Tie And Jeans

Instructionism and Constructionism – Invent To Learn

I’ve taught middle school kids for long enough to inherit their skepticism for any ideas that come packaged with grad school friendly -ism names. Vocab for vocab’s sake never helped any student. (Pythag. Orean) Introducing 7th graders to a new big-word (that’s letters >= 6) only works when the single term can fall in place and perfectly encapsulate ideas already stalking the classroom through unwieldy circumlocutions.

In that spirit, I’m going to try and introduce two specialized terms into today’s #fhshuskies chat exploring the distinction and boundary between “learning” and “being taught.” All the quoted text comes from Sylvia Martinez and Dr. Gary Stager’s new book, INVENT TO LEARN.

Both terms refer to philosophies of teaching and stake out large, but somewhat nebulous, chunks of pedagogical turf. I’m looking forward to hashing out the details of these ideas with my fellow huskies.

Instructionism serves as a blanket term to cover the “teaching theory underlying most of American education.”

If you believe that learning is the direct result of having been taught, then you are an instructionist. If you seek to “reform” education by buying a new textbook, administering a new test, or tweaking teacher practice, then you are an instructionist. Instructionists rely on a treatment model to explain learning. “I did X and they learned Y.”

From an institutional perspective, Instructionism is incredibly compelling and even a bit comforting. It suggests the potential for perpetually rising efficiency in student learning by addressing the teacher node. Instructionism posits a model where good teaching can be broadly reproduced. Kahn Academy, Coursea, and AP teacher training all rest atop an Instructionist world view.

The oppositional term in this artificial binary** is Constructionism, a term coined by Seymor Papert as a extension of the Constructivism espoused by Piaget many others.

Constructionists believe that learning results from experience and that understanding is constructed inside the head of the student, often in a social context. Constructionist teachers look for ways to create experiences for students that value the student’s existing knowledge and have the potential to expose the student to big ideas and “aha” moments.

This isn’t a blanket endorsement of unguided discovery, rather a focused craft for the adult to build and provide the best possible environment for students to build their own understanding, often while creating some meaningful work that exists outside themselves.

To make a small attempt at balancing these scales, let me point out that there are several classroom techniques that I love and swear by that don’t square with constructionism. Formal Socratic dialog isn’t a constructionist activity, nor is a math class walking out linear equations on a athletic field. What I respond to in Constructionism is the recognition that if the most meaningful learning comes from student’s individual persistent engagement with difficult ideas, then I should focus most of my teacher energy on creating opportunities for that struggle. That’s a prescriptive decision, a way to chart my course as a teacher, not an intractable commandment against all instruction.

Constructionism should not be misunderstood as being “against” any instruction. There is nothing wrong with instruction. Being shown how to use a tool or told a useful bit of information is fine. There is no reason to discover the date of Thanksgiving when you can ask someone. Instruction is useful for learning things that would take an instant or when little benefit would be gained by investigating it yourself.

It’s very easy for me to concoct constructionist anecdotes about my learning as an adult (interest driven, no outside schedules, iterative process, building slowly from craft to abstraction) today’s #fhshuskies chat has forced me to reconsider how these terms reflect my experience as a student. For the record, math students do very little construction in Analysis or Group Theory, and recieve a lot of instruction. That said, I had very few classes where I left a lecture feeling satisfied and confident, then breezed through the reading and exercises. Instead, I struggled through each new exercise with that instruction as a basic reference outline, then piling up a far more useful toolkit of my own mistakes and stumbles.

Many math teachers recognize that process and will actually describe it as approaching ideal. Students take the experience of class as a nominal baseline, then dive in and work through the material on their own until they’re satisfied with their understanding. But as a teacher who’s goal is to maximize students’ long term learning, I can’t help but see that process as grossly inefficient. When there’s something I can teach directly that will clear an fruitless obstacle, I should. But otherwise, I think directing my energy towards building environments where they can learn is more valuable than almost anything I can teach.

** All binaries are artificial, but this one doubly so. For any learning theory you care to name, there should be a teaching theory that articulates how best to implement those principles. If you’re deeply committed to a social-humanist theory of learning, please swing back with something outside this staged fight!


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