What is Constructivist Teaching and Why is it Important?
Constructivist teaching is defined by John Hattie as “Constructivist teaching involves providing students with learner-centered, active instruction, where students explore ideas, propositions, explanations, solutions and take subsequent actions.” The theory originates from Jean Piaget who believed that learning happens through the scaffolding of understanding. Today this theory is especially prevalent in Math instruction. However, I would argue that it is also connected to the Balanced Literacy language movement. According to the University of Buffalo there are 4 main principles behind constructivist teaching:
Create cognitive dissonance
Assign problems and activities that will challenge students. Knowledge is built as learners encounter novel problems and revise existing schemas as they work through the challenging problem.
Apply knowledge with feedback
Encourage students to evaluate new information and modify existing knowledge. Activities should allow for students to compare pre-existing schema to the novel situation. Activities might include presentations, small group or class discussions, and quizzes.
Reflect on learning
Provide students with an opportunity to show you (and themselves) what they have learned. Activities might include: presentations, reflexive papers or creating a step-by-step tutorial for another student.
Elicit prior knowledge
New knowledge is created in relation to learner’s pre-existing knowledge. Lessons, therefore, require eliciting relevant prior knowledge. Activities include: pre-tests, informal interviews and small group warm-up activities that require recall of prior knowledge.”
Ultimately, it is very challenging to evaluate the efficacy of constructivist teaching because it is not a singular pedagogical concept, but rather it is both a philosophy and a theory of learning. Moreover, it is also closely connected with other pedagogies. For example, while Constructivism is not inquiry-based learning (IBL), IBL is inherently constructivist in style. Similarly, student-centered learning is also a constructivist pedagogy, but constructivist teaching cannot be solely defined as student-centered.
Constructivist teaching methodologies often focus on meta-cognition strategies to help students solve problems, rather than focusing on explicit skill-based instruction. Constructivist teaching is in part popular because of the influence of Jean Piaget on learning theory. However, it is undoubtedly also driven by the fact that there exists a pedagogical movement which is against skill-based instruction, because it is viewed as inherently authoritarian or boring. In reading instruction, constructivists often argue for the use of three cueing instruction over systematic phonics instruction, claiming that instruction that focuses too much on skill development will kill the love of reading. Whereas in math instruction, constructivists argue against skill-based instruction claiming that it will cause the development of math anxiety. Instead, they argue for the use of meta-cognition strategies, like the ones often used in Number Talks. For example, a constructivist might see a problem like 9x9 and suggest to the student that they do 9x10 and -9, rather than instructing the student to memorize the answer.
Of course, it is important to recognize that constructivism and using strategies instead of skills instruction are not necessarily one and the same thing. While many constructivists might advocate for these ideas, constructivism is a philosophical approach to instruction that includes a host of ideas and is not one singular concept. We know that literacy programs which focus more on skill instruction than strategy instruction tend to produce higher learning outcomes, (see here for further information: https://www.teachingbyscience.com/a-meta-analysis-of-language-programs). However, I do not know whether that means we can necessarily jump to the conclusion from this alone that the cause of this difference was constructivism, let alone that these findings would apply to other subjects as well. Afterall, just because constructivism education did not work in reading instruction would not necessarily mean that it would not work for math instruction.
Moreover, while three cueing is often theorized to be the reason, Balanced Literacy programs show lower research results, I wonder if it’s the three cueing instruction or if it’s the lack of systematic/explicit phonics instruction that is primarily to blame. My haunch would be that it's the lack of phonics not the three-cueing instruction. While three cueing is often highly debated and theorized about, there is a surprisingly small amount of experimental research specifically on the topic. When it comes to math instruction, I have seen some theoretical criticisms of constructivist meta-cognition strategies. However, I have not seen any systematic experimental research of the topic. Personally, it is not the strategy instruction that concerns me most, it is the replacement of fluency instruction with strategy instruction that I find concerning. I don’t think we can replace the value of developing skills like multiplication or phonetic decoding to automaticity, with just strategy instruction.
What Does the Research Show?
