Education Philosophy Becomes Practice


Over the past hundred years Constructivists and Traditionalists have enjoyed an uneasy truce in the world of education practitioners.  Constructivism "says that people construct their own understanding and knowledge of the world, through experiencing things and reflecting on those experiences." []  Traditionalists were more influenced by the "scientific management" of Taylorism, seeing schools on the industry model. Schools are factories with inputs, throughputs  and outputs.  The compromise between the two:  educators would agree that Constructivism was true, but would act as if it were not.

Yes, it made sense as a model to discuss how learners “construct” knowledge” rather than “acquire” it. Of course, any teacher would say, students learn at different rates, in different ways, and according to their circumstance. But it was so impractical – hordes of students operating according to their individual motivations. Who can afford that?  And how are you going to track progress?  How will you know if you are getting your money’s worth from your schools?

Since John Dewey's Democracy and Education educators have worked to bring Constructivist ideas into the classroom. Rockford College philosopher Stephen Hicks explains the core of pragmatist education, which evolved into Constructivism.

The dominant Traditionalist paradigm treats schools like factories which should strive for efficiency and be able to match costs to outputs in a way that would please taxpayers and school boards. “And, by the way,” said the traditionalists, “most tax payers and school boards are traditionalist.”  Yes, there were progressive, Constructivist experiments but the results of these experiments were inconclusive. Traditionalists argued that this proved that Constructivism was valueless. Constructivists argued that a few pockets of progressive practice couldn't possibly survive or thrive within a traditionalist system.

But what if the practice spread through the system? What if, instead of operating in spite of the system, constructivist practice was supported and encouraged by the system? That may be happening.

Constructivists are rising. The argument for a constructivist approach to education has become ubiquitous and compelling, and the ethical dudgeon has been raised high. Last month in San Diego, representatives of the Education Departments of eleven states gathered as members of the Innovation Lab Network in order to plan their state’s move toward constructivism in the form of competency-based/learner-centered education. This is a direct challenge to the national education regime and its No Child Left Behind tendencies.

At the opening, the conferees accepted key constructivist ideas as given:

1) Learning occurs best when the student is self-directed and engaged,
2) Context and motivation are profound influences on a student’s potential learning,
3) Knowledge is socially constructed, and no teacher could possibly “know” what their student knows – especially not through pencil and paper tests,
4) Teachers act as coaches or facilitators of learning, rather than as experts "filling empty vessels,"
5) Curriculum, instruction, and assessment can all be designed and executed in a way that takes all of these truths into account and allow authentic learning to occur.
6) Most importantly, because of advances in technology – laptops, iPads, etc. – enacting a constructivist vision is not only possible, it’s practical.

Education consultant Robert Marzano has been promoting this vision through research and advocacy for over a decade, as have Linda Darling-Hammond and others. Bea McGarvey and Chuck Schwahn, in their slim but influential book, Inevitable:  Mass Customized Learning in the Age of Empowerment (2012), amplify the idea that the pragmatic, constructivist vision of education is now possible.  (And by “possible” they mean, “affordable.”) The key, according to McGarvey and Schwahn – whose book leans very heavily towards advocacy and practice, rather than philosophy – is that technology has increased profoundly a school’s ability to manage the massive amounts of information produced in a truly constructivist classroom, with each learner having their own learning plans, their own measures, and their own schedules. Here's McGarvey:

Being able to monitor this amount of data to track students assuages the great fear of constructivist education – i.e., that the classroom will devolve into a Rousseauian state of nature . It allows the student to plan their own paths and find their own resources. It allows the teacher to respond to student needs individually, rather than in crowds. And it allows the district to document learner growth for purposes of accountability to the state, federal government, and taxpayers. (It also, by the way, gives the learner access to more resources than one could possibly have imagined, even ten years ago.)

Thus, because technology has eased the logistical condition of education, we see a shift in the philosophical condition of education. We see constructivist philosophy gaining in “cash value.” In Maine, for example, 50% of all school districts have committed to shifting towards proficiency-based/learner-centered education, and the legislature passed a law a requirement for proficiency-based diplomas. Kentucky, Wisconsin, and Oregon are taking similar steps. It’s no longer a subversive philosophy used to push back against an over-bearing, bureaucratic system.  Rather it is coming to define the system.

Gary Chapin


  1. Charlie Maddaus says

    Nice summary of the Traditionalist vs Constructivist positions. Too bad its swinging so far in the latter camp. Technology provides a patina of progress for those that believe that 21st century learning is that much different. I sat through a 6+ hour session with Bea McGarvey last week which will forever in my memory be termed–as one colleague alluding to Seinfeld suggested–the Workshop About Nothing. Inevitable is full outdated assumptions and false equivalencies and based solely on some of Marzano’s work, but where is the working model that’s any better than a traditional program? There is none. As is generally the case, a balanced approach makes the most sense. Hopefully, the pendulum will swing back before too much damage is done!

