Some thoughts on constructivism in a STEM context

Constructivism is now the dominant ideology within the Irish educational establishment. For a long time I’ve struggled to understand what constructivism actually is because most definitions seem pretty vague to me. But while perusing the UCD Teaching and Learning pages I came across this list of the characteristics of a constructivist learning environment and I’ve added a few comments on each point:

  1. Provide multiple representations of reality.

For an engineer like me, or indeed for most of the scientists and mathematicians that I work with, this aspect of constructivism is a problem. Most sane people believe that the laws of nature are the laws of nature and not a social construct. Yes, the directions that scientists take in their research are subject to social, cultural, political and economic factors, but that doesn’t mean that nature itself is dependent on these same factors. Of course we all have different images in our head as to what, say, a proton actually is; but a proton will behave like a proton regardless of how you think about it.

  1. Emphasize knowledge construction inserted of knowledge reproduction.

The thinking here is that knowledge construction is somehow superior to knowledge acquired from a teacher or a book. Many constructivists argue that knowledge that has been constructed (e.g. through inquiry or discovery methods) is somehow “deeper” than knowledge acquired from interacting with a teacher. This is an ideological stance, not one grounded in cognitive science and not one supported by evidence. In fact one can argue precisely the opposite: knowledge acquired through discovery is shallower than knowledge acquired from a good teacher. A good historical example of this would be Kepler’s discovery of his laws of planetary motion. Kepler didn’t really understand why his laws were the way they are – it took Newton to explain them all. Indeed the history of science is packed with empirical observations (‘constructed knowledge’) that were understood and explained years later.

This idea that knowledge construction is superior that knowledge acquired through being taught it is the reason why so much of education, specifically the new Irish Junior Cycle, puts so much emphasis on process and method rather than knowledge.

There is also the suggestion in the above that when knowledge is acquired from a teacher or a book, it is not used or applied; it is only reproduced. This is a complete mis-characterisation of traditional, teacher-led approaches to education

  1. Emphasize authentic tasks in a meaningful context rather than abstract instruction out of context.

This is a curiously instrumentalist view of education because it implies that learning should only relate to relevant, real-world problems. It rules out vast swathes of human learning; from art to philosophy to history to literature to theology, the very subjects that have the most potential to enrich our lives.

  1. Provide learning environments such as real-world settings or case-based learning instead of predetermined sequences of instruction.

This is what I call the “mimicry fallacy”: the real word is like X therefore we should learn like X. So if research scientists spend their time inquiring, then students should learn through inquiry.

This philosophy is what has spawned the obsession with interdisciplinarity and multidisciplinarity. It’s also an approach that if applied to sport would suggest that, for example, rugby teams should train mainly by playing “authentic” 15-a-side full-contact practice matches. Good luck with that.

  1. Encourage thoughtful reflection on experience.

All learning environments encourage reflection. The study of English literature, for example, is defined by the fact that it requires reflection.

  1. Enable context- and content- dependent knowledge construction.

This is pretty much a repeat of point 2.

  1. Support collaborative construction of knowledge through social negotiation, not competition among learners for recognition.

Again this is just an ideological position, not one grounded in learning science. It is another example of the mimicry fallacy: people sometimes collaborate in the workplace therefore students should learn collaboratively. Most mathematicians, scientists and engineers I know would argue that to master these subjects a student has to settle down in a quiet room and concentrate fiercely on solving problems or getting to grips with difficult concepts. You don’t learn calculus by brainstorming.

  1. Avoid oversimplification and represent the complexity of the real world.

That’s precisely what scientists and engineers don’t do. They try to get to the essence of problems and then, if required, they build in added complexity to capture, as accurately as possible, the behaviour of physical, chemical and biological systems. Given the stunning technological advances of the 20th century, we’d want to be very careful about making fundamental changes to how we teach the STEM disciplines.

2 thoughts on “Some thoughts on constructivism in a STEM context

  1. long time reader, first time commenter. oh no not more imposed methods of learning being imposed from above. Are these constructionist guidelines for the teachers or the students? if the powers that be want to improve the educational standards of the students, they need to remind the students that they have to assess each piece of information that they are receiving. In a university setting, the students are getting on average 4000 hours to learn about topics that were developed over centuries and millennia.Would like to see the administrators of the educational-industrial-complex to brain storm their way to developing the Fourier analysis.

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