According to John Hattie, there exists two meta-analyses on the topic of constructivist teaching. One by Abrami, Et al in 2006 and one by Erisen, Et, al in 2015. The Abrami paper found a mean effect size of .11 which is not statistically significant. However, the Erisen paper found a mean effect size of 1.10. Only the Abrami paper was peer reviewed. On the other hand, the Erisen paper was more recent and included far more studies. Both papers had a stringent inclusion criterion. Despite the fact that Hattie identifies the Abrami meta-analysis as on the topic of constructivist teaching, the original authors did not use this term once in their paper, which I believe makes it problematic, to claim the meta-analysis is on constructivist teaching. Moreover, this paper was not on reading or math instruction. For these reasons I do not think the Abrami paper can be used to determine the efficacy of constructivism, let alone for math or reading instruction. The Erisen paper did specifically look at math instruction however, there were a few outlier studies within their data, moreover only 2 of their studies were specifically on Math. As Dr. Steve Graham recently pointed out on my podcast, we cannot truly call something science, if we don’t have proper replication, which he defined as 6 or more studies. The results of the Erisen study can be seen tabulated below.
In my own research, I was able to find another meta-analysis by Xie, Et, al conducted in 2018. This meta-analysis was specifically on constructivism instruction in mathematics, within mainland China. Their study included 89 experimental or quasi-experimental papers. All papers had to be directly comparing a constructivist approach to a traditional approach. Their paper also looked at 25 studies that compared a nontraditional, non-constructivist approach to traditional education (which they defined as transmission instruction). In my opinion the inclusion criteria for this paper were very rigorous. You can see the results for this study below.
Helpful Definitions for this Study:
“The primary purpose of this method is to help students master the essential attributes of a concept, so the teacher’s task is to show many specific examples whose nonessential attributes are different. The variation teaching approach usually continuously changes problems’ situations, from simple to complicated. Two types of variation teaching have been developed to fit the instructions of conceptual mathematics knowledge and procedural mathematics knowledge, respectively.”
Grouping Teaching (Ability Grouping)
“In grouping teaching, teachers classify students using prior mathematics performances, put them into smaller groups, and provide each group level with the proper curriculum and instruction. Some studies use between-class grouping that places different groups of students in different classes (e.g., Hao, 2006). The other studies use within-class grouping that keeps each group of students within the same classroom (e.g., Ruan, 2013). Some within-class grouping studies do not even let students know that their teachers have adopted grouping teaching (e.g., Li, 2011a).”
"Script-based learning is a teaching and learning model with Chinese characteristics (Wang H., 2008; Wang J., 2012). The teacher team usually spends a great deal of time compiling learning scripts for every lesson. Next, teachers distribute the learning scripts to students, and students use the materials to Frontiers in Psychology | www.frontiersin.org 3 October 2018 | Volume 9 | Article 1923 Xie et al. Constructivist and Transmission Models self-study before class. In class, students share their outcomes and discuss their problems with each other and with teachers."
“Autonomous learning pays more attention to the training of students’ autonomous learning ability (Pang, 2003). Specifically, this model helps students learn to establish learning objectives and learning plans for themselves, to monitor and adjust their own learning process and methods, and to evaluate their own learning outcomes and make appropriate remediations”
"The traditional mathematics curriculum and instruction is based on the transmission view of teaching and learning in mainland China. The transmission instructional model is a teacher-centered teaching and learning model in which the teacher’s role is to design lessons aimed at predetermined goals and to present knowledge and skills in a predetermined order, and students’ tasks are to passively acquire teacher specified knowledge and skills (Guzzetti, 2002; Arends, 2012; Slavin, 2012). The model requires a fairly structured learning environment."
"The basic tenets of constructivism are that knowledge, instead of being objective and fixed, is personal, social, and cultural and that knowledge is actively created by the learner, not passively received from the environment (Clements and Battista, 1990; Arends, 2012). In the student-centered constructivist instructional model, teachers establish conditions for student inquiry, involve students in planning, accept students’ ideas, and provide them with autonomy and choice; students interact with others and actively participate in investigations and problem-solving activities (Savery and Duffy, 1994; Arends, 2012; Slavin, 2012). The learning environment is loosely structured and characterized by democratic processes. Some specific teaching and learning models, such as inquiry-based learning and problem-based learning, were usually considered as exemplars of the constructivist instruction. The studies included in this review often employed inquiry-based learning, problem-based learning, cooperative learning, autonomous learning, and script-based learning models in their intervention groups. All these six models are, for the most part, student-centered constructivist models. The working definitions for these six models are as follows."
