An article by Sarah Bergsen, Erik Meester, Paul Kirschner and Anna Bosman
So-called ‘educational innovations’ in which the teacher assumes the role of ‘facilitator, mentor or coach’ do not appear to be very successful. Nevertheless, ‘constructivist’ ideas are still popular in education, as evidenced by the everlasting large number of minimally guided instructional practices. Sarah Bergsen, Erik Meester, Paul A. Kirschner and Anna Bosman say: “We could and should know better by now.”
Constructivism is not a pedagogy
Philosophers have enriched mankind with many new and meaningful insights, but as time progresses, new research might show us that some of these insights are flawed. For example, our physical world is not built from the four elements earth, air, fire and water but from atoms, and the appearance of organisms isn’t drawn from a transcendent world of Forms but from our genome. In other words: not all philosophical ideas are later confirmed by empirical evidence. This also applies to constructivism, which made its way from a theory of knowledge to a philosophy of education, and doesn’t seem to provide a sound basis for pedagogy.
Constructivism is a theory of knowledge emphasising that knowledge is the result of active construction of reality and not of passive representations of it. Proponents of this theory state that each individual maintains their own interpretation of their surrounding reality. Knowledge is thus a man-made construct in which the components of a complex idea are assembled into a concept (Bednar et al., 1991). The manner in which an individual sees and interprets reality depends on their own knowledge and personal history.
In educational settings, these concepts are then usually validated through social interactions with fellow students or the teacher; this is referred to as social constructivism (Ertmer & Newby, 2013). This results in the idea that knowledge cannot be directly transferred, leaving the value and meaning of explicit teaching of knowledge and skills within this philosophy unclear.
The rise of ‘the constructivist classroom’
Since the sixties, constructivist ideas have become more popular in education (see ‘Sputnik crisis’ below). This has led to a fertile environment for different recipes and formats of what is sometimes called ‘the constructivist classroom’ (see for Dutch examples, among others, Gerrits, 2004; Kok, 2003; Schouwenburg, 2015). At the core of the constructivist classroom, we often find project-based, problem-based or experience-based learning approaches. School concepts such as teaching via maker-spaces, open learning plazas, experiential learning, natural learning, personalised learning and learning centres are regarded as ‘educational innovations’. The common denominator is that these innovative schools (mostly) abandon classroom-based and teacher-directed learning environments and are moving more towards what they call a ‘learner centred’ approach.
This approach to learning and ‘teaching’, can, for example, be organised in the form of projects around a complex problem or issue. In this approach each project focuses on a certain topic or ‘big idea’. A group of students will then study this topic and then work out an assignment together, which they will eventually present to others. The assumption is that this will enable them to tap into – and further develop – generic or ‘broad’ skills, such as collaboration, creativity and critical thinking. The reasoning is that you learn more from the process or ‘experience’ than from learning specific knowledge and skills (which, according to some, are supposed to ‘have become obsolete in the rapidly changing 21st century world’).
What does this process actually entail? The students must actively explore complex topics and ’authentic’ (working) environments on their own. In this way, they are expected to learn to think like an expert in a certain domain (or even worse: interdisciplinary). Learning objectives are therefore not so much of a substantive nature, but more focused on the process of ‘constructing’. It is important that the student is able to effectively monitor, evaluate and update this self-directed process. The instructor focuses on designing and offering a rich learning environment in which the student can gain the necessary authentic experiences: “The goal of instruction is not to ensure that individuals know particular facts but rather that they elaborate on and interpret information” (Ertmer & Newby, 2013).
In short, the role of the teacher changes from a knowledgeable expert to a kind of facilitator, by providing a rich learning environment. (S)he can then take on the role of coach who follows the students, interjects her-/himself into the learning process when thought necessary and is available for consultation on request. In this way, the student and her/his ability for self-management are prioritised and it is assumed that a better transfer to other (work) situations will take place.
Constructivist thinking has also influenced many other areas, including ethics, theology, art and mathematics. For higher education, it was mainly Von Glasersfeld (1984) who played a central role in the natural sciences (Matthews, 1998). Von Glasersfeld also used the work of the well-known developmental psychologist Jean Piaget, although, remarkably enough, there are no indications at all that the latter thought that reality was unknown and that any constructed view of reality was correct. Piaget once said “Each time one prematurely teaches a child something he could have discovered for himself, that child is kept from inventing it and consequently from understanding it completely.” (Klahr & Nigam, 2004). It’s important to note that, Piaget, as a developmental psychologist, has never been concerned with learning or designing lessons or a curriculum, so the question is whether he really assumed that we could or should only learn by discovering things by ourselves. His opinion was that offering education to children who are not yet ready for it was pointless. But that doesn’t equate to not offering them anything at all.
