It doesn’t mean that lectures are useless or that hands-on, project-based, discovery-oriented, small-group structured, or any other mode of learning is the magic bullet. It simply implies that teachers need to take into account very seriously the limitations of every lesson and every instructional approach.

    Turning “constructivist teaching” into a religion is asinine. But then, so is turning it into a Satanic threat to American education. I see both extremes out there, but far more of the latter than the former. Like so much else, we see well-meaning but sometimes rather dull people trying to turn yet another good idea into a rigid methodology that those who had the idea to begin with would likely reject. And we see not so well-meaning people using every trick in the propagandistic book to knock down yet another idea they either don’t understand (some of the things claimed about “constructivism” are so absurd as to be laughable), or can’t tolerate or discuss fairly and rationally.

    Either way, much heat and virtually no light gets shed. This would-be commenter, Jane, sound all too typical. But you should have let the comment appear, if only so I could have eviscerated the nonsense. 😉

    • Bill Duncan says:

      Thanks for this, Michael. I’m not qualified to debate your point about constructivist teaching but it does seem to me that a teacher who recognizes how a child learn and coaches her to learn in that way could fairly be called a constructivist teacher?

      • You’re quite welcome, Bill. But I think you’re missing a number of key points. First, you can’t coach/make someone to learn this way if the theory is correct (or nearly so). If we learn that way, then you can’t stop someone from doing so. From a teaching perspective, you have to ask instead: if this is how kids (and adults) learn, then what should I consider doing in my class that is consonant with the implications of that fact?

        One thing would be to cut back on direct instruction as the sole approach to teaching. It’s valuable when done well (like everything else) but as the only form of teaching it denies the experiential aspects of learning. This is part of an old paradigm: the teacher has cultural knowledge; the student does not. And so the job of the teacher is to impart his/her knowledge of truth into the students’ (mostly) empty heads.

        One marvelous advantage of that as a philosophy of education: when the students fail to learn from such an approach, the fault is CLEARLY all theirs. “I taught the lesson perfectly well. Some students just didn’t learn.” Pushed to explain, I guarantee that anyone strongly committed to a model of teaching that depends upon direct instruction of some sort will find many reasons, nearly all of which will be external to his/her knowledge of the subject or ability to correctly state it in lecture. As if that proved that it must be the fault of the students for not learning. They are lazy, ill-prepared (that points fingers down to ostensibly lousy teachers in the student’s past), or, let’s face it, just stupid. What a wonderful set up for the rationalizing, unreflective practitioner. The guilt will never be his/hers.

        With a constructivist perspective on learning, however, there’s no reason for guilt. Kids learn what they’re ready and motivated to learn when put into situations that give them good opportunities to think and do. Passive listening may be useful at more than one point, but by itself is far too limited. If that sufficed, traditional teachers wouldn’t also be so obsessed about homework, another thing that puts the burden entirely on students, parents, home culture and environment, ad nauseam.

        There are some marvelous lecturers. But they are far more rare than most teachers would like to believe. On my best days, when I’m firing on all cylinders, in semi-lecture mode, what makes the lessons sing is when there is also interaction with students and among students, when we all raise questions, make conjectures, test ideas, make connections, and actually do some mathematics. If it’s a day of all “performance” by me, I serously doubt students learn nearly as much. And there are days when, given the freedom to do so, I don’t lecture, do as little talking as I believe is needed, and give students the amunition to engage in other activities that are also productive.

        Unfortunately, there are extremists in every camp. Read up on the Direct Instruction people at University of Oregon and their followers and you’ll see one extreme. Or find teachers who think they are doing constructivist teaching by not doing anything at all. I think that’s not as common as critics claim, but I have seen it. After all, there are people who aren’t good at teaching or who choose to find paths of least resistance and less work. It happens. But then, not all such poor teaching is associated with actual constructivists or various progressive teaching methods. It happens in classrooms of people who have never heard the “C” word and wouldn’t like it if they did.

        Your antagonist, Jane, has no arguments to make, just vituperative to hurl. Nothing new there. She cites (possibly out of her imagination in some cases, since there’s no documentation offered for these horror stories) what strike me as either straw people or worst-case scenarios. My personal favorite is always about kids being allowed to solve math problems their own way – horrors!!! – and inevitably we hear of kids who are allowed to get the wrong answer. . . and NOTHING happens as a result.