"In order to distinguish the traditional and the newly developed, this meta-analysis names them traditional transmission model and improved transmission model, respectively. The former is no other than the transmission instructional model defined in the last paragraph. The latter still satisfies the definition of the transmission instructional model and has some new characteristics. We identified two models, grouping teaching and variation teaching, from the included studies as exemplars of the improved transmission model."
Xie Study Discussion:
Normally I would find a meta-analysis like this quite compelling, as it had both stringent inclusion criteria and a sufficient number of studies. However, I think we are left with some difficult questions with this meta-analysis. Firstly, the meta-analysis did not base its inclusion criteria based on its definition of constructivist teaching, but rather looked at studies on topics related to constructivist teaching. For this reason, I would argue that this is not actually a meta-analysis on constructivist teaching, but rather one on cooperative learning, inquiry-based learning, problem-based learning, variation teaching, and ability grouping. Of course, this is part of the problem with evaluating the efficacy of constructivist teaching, it’s not one pedagogy but a philosophical approach that includes many different pedagogies and concepts.
The fact that this meta-analysis was conducted on Chinese studies only is another convoluting factor. China consistently has the highest math PISA scores in the world (as discussed previously in this article: https://www.pedagogynongrata.com/top-education-systems). And as the original authors pointed out, the Chinese education system typically uses a more traditional math education which focuses on math fluency taught via explicit and systematic instruction. Considering that China has the best student math results in the world it makes sense that some element of their transmission instruction model is working. Additionally, did the constructivist teaching work in this scenario because it was better or did it work, because it was novel, or did it work because the students already had strong math fluency skills and could therefore benefit from the more open-ended curriculum? The authors concluded that constructivist teaching worked better than traditional education; however, their highest results were actually for a blended approach and not one on an extreme of either side of the spectrum.
Moreover, while the authors found strong results for cooperative learning, inquiry-based learning, and problem-based learning, this is somewhat at odds with other meta-analyses we have on this topic. I decided to break down the existing research further to get a better understanding of what the totality of the research shows on this topic, specifically for math and reading instruction. I attempted to exclude research that did not specifically look at math or reading as much as possible. I was particularly interested in these subjects, as most of the constructivist literature focuses on science instruction and I was curious if the high results found in science education would translate over to language and math. I conducted a literature review of constructivist pedagogies and of direct instruction (for comparison purposes), focused on the meta-analysis evidence. For the sake of clarity, I have broken down this review into the following sub-categories: direct instruction, inquiry-based instruction, problem-based instruction, discovery-based instruction, student control over learning, and cooperative learning, and Balanced Literacy.
John Hattie’s 2022 secondary meta-analysis of direct instruction found a mean effect size of .59. Of the meta-analyses he identified. Stockard, Et, al published the largest of these meta-analyses in 2018, examining 328 direct instruction studies on language and math. However, their inclusion criteria were not particularly stringent as they did not specifically exclude non-experimental studies, which in my opinion is admittedly problematic. Their study found the following results:
As you can see the Stockard found comparable results to Xie; however, the two findings should have been diametrically opposed. As Xie, was comparing Direct Instruction to Inquiry Based Learning and Stockard was comparing Direct Instruction to Inquiry Based Learning. In 2005 Mathew Haas, conducted a meta-analysis on the impact of direct instruction for secondary students studying Algebra. His study looked at 35 experimental papers and found a mean effect size of .55 for direct instruction and an effect size of .51 for problem-based learning.
