Constructivism and the Role of the Teacher: Misconstructing Constructivism

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What concerns Ms. Chrenka most about their remarks is that Lawrence Baines and Gregory Stanley do not cite directly any constructivist theorists. Moreover, to say that there is "no body of knowledge associated with it" is to misunderstand constructivism.

TEACHERS who use a constructivist approach to learning are not invisible, as Lawrence Baines and Gregory Stanley suggest in their December article, "'We Want to See the Teacher': Constructivism and the Rage Against Expertise." On the contrary, such teachers are an integral part of the learning process. Informed by Piaget, Vygotsky, Bruner, and others, these teachers, in fact, combine their understanding of how students learn with their own expert knowledge of a particular discipline in order to construct a framework for instruction. Within this framework, learning is an active process that is student-centered in the sense that, with the teacher's help, learners select and transform information, construct hypotheses, and make decisions.

Teachers encourage students to respond to texts and to one another, they guide students' attention, and they lend what Vygotsky calls a "structuring consciousness" that enables students to think in increasingly complex ways about a multiplicity of possible perspectives. Constructivist teachers do not disappear, nor do they abdicate their responsibilities to "teach," as Baines and Stanley argue. Learning in constructivist classrooms depends on teacher- scaffolded strategies on the order of Socratic dialogue that would collapse without a teacher. What, indeed, would Phaedrus have learned without Socrates? I suspect that the outcomes reported in the unpublished paper that Baines and Stanley cite about a high school English teacher's constructivist "experiment" with Shakespeare resulted from a misunderstanding of the constructivist approach. But I cannot be certain because the authors do not describe the role the teacher took in the constructivist group. Perhaps the teacher really did disappear in this case.

With regard to the student evaluation of the history course that they also cite, I would argue that students are conditioned to the lecture/discussion method. Of course, an approach that engages students actively and encourages them to think for themselves (to select and transform information and to construct and test their own hypotheses) would not be preferred, at least initially, to one that allows them to sit back and passively absorb information as if just one correct interpretation existed. Students often adopt a "wait-it-out" attitude, investing minimal attention in the learning process. Why bother? Because of his or her expertise, the "sage" surely knows and will surely tell them the "right answers," which they will dutifully reproduce on tests. Moreover, the sage who has developed that expertise through years of reading and study has nothing to learn from students.

Some teachers, however, actually believe that there is more than one way to play Chopin, more than one reading of Macbeth, and more than one possible synthesis of the points of law in a particular case. Moreover, anyone who has ever visited an art museum knows that the mix of colors for "an autumn sky" is seldom precise. As for physics, after completing his formal education, Einstein noted, "I found the consideration of any scientific problem distasteful to me for an entire year. . . . It is nothing short of a miracle that the modern methods of instruction have not entirely strangled the holy curiosity of inquiry; for this delicate little plant, aside from stimulation, stands mainly in need of freedom; without this it goes to wrack and ruin without fail."

What concerns me most about their remarks, however, is that Baines and Stanley do not cite directly any constructivist theorists; they cite only those who have written about such theorists. Moreover, to say that there is "no body of knowledge associated with it" is to misunderstand constructivism. …