Is doing science experiments “constructivist?

Reading this article this morning made me more confused that ever as to what people mean when they talk about constructivism. I had more or less settled on the idea that constructivism meant viewing newly acquired knowledge as a jigsaw piece rather than a file in a filing cabinet but in the said article, constructivism is defined as an “educational philosophy that deems experience as the best way to acquire knowledge.” That’s not really telling me much since sitting in class listening to your teacher/lecturer explaining a difficult concept is just as much an “experience” as is constructing a structure out of spaghetti and marshmallows. The article’s title “Knowledge is a process of discovery: how constructivism changed education” is similarly vague because it is not obvious what is meant by “discovery” in this context.

Anyway, what took my eye is the section in the article where a student experiment to measure how fast different objects fall was said to be “constructivist”. In fact the experiment looks to me like a pretty bog-standard experiment that students have been performing for decades. There’s nothing constructivist about it.

The real question with the experiment, and others like it, is this: should students do the experiment before or after they have studied Newtonian physics. If they do it beforehand, they might get a bit of a kick out of making a (probably unexpected) “discovery”. But unless they have the knowledge and tools to interpret their findings, all they’ll have done is to make an empirical observation with no possibility of explaining it. In effect, the knowledge they’ve acquired will be shallow.

This approach, which could be described as “open-ended” is very popular with educators who view themselves as constructivists.

The alternative approach is to study Newtonian physics first, especially the 2nd Law of Motion and the Law of Gravitation, finding that the mass terms cancel, and ending up making a prediction that all objects fall at the same rate. The experiment would then involve verifying the prediction and explaining any deviations from the prediction in terms of the intuitive idea of air resistance.

Having taught laboratory modules over the years, it is my view the second approach is better. Students are able to discuss their findings using logical argument as opposed to when they do the experiment before the theory and their discussion is little more than speculation and guesswork.

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