Gertsen, Et, al conducted a meta-analysis of math interventions in 2009, on learning disabled students and found a mean result of 1.22. However, their meta-analysis was on specifically single case studies which lowers the statistical reliability of their results. Adams & Engelmann conducted a meta-analysis in 1996 on direct instruction in reading and found a mean effect size of .75. However, this meta-analysis was a part of a book, and I was unable to evaluate the quality of their inclusion criteria. In 2002 the National Reading Panel meta-analysis looked at Lovett style direct instruction programs and found a mean effect size of .41. Their inclusion criteria were rigorous, and their meta-analysis was one of the most comprehensive reading meta-analyses ever conducted. Similarly, Linnea Ehri, Et, al’s sub-analysis of the NRP report found a mean effect size of .48 for direct instruction programs.
Across these 6 direct instruction meta-analyses we see a mean effect size .77 for math and .54 for reading. Admittedly the Gertsen meta-analysis is likely inflationary and if we correct for this effect size, we get a mean effect size for math of .55. These would suggest moderately positive results for direct instruction approaches over non-direct instruction approaches, in math and English. This research also suggests that direct instruction is possibly of higher importance for students with learning disabilities.
Inquiry Based Learning:
John Hattie defines inquiry “an educational practice in which students are called upon to behave as scientists or philosophers, generating questions and seeking to develop answers through the accumulation of evidence. This could include asking questions and solving problems and often includes procedures such as small-scale investigations and practical projects.”. He identifies 8 meta-analyses of the topic with a mean effect size of .46. However, none of these meta-analyses were specifically on math or language.
That being said, Ard Lazonder and Ruth Harmsen conducted a meta-analysis on the topic of Inquiry Based Learning in 2016. While their study was not specifically on reading or math, it was on math and science. Their study included 72 studies in total. However, their inclusion criteria did not specifically exclude non-experimental studies, which might have inflated the results. Their study found a mean effect size of .66. However, their study showed inquiry-based learning showed higher results when greater guidance was offered, which in my opinion, actually bolsters the case of direct instruction. Their meta-analysis also showed that the younger students were, the less likely they were to benefit from direct instruction. This is in direct contrast to the common constructivist claim that inquiry-based-learning is the most important during early years of instruction.
Problem Based Learning:
John Hattie defines problem-based learning as “In problem-based learning scenarios, students often act in groups and decide what they need to learn to resolve a particular problem or question, while teachers act as facilitators. It usually involves real-world problems to promote student learning of concepts and principles as opposed to direct presentation of facts and concepts. The aim is also to promote critical thinking skills, problem-solving abilities, and communication skills.” He identifies 23 meta-analyses on the topic, with a mean effect size of .35. However, the vast majority of these studies were looking at adult learners studying medicine.
Rosli, Et al conducted a meta-analysis on the effect of Problem Based Learning on math outcomes, in 2014. The results of this study can be seen below. However, this study only contained 13 studies, which is quite a small number for a meta-analysis. The studies also did not include any grade k-2 studies, which is where I would hypothesize that constructivist teaching would be least effective. The inclusion criteria were strict, which improves my confidence in their results at least for these 13 studies.
Kimberly Jensen conducted a meta-analysis of Problem Based Learning in 2015. However, only one of the studies looked at math and only one of the studies looked at reading. The reading effect size was .11 (statistically insignificant) and the math effect size was .34. The paper was not peer reviewed and was therefore of lower reliability. I excluded this study from my secondary meta-analysis. Dagyar, Et, al conducted a meta-analysis of problem-based learning in 2015 and found a mean effect size for math instruction of .86, across 15 rigorously conducted studies. One convoluting factor for this meta-analysis, is the fact that the vast majority of studies were conducted on high school and university students. This is problematic, because problem-based learning makes more rational sense in these age brackets as the students should have already developed their basic procedural and computational fluency.
Overall, we see very strong evidence for the use of problem-based learning in math instruction. However, most of this research is on secondary and university students. Personally, I think it is problematic to use this evidence as justification for the extensive use of problem-based learning in the early elementary grades before students have developed their procedural and computational fluency, as I do not believe we have research evidence for it.
