October 13, 2006

The Folly of Constructivism Unmasked

Update (10/17): I've begun summarizing the article here so you don't have to slog through it. I'm also adding what we know about cog sci as it pertrains to how we learn that wasn't explained in the article. That's double bang for the buck.

This is great stuff:
Evidence for the superiority of guided instruction is explained in the context of our knowledge of human cognitive architecture, expert–novice differences, and cognitive load. Although unguided or minimally guided instructional approaches are very popular and intuitively appealing, the point is made that these approaches ignore both the structures that constitute human cognitive architecture and evidence from empirical studies over the past half-century that consistently indicate that minimally guided instruction is less effective and less efficient than instructional approaches that place a strong emphasis on guidance of the student learning process. The advantage of guidance begins to recede only when learners have sufficiently high prior knowledge to provide “internal” guidance. Recent developments in instructional research and instructional designmodels that support guidance during instruction are briefly described.
Wait there is more:
None of the preceding arguments and theorizing would be important if there was a clear body of research using controlled experiments indicating that unguided or minimally guided instruction was more effective than guided instruction. In fact, precisely as one might expect from our knowledge of human cognition and the distinctions between learning and practicing a discipline, the reverse is true. Controlled experiments almost uniformly indicate that when dealing with novel information, learners should be explicitly shown what to do and how to do it.

Anumber of reviews of empirical studies have established a solid research-based case against the use of instruction with minimal guidance. Although an extensive review of those studies is outside the scope of this article, Mayer (2004) recently reviewed evidence from studies conducted from 1950 to the late 1980s comparing pure discovery learning, defined as unguided, problem-based instruction, with guided forms of instruction. He suggested that in each decade since the mid-1950s, when empirical studies provided solid evidence that the then popular unguided approach did notwork, a similar approach popped up under a different name with the cycle then repeating itself. Each new set of advocates for unguided approaches seemed either unaware of or uninterested in previous evidence that unguided approaches had not been validated. This pattern produced discovery learning, which gave way to experiential learning, which gave way to problem based and inquiry learning, which now gives way to constructivist instructional techniques. Mayer (2004) concluded that the “debate about discovery has been replayed many times in education but each time, the evidence has favored a guided approach to learning” (p. 18).
From the recently puiblished Why Minimal Guidance During Instruction Does Not Work: An Analysis of the Failure of Constructivist, Discovery, Problem-Based, Experiential, and Inquiry-Based Teaching from EDUCATIONAL PSYCHOLOGIST, 41(2), 75-86

I'm going to put this on the top of the list for summarizing, but in the meantime I encourage everyone to read the whole thing in raw form and see how wrong our constructivist friends really are. And to our constructivist friends, I'd like to see an honest rebuttal of the research-backed points made in this article.

My take-away so far is that constructivism isn't just a little wrong, it's a horribly misguided theory riddled with errors pertaining to how people think and learn and how our brain works. In any event, all the brutal details are laid out very clearly and concisely in this paper.


Anonymous said...

"it's a horribly misguided theory riddled with errors pertaining to how people think and learn and how our brain works. "

And the great irony is that these people misstate and cite cogsci as support.

Anonymous said...

too bad the writing style
makes _borderlands_ look
like mark twain.
keep the executive summary coming.
i guess.

Anonymous said...

"The advantage of guidance begins to recede only when learners have sufficiently high prior knowledge to provide “internal” guidance. "

But even in college, the material gets more difficult and the need for direct guidance doesn't grow less. After 7 1/2 years of college engineering courses, one of the last courses I took was on orbital mechanics. It just could NOT be done with minimal guidance.

However, I did have an undergraduate senior design project that required student groups to design and engineer a complete structure and then make and defend a formal presentation. This, however, is not a general approach to learning new material, especially in the lower grades.

It's intuitively obvious to the most casual observer that student centered (especially in groups), discovery learning is not as time efficient as direct instruction. It is also neither necessary or sufficient. I remember exactly how I felt as a senior in high school learning about how integration calculates the area under the curve - while I was being directly taught. It was definitely a light bulb experience.