  2. Profile photo of Daniel Cole says


    Thanks for this post, it was very informative. I hope you write more on this topic. I really hope we get to read some Postman together at some point, since you’ve obviously got enormous experience here. Personally, I’m very much a fan of competency education. I think it’s exactly the kind of thing that would’ve made me a better student when I was in school, and benefitted me in a lot of other ways as well. That said, I have a lot of reservations about moving to the technology dominated configuration as described in chapter two of Inevitable. It’s quotes like this that alarm me –

    “We (Chuck and Bea) are not futurists. We are “trend-trackers.” There is a big difference between the two.”

    I think any educational system that’s going to stay relevant does need to negotiate with powerful trends, but it needs to be able to do so without becoming beholden to them entirely. After all, schools are our number one trend setters as well. They are our best shot at creating a common public, however disparate its parts. If schools become primarily focused on an accommodation of such trends then it seems only a matter of time before the forces behind those trends just decide to eliminate the middle man.

    Given this, I can see how some might interpret this method of “customizing” of education as a partial privatizing of it. Would the technology based constructivist approach essentially be enrolling all students in the U.S. in ItunesU? It would be a cruel twist of fate if Apple or Amazon decided to “leapfrog” schools themselves by providing a snazzier platform for the author’s suggestions than the government could commission. I suspect some people might argue that they’ve got more than a toe dipped in these waters already.

    Then there are the technologies themselves. This reminds me of a blog I just read by Nicholas Carr ( on the difference between platforms and tools, which I think has some relevance here. The textbook industry is certainly not without it’s own controversy, but the books themselves are much more passive sources of information, more like tools you could say, than an ipad or computer, which is much more environmental and assertive. While they don’t have the benefits of interactive media, they also present none of the usual concerns involved with large scale data collection, such as privacy, transparency, consent, etc.

    I also wonder if students who begin to specialize or customize so much earlier than they do now will not be punished all the more should the decide to change directions or their minds further down the road. It might be difficult to tell what adversity is a true hindrance and what is long-run beneficial for growth and confidence boosting.

    I’m going to put Inevitable on my reading list, but if you have any other reading suggestions for a deeper look at this stuff I’d be interested.

    • Profile photo of Gary Chapin says

      Daniel asked for book recommendations: one of the best introductions to this topic is Ken O’Conner’s “A Repair Kit for Grading: 15 Fixes For Broken Grades.” It’s a very readable book that uses a specific thing (the grade book) that we’ve all had experiences with to illuminate the larger issues. So it’s simultaneously grounded and big picture. I’ve heard Ken speak a number of times, a very unassuming guy, not specifically connected to any of the folks mentioned in this post.

      Another great book which may be the “deeper” that you’re after is by Rick Wormeli, “Fair Isn’t Always Equal.” The premise is that individual kids have individual needs, and some kids will require different/more/more expensive attentions than others.

      • Profile photo of Daniel Cole says

        Thanks, I’m going to look into those as well.

        For the record, I’m definitely in agreement with you that something needs to change with the traditional approach. At least in my city (Memphis) it’s not working for a vast majority of students. In fact, for us, even this debate would be far too high brow considering the way things have been going the last few years. The city and the ‘burbs have been at war, culminating in the city deciding to dissolve it’s school district in order to force the county to take control and help fund schools, which they are still trying to fight their way out of doing, while the students are the hot potato no one wants to get stuck with.

        • Profile photo of Gary Chapin says

          One of the things I’ve discovered is that there are a number of dimensions to education. You have to tend to all of them. I use the four from Bolman and Deal (Reframing Organizations). They are

          1) Structure (policy, physical plant, finance, etc.)
          2) Human resources (the individual, psychological and emotional needs of the humans involved.
          3) Politics (distribution of resources, alliances, etc.)
          4) Symbolic (what does school *mean* to different people, includes ed theory)

          A good system will dance with all four of these frames gracefully and simultaneously.

  3. Profile photo of Gary Chapin says

    Charlie, I’m not sure what outdated assumptions you are talking about, or what “false equivalencies.” Are you talking about the author’s analogizing schools to Amazon or iTunes? Saying, essentially, “If they can customize, then so can we.” I don’t see that as an equivalency, but as an analogy (dis-alike things that are alike in some salient way).