Discovery Based Learning:
To the best of my knowledge there exists only one peer reviewed meta-analysis on this topic. Louis Alfieri, Et, al conducted a meta-analysis of this topic in 2011. Their meta-analysis included 164 studies. The study used strict inclusion criteria however, it did not specifically control for any subject. Their study found a mean negative effect size of -.30 for discovery-based learning and a mean effect size of .30 for combining discovery-based learning with direct instruction. Meaning that there was a difference of .60 between discovery-based-learning and discovery-based-learning that included direct instruction. To the best of my knowledge, the current evidence suggests that the use of discovery-based learning lowers education results.
Student Control Over Learning:
John Hattie defines student control over learning as “Involves students taking responsibility for their own instruction (often via computer-based learning), their pace of learning, how much time they spend on learning each step, and control over where to go next in their learning.” He identifies 6 meta-analyses on this topic, with a mean effect size of .02. However, none of these meta-analyses were specifically on the topic of math or reading. Most of these meta-analyses were specifically focused on the use of student choice, with technology-based learning. None of these studies showed a statistically significant benefit. Two of these studies showed a negative benefit. The highest benefit found across these meta-analyses was found by Patall, Cooper, & Robinson, in 2008. Their study was focused on motivation and found an effect size of .10 (.20 or higher is seen as statistically significant). Normally, I would do a deep dive on each of these individual meta-analyses; however, as there was so consistently, no meaningful benefit across the literature, it seemed safe to me to assume, that there is little scientifically observed benefit for increasing student choice in a classroom. This conclusion is likely to be shocking to many, but there is a rationality in the observation. When presented with two academic tasks, how many students would choose the more challenging task? This is also not to say that there is no value, in increasing student choice. However, that value probably relates more to student satisfaction than academic achievement and is therefore challenging to scientifically measure.
John Hattie defines cooperative learning as “A pedagogical strategy through which two or more learners collaborate to achieve a common goal. Typically, cooperative learning programs seek to foster positive interdependence through face-to-face interactions, to hold individual group members accountable for the collective project, and to develop interpersonal skills among learners. Cooperative learning programs aim to enable learners to engage in more complex subject matter than students would typically be able to master, and such an approach has been recommended for both gifted and remedial learners.” He identifies 27 meta-analyses on the topic with a mean effect size of .43. However, most of these meta-analyses did not look at math or literacy programming. In 2015, Capar, Et, al completed a meta-analysis of cooperative learning in math. The inclusion criteria were rigorous and included a total of 26 studies. The results of which can be seen below.
In 1993 Francis Burton conducted a non-peer reviewed meta-analysis on cooperative learning in math. He found a mean effect size for cooperative learning of .59. His meta-analysis was on elementary students. However, it only included 10 studies. The fact that this meta-analysis had only 10 studies and was not peer reviewed makes it in my opinion less reliable.
McMaster, Et, al conducted a meta-analysis of cooperative learning for students in kindergarten to grade 12 in 2002. The study included 15 studies total. Their study found a mean effect size of .29 for math and reading outcomes. The inclusion criteria was high for the study which increases my confidence in the results.
In 2013 Puzio, Et, al conducted a meta-analysis of 18 cooperative learning studies on reading outcomes. The results can be seen below. The study inclusion criteria were not rigorous. However, this should have inflated the effect sizes, but the resulting effect sizes were quite low.
In 2018 Sedat Turgut, Et, al conducted a meta-analysis of 47 experimental or quasi-experimental cooperative learning studies on Math. The inclusion criteria were rigorous and there was a sufficiently high number of studies. The results of which can be seen below.
Overall, there is moderate evidence for the use of cooperative learning in math. Across all of these pedagogies and topics, there is weak evidence for the use of constructivist pedagogies in reading. There is strong evidence for the use of constructivist pedagogies in Math, but most of that research has been conducted on older students or students with greater previous math fluency instruction. There are greater impacts on direct instruction for learning disabled students, perhaps because they require less open-ended instruction. That all being said, I also think it needs to be realized that all of the above research is not a collection of meta-analyses on constructivism, but rather meta-analyses on various constructivist pedagogies. This is important to recognize, because there is a big difference between implementing a single constructivist pedagogy into your instruction and adopting only constructivist pedagogies. For this reason, I think it makes more sense to look at a meta-analysis of constructivist pedagogical programs, rather than constructivist pedagogies. To the best of my knowledge, no such meta-analysis exists for math, which makes judging the efficacy of constructivist teaching in Math hard to do, on a credible level. However, to the best of my knowledge we have 3 meta-analyses on constructivist reading programs.