In the Netherlands, the introduction of the ‘Second Phase’ [Tweede Fase] and the ‘Study House’ [Studiehuis] in 1998 was a forerunner of the constructivist approach to education. Ten years later, the devastating report ‘Tijd voor Onderwijs’ [Time for Education] by the parliamentary committee led by former Labour Party Member of Parliament Jeroen Dijsselbloem about the ill-considered implementation of this ‘new way of learning’ was published: “The inner circle of policymakers was insufficiently open to criticism and warnings. Experience rather than scientific research formed the basis for the pedagogical innovations that were implemented. There was a lack of proper pilots and experiments.”
The advice to the government was not to interfere with the method of instruction – the ‘how’ – but only with the content – the ‘what’. It seems that the Dutch ministry of education has since followed that advice. An important part of the educational field (i.e. the school boards) has, however, relentlessly continued to ‘innovate’ – or rather ‘change’ – the education system. Policies based on constructivist ideas are still common, although up until 2019 there is still no evidence that the teacher who takes a step back and puts the control of learning in the hands of the student is more effective and efficient than the teacher who provides explicit instruction (see, for example, Kirschner, Sweller & Clark, 2006; Mayer, 2004). This was recently confirmed (yet again) by OECD PISA research results: “Perhaps surprisingly, in no education system do students who reported that they are frequently exposed to enquiry-based instruction score higher in science” (OESO, 2016). And: “What happens inside the classroom is crucial for students’ learning and career expectations. In almost all education systems, students score higher in science when they reported that their science teachers “explain scientific ideas,” “discuss their questions” or “demonstrate an idea” more frequently” (ibidem).
In other words, when we take empirical science into account, the constructivist philosophy of education does not appear to be a sound basis for educational design and making day-to-day educational choices. Nevertheless, minimally guided instructional practices, such as discovery learning, enquiry-based learning and problem-based learning, remain popular. It is understandable that the famous educational psychologist Jerome Bruner recommended these practices in the 1960s, as little was known about human cognitive architecture at that time. Until then, the psychology of learning was dominated by behaviourism; cognitive psychology was still in its earliest stages. But nowadays, we could and should know better.
Epistemology is not pedagogy
The term ‘constructivism’ encompasses much more than we can discuss here, but most educational professionals are familiar with constructivism as a theory of knowledge or epistemology. Epistemology explores how we can acquire ‘true’ knowledge and what it means to know something (Steup, 2005). This discussion about the nature of knowledge is a recurring phenomenon in the history of philosophy. But since the rise of cognitive psychology in particular, we have more scientific insights with an empirical basis than ever that can help point us in the right direction in this discussion. Furthermore, from the point of view of cultural anthropology, the idea that one cannot transfer knowledge directly – as constructivist philosophy implies – is actually very strange. On the contrary, it is generally accepted that the transmission of our cumulative culture to future generations is what makes man as a species (homo sapiens) unique (Haidle et al., 2015).
In 1992, Paul Kirschner explained for the first time that there was an important fallacy in the world of education. Pedagogy – the method of instruction – is about the empirical science of teaching: supporting the student in her or his learning process by applying effective and scientifically proven instructional strategies. A theory of knowledge – and this is what constructivism is – is not pedagogy. The majority of cognitive psychologists are of the opinion that learning is the active (re)construction of knowledge; we ourselves create the cognitive schemas in our long-term memory, add new information to those schemas, broaden and deepen those schemas or create new (sub)schemas, and – when necessary – actively adapt those schemas to new information and experiences. In other words, according to cognitive psychology we do construct our own knowledge! However, it is wrong to assume that the way in which people process information and acquire knowledge can be translated directly into a teaching method or educational policy.
Learning to read
Consider the way we learn to read. Learning to read in first grade is characterised by sounding out each letter (or grapheme) of a word, like in /mmmmm/…, /a/…., /t/…../mat/. After a couple of months, the same child will respond to the written word MAT almost instantaneously with /mat/, without sounding out each letter separately. This behaviour is characteristic of experienced or expert readers. In the past, reading method developers made the mistake to take the fluent reading behaviour as the way to teach children. In the so-called whole-word approach, children were told to read the entire word in one glance. Without teaching each of the letters in for example, MAT, MAP, MAL, MAN, MAR, MASS, MAST, MAD, children were asked to make the distinction between these words that are visually quite similar, but their readings are clearly distinct. To learn each word individually requires a long and laborious training. The fact that our writing system is based on a set of 26 letters and that each word can be written with these letters is an amazing parsimonious system. It is therefore that we teach children the building blocks (i.e., the letters), such that after some time they are capable of reading all words, words they haven’t seen or heard before, and even pseudowords, such as KLARP. The reading behaviour of the beginner is necessarily different from that of the expert, but develops into expert reading behaviour after practise.
