Critics have voiced the following arguments against constructivist based teaching instruction:
- A group of cognitive scientists has also questioned the central claims of constructivism, saying that they are either misleading or contradict known findings.
- One possible deterrent for this teaching method is that, due to the emphasis on group work, the ideas of the more active students may dominate the group’s conclusions.
While proponents of constructivism argue that constructivist students perform better than their peers when tested on higher-order reasoning, the critics of constructivism argue that this teaching technique forces students to “reinvent the wheel.” Supporters counter that “Students do not reinvent the wheel but, rather, attempt to understand how it turns, how it functions.” Proponents argue that students — especially elementary school-aged children — are naturally curious about the world, and giving them the tools to explore it in a guided manner will serve to give them a stronger understanding of it.
Mayer (2004) developed a literature review spanning fifty years and concluded “The research in this brief review shows that the formula constructivism = hands-on activity is a formula for educational disaster.” His argument is that active learning is often suggested by those subscribing to this philosophy. In developing this instruction these educators produce materials that require learning to be behaviorally active and not be “cognitively active.” That is, although they are engaged in activity, they may not be learning (Sweller, 1988). Mayer recommends using guided discovery, a mix of direct instruction and hands-on activity, rather than pure discovery: “In many ways, guided discovery appears to offer the best method for promoting constructivist learning.”
Kirchner et al. (2006) agree with the basic premise of constructivism, that learners construct knowledge, but are concerned with the instructional design recommendations of this theoretical framework. “The constructivist description of learning is accurate, but the instructional consequences suggested by constructivists do not necessarily follow.” (Kirschner, Sweller, and Clark, 2006, p. 78). Specifically, they say instructors often design unguided instruction that relies on the learner to “discover or construct essential information for themselves” (Kirchner et al., 2006, p75).
For this reason they state that it “is easy to agree with Mayer’s (2004) recommendation that we “move educational reform efforts from the fuzzy and nonproductive world of ideology—which sometimes hides under the various banners of constructivism—to the sharp and productive world of theory- based research on how people learn” (p. 18). Finally Kirschner, Sweller, and Clark (2006) cite Mayer to conclude fifty years of empirical results do not support unguided instruction.
Another important consideration in evaluating the potential benefits/limitations of constructivist teaching approach is to consider the large number of varied personal characteristics as well as prevalence of learning problems in children today. For example, in a solely constructivist approach was employed in a classroom of you children then a significant number of children, for example say with Attention Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder, might not be able to focus on their perceptions of learning experiences long enough to build a knowledge base from the event. In other words, constructivist theory is biased to students who desire to learn more and are capable of focusing attention to the learning process independently. A mixed approach that incorporates components of constructivist learning along with other approaches, including more guided teaching strategies, would better meet the learning needs of the majority of students in a classroom by accounting for differences between learning styles and capacities.
Current Confusion is an Accidental Paradox: The Literature Supports Guided Constructivism & its Reciprocal, Constructivist Direct Teaching
The idea that new learning is based on active engagement with prior knowledge is a philosophical position derived largely from Epistemology – or the philosophy and study of how we tend to learn more or less on our own. The question of how best to teach is not precisely the same as the question of how we learn. Therefore, rational people can support each of these two seemingly paradoxical positions. It simply requires incorporating the one in the other; as in adding reasonable pre-planning and guidance into Constructivism, call it, Guided Constructivism, and acknowledging that the closer we can reasonably come to the way we most often and naturally learn as reflected (in part) in Constructivism needs to be accommodated in Direct Instruction, or what might be called Constructivist Direct Teaching. In point of fact if an accounting were to be made of the most robust teaching methods it would soon be evident that the Direct Teaching methods that are best are those that involve a good deal of active learning. Similarly, the Constructivist methods that are best very likely would be the ones that provide the greatest degree of structure and guidance.
The task of parsing and characterizing defined teaching methods would in itself probably make this point, and others that we have not yet learned to ask. This, however, would further, or first require that the field of Education to became seriously committed to identifying Best Practices, an objective given great lip service but little rational-scientific examination. The reader may wish to look in on one such effort at: