Academic journal article Phi Delta Kappan

'We Want to See the Teacher' - Constructivism and the Rage against Expertise

Academic journal article Phi Delta Kappan

'We Want to See the Teacher' - Constructivism and the Rage against Expertise

Article excerpt

The momentum of the constructivist movement has had a profound effect on how prospective teachers are educated and on how they perceive the duties of a teacher, according to Mr. Baines and Mr. Stanley, who argue that students deserve a chance to learn at the elbow of an expert.

WHEN DISCO was king, protest bumper stickers began to appear that proclaimed, "Disco stinks! We want to see the band." Many disco bands at the time actually consisted of a couple of guys with access to synthesizers and drum machines that could keep a beat. These bands never went on tour for the simple reason that there was no real band behind the machinery. Similarly, students today want to see the teacher, although in many cases the teacher has been banished to the scrap heap by the currently popular educational theory known as constructivism.

Textbooks tell us that constructivism is student-centered and is on the opposite side of the continuum from subject-centered or teacher- centered instruction.1 According to constructivist thinking, "knowledge is personal, and arises out of experiences and interactions which are unique to each individual." The teacher's role is to "facilitate personal learning by establishing a community of learners, and by making it clear to the student that he or she is part of that community."2

In truth, many aspects of constructivism are commendable. Few could quarrel with the desire for students in a class to feel that they belong to a "community of learners." The drive to engage students actively in their learning is timely. But somewhere, somehow, the constructivist paradigm has become as inflexible as the instructional approach its proponents are eager to dismantle. Not only is it no longer ideologically correct for a teacher to serve as an authority on a subject, but many constructivists characterize direct instruction as a clear and present danger, like some atavistic form of intellectual cruelty. Constructivists routinely invoke the work of Paulo Freire as substantiation for fostering ideals of empowerment in lieu of teaching content.

We find inspiration from Freire (1998) when he exhorts, We must redefine our understanding of the world; though it is historically produced in the world, this understanding is also produced by conscious bodies in their interactions with the world (pp. 52-53). His comprehension of the potential for human agency impels us to continue to define our actions as necessary and vital if we actually are to understand that schools are historically produced and that through our interactions we may have the opportunity to make a contribution to the realization of democratic schools that exist to enhance the lives of all learners.3 (Emphasis in original.)

Imagine a teacher consulting such advice in the process of formulating a plan for teaching physics first period on Monday morning.

The Evils of Rote Learning

The teacher as a "sage on the stage" has been tossed aside in favor of the learning facilitator, more commonly known as a "guide on the side." In the constructivist view, memorization of multiplication tables, poetry, dates of historical importance, or scientific formulas is decried as "mindless" and even "hegemonic." Indeed, in the current educational climate, the worst insult that can be leveled at a teacher is that a lesson involves "rote learning."

While there is something to be said for having interests in many areas, the rage against expertise and the vehemence shown toward repetitive practice is bewildering. How else does a pianist learn to play Chopin? How else does a lawyer synthesize points of law to elucidate inconsistencies? How else does an artist know the precise mix of colors needed for the autumn sky? How else does a child learn to spell? Mastery of any subject does not come easily. Joseph Campbell once said that he was qualified to be an academic because he had locked himself up in a room and read for five years. …

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