    Daniel, I won’t have to be asked twice to join in on a Postman discussion. Possibly he was the first public intellectual I ever read, and the beginning of my philosophical journey. I remember giving a lecture to a Masters of Education class on TEACHING IS A SUBVERSIVE ACTIVITY and TEACHING IS A CONSERVING ACTIVITY, two of his early books based on similar premises, but following them to different places. It was interesting to watch as opposite members of the class were inspired by one book and appalled by the other (and vice versa).

    When I think of technology in education, I very much have in mind Postman’s question, “What is the problem for which this is the solution?” I think I have an answer to that. The best schools are graduating only 80% of their kids proficient in math, reading, and writing. Most schools hover around the national average of around 45%. The traditional system has gotten as far as it can with our progressive tweaks, and some fundamental aspects of that system (averaging grades, for example) present barriers towards student improvement. The constructivist approach posits some responses to this, but the data management requirements of constructivism are so odious that only now, with easily usable computing, can we implement those systemic responses. I am suspicious, like you, though. I know that every new technology biases certain options over others, and raises a new priesthood. That’s not an argument against new technology, though, just an argument for vigilance. I think, in Maine anyway, after the first flush of excitement, we’re trying very hard to make sure it’s the dog wagging the tail.

    Wayne, I agree. I love Not School, and feel like, in the Constructivist model participation in Not School could be made to “count” towards “credit.” But Not School is different from public ed in two important ways (among many others). First, attendance in school is compulsory. Second, because of that, schools have a moral imperative, as much as possible, to reach every kid. Public schools can’t just be institutions for the compliant and able … we require every kid to attend, we are required to reach every kid.

    • Profile photo of Gary Chapin says

      That is interesting. I hadn’t heard of Vygotsky. Constructivist theory in different realms — education, social science, research — has different flavors, different emphases, but they all are based on the core epistemological idea that knowledge is constructed, rather than acquired.

  4. Shukri Rashid says

    Based on my experience in the classroom, traditionalism works with small doses of constructivism. Many of my students (I teach 10th grade AP and World History) seem to enjoy the traditionalist method because it offers structure, clear material, and it leads to in depth discussion when the students are engaged. I typically survey my students at the end of each school year about what they liked and disliked, and the answers are consistently in favor of traditionalism. Of course, some students love the student-centered projects, but that is a rarity. I was a big proponent of constructivism when I first started teaching 6 years ago, but I found the “student-centered” approach to be impractical because it led to socializing, and quite frankly, most of the students lack the discipline to learn in such an environment. Lastly, I believe the emphasis on the student is a critique of the teacher as the rightful expert. I have no problem claiming expertise because I have studied my subject for years, like a lawyer, doctor, or engineer. So, what’s wrong with the teacher being the expert? It seems like a basic fact.

    • Profile photo of Daniel Cole says

      I’m curious about what you said about socializing. Do you feel that this reaction is due entirely to a lack of discipline or could it also be provoked by the solitary nature of a more individualized learning path that lacks the dialogue and human interaction of a traditional class structure?

      • Shukri Rashid says

        Why do students socialize? That’s a good question. I think there are many reasons, but it seems like most are simply too tempted to focus on the task at hand when they are in a group because it’s more enjoyable to talk about sports, pop culture, etc. with your buddy. I also would like to add that I have 204 students and 85 are AP, so I typically teach to the student who is not classified as advanced. I agree that there are many ways to learn and I incorporate lots of discussion and technology in my classroom. However, one simply cannot teach a classroom of 40 plus students with group work-it simply leads to chaos. I have witnessed young teachers leave the profession because of the inability to manage the classroom, and in my opinion one reason is the Constructivism that is taught in many credential programs ignores the many management challenges that comes with group work. Do some students learn in the ideal constructivist environment? Sure. My point is simply that it’s overly emphasized and many students enjoy the traditional style. Many individualized plans (for students with IEP’s) actually call for a quiet environment, and that’s another challenge under constructivism.

        • Profile photo of Gary Chapin says

          I would just ask you to examine what’s hidden in the word “simply” when you say “one simply cannot teach a classroom of 40.” It may be true, but if it is, then it is for a reason … not “simply.” Class sizes of 40 are not an immutable reality … Maine has much smaller class sizes, and we are by no means a wealthy state.

          All of the benefits of a traditional system (lecture, linear progression, etc.) can be contained in a constructivist/customized setting, but the reverse is not true.

