Constructivism Should Not Be the Main Game

There is a great divide in education between those who prefer a constructivist approach and those who prefer an explicit approach. The battle between the two sides is very real and has far-reaching effects, even if many teachers themselves are blind to it. As Greg Ashman puts it: “There is a great debate going on in education about what and how we teach. A lot of teachers are unaware of this discussion, even if they notice the specific effects of it.”

The debate between the two sides is very real but they are not dichotomous positions. Some may wish to leverage this truth to dismiss the need for a debate but this is foolish because, although they are not dichotomous, one approach is typically emphasised over the other in any given context. Therefore, the debate is not about which approach should be used exclusively, but about which approach should be emphasised; which one should be at the core of teaching and learning.

The debate is important because we know that an explicit approach to teaching and learning is far more effective than a constructivist approach, especially for the disadvantaged who start from far behind and need significant support to catch up. Yet constructivist approaches to teaching and learning reign. Despite the strong evidence for explicit approaches, teacher education courses continue to promote constructivism as a theory of teaching. This is baffling because constructivism was not originally touted as a theory of teaching, but as a theory of knowing and learning. It is only recently that advocates have begun to push and promote constructivist approaches to both teaching and learning – think discovery learning, inquiry-based learning, project-based learning and, as I have only recently discovered, age-appropriate pedagogies.

They come under different names but the core principles of a constructivist approach stay the same: 1) students should be intrinsically motivated to participate and actively involve themselves; 2) content should, as far as possible, be authentic, interesting and relevant (Rowe, 2006). The implicit assumptions being that intrinsically motivated learners have already acquired the knowledge and skills sufficient enough to effectively acquire new knowledge on their own in a given subject domain, with the teacher taking on the role as ‘facilitator’. The compelling evidence is that this is not at all the case leading Sasson (2001) to comment that constructivism is a “mixture of Piagetian stage theory with post-modernist ideology” rather than a sound approach grounded in any real evidence. Wilson (2005) is also of this opinion commenting that the loose misuse of the original definition of constructivism as a theory of knowing and learning has been distorted to fit the ideological preferences of some:

“we largely ignore generations of professional experience and knowledge in favour of a slick, post-modern theoretical approach most often characterised by the misuse of the notion of constructivism.”

The slick, post-modern theoretical approach of constructivism flies in the face of decades of research evidence describing what works best for all students. Explicit instruction “is a systematic method for presenting learning material in small steps, pausing to check for student understanding, and eliciting active and successful participation from all students” (Rosenshine, 1986) and it is this method that characterises the explicit approach. It works for all students, particularly those from disadvantaged backgrounds (Some examples: Project Follow Through, hattie effects, and reading research). The reason for this is obvious. The teacher is the most powerful influence on student achievement.By taking the reins and directing the learning, students make better progress. The fundamental difference between this approach and the constructivist approach is its content-driven principles: 1) All students can and should learn, regardless of their interests, predispositions and abilities; 2) content learning trumps personal preference; 3) students who struggle with behaviour or academics need more support, not something ‘more relevant’ (Rowe, 2006).

The explicit approach should be at the core of what we do in classrooms; a more implicit, ‘constructivist’ approach should work to support this. Yet constructivism most often is the main game, with explicit approaches there to support. From what we know works, it should be the other way around. But it isn’t. Why not? What is stopping the implementation of explicit approaches as the core of teaching and learning. Watkins (1995) has a theory, “parochial vested interests that either work to maintain the status quo or advance self-serving models can prevent the implementation of [effective] teaching methods.” His view very much reminds me of Mark Seidenberg’s outstanding chapter titled The Two Cultures of Science and Education. In this chapter, he writes about the great disconnect between the thoughts and beliefs of schools of education and the thoughts and beliefs of the scientific community. Schools of education have time and again turned a blind eye to research in favour of an ideological preference:

“The principal function of schools of education is to socialise prospective teachers into an ideology – a set of beliefs and attitudes about children, the nature of education, and the teacher’s role. Prospective teachers are exposed to the ideas of a select group of theorists who provide the intellectual foundations for this ideology.”

