Review: The Case for Constructivist Classrooms

Nick Covington
January 27, 2020
...constructivism has been a consistent but controversial and often caricatured counterweight to the recurring top-down reform movements — rooted in accountability and standardized test scores — that have defined the last 30 years of the educational debate.

Tucked away in a bottom-shelf corner of the Education section of Half Price Books, I found a small text I had never heard of called “The Case for Constructivist Classrooms” by Martin G. Brooks and Jacqueline Grennon Brooks. Originally published in 1993, a decade after “A Nation at Risk” launched the national conversation about “failing schools” and the modern education reform movement, and re-published in 1999, just three years before the next big standardized reform push with NCLB, constructivism has been a consistent but controversial and often caricatured counterweight to the recurring top-down reform movements — rooted in accountability and standardized test scores — that have defined the last 30 years of the educational debate. As the authors of “The Case for Constructivist Classrooms” address in the introduction:

“…yes, it is presumably more comforting to think of all students as blank slates with similar cognitive profiles than it is to view them as individuals whose life experiences have shaped singular sets of cognitive needs. Nonetheless, more and more teachers continue to gravitate toward constructivist principles because . . . well, because they make sense. Teaching and learning are complicated, labyrinthine processes filled with dead ends, false positives, contradictions, multiple truths, and a great deal of confusion. Trying to simplify and quantify the teaching/learning dynamic wrings out its essence and renders it a reductio ad absurdum. Over the past several years, then, the case for constructivist classrooms has been strengthened and also has become more acute…Engagement in meaningful work, initiated and mediated by skillful teachers, is the only high road to real thinking and learning.” (p. x)

The authors could not have been more prescient in their framing of the present debate surrounding student learning, testing, and the broader standardized reform movement.

When Finland shocked the world by topping the PISA charts in 2000 and again in 2009, journalists and educators sought the advice of Pasi Sahlberg, then the Finnish Minister of Education.“What made Finnish kids ‘the smartest in the world’?”, they wondered. Sahlberg’s response surprised many observers: “We prepare children to learn how to learn, not how to take a test. We are not much interested in PISA. It’s not what we are about.”

“We prepare children to learn how to learn, not how to take a test. We are not much interested in PISA. It’s not what we are about.”

As journalist Amanda Ripley noted in her observations and comparison between the schools systems of Finland and the United States in “The Smartest Kids in the World: And How They Got That Way”: “The more time I spent in Finland, the more I started to worry that the reforms sweeping across the United States had the equation backwards. We were trying to reverse engineer a high-performance teaching culture through dazzlingly complex performance evaluations and value-added data analysis.”

Well, what are we about? Do we recognize that “teaching and learning are complicated, labyrinthine processes filled with dead ends, false positives, contradictions, multiple truths, and a great deal of confusion”? If that’s the case, it seems unreasonable that we should adopt “value-added data analysis” measures for teachers or distill student performance down to any single set of assessments. Are we preparing children to “learn how to learn” or “preparing them to take a test”? The purpose of school is really a suite of values that influences its structure and shapes the way students are viewed inside its overlapping systems; its a set of questions that we are or are not allowed to ask about what is important and what evidence is acceptable to demonstrate that we are living our purpose. As our authors point out:

“ Schools throughout America are filled with…students who have been acculturated to devalue thinking, to feel uneasy about in­-depth analysis, and to view anything other than rapid coverage of the curriculum as wasting time. These students are frequently successful in school. They study, complete their assignments, pass their tests, and receive good grades. Yet, these are not meaningful victories. They are the victories of form over substance, of superficiality over engagement, of coverage over depth.” (pg 119–120)
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Pictured: A pencil and ruler.

Weighing the challenges facing our students today along with the seeming futility of raising test scores, it should be clear that chasing traditional measures has not just failed us at great cost but also distracted us from what matters in education, and it’s time we stop comparing ourselves to other nations if we are to start building an educational system that serves everyone. For 30 years we’ve put teachers and students into narrow, standardized boxes with very little to show for it. So how can “The Case for Constructivism” actually help us blur the supposedly defined edges of today’s educational debates around “effectiveness”, “outcomes”, and “what works”? How can oft misunderstood and maligned constructivist-informed classroom practices support human-centered pedagogy, and what would it benefit us all to do so?