    • Profile photo of Gary Chapin says

      I have a feeling that you and I are operative from very different assumptions about what teaching and learning is. For example, as much as I value expertise in my field (originally social studies), I think my real expertise should be in learning. There’s nothing wrong with a teacher being the expert in that. And while a self-selected group of students “enjoy” the AP model of pedagogy — where they sit-n-git while you are the sage on the stage — many many studies show that many kids learn in many different ways. So, for kids who the current system works for, I’m pleased … you can still get lectures in a constructivist setting. But what are traditionalist teachers doing for the kids it doesn’t work for. Lecturing at them louder? Leaving it to them to figure out how to work in your system of teaching? Failing them and saying, “Guess they couldn’t cut it. Good thing we sorted them to the right track.” The reason the student is primary over the teacher is because the locus of the experience is in the learner. Learning can happen without teaching. But if you are teaching and the kid isn’t learning, then you aren’t actually teaching.

      The blog entry ties the current movement to constructivism, but it isn’t Dewey’s constructivism in pure form, and it isn’t the chaotic pit that Russell experienced and that Rousseau craved. See Because some level of accountability is required (both ethically and by law), teachers act as coaches, grouping kids, organizing materials, facilitating learning … rather than just projecting their expertise in the general direction of the student and being content that only 60% of kids end up proficient.

      I fundamentally disagree most, though, with the idea that constructivist thought leads to isolation because it is individualistic. The states promoting this generally have a three tiered model: Content & Skills, Critical Thinking, and 21st Century Skills (affective domains of learning, teamwork, engagement, etc.) This is explicit, for example, in the legislation in Maine. Further, with teachers acting as coaches, kids are grouped and regrouped according to shared needs. It is a much more profoundly interactive way of doing things than the traditionalist model. I don’t see how the traditional school system — in which talking about the test is cheating (rather than collaborating, as in the real world), and in which students spend their day in commanded silence — is considered a model of social development.

      • Profile photo of Daniel Cole says

        I’d say that’s a very good point in your last paragraph. I went to Memphis public schools throughout my education. As a teenager, I also had a few brief vacations to juvenile detention. There was not a lot of difference between the two, other than that jail was colder and had slightly more television.

  5. Profile photo of Simon Borrington says

    Hi Gary.
    Very interesting read, thankyou.
    I work in secondary education in the UK and at the moment our minister for education is hoiking us back to the 1950’s. The man is an absolute arrogant utter fuckwit – but that’s another story.
    I like the constructivist approach – but something that I would like to see greater emphasis upon, whilst recognising the imperative for individualised learning programmes based around the child’s needs and learning methods, is more of a focus on the social aspect of knowledge acquisition (which was very much at the heart of Dewey’s approach to learning). If the learning programme is too individualised and dependent upon interaction with technology rather than other learners, it could be a worry that this hugely important aspect (perhaps the most important aspect at this developmental stage) might get misplaced.
    Any views on that?

    All the best.

    • Profile photo of Gary Chapin says

      Simon, as I wrote above, the model developing in the states is profoundly social. Even individual projects, like this senior capstone ( For this project (which takes about four months) students choose the focus of their project, work with an in-school mentor, and with an out-of-school mentor (and expert in the field they’ve decided to focus on). Students work with each other, workshopping their research plan, and work together in writing groups. It’s much deeper than the stereotype.

      And every kid at the school does this project — every level of achievement and disability. Every kid.

  6. says

    Issues related to the philosophy of education are very much alive for me, and actually too much of my free time is occupied with how to put a sound educational philosophy into practice; I’m an English professor at a university in Korea. Regarding the constructivist tenets you enumerated, the second tenet is kind of the problematic hinge on which everything related to education swings. Related to (2), and what could be extrapolated from it, is that if students are not in a context in which learning is viewed as an activity that is self-directed or if students are not sufficiently motivated, then it makes it very difficult to maintain the other tenets.

    To be more concrete, in the classroom I try to do activities and games that allow for meaningful communication using the English language. The students, however, more often than not, do not take these games seriously, as it were. I also try to give tests that allow for meaningful expression in English, which consist of some combination of a pair dialogue and a kind of casual interview with me. Several of the students say they want to learn English for conversational purposes but several of those same students are not willing to engage in activites that will elicit conversational English. The students are more comfortable with rote learning and paper tests. But of course rote learning and paper tests will not give them the ability to speak English.

    What to do in a context like this is very difficult. One teacher I know recommends that since the expectation among several of the students is that there is no reason to study for something unless it will be assessed formally in a test perhaps it is better than just to micromanage and turn all the speaking activities for any given day into a test, that is, to assign them a specific grade for that day’s performance. I have not implemented this system but I think he might be right. For too large a proportion of the students I encounter, that proportion acts as if and would sometimes actively regard itself not as self-directed but instead assume that the teacher knows everything, think the job of the teacher is to fill heads with Knowledge, and that proportion would only study for purposes of formal tests not for informal evaluations or for the intrinsic value of learning.

