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The Emptiness of Constructivist Teaching

In teaching students that all knowledge is constructed through their own interactions, we fail to give them satisfying answers about the world and its meaning.

· 9 min read
The Emptiness of Constructivist Teaching

Browse any mainstream educational source, from articles to curriculum, and you’ll quickly encounter a learning theory known as constructivism. Presented as a foundational belief in many teacher education programs, and forming the basis of many curricula, constructivism is a worldview that posits that individuals create knowledge for themselves by interacting with the world. This sounds positive, affirming, and child-centered, making it particularly attractive to educators. But constructivism, which has served as the theoretical and conceptual basis for much educational practice, provides an unstable foundation for understanding objective reality and, as a result, is an untenable approach to help students understand meaning in the world.

Based on theories from Jean Piaget, Jerome Bruner, and Lev Vygotsky, educational constructivism presupposes that knowledge is not “out there,” waiting to be discovered but is, rather, the product of the learner’s active engagement with the world. Piaget held that learners created and adapted mental maps or schemas through continued interaction with the environment; Vygotsky further developed this theory by describing the role of culture and interaction with others in this process. In a constructivist paradigm, understanding of the world is shaped not only by the information the learner encounters but also by his or her unique culture, personality, development, environment, and other variables. As a result, knowledge is unique and subjective; we don’t discover a preexisting set of knowledge but, rather, construct knowledge for ourselves from interactions with the world and others, based on our own unique experiences, environment, and culture.

Over the years, many of us in the education community have embraced this view and built it into research, teaching, curricula, and education policy. This view aligns with widely held beliefs about teaching: of course, knowledge should be meaningful and, of course, learning should be an engaging process that takes the student’s uniqueness into account.

But in adopting this set of ideas, one also must adopt the principles and worldview that underlie it, often without realizing their full implications. The idea that knowledge must be constructed, in an individualistic process dependent on each person’s experience, represents a radical shift from traditional ways of thinking about teaching and learning. If knowledge doesn’t exist until each learner constructs it for himself or herself, then the nature of objective reality itself is in doubt. Several decades ago, Ernst von Glasersfeld built on Richard Rorty’s work in describing the implications of this view for educational practice (emphasis added):

The contemporary movements in the philosophy of science converge in the realization that knowledge must not be considered an objective representation of an external observer-independent environment or world. To paraphrase Rorty, the fact that scientific knowledge enables us to cope does not justify the belief that scientific knowledge provides a picture of the world that corresponds to an absolute reality. This stance tends to suggest a return to the sceptics’ age-old assertion that we cannot attain certain knowledge about the world … Instead of presupposing that knowledge has to be a “representation” of what exists, [pragmatism and constructivism] posit knowledge as a mapping of what, in the light of human experience, turns out to be feasible.

Applying this analysis to pedagogy, Noorloos and colleagues highlighted the tension involved in social constructivist approaches to teaching mathematics—or any field in which facts are important: “Subsequently, if learning concerns only the construction of social practice, then we lack a convincing account of how individuals come to know anything. How, for example, can I know that my knowledge of the mathematical truth, 1 + 1 = 2, squares with yours?”

If knowledge is not objective but, rather, a product of each individual’s experience and meaning-making, then it follows that knowledge, as a situational and constructed phenomenon, is not the same for every person. And if knowledge isn’t universal or consistent, then there is no single objective reality that holds for everyone. Reality itself is ultimately a product of our personalized interactions with our unique milieu. To borrow the old example of the tree in the forest, a constructivist approach, taken to its logical conclusion, implies not just that your first-graders don’t know about trees before you cover the tree unit, but that trees do not exist for them until they have grappled with the concept of “trees” and interpreted it in their own particular way. These are two very different propositions, and the implications of that difference are more significant than many in the field might have realized while covering learning theories in Human Development 101.

Some philosophers have rejected the relativism that such an approach implies. But from my own experience as a teacher and teacher educator, it seems many in our field see no contradiction in espousing a bit of both philosophies, despite their incompatibility. We continue to mark test answers as right or wrong while espousing a theory that, taken to its logical conclusion, destabilizes the whole idea of right and wrong. A colleague and I previously wrote about this inconsistency in our embrace of theory and how we live the rest of our lives. And this dichotomy also highlights some broader concerns in teacher preparation and our educational system generally: the lack of deep engagement with philosophy and knowledge (sometimes replaced by an overemphasis on strategies and pseudoscience). We often adopt statements and slogans that sound good, or methods aligning with our beliefs about child-centered teaching, without critically examining the assumptions and evidence underlying them.

In fact, if we follow these two beliefs to their logical conclusion (“Knowledge is created only when the individual makes meaning for themselves through interaction with the world” and “There is an objective reality that is true for all people”), it becomes evident that they are not at all compatible, either in theory or in practice.