Balanced Literacy is a pedagogical approach to reading instruction that de-emphasizes skill instruction, makes use of meta-cognition strategies (3-cueing), uses ability grouping, and emphasizes the importance of enjoyment over the importance of academic achievement. Due to these factors, Balanced Literacy programs are often cited as constructivist reading programs. In 2017, Graham, Et al conducted a meta-analysis of Balanced Literacy programs and found a mean effect size of .33. This meta-analysis used rigorous inclusion standards and looked at 47 studies.
In 2020, Abrami, Et, al conducted a meta-analysis of the Abracadabra Balanced Literacy program. This meta-analysis looked at 17 studies; however, all 17 studies were on the same program. Moreover, not all these studies were peer-reviewed, but all studies did include an experimental or quasi-experimental design. Their meta-analysis found a mean effect size of .20.
In 2022, Nathaniel Hansford (this author), conducted a meta-analysis of phonics and Balanced Literacy programs. This meta-analysis was not peer reviewed and some of the studies included in the meta-analysis were also not peer reviewed. All studies included were of an experimental or quasi-experimental design. This meta-analysis included 55 studies. It found a mean effect size for Balanced Literacy programs of .22.
To better synthesize all this data, I have conducted a secondary meta-analysis of the discussed pedagogies and graphed those results below. Each effect size was calculated across the mean of all meta-analyses discussed in this article, per category. Secondary meta-analyses risk taking experimental research out of context and miss-applying the results. However, they can be useful, when comparing multiple pedagogies or when multiple high quality meta-analyses produce seemingly contradicting results. As both factors apply to this article, I decided a secondary meta-analysis was necessary to best determine the efficacy of Constructivist Teaching.
What Does this Research Show and What Are the Limitations?
At the risk of sounding repetitive, this data suggests that constructivist teaching works for Math instruction but does not work for reading instruction. However, I would caution the reader against this interpretation for several reasons. Firstly, most of the math instruction data was on older students. Secondly, all the meta-analyses on math instruction were on individual constructivist pedagogies and not on constructivist teaching itself. Thirdly, to the best of my knowledge there have been no meta-analyses of constructivist math programs. In my opinion, the most valuable research on this topic was the Graham meta-analysis. Dr. Steve Graham is one of the most esteemed researchers in the world, his study is to the best of my knowledge the only comprehensive and peer reviewed meta-analysis conducted of constructivist programing.
It is also very important to remember that Constructivist teaching is not a pedagogy, it is a theory of learning and a philosophical viewpoint, which has inspired other pedagogies. It is always easier to evaluate the efficacy of a single pedagogical concept, with an experimental model, than it is to evaluate an encompassing idea like constructivist teaching. It should be realized that there likely exists a spectrum between traditional/transmission instruction and constructivist instruction. Moreover, the type of instruction that works best, might not be on either end of that spectrum, but in the middle. Teachers can also use individual constructivist pedagogies, while still mostly using a transmission model.
What are the Pros and Cons of a Constructivist Approach?
Much of the debate around constructivist teaching is often focused on the meta-cognition strategies used to teach hard skills in a less explicit way. However, it is not these strategies that most concerns me, but rather the extreme versions we often see of constructivist teaching sometimes applied. For example, I have on many occasions heard constructivist educators say that we should never teach math formulas. This goes directly, against all the research we have on iterative teaching and fluency instruction. Moreover, as shown in this article research suggests that learning disabled students in particular benefit from explicit instruction, which makes me believe that these types of approaches will be particularly harmful to our most vulnerable students. Similarly, I have seen constructivist educators promote a minimalist level of phonics instruction, for reading, based on the claim that skill instruction kills the joy of reading. This goes directly against the findings of most of the scientific research on reading and in particular disadvantages our most vulnerable students.