    • Profile photo of Gary Chapin says

      It is interesting that in your situation constructivist tenets (2) are affirmed, but the quality of those tenets (the context in which the education is happening) undermines constructivist practice. I think your solution is an excellent one, given the context. Kids come to us as they are, and we have to use our expertise and imagination to respond. If I can be trite for a moment: “I can’t change the direction of the wind, but I can adjust my sails.”

  7. Profile photo of Khary Tafari Robertson says

    Hi guys,

    This is a discussion that deserves national attention in my opinion, and you guys have brought great points to bare that ever educator could learn from. I began thinking more about this after i saw this clip which lead to much further study. I hope this is as inspirational to you as it was to me

    • Profile photo of Gary Chapin says

      I didn’t know John Hunter, thanks for that. I do know Ken Robinson, and might even be considered a fanboi. That’s a great clip. When I was a curriculum director, I showed it to my school board to great effect.

  8. Roy Spence says

    I too would like to thank you for this post. Salman Khan has developed an extensive on-line learning apparatus based on videos, exercises and teacher oversight ( These are mostly on K-12 mathematics and physics. There are many videos by Sal Khan explaining the purpose of Khan Academy, and how this operates in a classroom. Does this approach satisfy the constructivist ideas given at the Innovation Lab Network conference? On a related matter, the approach by Sal Khan is very different than the passive on-line university courses.

    • Profile photo of Gary Chapin says

      Sal Khan’s approach, to me, works wonderfully in a constructivist system. Yes, it has a structure that seems traditional … it focuses on rote learning, practice, and has a sit-n-git flavor to it (it isn’t genuinely collaborative), but there are times when that specific type of approach is needed, and within a larger constructivist system, pockets of traditional methods (lectures, for example), are completely valid. The fact that a student can choose how and when to access Khan, the fact that one looks to access Khan at specific points determined by the specific needs of individual students is entirely within the constructivist spirit. And, it’s a case of technology bearing the logistical weight (individualized instruction) of a constructivist ideal.

  9. Benjamin Doxtdator says

    Hi everyone,

    Just a few questions.
    Philosophically, I am a constructivist (ontologically and epistemologically). My heroes include Darwin, Barry Allen, Rorty, Dewey and James, Derrida, Foucault, Ian Hacking, Donald Davidson, and Bruno Latour (notice the absence of Piaget). However, when I read the educational literature by ‘constructivists’, I am not sure that I understand what they mean (this is supposed to be a nice way of saying ‘this makes no sense’).

    – Are the 6 “key constructivist ideas” a quotation from the conference proceedings?

    “1) Learning occurs best when the student is self-directed and engaged,”

    – What would ‘self-directed’ be contrasted with? What would contrast that look like in practice?

    “3) Knowledge is socially constructed, and no teacher could possibly “know” what their student knows – especially not through pencil and paper tests,”
    – If knowledge is socially constructed (as Rorty would agree it is, though many constructivists, such as Bruno Latour, would object to the adjective ‘social’) then what exactly is that supposed to imply about the psychology of learning? What do individual learners construct their knowledge out of?
    – Why does “know” appear in scare quotes (and only once)? Do we have no intersubjective access to each other’s constructions? Why not solipsism then?
    – If teachers can’t “know” what students know, then how could we possibly “know” that they are self-directed or engaged (or “know” how to facilitate their engagement)? I would assume that differentiation would entail that I know where my various students are at and that I then meet them there. If I can’t “know” that, then what can I know? Why should we go back down the path of skepticism about knowledge?

    “4) Teachers act as coaches or facilitators of learning, rather than as experts “filling empty vessels,””
    – Strawperson: no one believes that students are “empty vessels”. Why not say that “teachers act as experts to help students construct new knowledge based on what they already know”?
    – Is the implication that teachers are not supposed to be experts? I am sure that we would expect someone leading a graduate course on calculus to be an expert. At what point, moving backwards through the grades, would we stop expecting teachers to have expertise? Why?

    hoping for philosophical discussion,

    • Benjamin Doxtdator says

      Sorry, typo. under 1)

      What would ‘self-directed’ be contrasted with? *What would that look like in practice?

  10. Profile photo of Gary Chapin says

    Hello, Benjamin, will you think less of me if I tell you that when I read your list of heroes and saw “Barry Allen” my first thought was, “The Flash? The Flash is a constructivist?” Okay … sorry, it was a late night. Addressing your points:

    – Are the 6 “key constructivist ideas” a quotation from the conference proceedings?

    No, these are what I construe as six key constructivist ideas that I heard reflected in the talks and presentations at the conference. They were explicitly referenced, but never in this list form.