Consider another classroom example: As a teacher, you believe sincerely that your students’ scientific knowledge should be developed in an interactive, constructivist context. You believe, further, that children create scientific knowledge for themselves when they interact with science content in an engaging and developmentally supportive context, such as your classroom. That statement is child-centered, creative, and responsive to children’s differences. So it accords with what many of us in the education profession believe to be true about children, learning, and the world. Of course, if you believe students create their own knowledge—rather than discovering truth that exists whether they realize it or not—then it follows that knowledge, including scientific facts or principles, doesn’t exist for any particular student until that student has engaged with the content and formed ideas about it. But what happens if a child, working through an interactive, creative, constructive process, constructs a schema for himself or herself in which the laws of physics aren’t valid, even if experiments prove otherwise? Or perhaps a schema in which biblical creationism is scientifically superior to theories of evolution? (If you think that sounds far-fetched, see von Glasersfeld’s commentary above about believing that 1 + 1 = 2, and then consider that a very similar question sparked lengthy discussion, on and off Twitter, just two years ago.)

I don’t know many educators who would tell a child that the laws of physics don’t apply, or that addition problems have multiple right answers. But I know a lot of educators who would tell a child that different people have different perspectives, and we can’t say for sure who is right. I know an increasing number of educators who advocate for de-emphasizing objective knowledge in favor of alternative ways of knowing, or privileging subjective and personal beliefs over data and objectivity.

Taken to its full conclusion, such beliefs must lead to a pedagogy in which we don’t care about answers at all and, instead, look entirely at whether the student has created a personally meaningful experience. We can see less-extreme elements of this thinking in textbooks that ask students to write their mathematical biographies or draw pictures of themselves as mathematicians, sometimes at the expense of deeper dives into content. We can also see some elements of this thinking in the push to de-emphasize objective tests in favor of measuring personal growth or student attitudes.

If we believe that knowledge is constructed by the individual rather than objectively existing outside the individual and that the individual’s culture, biology, development, and environment all influence the knowledge they construct, then it becomes difficult to provide a strong justification that any particular fact can be objectively true. One can complexify, situate, decolonize, or “queer” any particular concept—whether it’s a version of events (what if someone in the world has a different interpretation of the facts?) or a set of logical principles (if they don’t fit with a student’s background and beliefs, how can we present them as true?) And this approach ultimately leads to a questioning of what truth is; if knowledge is constructed by each individual, then each individual’s truth might be different based on their experiences, beliefs, and processes of constructing. (The leading research association in education, the American Educational Research Association, has, in fact, organized its entire 2023 conference around this very idea.)

Of course, as with many issues, there’s truth on both sides. We must make time to learn how students see the world and how their ideas have developed. That’s consistent with neuroscience and with many philosophical approaches, not just constructivism. There are well-documented problems with objective tests and traditional pedagogies, ranging from cultural and linguistic inappropriateness to a lack of inclusivity for learners with disabilities. Additionally, good teachers do seek to understand student attitudes and prioritize their personal, as well as academic, growth. Last, in the larger context, prejudice and discrimination have certainly shaped history and culture. Western countries have been guilty of imperialism and colonialist excesses, and marginalized communities deserve to have their contributions and importance acknowledged alongside the majority. But one can espouse these positions without necessarily claiming that truth is unknowable, or that one set of experiences or beliefs is always as valid as another.

New materialist, postmodern and new critical approaches take this notion of unknowable truth and run with it, situating both research and classroom practice in the idea that objective reality is a construct, and any concepts must be viewed and interpreted through the lens of an individual’s experience and personal beliefs. Feelings, in fact, are as important as beliefs in this paradigm; if I feel something is true, it must be true for me, whether or not it makes sense. Ultimately, it comes down to one’s position on objective reality. Either one believes that external reality exists, independent of what any person might believe, or not.

Where does this leave us as educators, and where does it leave students? In a pretty troubling place, as it turns out.

There’s been much written lately about the difficulties facing young people. Pandemic stress, isolation, disruption of activities, and the detrimental influence of social media have all contributed to intensifying mental health concerns. Commentators have also highlighted the crisis of meaning facing many adolescents and young adults. We haven’t talked much, though, about the potential role of our educational system and philosophies in contributing to this crisis. As students navigate unprecedented stressors, they also face new pressures implicit in the idea that you are responsible for creating whatever meaning you hope to find in the world. What do we say to the teen who experiences a personal crisis of meaning in her own life, only to encounter a social and educational structure that fails to provide her with any external anchor, or address her existential fears with the comfort of objective reality?

Decades of evidence across multiple fields reinforce that children need structure and clarity. Children benefit from clearly defined expectations, a certainty that life is consistent, and, above all, the understanding that adults can provide them security. This doesn’t mean we should provide them false comfort or spare them all anxiety, of course. But in implementing pedagogies that make children responsible for creating their own meaning, we must ask whether such approaches intensify pressures and anxieties rather than alleviating them. It is empowering to learn that the world is rich and meaningful and the adults in your life will guide and support you as you discover that meaning. It can be overwhelming to hear that there’s no meaning at all unless you make it for yourself. And teaching students that their feelings and experiences are the ultimate arbiters of reality can lead to significant individual and social difficulties in the long run.

This line of thinking presents big questions for educators—if we are brave enough to answer them. What is the extent to which social constructivism pervades the educational landscape, along with related approaches such as postmodernism, new materialism, postcolonial thought, and identity-based frameworks? How can we redesign a framework for education that affirms the idea of objective reality while retaining the valuable perspective gained through some of these approaches? What might it look like to explore these concerns while also situating them within a world where reality is objective, can be known through reason, and should be used to measure the validity of students’ work? In discerning answers to these questions, we can move closer to our true role as educators: to guide, support, and nurture students by helping them better understand the world, and the reality, in which they must live.

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