How interesting. Teachers are socialised into particular attitudes and beliefs about children, how they should learn and how we should teach. The beliefs and attitudes, often romantic in nature, align with the constructivist teaching philosophy. This is indeed true and is easily seen in the work produced by universities here in Australia. Just recently, Griffith University published a report for the QLD DET on ‘age-appropriate pedagogies’. The research they present clearly shows play is important for the cognitive, physical and emotional development of children. Let’s be clear: no one is disputing that. What I dispute, and what flies in the face of all the research, is the report’s recommendation for an ‘age-appropriate pedagogy’ with a strong emphasis on play. The report calls for ‘balance’ but the devil is in the detail.  Assessing its core principles and comments, you can see that this is clearly a constructivist approach:

The teacher’s role in guiding and facilitating learning experiences is critical and needs careful consideration. It involves “deliberate, purposeful and thoughtful” decision making and actions on the part of the teacher to promote children’s innate drive for independent learning.” (page 29, my emphasis)

4 of the 10 principles:

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Given what we know about what is effective, and what we know about schools of education’s preferences, my question is, should we really be placing play at the core of teaching and learning, or should it supplement a more direct approach?

I know where the evidence lies. Age-appropriate pedagogy sounds more like an ideological preference than an approach grounded in evidence. Play has a very important place, and the teacher’s role in facilitating this play is crucial, but we should not be foolish to mix up a theory of learning (constructivism) manifested in play with a theory of teaching. Students need explicit instruction more than they need play. Children are not going to play their way to language and mathematical proficiency, nor are they going to gain vital knowledge for reading comprehension and skill acquisition through drama. You need good direct instruction to gain that. Constructivism, no matter the name it is given, should not be at the core of teaching and learning.

Rosenshine, B.V. (1986). Synthesis of research on explicit teaching. Educational Leadership, 43(7), 60-69.

Rowe, K. (2006). Effective teaching practices for students with and without learning difficulties: Constructivism as a legitimate theory of learning AND of teaching?.

Sasson, G.M. (2001). The retreat from inquiry and knowledge in special education. Journal of Special Education, 34(4), 178-193.

Seidenberg, M. (2017). Language at the Speed of Sight: How We Read, Why So Many CanÕt, and What Can Be Done About It. Basic Books.

Watkins, C.L. (1995). Follow Through: Why didn’t we? Effective School Practices, 15, 57-66

Wilson, B. (2005). Unlocking potential. Paper presented at the 2005 ANZSOG conference, University of Sydney, 29 September 2005.

5 thoughts on “Constructivism Should Not Be the Main Game”

  1. If the aim is to “Question Everything” then such an extraordinarily robust statement as “we know that an explicit approach to teaching and learning is far more effective than a constructivist approach, especially for the disadvantaged who start from far behind” will need extraordinary evidence.
    Unfortunately all you offer is
    Project Follow Through: Scripted lessons outperform measures largely designed to improve student and parent confidence, and just how many years ago now?
    Hattie: Doesn’t Hattie have a Piagetian Programmes item that scores extremely well?
    And phonics: I’m not sure that the developers of phonics would put themselves into the direct instruction camp, but even if it is how far does a reading programme in early years generalise?

    The problem in education is that there is no extraordinary evidence.


    1. Hey steve. Thank you for taking the time to comment

      Explicit instruction, also known as direct instruction, refers to a teacher directly instructing students in content or skill. The approach is also characterised by systematic and structured sequences of lessons. This is most certainly the approach taken by quality phonics programs.

      Evidence from gold standard research almost unanimously supports fully guided instruction models. The findings suggest teachers should support students with full guidance in the learning process. This is true generally but specifically when introducing new concepts.

      I refer you to Kerry Hempenstall’s paper titled Read About It page 39 for a very thorough over view and an extensive reference list where you may brush up on your knowledge of the research in this area.

      Thanks for your comments, Steve.


      Liked by 1 person

  2. I believe the evidence is strongly in favour of explicit or direct instruction, Steve. Does it matter very much that Project Follow Through was conducted a few decades back? I’m not sure that children have changed in any intrinsic way since then.

    Also, correct me if I’m wrong, but Hattie’s reference to Piagetian programmes was in relation to the student not teaching. That is, the impact was due to where the student was at (developmentally/academically) at the point of teaching. So it’s not an instruction on how to teach (methods) its that this has an impact on the student.

    Lastly, did you see the evidence that emerged from the last round of PISA regarding the best way to teach science? Despite PISA recommending lots of inquiry learning the results from their own tests demonstrated that students in teacher-directed class rooms were more successful than those using inquiry. In addition, the more inquiry used the worse the results. I think that’s quite revelatory.

    Liked by 1 person

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