I would argue that Discovery Based Learning represents one of the most extreme interpretations of constructivist teaching and within the scientific literature, we see on average statistically significant negative results. Comparatively, direct instruction research and inquiry-based learning research both show on average moderate to high results. This on its surface is seemingly illogical as the two pedagogies are opposing. However, this is likely due to the fact that the vast majority of education studies show a positive benefit, for two reasons. Firstly, experimenters are usually focused on proving the efficacy of an idea and likely unintentionally create bias in their experiment for success, Secondly, experiments that do not find statistically significant results are sometimes not published, a phenomenon referred to as the file drawer problem. Given that most education research shows a positive benefit and that meta-analysis into Discovery Based showed a statistically significant negative effect, it seems safe to assume that the consistent use of discovery-based teaching in the classroom would lead to harmful effects for student learning.
Research into constructivist teaching seems to show the highest results for older students and non-learning-disabled students. This trend is logical, when we assume that these students are more likely to have a strong base of foundational skill knowledge, such as arithmetic or phonological awareness and are therefore less likely to be harmed by instruction that de-emphasizes skill-based instruction. While Jean Piaget was focused on how students learn, many constructivists are more concerned with the democratizing of classrooms than they are with academic achievement. Modern, constructivist prioritize the importance of play, critical thinking, and student well-being. All these things are important. However, I would argue that there needs to be a balance struck. I want schools to be a place that help to foster creative, and critical citizens.
However, I worry that with extreme constructivist approaches that the students who come with socio-economic privilege are unlikely to need the same level of skill instruction and are therefore less likely to be negatively impacted by such approaches. Indeed, our most advantaged students might benefit from approaches which prioritize creativity, and critical thinking. However, I worry that these approaches will negatively impact our most vulnerable students. I also think that these approaches when taken to the extreme can be holistically harmful. I have seen constructivist educators claim that learning should always be fun. To be honest, I think this is a harmful narrative for two reasons. Firstly, its not realistic for teachers to make all lessons entirely educational and entirely fun. Secondly, I think it is important for students to learn the value of hard work. We would not want students to grow up thinking that every day at work needs to be fun, not that it isn’t a noble idea, but it is not realistic. Ideally, we want our students to grow up happy and holistically prepared for life outside of school and to accomplish this I believe we need to take an approach that balances the academic and holistic needs of our students.
Throughout this article, I have presented many criticisms of constructivist teaching. However, I do think there our elements of this approach that benefit students, especially if applied thoughtfully. The Lazonder meta-analysis showed the explicit instruction was better suited for the teaching of knowledge/skills, whereas inquiry-based learning is better for teaching critical thinking and research skills. Similarly, while cooperative learning has shown mixed results across meta-analyses, it has been shown to be particularly valuable for promoting student motivation and social well-being.
Personally, I think these tools should be used in such a way that it enhances or benefits students’ skill-based learning, instead of replacing skill-based learning. For example, many constructivists start math lessons with a challenging, open-ended problem. I think these types of questions make more sense at the end of lessons/units, and in higher grades, than at the start of lessons/units or primary grades. By pushing these types of problems back in the learning sequence, we can make sure that students first have the proper scaffolding to solve these problems. Similarly, with cooperative learning, some strategies like think-pair-share, emphasize students’ feelings on a subject but de-emphasize the learning of actual content, whereas cooperative learning strategies like Jigsaw, which focus on using cooperative learning for the content instruction. This fact can be seen demonstrated in the 2014 meta-analysis on Jigsaw by Vali Batdi, which found a mean effect size of 1.20. In my opinion strategies like Jigsaw are more likely to benefit students’ academic success.
My goal in researching this topic and writing this article was to evaluate the pedagogical efficacy of constructivist teaching. However, I have come to realize that doing so in a meaningful way is so difficult and complex that I am not entirely sure it can be effectively done. Perhaps most challenging about this topic, is the fact that you cannot look at this question from just a perspective of academic efficacy, but rather you also have to consider the philosophical/moral value of such an approach. Ultimately, I would hope that readers take away from this discussion that constructivist pedagogies are valuable additions to regular instruction, but that they should not replace the direct instruction of foundational skills like phonics or arithmetic.
Written by Nathaniel Hansford
Last Edited 2022-07-05
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