Monday, August 6, 2007

Constructivism vs. Instructivism

"The two principles, freedom and discipline, are not antagonists, but should be so adjusted in the child’s life that they correspond to a natural sway, to and fro, of the developing personality."

~Alfred North Whitehead

Our whole American culture seems to be in two separate camps over so many issues, amplified by the instantaneous national news media. In the education field, there is the instructivist/constructivist divide, each side totally sure that they possess the final truth. Statistics are skewed to whatever a particular group wants to represent. Examples are cherry-picked in order to prove a point. Rather than discuss and collaborate, there is finger-pointing and one-sided presentations.

Statement: Sanctimonious, self-righteous behavior is part of the problem. There is a need for real and well-thought-out conversations with those with whom we disagree.

We have to be careful with sound bites. Let's take one that's close to home and has had a long run: "It's all about the learning." I sense that the slogan has been very valuable in pointing out the emphasis on engaging student learning, but the problem - as I see it - is that the slogan has not been examined completely. I suspect there just might be some confusion. What does it actually mean? Slogans will only take us so far. It is time for clarity.

Of course, we all know that technology is not just hardware and software. It is also human ideas and inventions of all sorts. It is a structure or form which allows us to create and construct. Sometimes there is confusion in distinguishing the difference between didactic teaching and directed teaching. Teaching applications is seen by some as didactic teaching in a traditional "sage-on-the-stage" manner. A very narrow view, in my humble opinion.

To me, the idea that it is an either/or decision is incorrect. It is a completely false dichotomy. Instructivism and constructivism need each other. The issue is whether a tool is taught with application to real problems . . . or not. Basic skills need to be learned somehow, whether that be "just-in-case" or "just-in-time". My personal preference is "just-in-time" but I don't question that the skills are necessary.

If I have a music teacher who teaches me only notes and scales on my clarinet and never allows me the opportunity to create and perform, then that is not a good use of "technology." But if am able to make use of the skills, drills, and wisdom that the teacher gave me. . . to strut my stuff, then we have success.

On the other hand, suppose the football coach doesn't teach me the tools and disciplines necessary to play good football. Do you suppose we will have a chance of winning the game?

If we have a computer lab where the teacher only teaches computer parts and programs, etc., with no connection to solving real problems, then we have a problem. If, however, the teacher teaches the tools and at the same time engages the kids with possibilities and has them create products that relate to their lives, then we have good stuff happening.

Teaching tools opens up opportunities to create. Instructivism and constructivism can co-exist . . . in fact must both be part of a good pedagogy. Creation without form leads to chaos. Form without freedom leads to boredom and apathy.

Final assertion: Good teachers use some combination of both. Better that we disagree on the best combination and the relative placement in the lesson plan and/or curriculum than the actual need for both.

Here are some links:

Constructivism Resources

Instructivism Resources

Constructivism, Instructivism, and Related Sites

Grappling's Technology & Learning Spectrum

Agree? Disagree? Your thoughts? :)


Bob McIntire said...

I tend to agree with the premise with one caveat, the goal is, to use your analogies, being a good musician or football player rather than knowing musical theory or the rules of the forward pass. Once the end is seen, becoming as good as Benny Goodman or Bart Starr (dating myself), the reason for practicing scales and hand offs is clear and seen as steps toward reaching a greater goal.

Joe Makley said...

Or as in The Karate Kid :"Wax the car, paint the fence..."

I am a great fan of constructivist/constructionist principles in designing educational experiences for children (a relentless Foxfire proponent.) BTW, Foxfire just celebrated its 40th anniversary. What I am alarmed about is how those who see it as an ideology often argue that you shouldn't have learning targets, and thus are not subject to accountability for the success of your efforts. I believe we can hold ourselves accountable for the actual learning that takes place, that the adult role is vital, and that we can measure what has been learned. I also believe we should use strategies which have been shown to correlate with increased learning, rather than have complete autonomy. For a teacher not to be "current" is as inexcusable as for a physician.

Jim Burke said...

