Constructivism's fundamental mistake

Category: Constructivism
Published on Monday, 23 April 2012 Written by Anonymous Teacher

DonkeyAs I see it, Constructivism is founded on the idea that learners can't just copy what they see, hear, or read into their brains. They have to 'construct' some sort of representation of that meaning it their brain.

This isn't controversial. Psychologists have found good evidence that this is how our memory works.

Psychological evidence

One experiment showed this in a clever way. Several subjects were given passages to read and then given some time to relax. Then, psychologists asked the subjects to identify sentences that they had just read.

So they had a list of sentences such as:

  • The duck flew over the barn roof.
  • The duck flew over the roof of the barn.
  • The duck flew above the barn's roof.
  • The duck flew through the barn.

Now you'll notice that the first three sentences mean basically the same thing, but the last one means something very different.

People in the study could easily identify that sentences with the wrong meaning were not what they read. But they had a very hard time picking out the correct sentence when the other sentences had the same meaning.

Conclusion: The brain seems to store information as some sort of meaning-based 'construct'. It doesn't store an exact or literal representation of what it learns.

The wrong turn

So we have a good conclusion about how the brain stores information. Where constructivism goes wrong is to extrapolate that to the learning process itself. Learning should work the same way that the brain's memory storage works.

Constructivists argue that since you have to construct memories in your brain, you should have to 'construct' knowledge as well. A teacher should never tell you anything, you should just figure it out (or construct knowledge) on your own.

An analogy

Let's apply that reasoning to something else, so you can see how wrong it is.

Computers store information as sequences of magnetic charges on metal disks in your hard drive. They can't actually store text. They have to convert it into a magnetic code.

Now lets extrapolate how memory storage works in a computer to how we get information into a computer (how the computer learns).

Obviously, we don't want to type letters into the keyboard or anything, because computers don't store letters. We need to hold a magnet up to the computer and tap out a code with it.

See the flaw?

You can't take what you know about one level of organization (such as data storage in a computer or memory storage in a brain) and apply it to another level of organization (such as data input, or learning).

This is basically the fallacy of composition: mistakenly believing that what's true about a part is true about the whole.

Dr. Daniel Willingham refers to this a levels of analysis in this great video about brain-based education.


Unfortunately, constructivism has become absolute dogma in the American education industry. Good studies show that a constructivist approach (aka discovery learning) is inferior to direct instruction. In fact the largest, longest, most expensive study ever conducted on education proved that direct instruction is far superior. That study was called Project Follow-Through. It's findings were immediately swept under the rug and ignored by educators.... so sad. Cry

Clearing up the name: Why is it called constructivism?

I believe that constructivism is actually named after the Russian art movement. Constructivism was an artistic and architectural philosophy that originated in Russia beginning in 1919, which was a rejection of the idea of autonomous art. The movement was in favour of art as a practice for social purposes.

That being said, in my experience no one has ever mentioned the Communist-inspired art movement when discussing the learning theory. I do hear mention of 'constructing' knowledge. In general, constructivists in education use the term as I've described in the article above.

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