Against Constructivism


Arnold Kling comments today on the latest winner of a TED prize, a $1 million prize awarded to an “individual with a creative and bold vision to change the world”. The winner was Sugata Mitra, an Indian instructor who is teaching impoverished children by letting them have free reign on a computer connected to the internet. I’m kind of confused at how what he is doing is creative or bold, seeing as the learning theory known as constructivism — which is what Mitra is practitioning — is over a century old. Anyway, Kling’s post is titled “Deschooling Society”, after the Ivan Illich book advocating constructivist ideas, and this is his comment:

Does this idea come across as libertarian? To me, it actually owes something to the New Left of the hippie era. Anyone remember Ivan Illich?

As I alluded to above, it actually owes everything to an older “new left” — the Progressive Era leftists, specifically John Dewey and Maria Montessori in the United States. I’m rather unclear as to whether Kling is endorsing this mode of development, but I have had a long history of visceral dislike for constructivism. When you start at a very low level of education, any intervention will show an outsized improvement…and that is what is happening in this situation. Once parity is reached with Western levels of education, constructivism is useless at best, actively destructive at worst in most learning situations. What confuses me most about the TED award is that we know this to be true.

Here is the deal; constructivists start with the observation that humans tend to learn “biologically primary skills” — skills that were selected for by biologically through evolution and that we co-opt for other (ostensibly modern) purposes through exaptation, like spoken language and spatial recognition — through immersion and trial and error. This is, of course, the way all human education has taken place for the vast majority of human history. It is very natural to us to learn a certain set of skills in this manner, and much more effective than learning in a structured ritual.

Unfortunately constructivists take this idea and extend it to the learning of what is known as “biologically secondary skills”, which are skills that build upon primary skills but are mainly cultural inventions, like literature and mathematics. This set of skills is learned best through structure and repetition, until a certain level of mastery has been achieved. I’m not really clear about the controversy surrounding Jonah Lehrer’s book, Imagine, so I don’t want to lean on it very heavily, but in it he makes the observation that you need to put in the “99% perspiration” to reap fruit from the “1% inspiration”.

It is, of course, important to note that human history is littered with useless deaths caused by experimentation in the learning process. That is why we now see it fit to create an evolutionary design space that selects for a high level of success in learning primary skills, instead of letting children explore blindly.

The specific mechanism that makes constructivism such a poor teaching paradigm for the majority of modern skills is that it gets the cognitive load balance nearly exactly wrong. Research has shown that we learn and recall knowledge best when we draw upon a repertoire of instructions stored in long-term memory, and move bits of knowledge that we need at any given time through our working memory when we solve problems or think creatively. What constructivism promotes is overloading working memory with not only the specifics of the problem at hand, but also all of the superstructure that surrounds the problem. Unfortunately, working memory is not structured to pass information to long term memory efficiently.

I’ll close with a quote from Sweller, Kirschner, and Clark (2007):

“After a half-century of advocacy associated with instruction using minimal guidance, it appears that there is no body of research supporting the technique. In so far as there is any evidence from controlled studies, it almost uniformly supports direct, strong instructional guidance rather than constructivist-based minimal guidance.”

If we are to subvert the apparatus that we as a society have erected around education over the last century, I would certainly hope that this is not the way in which it happens.

P.S. For those who are interested, my previous post on education (also very critical of constructivism) is here.

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