Most people who are not in the “ed” business probably do not know what constructivism is, and assuredly do not know how it’s destroying the United States and the rest of the world. It started with some well meaning education theorists, but — as is so often the case — been absconded and perverted into a way to protect the K-12 education establishment from ever being accountable for outcomes.
The short version of a constructivist approach to education is to give students an assignment in, say, science, and to ask the students to determine for themselves what the underlying principles are. Effectively, the teacher is asking the students to recreate millennia of scientific inquiry within a 50 minute class period.
One of the central themes of the constructivist position is that everything that happens, happens within a context. This is certainly, and unequivocally, true, and it is vitally important that each of us remain aware that what we often think of as “knowledge” is true (to the extent that it is true at all) only within a certain context. Thus, what is obvious to someone in one culture or peer group may be totally ludicrous in another.
However, what is not understood by the constructivist position is: accepting that knowledge is only true within a specific context does not imply that everything that can be thought is of equal (i.e., no) value. Knowledge has survival value for the person who holds it; this is almost the definition of human history. The ability to thrive in one’s particular environment has been suggested as the definition of intelligence – and it is the attribute of intelligence which is most often used to differentiate human beings from other species.
I will make here a distinction between education and learning. Education is a socially defined process which has the goal of preparing children to function within their particular environment. Thus, education for a child in a small tribal society would have no need for nuclear physics instruction. However, learning is an altogether different kettle of fish. Regardless of the environment, an individual may be interested in learning about a subject and set forth to do so (either with or without the support of the community). Using these distinctions it is possible to resolve the “yes it is – no it isn’t” nature of the constructivist/ objectivist debate.
If we take as definitional that the goal of education is to prepare, as well as possible, an individual to thrive within a particular environment, then we can quickly see that the primary issue in educational theory ought to be one of the efficiency of processes involved. The primary goals of education are then to: (1) define the base level knowledge necessary to thrive in one’s particular sociocultural milieu; (2) define how best to differentiate each student’s abilities to aid him/her in the selection of a specialty area (within which s/he will be able to perform work with economic/ survival value) and (3) to determine the most efficient methods of transferring the defined knowledge to the students. To the extent that the constructivists argue against these statements, they are making an ethical/moral argument and not making statements about educational theory. Questions regarding the optimal state of humanity, etc. are important philosophical questions, but are outside of the area of educational theory as I have outlined it. Thus, education is defined by society; learning is something that is selected and pursued by the individual as s/he wills.
It is clear (I think even to constructivists) that constructivism is not an efficient knowledge delivery mechanism. Essentially one asks each student to recreate the intellectual history of humankind, effectively eliminating the value of passed-on knowledge. This runs contrary to the entire forward progress of humanity (such as it is) and could only be accepted as reasonable by a group of people who are so far removed from basic questions of survival as to have totally lost touch with reality.
Another misunderstanding under which the constructivist falls is that it is more important for individuals to understand than to do. This is clearly wrong in a majority of situations. Most of the day-to-day tasks which people perform are done automatically and without the necessity of a deep level of understanding. This is true even of so-called knowledge workers (who have a high cognitive aspect to their daily lives), and it is true to an even higher degree for the majority of people who work in non-cognitive occupations. In the vast majority of situations, an individual is more likely to need to do than to understand. Again, this can be seen in the difference between education and learning as outlined above; most domains of education are, in the end, defined by performance.
Take, for example, the concept of reading. Reading is performance based, not understanding based – in fact, there seems to be no definition to the idea of what it means to “understand reading” – it is simply something that one does. Equivalently, in lower level mathematics (e.g., arithmetic) there is a high value in performance (getting the right answer) and a relatively low value in understanding.
For those domains in which there is no value in understanding, there is also no value in a constructivist approach to education, since the approach attempts to maximize the latter at the expense of the former.
The constructivist argument for mathematics education is reminiscent of the debate over new math in the sixties; Tom Leher, a humorist and former math teacher, said at the time that “the goal of new math is to understand what you’re doing, rather than to get the right answer.” This led to roars of laughter from the audience because it was thought at the time to be such an absurd thing to say; it’s scary to think that this bit of humor has turned into standard educational theory during the past fifty years.
Tom Lehrer. (n.d.). AZQuotes.com. Retrieved November 15, 2016, from AZQuotes.com Web site: http://www.azquotes.com/quote/698090
All this having been said, it is necessary to point out that there is certainly a need for problem-centered learning in certain situations: medical and law school are obvious examples. Clearly, most professional-level situations will require a high degree of understanding of the domain area and some situated problem-solving skills; but, I fear, we will soon have no more doctors or engineers because everyone will spend their entire school careers in trying to spontaneously generate the heliocentric view of the solar system.