    “1) Learning occurs best when the student is self-directed and engaged,”

    – What would ‘self-directed’ be contrasted with? What would contrast that look like in practice?

    ‘Self-directed’ (student-directed) is contrasted with ‘teacher-directed’ or ‘school-directed.’ The general theory of constructivist thought is that there is a spectrum of agency that can be achieved, and that the further you move towards student-directed (learner-centered, as it’s referred to currently), the better off the student will be. That’s the thesis of Inevitable. The argument in the field is that there’s actually a sweet spot between the two. We know that people learn best when intrinsically motivated, but we also know that society has an interest in determining a minimum set of standards that ever kid ought to be able to master. Finding the sweet spot is the challenge. What does it look like in practice? It could be Montessori schools. It could be unschooling. In the public school settings that I’m studying ( it looks like a conversation between teacher and student where the standard is set and the student and teacher together figure out how the student will meet and demonstrate achievement of that standard.

    “3) Knowledge is socially constructed, and no teacher could possibly “know” what their student knows – especially not through pencil and paper tests,”
    – If knowledge is socially constructed … then what exactly is that supposed to imply about the psychology of learning? What do individual learners construct their knowledge out of?

    What does it imply about the psychology of learning … a huge question. What is knowledge constructed of? Past knowledge? Experience? William James might say “pure experience.” I’ll give some consideration to these questions.

    – Why does “know” appear in scare quotes (and only once)? Do we have no intersubjective access to each other’s constructions? Why not solipsism then?

    I put “know” in scare quotes because I think it’s a given, for the PEL audience, that one can never know entirely the contents of another’s mind (if, indeed there is such a thing). So, the quotes mark it as a questioned term that I don’t want to address for the purposes of this post. The other reason for the scare quotes, though, is that “know” implies certainty, and in teaching/learning situations I don’t think certainty is warranted.

    – If teachers can’t “know” what students know, then how could we possibly “know” that they are self-directed or engaged (or “know” how to facilitate their engagement)? I would assume that differentiation would entail that I know where my various students are at and that I then meet them there. If I can’t “know” that, then what can I know? Why should we go back down the path of skepticism about knowledge?

    As teachers, I’m not sure we should go down that path in an ideological way. But as a way of flagging the inevitable imperfection of our knowledge about student achievement, we’re required to. It’s a matter of pedagogical ethics. Every teacher I know — and it happened to me — has had the experience of assessing a kid, coming to a conclusion about their knowledge, and then finding out that they were completely wrong. Why did the kid do bad on the test? Because they didn’t know the knowledge? Maybe. Perhaps because they weren’t willing to demonstrate the knowledge? Perhaps because they were distracted? Perhaps because they were hungry? If any of these other conditions are true (along with untold others, like, for example, “her friends were just arrested with pot”), then the assessment does not demonstrate knowledge, and acting as if it does (putting the grade in a book and reporting it out as achievement) is a lie. David Buchanan, I believe, used the phrase “epistemological humbleness.” Thus, we must always acknowledge that what we think we know, we may not know.

    Again, James and Pragmatism address this well.

    “4) Teachers act as coaches or facilitators of learning, rather than as experts “filling empty vessels,””
    – Strawperson: no one believes that students are “empty vessels”. Why not say that “teachers act as experts to help students construct new knowledge based on what they already know”?

    I know that no one expresses belief in the empty vessel model, but the opening thesis of this piece is that schools express one set of beliefs (close to constructivist), but the structures of schools enact another set of beliefs. The phrase “empty vessel” (in scare quotes) is code for the factory model of schooling, in which, students enter dumb, are acted upon, and leave smart. It is overly simplified, but as a signifier, I don’t think it’s a strawman.

    – Is the implication that teachers are not supposed to be experts? I am sure that we would expect someone leading a graduate course on calculus to be an expert. At what point, moving backwards through the grades, would we stop expecting teachers to have expertise? Why?

    This is not the implication, and this may be your strawman. I expect a graduate level teacher to be an expert in their subject area AND in facilitating learning. Moreover, I think a good teacher with weaker expertise is far more powerful for the learner than a poor teacher with strong expertise. The implication is that a physics teacher’s expertise in physics is secondary to their expertise in facilitating learning.

    hoping for philosophical discussion,

    Perhaps I’ve obliged?

    • Benjamin Doxtdator says

      Gary, you have certainly obliged. Thank you for your very thoughtful and patient response. It’s funny. I had never heard of the Flash’s real identity until long after I was acquainted with Barry Allen’s philosophy. I am passionate about education and philosophy and can tell that you are as well. I think that if constructivists construct clearer and more nuanced statements of their principles, then it will make implementation easier. The lack of clarity is what I was trying to draw attention to in my questions.

