A Case of Mistaken Identity:

Constructivism as Pedagogy not as Epistemology

A great deal of the recent reforms in educational structures and in the “learning design” of both school spaces and curriculum claim to be grounded in a constructivist paradigm. As such, they characteristically emphasise individualized experience-based learning in which students are not “instructed in the truth” but “discover it through engagement in well planned and intentionally mapped activities”.

Often proponents and exponents of this “new schooling” nominate themselves as “constructivists” and in so doing imply an identifiable suite of particular pedagogical tools that they include in their particular teaching toolbox. In many cases it might easily appear that the toolbox itself, the particular collection of pedagogies becomes synonymous with constructivism – as if individualized experience-based learning “was”, by definition, constructivism.

Student laughing in class

As is often the case, the popularization of a well-researched theory can lead to misapplication or misinterpretations of its valid conclusions. It seems to me, admittedly only as a casual observer, that we are potentially dealing with just such a situation in regards to this appropriation of “constructivism”.

There certainly are pedagogies that are more consistent and others that are less consistent with a constructivist approach to learning, but I think that we are at risk, if we have not gone there already, of accommodating a shift to allow the term “constructivism” to reference pedagogy rather than philosophy. This is subtle but significant and while many would consider this argument semantic, and my objections pedantic, I do think that this blurring of concept opens the possibility for unhelpful self-deception of teachers and curriculum designers and for inferior learning outcomes for students.

Let me explain myself more fully.

While not explicitly stated, there seems to be a strong implication that there are certain pedagogies that allow students to “construct their own meaning or understanding” of the material and that there are other pedagogies that do not. Pedagogical approaches that are “constructivist” include those that emphasise hands-on experiential learning, project-based learning and guided reflection. Those that are assumed not to include teacher directed, textbook oriented, “chalk and talk”, and drill.

Shifting the emphasis to the pedagogy and practice, however, is to miss the truth that, as a theory of epistemology, constructivism becomes axiomatic for all pedagogies. The real claim of constructivism is that it operates equally for all learning – and equally with implications about the vital role of the teacher in all learning! Project-based learning or individualized learning as pedagogy is not “per se” constructivist. Nor is chalk and talk pedagogies per se anti constructivist. According to constructivism, in both learning modes and in both delivery methods the students are constructing meaning from experience – either more accurately and authentically or less so. In consequence, both teaching methods can or cannot be implemented in light of a constructivist understanding of learning. In fact both need to be implemented by a teacher from a constructivist perspective.

And therein lies the problem. Incorporating experiential learning into a curriculum will not inherently produce deeper comprehension, more authentic learning, or more accurate understanding.

The concept that such pedagogies will of themselves lead students to achieve better learning outcomes actually perverts some of the earliest research into constructivist epistemology. Ironically this view is a representation of misunderstanding that underpinned the early development of the theory. The recognition of an individually constructed understanding of experience emerged most strongly in research into the misunderstandings of students’ experiences.

It was the fact that Science practical experiences, designed to reveal scientific truth to students, were, in fact, leading students to form misconceptions that strongly supported the case for a constructivist understanding of learning. In this situation, the hands-on experiment, designed to allow students to discover the science for themselves, meant students constructed interpretations of what they saw that were not right! The implication was that teachers needed to be very aware of the potential for students to interpret their experiences in very different ways than was expected or intended, incorporating other concepts and drawing on other information to “misinterpret” their learning experience. The conclusion was that teachers needed to be intentionally active in filtering distractors and misleading conclusions as they scaffolded students in “constructing” an authentic understanding of the concepts being learned.

In respect to pedagogical matters, rather than highlighting the place of experience in learning, constructivism emphasised the vital importance of the teacher as interpreter of experience and as director of the construction of knowledge in the learner.

I hold concerns that many emerging structures of school – both spatially and academically - do not support that level of engagement by teachers in the processes of student learning. I suspect that many of the activity-rich curricula planned in recent years leave students without the necessary teacher input to really form an accurate understanding of what they are learning.