“It sounds like a simple proposition: we construct our own understandings of the world in which we live” (pg. 4)

To begin, it’s important to understand that the part-to-whole value system of school designed to support what the authors call “mimetic” thinking is not the same as one that supports a deep, conceptual whole-to-part understanding. “If students can be trained to repeat specific procedures and chunks of information,” they write, “then they are viewed as ‘having learned’” (pg. 16). In a mimetic classroom, those students who can best imitate understanding by committing disconnected chunks of information to short-term memory and repeating them back on test day are rewarded with praise and grades. Assessment is as separate from teaching as it is from learning and it’s expected that these isolated, individual performances are where students are to show their understanding. However, in a constructivist space student learning is an ongoing process, a conversation weaving together formal and informal assessment, observation, and feedback to help learners “internalize and reshape, or transform, new information” (pg. 15). Drawing on the work of Jackson and Gardner, our authors write that “deep understanding occurs when the presence of new information prompts the emergence or enhancement of cognitive structures that enable us to rethink our prior ideas” (pg. 15); or more simply, when students have demonstrated a change in their behavior as the result of the change in their thinking.

“Differentiating between teaching and assessment is both unnecessary and counterproductive” (pg. 97). It is this focus on learning as a continual, learner-centered process rather than a collection of mimetic performance events which distinguishes constructivist teaching from traditional practice, and — it turns out — is better for learning as“emphasis on performance usually results in little recall of concepts over time, while emphasis on learning generates long-term understanding.” Capturing learning as a process usually leads informed adults to seek a range of qualitative and quantitative sources in determining student progress, and rarely for the sole purpose of assigning a grade, recognizing that the cognitive structure of each student is perfectly unique and influenced by too many variables to be precisely distilled into a particular number out of one hundred. Instead, constructivist teachers work alongside students to help curate a representative sample of their performance and progress over time to give otherwise hidden cognitive processes shape and form outside the brain. We usually give this kind of alchemy a banal name like a portfolio, but the power of holding a curated and cultivated volume of student work and reflections cannot be underestimated. It makes learning self-evident.

“By using assessment as a tool in service to the learner, rather than as an accountability device and not as a teacher effectiveness measure, teachers can begin to rethink the dynamic relationship between teaching and assessment.” (pg. 88)

By honoring learning as an imperfect yet ongoing process under constant revision, these approaches are sometimes perceived as messy, and that messiness — while honest — is frequently used to argue against constructivist methods of instruction and assessment. However, a mimetic approach to education is as dishonest as constructivism is messy, and it is far easier to sublimate the idiosyncratic cognitive structures of our children into a number that can more readily be understood, and therefore managed, by those most distant from them. Brooks and Brooks write that “the mimetic approach to education is too compelling for many educators to give up. It is amenable to easily performed and widely accepted measurement, management, and accountability procedures. This approach has long dominated educational thinking, and, therefore, policymaking.” (pg, 16)

Further, when students are acknowledged as active constructors and given the appropriate autonomy to “follow trails of interest, to make connections, to reformulate new ideas, and to reach unique conclusions”, many of the elaborate behaviorist incentives that are used to manage learning become unnecessary and the strict disciplinary silos we use to divide content become irrelevant.

“Designing, thinking, changing, evaluating — most particularly in response to a felt need — create interest and energy”, and that interest and energy is the fuel of additional learning. Brooks and Brooks argue that learners finding their own problems, rather than just answering the same problems posed to all students by a teacher, not only engenders greater energy and interest but also fosters commitment and engagement with the world outside of school: “Coming to know one’s world is a function of caring about one’s world. Caring about one’s world is fostered by communities of learners involved in trying to answer similar, but not necessarily identical, problems. The energy necessary for construction of problem solutions demands commitment. Commitment, in turn, emanates from construction.” (pg. 30)

This might be the most fundamental aspect of constructivist classrooms: adults modeling for children that learning is not merely a schoolhouse collection of correct answers but that the world itself is full of complex problems with multiple perspectives and interpretations that merit our thoughtful consideration. Accessing and iterating on those problems is an education in itself and will necessarily lead to learning even if, as many adults find out far too late, they don’t always lead to clear answers. And these are often the problems most worth pursuing:

Every day, millions of students enter school wanting to learn, hoping to be stimulated, engaged, and treated well, and hoping to find meaning in what they do. And every day that we, as educators, stimulate and challenge our students to focus their minds on meaningful tasks, to think about important issues, and to construct new understandings of their world, we — and they — achieve meaningful victory.” (pg 119–120)
Nick Covington
Nick taught social studies for 10 years in Iowa and has worked as a labor organizer. He is currently the Creative Director at the Human Restoration Project.
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