      I understand that many teachers, schools, and boards profess to be constructivist, while at the same time not actually implementing constructivism in their schools and classroom. However, given they way that constructivsts have framed the debate, who would want to argue that we need more ‘drill and kill’? In at least some sense, constructivism has exerted a powerful influence: constructivists have successfully set the terms for the debate. My worry is that those terms are murky, equivocated upon, and have solidified into a consensus that prevents critical questioning and dissent.

      In 1956 Brownell wrote about the way that the meaningful math movement had misrepresented their stance on the necessity of teaching computational skills. Many inferred that teaching computational skills was no longer on the agenda. “I am sure that all, if asked, would have rejected this notion completely. But we may not have said so, or said so often enough or vigorously enough. Our comparative silence on this score may easily have been misconstrued to imply indifference about proficiency in computation. ….It is characteristic of education movements to behave pendulum-wise. When we correct, we tend to over-correct.” (Brownell, Meaning and Skill – Maintaining the Balance, 1956).

      I see many instantiations of this over-correction in the constructivist literature. A perfect illustration of this is the claim that “Learning occurs best when the student is self-directed and engaged.” The position sounds exciting and new, but the statement is misleading and polemical. When the position is actually explained, it contains important hedges and qualifications. It could easily be re-written as “Learning occurs best when there is a well-planned curriculum that focuses on teaching students to be self directed. Students learn best when they are intrinsically motivated.” This is a clearer statement that would bring focus to what needs to be done, but it sounds less like it is uniquely constructivist.

      Along with over-correction, there is a general lack of clarity in educational writing and it stems from two facts. First, the educational literature is so overwhelmingly isolated from related disciplines. Second, there is a lack of critical and challenging dialog. In contrast, look at the literature that spans philosophy, cognitive science, psychology, and neuroscience. There is vigorous debate about nativism, concepts, and computation that makes use of genuine research studies, something that is missing in much of the educational literature (See John Mighton, The End of Ignorance). Jerry Fodor’s writing on cognition is a good example real interdisciplinary concern. He has biologists responding to issues regarding Darwin and genes, and philosophers with backgrounds in cognitive science responding to issues about concepts and compositionality. Vigorous debate is often seen in philosophy and cognitive science journals and they will frequently contain articles that have a series of responses and sustained critical dialog.

      Because of the lack of genuine debate, constructivist language is riddled with false dichotomies and oversimplifications that would otherwise have been sorted out. It may seem like a strawperson argument when I question whether or not constructivists believe that teachers need to be experts. However, when you say that teachers will act as ‘facilitators of learning, rather than as experts ‘filling empty vessels’, I think that it does set up a false dichotomy that encourages the reader to see everything to the right of the comma as representing what we do not want in education. It should go without saying that when we talk about what we want to avoid in education, we should avoid misleading oversimplifications such as “empty vessels”. These simply are a stumbling block to clarity and productive debate.

      On this issue of teacher expertise, you seem to say that teachers do not need content expertise. You say that “…I think a good teacher with weaker expertise is far more powerful for the learner than a poor teacher with strong expertise. The implication is that a physics teacher’s expertise in physics is secondary to their expertise in facilitating learning.” I have no idea how to answer the question of which is more important, pedagogical or subject knowledge. And I don’t think we should have to choose. John Hattie has found that feedback has one of the largest effects on learning ( That is hard to do without subject expertise. Or without pedagogical expertise. What I see in the constructivist literature is an emphasis on pedagogical expertise to the detriment of subject expertise. I suppose that sells well and is easy to implement in weekend workshops. There are also larger structural issues here. The ‘pedagogy knowledge is more important’ position would also be popular amongst school boards and administrators. To hire subject experts would mean paying them commensurate to their education and making the field attractive to those who, given their intelligence and education, have many options. Alternatively, boards could help current teachers acquire more subject knowledge.

      If a math teacher does not themselves have deep content knowledge about why the multiplication of two negatives equals a positive or why we ‘invert and multiply’, then how well can they facilitate learning and give feedback? Obviously, the same goes for teachers of literature. Of Shakespeare’s 154 sonnets, which ones would make a good introduction to teaching Romeo and Juliet? Which ones could we compare and contrast to understand how Shakespeare was innovating within genre? The role of expertise is not merely so that teachers can explain things to students, but more importantly so that teachers can plan and guide inquiry. To use an analogy with another professional domain, I expect doctors to know a lot about medicine AND be good with people. Similarly, I expect teachers have deep content knowledge and pedagogical knowledge.

