July 29, 2004

The Problem With Constructivism


This paper argues that constructivism is a needed educational reform that will succeed only when three types of readiness are in place: teacher, curricular, and societal. The failure of constructivism and other reform movements can be attributed to the fact that these three forms of readiness were never in alignment. The author contends that technological innovation may have sufficient impetus to encourage the three types of readiness. Nonetheless, reform will he truly successful only if it incorporates a constructivist philosophy of education.

Constructivism, in all of its various incarnations, is now a major educational philosophy and pedagogy. What the various interpretations of constructivism have in common is the proposition that the child is an active participant in constructing reality and not just a passive recorder of it. Constructivism thus echoes the philosophy implicit in Rousseau's Emile (1962) in which he argued that children have their own ways of knowing and that these have to be valued and respected. It also reflects the Kantian (Kant 2002) resolution of the nature/nurture controversy. Kant argued that the mind provides the categories of knowing while experience provides the content. Piaget (1950) created the contemporary version of constructivism by demonstrating that the categories of knowing, no less than the contents of knowledge, are constructed in the course of development. Vygotsky (1978) added the importance of social context to the constructivist epistemology-a theory of knowledge and knowledge acquisition.

Constructivism in education has been approached at many different levels and from a variety of perspectives (e.g., Larochelle, Bednarz, and Garrison 1998). In this essay, I will limit the discussion to those writers who have attempted to translate constructivism into a practical pedagogy (e.g., Brooks and Brooks 1993; Fosnot 1996; Gagnon and Collay 2001; Lambert et al. 1997). Though many different models have been created and put to test, none have been satisfactorily implemented. The failure of the constructivist reform movement is yet another in the long list of ill-fated educational reform movements (Gibboney 1994).

The inability to implement constructivist reforms is particularly instructive with regard to the failures of educational reforms in general. Constructivist reforms start from an epistemology. This sets constructivism apart from those educational reforms inspired by political events (such as the curriculum reform movement spurred by the Russian launching of the Sputnik) or by social events (such as the school reforms initiated by the Civil Rights Movement) or by a political agenda (e.g., A Nation at Risk [National Commission on Excellence in Education 1983]; the No Child Left Behind initiative). That is to say, the constructivist movement is generated by genuine pedagogical concerns and motivations.

The lack of success in implementing this widely accepted educational epistemology into the schools can be attributed to what might be called failures of readiness. Consider three types of readiness: teacher readiness, curricular readiness, and societal readiness. Teacher readiness requires teachers who are child development specialists with curricular and instructional expertise. Curriculum readiness requires courses of study that have been researched as to what, when, and how the subject matter should be taught. Societal readiness requires a nation that is willing-indeed eager-to accept educational change. For a reform movement to succeed, all three forms of readiness must be in alignment.

Teacher Readiness

Those who have tried to implement a constructivist pedagogy often argue that their efforts are blocked by unsupportive teachers. They claim that some teachers are wedded to an objectivist view that knowledge has an independent existence and needs only to be transmitted. Others have difficulty understanding how to integrate the learner's intuitive conceptions into the learning process. Still others are good at getting children actively involved in projects but are not able to translate them effectively into learning objectives. These problems are aggravated by an increasingly test- driven curriculum with little opportunity for creativity and innovation.

The problem, however, is not primarily with teachers but with teacher training. In the United States, many universities and colleges have done away with the undergraduate major in education. In Massachusetts, for example, a student with a bachelor's degree in any field can get a provisional certification after a year of supervised internship. After five years and the attainment of a master's degree, the candidate is eligible for permanent certification.

The demise of the undergraduate major in education can be attributed to a number of different factors that were enunciated in Tomorrow's Schools of Education (Holmes Group 1995) written by the deans of 80 of some of the nation's most prestigious schools of education. The report (1995, 45-46) targeted the education faculty who "ignore public schools to concentrate on theoretical research or to work with graduate students who do not intend careers as classroom teachers." In effect, the education faculty has failed to provide the kind of research that would be useful to teachers. As the report (1995,45-46) argued, "Traditional forms of academic scholarship have a place in professional schools, but such institutions are obliged as well to learn from practice and to concern themselves with questions of applying knowledge." These observations are supported by the facts. Few teachers read the educational research journals, and few educational researchers read the journals directed at teachers such as Educational Leadership and Young Children. This also is true for researchers in the field of child development. Much of the research on children's cognitive, social, and emotional development is directly relevant to teaching. Yet, the educational implications of these studies are rarely, if ever, discussed in the literature.

The end result is that much of teaching as a profession has to be learned in the field. While this is true for all professions to a certain extent, it is particularly true of education. Indeed, one could make the case that teaching is, as yet, more art than profession. Professional training implies a body of knowledge and skills that are unique and that can be acquired only through a prescribed course of study. It is not clear that such a body of knowledge and skills exists for education. In fact, each educational reform movement challenges the practices currently in play. Perhaps it is because there is no agreed upon body of knowledge and skills that reform in education is so frequent and so unsuccessful. To be sure, all professions have disagreements but they all share some fundamental common ground, whether it is anatomy in medicine or legal precedence in the field of law. There is, however, no such common base in education.

