Contemplating the consequences of Constructivism

Constructivism is one of those ideas we throw around in educational circles without stopping to think about what we mean by it. They are the terms that have multiple meanings, are at once highly technical and common usage and are likely to cause debate and disagreements. Constructivism in particular carries a quantity of baggage with it. It is a term that is appropriated by supporters of educational approaches that are in stark contrast to the opposing view; constructivism vs didactic methods or direct instruction. The question is what are the origins of constructivism and does a belief in this as an approach to understanding learning necessitate an abandonment of direct instruction or is this a false dichotomy?

At the heart of most cognitive approaches to understanding learning is the notion that knowledge is constructed by the learner and informed and influenced by the learner’s previous experiences. Constructivism, in particular, is an approach to understanding learning that begins with the notion that meaning is constructed by the learner. (O’Donnell 2012)

The common element across models is that the learner, exposed to stimulus from the environment, creates, adapts or evolves internal representations or schemata (cognitive structures) and in doing so extends their knowledge. What varies, and it is subtle, is whether new knowledge is a reconstruction of structures in the environment, an internal re-structuring of existing structures in response to the environment or an internalisation of processes modelled and then practiced. The degree to which social factors add further complications. In each case learning is a process which occurs within the mind of the individual as they process stimuli arriving from their sensory buffer from their environment (broadly speaking), into working memory and onward into long-term memory. 
From this basis and underpinning it are a host of beliefs about how the brain processes and stores information, how it uses affect to notice and respond to significant stimuli, while filtering unimportant stimuli and how it manages cognitive load. 
Constructivism is sometimes conflated with ideas about self-guided learning or self-initiated learning and direct instruction but should not be seen as providing a strong case for one over the other. Quality learning should include a mix of both as relevant to the need of the learner and the learning. 
Direct Instruction provides a particular environment in which learning can take place. It provides the learner with relevant stimulus and when well designed should overcome some of the barriers to learning such as directing the learners attention to what is significant, managing cognitive load, providing appropriate modelling and monitoring of learning progress through appropriate means of assessment for learning. Coupled with opportunities for independent practice and application with scaffolding this provides an effective learning environment and the research on what produces effective learning supports this.
One set of goals for learning is to develop the skills and dispositions required by learners to inquire, explore, discover and create or extend knowledge. This desire is evident when we expect our learners to be scientists, historians, geographers, researchers and problem solvers/finders. With this goal in mind we provide instruction in and scaffolds for the processes which the students will utilise e.g. teaching the scientific method or an inquiry cycle. We teach the skills of inquiry, problem solving and experimentation and then provide opportunities for independent practice. We at times model how content might be explored and understood through such processes and at other times we allow the content to be explored by students as they independently practise the skills of inquiry we have previously instructed them in. The skill of the teacher is in knowing which content requires direct instruction and which can be utilised by students practising their inquiry skills.
Self-regulation and the desire to produce learners who are able to initiate and guide their own learning complicates things, but only slightly. Schools should be providing students with opportunities to take charge of their own learning and to inquire and explore topics of their choosing. Inquiry, Project and Problem based learning methods that include elements of choice allow for this but such methods still involve the teacher as the professional guide to learning. A gradual release of responsibility model, where the teacher gradually removes themselves from the learning as the learner gains and confidence ensure the learner develops the skills and dispositions to tackle this style of learning.

The gradual release of responsibility model of instruction suggests that cognitive work should shift slowly and intentionally from teacher modeling, to joint responsibility between teachers and students, to independent practice and application by the learner(Fisher & Frey. 2011)

The order in which we offer direct instruction, scaffolded application or learning and independent practice is worth considering. It is not always the case that learning is best served when the process begins with direct instruction. As an example, the research by Manu Kapur on Productive Failure in Learning Math, indicates that the best model can be to begin with an independent exploration of new content even when this produces failure, before moving to direct instruction. 

However, students who engaged in problem solving before being taught demonstrated significantly greater conceptual understanding and ability to transfer to novel problems than those who were taught first. - These results challenge the conventional practice of direct instruction to teach new math concepts and procedures, and propose the possibility of learning from one’s own failed problem-solving attempts or those of others before receiving instruction as alternatives for better math learning. (Kapur, 2014)

Not all learning is a result of a deliberate, planned and external effort, such as that which is delivered by a teacher. Much of the early learning that occurs and a great deal of the social learning which we rely on, is a result of our immersion within stimulating environments and our innate capacities to learn. Schools provide a rich environment within which such learning may occur. By managing the physical environment in parallel with the social and cultural context, schools maximise their impact on the learning that occurs.

What constructivism does bring as a consequence for teaching is a shift in how we engage the learner. Pedagogical models where the teacher is the sage on the stage delivering sermons, where notes are copied from the board and where the learner is a passive sponge are examples of poor quality teaching. In opposition a classroom can be a place full of questions, shared knowledge, discussion and debate and a teacher directed. The learner’s experience of what might be termed direct instruction does not need to be a passive one. What makes some educators nervous is an implementation of the constructivist classroom where all structure is dissolved; where the learner is left alone in the environment to learn what they might, to overcome problems as they arise with no guidance or scaffolding. A Claxton and Lucas (2015) caution in “Educating Ruby”, advocates of such an approach have “never read Lord of the Flies”. Rather than suggesting we retreat from an active role in empowering and enabling learning, constructivism urges teachers to ensure that the learner is at least as involved in the process as their teachers are. 

Ultimately we need to understand that learning is done by the learner, as Dylan Wiliam so clearly articulates - "The crucial thing is that teachers are involved in a creative act of engineering environments within which learning takes place. Teachers are responsible for creating those learning environments but you cannot do the learning for the learner." 

By Nigel Coutts

Related to this: Inquiry based learning is dead, long live inquiry.

Claxton, G. & Lucas, B. (2015) Educating Ruby: What our children really need to learn. Crown House Publishing; Wales

Fisher, D., & Frey, N. (2011) The formative assessment action plan: Practical steps to more successful teaching and learning. Alexandria, VA: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development (ASCD)
Kapur, M. (2014) Productive failure in learning math. Cognitive Science. 38 pp 1008–1022
O’Donnell, A. M. (2012)  Constructivism in APA Educational Psychology Handbook: Vol. 1. Theories, Constructs, and Critical Issues, K. R. Harris, S. Graham, and T. Urdan (Editors-in-Chief)

Wiliam, D., & Leahy, S. (2013) Embedding Formative Assessment Professional Development Pack. Hawker Brownlow (DVD)