        Of course, there could be a host of explanations – some bad, some quite reasonable – for any instance of that sort of thing. But absent an actual story with full details, it’s empty and useless. Did the teacher NEVER offer something that would help students realize their mistakes? Could it be that they had a good reason for letting the errors sit for one class (I’m thinking mostly of K-5 here, where students are seen every day for math, particularly in primary grades)? Could it be that the supposed observer left before the teacher called the students together to discuss their answers collectively? I’ve seen so many lessons that work that way, both in the US and in Asia. If the teacher knows that an answer is wrong, it’s almost certain that at some point, the error will be “dealt with.” How and when varies.

        But then I’ve sat in classrooms where no error is left uncorrected for as long as five seconds. Teachers who jump on any error, sometimes with rather nasty comments, but never let student answers “breathe” long enough for even the child who makes the error to reflect for a bit on whether the answer works, makes sense, checks out.

        That’s just bad teaching, to my mind. Kids aren’t actually morons, even when teachers insist on teaching as if they were. And the more teachers do all the heavy lifting, the less students will do . Why should they? By 3rd or 4th grade, the vast majority of US kids have learned not to take any risks in class, particularly in a subject like math, where every answer is subject to instant assessment. Unless one is 100% sure, and perhaps not even then, the best course is to shut up and wait for the teacher to answer her/his own question. Probably in 5 seconds or less after posiing it, according to much research. We school kids to be silent robots in math. Teachers like me who hate that sort of thing wind up with students who think math is a spectator sport. It’s a tragedy.

        • Bill Duncan says:

          Michael, you wear me out! I’m going to bed and read this in the morning if that’s ok…

        • Bill Duncan says:

          Michael, I’m not sure why we need to equate “coach” with “make” rather than with “enable.” Or “guide.” But, really, reading this thoughtful comment (I bet you’re a great teacher), I’ve lost track of where we might disagree, if we disagree at all.

          To my ear, your views are much like those of a friend of mine who said in an email this morning, “bad implementation of constructivist approaches or direct instruction can be really bad.” He mentioned a TIMMS study that you are probably familiar with that found, in his words, that “‘high quality’ instruction of any approach works just as well as the competing approach. Sort of a ‘duh’ – give me a great teacher and the approach matters a lot less.”

          But, as he says, “I prefer the more student-centered approaches because they are more likely to engage students in their own learning and that carries benefits beyond what you can measure on tests of academic content.”

          I think you and he both have the kind of balanced views that I hope prevail.

          • Thanks, Bill. I hope we prevail as well because so much rides on it for so many people.

            My main concern is that people understand that it’s not enough to “believe” in constructivist teaching (whatever that is). There are definitely people I’ve met in the last 25 years who say they are “constructivists” whose practice in the classroom or that they promote for education students in mathematics leaves much to be desired, in my view. Lots of things come to mind that work similarly (multiple intelligences, Piaget’s developmental theories, for example): some truly insightful thinker has an idea. Lesser followers and worshipers turn the theory into doctrine, the practice into mindless rule-following. Ironic that this sort of thing can happen even with philosophies and theories of teaching and learning that start out in opposition to the very idea of mindless rule-following. Oh, well.

            I’m not that great of a teacher. On my best days, I’m good. But I’m better at understanding how things are and how they could be vastly better, explaining the issues and fighting the entropy that invests the system with the ability to fight of meaningful change, than I am with being the sort of high-energy teacher who fights it from inside a classroom and a school building with students, parents, colleagues, and administrators who are thoroughly invested in seeing that nothing changes. Just being honest. As Dirty Harry put it: “A man’s gotta know his limitations.”

          • Bill Duncan says:

            Well, glad to have your thoughts, Michael.

  2. Jane says:

    Interesting that you placed “35 year teacher” in quotes as if it’s not true. Why are you afraid to post the whole comment in context? Is the truth about these bad teachers too bad for you to face?

    • Bill Duncan says:

      I didn’t mean it that way, Jane. I totally believe you. At one point you said you were an art teacher, right? And taught other subjects during that time.

      And, of course, fear has nothing to do with whether or not I approve a comment. It really just a matter of not wanting angry ad hominem comments as part of the discussion. It just doesn’t seem constructive.

  3. Jane says:

    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.

    Um yes they are. I was trained ad nauseum on this garbage And that’s just what it is garbage. And edubabble From people that don’t have a clue

  4. wgersen says:

    Thanks for providing a forum for this topic… and illustrating the nuances. We in education spend way too much time forcing dichotomies when hardly anything we do is black or white…. anyone care to debate whole language vs. phonics ;-)?

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