So, what's the advantage of discovery without the teacher's help - in groups? Just the light bulb effect? I've had lots of classes where the teacher/professor tries to lead students along the primrose path to discovery. He/she keeps giving more clues without answering the question directly. I've even tried this in some of the math and computer science courses I've taught. Sometimes it worked and many times it didn't. Can you imaging the success ratio for student-centered groups compared with direct teacher prompting?

As I have said before, one student might might have a light bulb experience (right or wrong) and then try to "teach" it to the other students in the group. This is supposed to be better than having an experienced teacher do the job? However, only one student actually benefited from the light bulb experience. What if Mr. or Miss lightbulb was wrong?

Constructivism, used as the standard teaching methodology, just does not pass the sniff test.

Anonymous said...

" too bad the writing style
makes _borderlands_ look
like mark twain."

Welcome to the world of academic writing!

Instructivist said...

If you buy into "constructivism" you have to believe absurdly that pupils will know more if exposed less to knowledge.

It's great to have research, but even without research I can see the plain idiocy of such a premise.

Anonymous said...

Their real goal is not constructivism, but child-centered, mixed ability, group learning. Constructivism is used only as the justification. If you look closely, they really don't do constructivism very well, even if you believe in constructivism.

In the "old days", the K-6 curriculum was more specific and focused on basic knowledge and skills. If you couldn't keep up, you were held back or had to go to summer school. Then, by seventh grade, schools started to separate kids by ability as a lead-in to high school.

Tracking in the lower grades is taboo nowadays. On top of that, the use of full inclusion means that even borderline autistic kids are included in the same classroom as the gifted kids. This, and child-centered group learning, rather than constructivism, is the primary driving force. Tracking is done by age, rather than by ability.

To do this, grade-level requirements have to be made more fuzzy and the curriculum spiraled. To placate the parents who want more for their kids, they introduce "differentiated instruction" (or differentiated learning, rather, because the teacher isn't teaching) to solve the problem. But, how do you do this in mixed ability groups? That is what our public schools are trying to do. Just last week, a school committee member said (for about the billionth time) that more work should be done in this area. The fundamental flaw is that you can't do acceleration of the curriculum for the advanced kids - only enrichment. Full inclusion is the driving force, not constructivism. Constructivism is only a way to give them some sort of theoretical cover. Conceptual understanding becomes primary because if they focused on basic skills and knowledge, there would be no way to make full inclusion work.

I was looking at the Everyday Math site today and found a link to a TAG/GATE site. I wanted to know what they proposed to do about acceleration of the material. Although the TAG/GATE site states that one of the primary identifying factors of advanced students is their ability to absorb material faster, they could not explain how this is done. They were confusing enrichment with acceleration.

They actually come out and state that tracking is divisive, so the goal was to figure out a way to make full inclusion, mixed ability, group learning work. This was the fundamental premise, not constructivism.

Tracking by ability happens in high school, but lower schools find it theoretically and morally wrong. They want have both full inclusion, with a very wide range of ability, and allow each student to achieve his/her top potential with differentiated instruction. They get away with this using Ed School platitudes and a "High Performing" rating on the state's trivial standardized tests. But still, there is only algebra lite in 8th grade for all.

Anonymous said...


I have not slogged through the article, though I fully intend to - good to see this!

Anonymous said...

I like this line: "The advantage of guidance begins to recede only when learners have sufficiently high prior knowledge to provide “internal” guidance."

There are ways around this, which I've had to develop as a nonfiction writer, and which any blogger writing about an area outside his field of expertise has to develop as well...

I have various semi-conscious algorithms concerning mentions in footnotes, status of journals, decoding of Amazon reviews, "looking for the conflict," etc.

These strategies work quite well, but are an art, or an area of expertise, unto themselves; it would take some time for a student to master them.

I'm not sure a student younger than 14 could master them, either.

For children going to school, there is no substitute for expert teacher guidance.