Teaching will become a true profession only when we have a genuine science of education. Such a science will have to be multidisciplinary and include workers from traditional educational psychology, developmental psychology, sociology, and various subject matter disciplines. Researchers would investigate individual and group differences in learning styles in relation to the acquisition of the various tool subjects (i.e., reading, writing, arithmetic, science, and social studies) at different age levels. Teacher training would provide not only a solid grounding in child development but also would require domain specific knowledge as it applies to young people at different age levels. Teachers also would be knowledgeable about research and would have access to journals that serve both teachers and investigators.

The failure to treat education as a profession has a long history but was made patent by Flexner's (1910) report Medical Education in the United States and Canada. That report was critical of medical education in the United States and suggested that training in medicine should be a graduate program with an undergraduate major. It also argued for the establishment of teaching hospitals as a means of practical training under supervision. Though the report was mandated by the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching, no comparable critique and suggestions were made for teachers and teacher training. The only innovation taken from this report was the founding of lab schools which would serve the same function as teaching hospitals at various universities. These schools, however, were more often used for research than for training. Today, only a few lab schools remain in operation.

Before any serious, effective reform in education can be introduced, we must first reinvent teacher training. At the very least, teachers should be trained as child development specialists. But teachers need much more. Particularly today, with the technological revolution in our schools, teacher training should be a graduate program. Even with that, teaching will not become a true profession unless and until we have a true science of education (Elkind 1999).

Curricular Readiness

A constructivist approach to education presupposes a thorough understanding of the curriculum to be taught. Piaget understood this very well. Much of his researc\h was aimed at shedding light on what might be called the logical substructure of the discipline. That is to say, to match the subject matter to the child's level of developing mental abilities, you have to understand the logical demands it makes upon the child's reasoning powers. In his research with Inhelder (1964), Piaget demonstrated that for a child to engage in the addition and multiplication of classes, relations, and numbers, children first need to attain concrete operations. Similarly, Inhelder and Piaget (1958) showed that true experimental thinking and dealing with multiple variables require the formal mental operations not attained until adolescence. Task analysis of this sort is required in all curricular domains. Only when we successfully match children's ability levels with the demands of the task can we expect them to reconstruct the knowledge we would like them to acquire.

In addition to knowing the logical substructure of the task, we also need research regarding the timing of the introduction of various subject matters. For example, the planets often are taught at second grade. We know that children of seven or eight do not yet have a firm grasp of celestial space and time. Does teaching the planets at grade two give the child an advantage when studying astronomy at the college level? Similar questions might be asked about introducing the explorers as a social study topic in the early elementary grades. I am not arguing against the teaching of such material; I am contending that we need to know whether this is time well spent. We have little or no research on these issues.

Another type of curriculum information has to do with the sequence of topics within any particular course of study. In elementary math, is it more effective to teach coins before or after we teach units of distance and weight? Some sequences of concepts are more effective for learning than others. In most cases, we don't have data upon which to make that kind of decision. In most public school textbooks, the order of topical instruction is determined more by tradition, or by the competition, than by research. We find this practice even at the college level. Most introductory courses begin with a chapter on the history of the discipline. Yet many students might become more engaged in the subject if the first topic was one to which they could immediately relate. Again, we have little or no research on such matters. This is true for teaching in an integrated or linear curriculum format.

The argument that there is little connection between academic research and practical applications has many exceptions. Nonetheless, as long as these remain exceptions rather than the rule, we will not move toward a true science of education.

Societal Readiness

If the majority of teachers are not ready to adopt a constructivist pedagogy, neither are educational policy makers and the larger society. To be successfully implemented, any reform pedagogy must reflect a broad and energized social consensus. John Dewey was able to get broad backing for his Progressive Education Reform thanks to World War I and the negative reaction to all things European. Up until the First World War, our educational system followed the European classical model. It was based on the doctrine of formal discipline whereby training in Greek and Latin, as well as the classics, rigorously trained the mind. In contrast, Dewey (1899) offered a uniquely American functional pedagogy. he wanted to prepare students for the demands and occupations of everyday life. There was general consensus that this was the way to go.

The launching of the Russian Sputnik in 1957 was another event that energized the nation to demand curriculum reform. Russia, it seemed, had outstripped us scientifically, and this reflected badly on our math and science education. The National Science Foundation embarked on a program of science and math curriculum reform. To this end, the foundation recruited leading figures in the fields of science and math to construct new, up-to-date curricula in these fields. These scholars knew their discipline but, for the most part, they did not know children. The new curricula, which included variable-base arithmetic and teaching the principles of the discipline, were inappropriate for children. When these curricula failed, a new consensus emerged to advocate the need to go "back to basics." The resulting teacher-made curricula dominated education prior to the entrance of the academicians. While "back to basics" was touted as a "get tough" movement, it was actually a "get easier" movement because it reintroduced more age-appropriate material.

