The Awful Failure of Constructivism

Category: Constructivism
Published on Thursday, 23 August 2012 Written by Anonymous Teacher

450px-ThinkingMan_Rodin.jpgConstructivism is one of my favorite educational theories to mock, degrade, and put down. So I often look around to see if someone else is doing it.

Just an observation: Google seems to be doing a better job of giving us search results, so a search for a phrase such as "constructivism sucks", no longer gives us only pro-contructivism articles. :-)

A guy named Scott seems to have come to similar conclusions about constructivism after reviewing some non-biased evidence.

Scott does a great job of describing how constructivism fails to make learning easier for students doing "problem-based" learning. "Problem-based" learning is becoming more and more dominant in American medical schools. 

First, "experts use schema based pattern recognition". Learning is all about getting a series of if-then statements hard coded into long term memory. Problem based learning requires learners to store too many things at once in working memory, making it difficult for them to build the necessary schemas in memory. In other words, constructivist methods tend to bite off too much at a time, and to masticate on it too little. For example, take discovery learning methods and medical residents. A problem based approach instructional approach would lay all the data out on the table for the resident: "She has a blue tongue, oddly speckled saliva, and non-focusing eyes. How would you proceed?" The student is then required to jump into an extremely complex inductive/deductive process: remembering the symptons, multiple competing intermediate hypotheses on diagnosis, and so on. All this combines to tax the resident's working memory to the limit, thus retarding schema formation. Direct instructional methods on the other hand take more of the approach: "This is a patient with a blue tongue, speckled saliva, etc. In almost every case like this, Egyptian scurvy is the diagnosis. Here are a variety of photos showing different manifestations of this disease. In some cases, Nairobian scurvy may in fact be the culprit however. In such cases when you are in doubt, you should perform test X on their saliva." After these instructions are repeated and practiced sufficiently, so goes the hope, the student will automatically perform the same thought process, perhaps with a little modification. 

Imagine being a young med-student trying to learn to efficiently diagnose disease. Which method do you think would help you learn faster?

Now I'm not saying there's no merit to the problem-based approach. It's definitely a test of skill. I just think it's best left for students who pretty much know what they're doing.

The evidence shows that for neophytes, the problem-based approach is confusing and inefficient.

...the student is expected to figure out on his own essentially what is the best way to proceed...

I don't know about you, but as a patient, I'd much rather have a doctor who was guided by the wisdom and experience of an expert rather than one who had to figure everything out on his own in med school.

And as a student, I'd much rather be guided by an expert that have a lot of problems thrown my way.

Almost every rigorously measured head to head match up between direct and constructivist methods has resulted in clear wins for the direct approach.

Read more at Scott's Thoughts.


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