Tuesday, December 14, 2010

"I am not now and have never been a constructionist"

(This post also appears at Education and Statistics.)

After my last post thought I should run this titular disclaimer. For those of you not up on the subject, here's a definition from the well-written Wikipedia entry on the subject:
Constructivist teaching is based on constructivist learning theory. This theoretical framework holds that learning always builds upon knowledge that a student already knows; this prior knowledge is called a schema. Because all learning is filtered through pre-existing schemata, constructivists suggest that learning is more effective when a student is actively engaged in the learning process rather than attempting to receive knowledge passively. A wide variety of methods claim to be based on constructivist learning theory. Most of these methods rely on some form of guided discovery where the teacher avoids most direct instruction and attempts to lead the student through questions and activities to discover, discuss, appreciate and verbalize the new knowledge.
Don't get me wrong. For the right topic, executed the right way with the right teacher and class, this can be a great, wonderful, spectacular and really good approach to education. Unfortunately, education reformers (particularly the current crop), are not good at conditional problems. They tend instead to fall into the new tool camp (you know the saying, "to a man with a new hammer, the whole world is a nail.").

Worse yet, (and I'm afraid there's no nice way to say this) many of the educational theorists don't have a firm grasp on the subjects they are working with. This is never more plain than in constructionist science classes that almost entirely eschew lectures and traditional reading assignments and instead have the students spend their time conducting paint-by-numbers experiments, recording the results and performing a few simple calculations.

To most laymen, that's what science is: stuff you do while wearing a lab coat. Most people don't associate science with forming hypotheses, designing experiments, analyzing results and writing papers and, based on my limited but first hand experience, many science educators don't give those things much thought either.

The shining exception to the those-who-can't-teach-teach-teachers rule is George Polya. Though best known as an educational theorist, Polya was a major Twentieth Century mathematician (among his other claims to fame, he coined the term "central limit theorem") so he certainly fell in the those-who-can camp.

But it it important to note that Polya advocated guided discovery specifically as a way of teaching the problem solving process. I suspect that when it came to simply acquiring information, he would have told his students to go home and read their textbooks.

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