This example demonstrates that the way in which experienced readers read is not a good guideline for reading instruction. However, this misleading view seems to have become commonplace in education, as evidenced by certain textbooks that have been promoted (e.g. Fry, Ketteridge & Marshall, 2009) and the one-sided emphasis on constructivism as the ideological basis of education (Kok, 2003). Educational researcher Piet van der Ploeg warned Dutch Universities about this as early as 2005. “By blindly betting on constructivism, initial teacher training is at risk of wandering around theoretically. It is more fruitful to return to developmental psychology.” (Van der Ploeg, 2005, p. 13). Does this mean that constructivism has no value at all for education?
Experts learn differently
On the basis of much empirical research, we know that novices – which most students are – benefit most from explicit, direct instruction with guided practice and relevant feedback (Becker & Gersten, 2001; Stockard et al., 2018). Experts, on the other hand, are the ones who have reached the borders of knowledge in their field of expertise. There are few who can teach them; after all, they themselves are the experts. The only route they can take to expand their knowledge is to try to find new theoretical connections or to carry out an experiment or research; they are completely self-directed. Of course, this will often include consultations with other experts in their field or in allied fields.
Scientists are in that position. They have no other option but to take a constructivist approach when it comes to discovering something new; that is their epistemology. But this differs greatly from the way a beginner learns. A biologist carries out research (she or he does science), a student in a biology class learns how to carry out research (she or he learns science). This is a crucial difference. Applying a discipline is not the same as learning that discipline: “A student, as opposed to a scientist, is still learning about the subject area in question and, therefore, possesses neither the theoretical sophistication nor the wealth of experience of the scientist. Also, the student is learning science – as opposed to doing science – and should be aided in her/his learning through the application of an effective pedagogy and good instructional design” (Kirschner, 2009).
The difference lies in both the quality and the quantity of the knowledge available to novices and experts (see Table 1). The guild system is another good example of the age-old and proven distinction between an expert (the master) and his novices (the apprentice and the somewhat more advanced, c.q. intermediate, journeyman).
Table 1: Differences between novice and expert (adapted from Didau, 2019)
Research within domains such as chess (De Groot, 1946, 1965; see frame ‘Thought and choice in chess ‘), physics (Chi, Feltovich & Glaser, 1979) and air traffic control (Van Meeuwen et al., 2014), shows that experts have other so-called schemata in their long-term memory than novices. These schemata not only contain more knowledge but the knowledge is also better-organised. The expert’s knowledge enables her or him to recognise the in-depth structure of a problem rather than being confused by the surface features.
These more extensive (that is, complicated, deep, rich) schemata that experts rely on, ensure that they have less trouble than beginners with the limitations of working memory. They do not see an incoherent collection of pieces of information, but well-organised chunks and/or related units or patterns of information. Experts can also use alternative problem-solving strategies that are more effective, more efficient, easier to apply and less cognitively demanding.
Another important argument for regarding almost all students as beginners is ironically, also based on Piaget’s work. In his stages theory of cognitive development, he initially assumed that children between the ages of twelve and fifteen pass from the concrete-operational stage to the formal-operational stage. In his limited sample of children he saw this transition in thinking, but later it turned out that the majority of capable adults did not reach the formal-operational stage. Only in the area of their expertise do they appear to think and act in a formally operational manner (Chiapetta, 1976; Tricot & Sweller, 2014). Piaget erred on this point, something he himself observed later in his career (Piaget, 1972). Maturation does not explain everything, because the transition to the latter stage requires targeted and domain-specific efforts.
So far, we have refuted the common misconception that students are some sort of junior experts and that they can solve complex ‘real-life’ problems without intensive instruction and guidance from the teacher, as experts do. But we don’t have to go back to a ‘factory model education’, like some people frame it, as it was a century ago either. There is a very appealing alternative.