I really must get back into community theater again. To me it has it all as a learning model. Oxford Hills has had a tradition of close to thirty years of putting on a Broadway musical every two years, with diverse school and community participants. There is a compelling group goal, a jigsawing of roles, and teamwork at many levels in completing and performing the final product.

Everyone learns new skills (just-in-time) and drills and practices to come as close to perfection as possible within the time limitations.

Having directed the tech crews for several shows, the satisfaction of seeing the synergy that occurs with the more experienced helping the neopytes to measure and cut a board for the set, work on prosody in expression, or enhance the performance by good lighting is overwhelming. It is all about "bringing along" new people into the art and science of the production. Along with the pressure of deadlines is a good amount of joy and good humor.

Complex meanings are being constructed. Connections abound. Yet some very specific skills are being learned through drill, practice, and hands-on activities.

And what better demonstration of accountability than the final performance.

Anyone had a similar experience?

RickB said...

As you said, "Good teachers us some combination of both." ... my feeling is that the "instruction" works best when it's just-in-time instruction for the construction.

If I think to the times when I have been working on real-world projects, such as building a house or a boat or a computer program, the instruction is truly valuable ONLY when it directly applies to the project at hand.

Sure, we can instruct a learner on, for instance, how to cut lumber to correct lengths to build a wall ahead of the actual doing, but perhaps the time watching that powerpoint on how to hold a circular saw (or how to search with Google or how to do long division) is really a wasted effort because you really need to have the need for that instruction at the point of need.

A story: When I was in High School, I "learned" trigonometry and was able to pass the tests well enough, but it all never made much sense until 10 years later when I started working as a land surveyor .... suddenly it made sense! Angles, distances, xy coordinates, sin, cos became friends when they had previously been but remote aquaintances that I'd all but forgotten.

Instruction by itself can be fairly useless.

Jim Burke said...

I have a similar story about my experience with high school algebra, Rick. I dutifully did all the exercises, never once understanding what the heck I would ever use it for. The course was purely abstract. Got A's not for understanding, but for mindless diligence.

And in fact, I never did use it for anything until I started building my home 25 years later. Particularly when it came to figuring out how much playwood it would take to do my roof. Enter the Pythagorean theorem. Now the point is that I found that in my trusty yellow Reader's Digest housebuilding book (just-in-time learning) so I really didn't need to have it in high school. Even before the proliferation of web information, I had what I needed at hand.

Now I know it can be argued that I was learning logic, discipline, and perseverence in doing the course (and I suppose that is legitimate), but as far as content, I wasn't going to be an engineer. Might I have been doing something more productive with my time? Perhaps applying it to a project involving model rocket flight, determining the height through ratios and patterns?


Joe Makley said...

Excellent point, Jim,
For many, the abstract study of algebra is a kind of brain torture, and it wastes time on something that could be learned in context much more quickly. I accept the principle of non-negotiable content in the high school curriculum, but we need a system that recognizes students as individuals, and provides authentic experiences throughout the school years. In Maine we seem to be heading in the opposite direction, with a return to traditional college prep for all.

George said...

I agree with the balance of instructivism vs. constructivism. People need to have a background knowledge to learn many things and be able to have someting to relate new learning to.
Learning also has to be applied. If you do not have a use for what you have learned there is a good chance that you will forget it. You may in ten years when faced with a need for that knowledge, realize that you learned that before. It is familarbaut you cannot recall it all.
My problem with contructivism is that some in education push it too far and forget about the balance. I have had children come in to my school in the 5th grade and cannot divide or multiply the traditional way. That being said my school is teaches math the traditional way.
The constructivist approach I think sometimes leads kids to learn incorrectly or not draw the right conclusions from experiential learning. A good teacher needs to bring this knowledge into learning whether you have been contructed the knowledge or been instructed in it.
That said contructivist knowledge is many shades of gray and most of the time instuctivist knowledge is black and white. It is easier to measure and teach. To balance both ways in a lesson with a successful learning outcome takes a very good teacher and clear learning goals with in a structured learning environment.

Jim Burke said...

Hey, George . . . what's your email address? I tried to find it at your Jonesboro School site but no luck. I would like to invite you to be a topic writer on this blog. If interested, send it my way at and I'll send out the invite.