Many of the educational reforms of any category have not had much success since that time. Though A Nation at Risk (NCEE 1983) created a number of reforms, the report itself did not energize the nation, and there was not sufficient motivation to bring about real change. In large part, I believe that this was because there was no national consciousness of a felt need for change. The current educational movement, No Child Left Behind, was introduced for political rather than pedagogical reasons. This legislation was avowedly for the purpose of improving student achievement and changing the culture of American schools. These aims are to be achieved by requiring the states to test all children every year from grades three through eight. Schools that do not meet statewide or national standards may be closed or parents given an opportunity to send their children to other schools.

This is an ill-conceived program based on a business model that regards education as akin to a factory turning out products. Obviously, children are not containers to be filled up to a certain amount at each grade level. The program forces schools to focus on tests to the exclusion of what is really important in the educational process. Testing is expensive and depletes already scarce educational resources. Students are being coached to do well on the tests without regard to their true knowledge and understanding. The policy is corrupt in that it encourages schools to cheat. The negative results of this policy already are being felt. A number of states are choosing to opt out of the program. The No Child Left Behind legislation is a good example of bad policy promoted for political gain that is not in the best interests of children.

Other than a national crisis, there is another way for social consensus to bring about educational reform. In Kuhn's (1996) innovative book on scientific revolutions, he made the point that such revolutions do not come about by the gradual accretion of knowledge. Rather they come about as a result of conflicts between opposing points of view with one eventually winning out over the other. Evolution, for example, is still fighting a rearguard action against those who believe in the biblical account of the origin of man. In education, the long-running battle between nature and nurture (read development and learning) is not likely to be resolved soon by a higher order synthesis.

An alternative view was offered by Galison (1997), who argued that the history of science is one of tools rather than ideas. he used the history of particle physics as an example. The tools of particle physics are optical-like cloud chambers and electronic- like photographic emulsions that display particle interactions by way of images. One could make equal claims for the history of biology and astronomy. As both Kuhn and Galison acknowledged, scientific progress can come about by conflict or the introduction of new technologies.

Education seems likely to be changed by new tools rather than conflicting ideas. Computers are changing education's successive phases. In the first phase, computers simply replaced typewriters and calculators. In the second phase, computers began to change the ways in which we teach. The widespread use of e-mail, Blackboard, PowerPoint, and simulations are examples. And there is an active and growing field of computer education with its own journals and conferences (e.g., Advancement of Computer Education and Association for the Advancement of Computing in Education). The third phase already has begun, and we are now seeing changes in math and science curricula as a direct result of the availability of technology. Education is one of the last social institutions to be changed by technology, but its time has come.


In this paper, I have used the failure of the constructivist reform movement to illustrate what I believe is necessary for any true educational innovation to succeed. There must be teacher, curricular, and societal readiness for any educational innovation to be accepted and put into practice. In the past, reforms were generated by one or the other form of readiness, but without the support of the others. I believe that technology will change this. It is my sense that it will move us toward making teaching a true profession, the establishment of a multidisciplinary science of education, and a society ready and eager to embrace a technologically based education.

Education is, however, more than technology. It is, at its heart, people dealing with people. That is why any successful educational reform must build upon a human philosophy that makes clear its aims and objectives. Technology without a philosophy of education is mechanical, and a philosophy without an appropriate technology will be ineffective. Technology is forcing educational reform, but we need to harness it to the best philosophy of education we have available. I believe this to be constructivism. The current failure to implement constructivism is not because of its merits but because of a lack of readiness for it. We need to make every effort to ensure that the technological revolution in education creates the kinds of teachers, curricula, and social climate that will make constructivism a reality in our classrooms.\Only when we successfully match children's ability levels with the demands of the task can we expect them to reconstruct the knowledge we would like them to acquire.

To be successfully implemented, any reform pedagogy must reflect a broad and energized social consensus.


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Elkind, D. 1999. Educational research and the science of education. Educational Psychology 11(3): 171-87.

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Larochelle, M., N. Bednarz, and J. Garrison. 1998. Constructivism and education. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press.

National Commission on Excellence in Education. 1983. A nation at risk: The imperative for educational reform. Washington, D.C.: U.S. Government Printing Office.

Piaget, J. 1950. The psychology of intelligence, trans. M. Piercy and D. E. Berlyne. London: Routledge and Paul.

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David Elkind is Professor of Child Development at Tufts University. His research is in the area of cognitive, perceptual, and social development where he has attempted to build upon the research and theory of Jean Piaget. Professor Elkind is currently working on the role of play in the healthy development of children.

Copyright Kappa Delta Pi Summer 2004