      As far as pedagogical knowledge goes, constructivism wants to start with a Piagetian theory of knowledge and then develop a theory of teaching. However, the underlying Piagetian theory is deeply flawed and exists in nearly complete isolation from other disciplines (psychology, philosophy, cognitive science). In their writings constructivists never substantively deal with mainstream analytic or continental philosophy and its epistemological concerns, and mainstream philosophy and cognitive science ignore educational constructivists too. Neither of these is necessarily an indictment, however when the two are put together, it indicates that educational constructivists are missing out on the broad contexts. As a start, constructivists should give up on the over-reliance on Piaget’s ideas, or at least deal with the fact that “many of his specific claims have been seriously questioned.” (Anderson, Reder, and Simon Yet, these challenges are never dealt with in the constructivist literature.

      Educational constructivists are also highly isolated from philosophy and this means that they miss out on important ideas in epistemology. For example von Glaserfeld in Constructivism: Theory, Perspectives, and Practice (Fosnot, 2005 p 4-7) writes that”…in Piaget’s constructivist theory one cannot draw conclusions about the character of the real world from an organism’s adaptedness or the viability of schemes of action.” These are exactly the anxieties about whether or not our experiences mirrors nature that philosophers have been grappling with for a long time. He claims that “…when Piaget speaks of interaction, this does not imply an organism that interacts with objects as they really are, but rather a cognitive subject that is dealing with previously constructed perceptual and conceptual structures.” (4-5, in Fosnot) This might recall Kant’s transcendental idealism and his inaccessible things-in-themselves.

      He continues to explain the significance of this for education and this is why I was curious about when you put ‘know’ in quotes: “Too often teaching strategies and procedures seem to spring from the naive assumption that what we ourselves perceive and infer from our perceptions is there, ready-made, for the students to pick up, if only they had the will to do so. This overlooks the basic point that the way we segment the flow of our experience, and the way we relate to the pieces we have isolated, is and necessarily remains an essentially subjective matter. Hence, when we intend to stimulate and enhance a student’s learning, we cannot afford to forget that knowledge does not exist outside a person’s mind.”(5)

      My concern is that constructivists have slid into a sort of Kantian transcendental idealism but without the transcendental categories of understanding. I am not sure that educational constructivists are aware of how this debate played out from Hegel to Davidson. A focus on the individual nature of experience needs to be seen in the context of our evolutionary history. Darwin highlighted our social natures as primates and current research shows that shared attention may be a uniquely human characteristic. It is a fairly straight line to draw between that and Davidson’s talk of triangulation. The upshot of the post-Kantians has been an emphasis on the intersubjective and a refusal to be tempted to postulate things-in-themselves that provide data to our conceptual schemes. A good dose of Wittgenstein would help too.

      This solipsistic element of constructivism is directly related to pedagogy and learning. They claim that “shared knowledge and shared meanings” make no sense and that “The conceptual structures that constitute meanings or knowledge are not entities that could be used alliteratively by different individuals. They are constructs that each user has to build up for him or herself.” This is the psychological element of construction that mirrors the epistemological and ontological part of their thesis. Constructivists infer that language (reading, talking, books) is nearly useless and von Glasserfeld claims that we need to “… dismantle the still widespread notion that conceptual knowledge can be transferred from teacher to student by the means of words… “(von Glaserfeld, 7) Fosnot agrees: “Teachers who base their practice on constructivism reject notions that meaning can be passed on to learners via symbols and transmission… that whole concepts can be broken down into discrete subskills…” (Fosnot, preface, ix..) Ironically, we are able to learn all about constructivism through reading books and talking. I suspect that irony is lost on constructivists.

      As far as certainty and knowledge goes, I agree that they dovetail well with pedagogical ethics and pragmatism. I read fallibility to be implied in all knowledge claims. Saying that I know what my students know would mean that I am really confident that I have done a good job assessing and trying to understand them. I may also conclude that I have no idea what a particular student knows because their assessments seem to be inconsistent. I worry that constructivism has erected a barrier to intersubjective knowledge and I don’t see knowing others as a special problem (though I see how some who hold a representational theory of mind might). Just as I strive to know myself, I strive to know others, and I may fail sometimes. Part of this self-knowledge is recognizing fallibility. But in neither case is the whole idea of knowledge of self and others undermined. I do not think that ‘constructivist’ philosophy in the field of education adds anything helpful that Dewey hasn’t already said, especially when his ideas are complemented with recent work on assessment (O’Connor – A repair kit for grading) and feedback (Williams – Embedded Formative Assessment).

      thank you again for your patience and dialogue

      kind regards,


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