In the educational context, you can (hopefully) assume that students are beginners and teachers are experts. Students, especially at the start of their courses and studies, are still building, expanding, deepening, and strengthening their knowledge. The chance of successfully solving a complex problem depends on the amount of domain-specific (prior) knowledge at the disposal of students (Willingham, 2002). In most cases, this (prior) knowledge is not yet present or insufficiently present. In this case, the teacher has the important task of lending their knowledge to the student, so to speak, and of ensuring that this knowledge ends up in the long-term memory of the student. We call this the borrowing and reorganising principle (Bartlett, 1932; Sweller & Sweller, 2006).
However, this does not happen by itself and it requires an explicit and responsive approach to teaching. The teacher is advised to offer new information in small steps and to ask a lot of thought provoking questions at each step, in order to check the students’ understanding on the one hand and to strengthen what has been learned on the other. The teacher has to demonstrate a lot while explaining how you do something and why, preferably with supporting visuals. The ongoing interaction between teacher and students enables the teacher to give targeted and timely feedback in order to gradually phase out guidance until the students mastered the content and thereby are able to successfully fulfil the relevant problems, projects or tasks without support (Rosenshine, 2012).
Initially, it’s important for the student to pay attention to the important basic knowledge that is needed to be able to effectively understand and perform the complex tasks in the long term; in this way, you prevent students with a lot of prior knowledge from being the only ones who can understand and perform these complex tasks. The feeling of self-efficacy (c.q. competence if you will) is the result of good education and will eventually give them the confidence to start working as a junior expert after finishing their studies (Willingham, 2009).
This doesn’t mean that there is no room at all for the aforementioned minimally guided instructional practices. There are also disciplines, for example in ICT, in which developments are so rapid that even teachers (i.e., experts) may find it difficult to keep up with the latest insights and skills. In such situations, students will have to solve problems by experimenting and testing their effectiveness. This is what is called the ‘randomness as genesis’ principle (Sweller & Sweller, 2006).
However, this principle does not apply to a majority of disciplines. Therefore, these practices should not be used as the basis for the entire curriculum design but only seem fit for students whose expertise has reached the required level. Until that point, teachers should provide well-structured cumulative subtasks, in which the aforementioned instruction strategies are applied (Ericsson, 2006; Kalyuga, Rikers, & Paas, 2012). As a teacher, you should certainly not avoid complexity, but it is important to work towards it carefully. We know this since Charles Reigeluth’s (1979, 1983) elaboration theory. This idea is also long and well-known as ‘scaffolding’ and applies to various levels: within a course or subject and within a discipline or total study program.
Rely on craftsmanship
The advancement of the educational sector can be supported by the use of empirical sciences, such as cognitive psychology, in addition to philosophical and normative pedagogical views, which in essence are not verifiable. Research in cognitive psychology gives us a verifiable theory about how people learn and how we can best help students in their learning processes (the goal of education; Mayer, 2004; Weinstein, Sumeracki, & Caviglioli, 2018). ‘Without an understanding of human cognitive architecture, instruction is blind’ (Sweller, 2017). We have illustrated this by means of constructivist philosophy: it is not a pedagogy or method of instruction and, as such, should not be used as a guideline for instructional policies or practices.
Unstructured and minimally-guided instructional situations certainly do not appear to be very successful and can strongly contribute to:
(1) a lower probability of an effective learning process for – in particular – vulnerable students,
(2) a less important role for the instructor, which can potentially damage the profession, and
(3) the widening of the so-called achievement gap, because students with more prior knowledge have more opportunities than students with less prior knowledge (Christodoulou, 2014).
Quality education starts with a good teacher, not with a facilitator, guide, or coach. Apart from the learner her- or himself, the teacher is the most important factor when it comes to academic success (Hattie, 2003). In education, we should therefore continue to focus on and rely on the craftsmanship of teachers, rather than organising education in a way that bypasses them.
is an independent educational consultant and trainer at Mastery Learning, the Netherlands.
Erik B. J. Meester
is a teacher of Pedagogical Sciences in Primary Education at Radboud University, the Netherlands.
Paul A. Kirschner
is emeritus professor of Educational Psychology at the Open Universiteit, Guest Professor at Thomas More University of Applied Science, Belgium and Honorary Doctor (doctor honoris causa) at Oulu University, Finland.
Anna M.T. Bosman
is professor of Dynamics in Learning and Development at the Behavioural Science Institute, Radboud Universiteit, the Netherlands.
This article, originally titled ‘Constructivisme is een slechte raadgever’, was first published in TH&MA (October, 2019).
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 For the interested reader with little time, we recommend the literature that we have marked with an *.