kitchen table math, the sequel: constructivism doesn't work, part 1: little scientists

Friday, March 27, 2009

constructivism doesn't work, part 1: little scientists

New study out from the University of Virginia re: science education, which David Klein once told me is in even worse shape than math education. Gauging by the first sentence in Tai & Sadler's report, David is right:
Inquiry-based instructional practises are a mainstay of the National Science Education Standards (National Research Council, 1996) and Benchmarks of Science Literacy (AAAS, 1993) in the USA.

Same Science for All? Interactive association of structure in learning activities and academic attainment background on college science performance in the USA
Robert H. Tai; Philip M. Sadler
International Journal of Science Education
Vol. 31, No. 5, 15 March 2009, pp. 675–696

Here's a nice summary of where things stand, drawn from O'Neill & Polman:
In recent years, a number of curriculum reform projects have championed the notion of having students do science in ways that move beyond hands-on work with authentic materials and methods, or developing a conceptual grasp of current theories. These reformers have argued that students should come to an understanding of science through doing the discipline and taking a high degree of agency over investigations from start to finish. This stance has occasionally been mocked by its critics as an attempt to create ‘‘little scientists’’—a mission, it is implied, that is either romantic or without purpose. Here, we make the strong case for a practice-based scientific literacy, arguing through three related empirical studies that taking the notion of ‘‘little scientists’’ seriously might be more productive in achieving current standards for scientific literacy than continuing to refine ideas and techniques based on the coverage of conceptual content.

Why Educate ‘‘Little Scientists?’’ Examining the Potential of Practice-Based Scientific Literacy
D. Kevin O’Neill, Joseph L. Polman
VOL. 41, NO. 3, PP. 234–266 (2004)
I have not read O'Neill & Polman's study as yet.* However, a mere glance at the final section turns up the phrase "student-designed research projects," accompanied by a vote for Deborah Meir, "the principal who has led school reforms in New York and Boston [and recommended] that educators foster 'the capacity to hazard an opinion on matters of science that may pertain to political and moral priorities, and a healthy and knowing skepticism toward the misuse of scientific authority'** (Meier, 1995)."


"Student-designed research projects" and "the capacity to hazard an opinion on matters of science that may pertain to political and moral priorities" have nothing to do with each other.

In fact, I would go so far as to say that the typical student-designed research project is likely to render a teen-aged student less able to hazard an opinion on a matter of science that may pertain to political and moral priorities than a solid, book-based, content-rich science course would do, while at the same time causing him to consider himself more able. Not knowing what he or she doesn't know: that's your little scientist.

In any event, Robert Tai and Philip Sadler's analysis of survey data from more than 8000 high school students produced the following conclusion, which will come as a surprise only to ed-school trained educators:
Self-led, self-structured inquiry may be the best method to train scientists at the college level and beyond, but it's not the ideal way for all high school students to prepare for college science.
This is the kind of thing parents and taxpayers do not need a peer-reviewed study to figure out, mostly because parents and taxpayers have a clue.

Data show that "autonomy doesn't seem to hurt students who are strong in math and may, in fact, have a positive influence on their attitude toward science" Tai said. However, "Students with a weak math background who engaged in self-structured learning practices in high school may do as much as a full letter grade poorer in college science," he said.


According to Tai, many secondary science classes are turning to a self-structured method of learning with the notion that students will discover science on their own. "Advocates should be sobered by this study's findings," Tai said.

Sobered, hell.

Advocates should be overcome by guilt and remorse; advocates should get down on their hands and knees and beg forgiveness of parents and taxpayers for the countless thousands of young people lost to scientific and science-related careers because they arrived at college having spent 13 years pretending to be little scientists instead of acquiring the content knowledge they needed to study science in college.

But I don't see that happening.

* If you'd like me to send you the study, email me: cijohn @
** I guess pure research is out.


Barry Garelick said...

Please add "arrogance" and "jerks" to your tags to be consistent with our indexing.

From Kirshner, Sweller and Clark: "Why Minimal Guidance During Instruction Does Not
Work: An Analysis of the Failure of Constructivist,
Discovery, Problem-Based, Experiential, and
Inquiry-Based Teaching" in Educational Psychologist, 41(2), 75-86; 2006.

Despite this clear distinction between learning a discipline
and practicing a discipline,many curriculum developers, educational
technologists, and educators seem to confuse the teaching of a discipline as inquiry (i.e., a curricular emphasis on the research processes within a science) with the teaching of the discipline by inquiry (i.e., using the research process of the discipline as a pedagogy or for learning). The basis of this
confusion may lie in what Hurd (1969) called the rationale of
the scientist,whichholds that a course of instruction inscience
should be a mirror image of a science discipline, with regard
to both its conceptual structure and its patterns of inquiry.

"The theories and methods of modern science should be reflected
in the classroom. In teaching a science, classroom operations
should be in harmony with its investigatory processes
and supportive of the conceptual, the intuitive, and the
theoretical structure of its knowledge. (p. 16)"

This rationale assumes

"that the attainment of certain attitudes, the fostering of interest in science, the acquisition of laboratory skills, the learning of scientific knowledge, and the understanding of the nature of science were all to be approached through the methodology of science, which was, in general, seen in inductive
terms." (Hodson, 1988, p. 22)

The major fallacy of this rationale is that it makes no distinction between the behaviors andmethods of a researcherwhois
an expert practicing a profession and those students who are
new to the discipline and who are, thus, essentially novices.

Anonymous said...

Where are those giants' shoulders when you need them?


Anonymous said...

Isn't a big part of the attractiveness of the collaborative, project based, inquiry approach (apart from NSF grant incentives) that it doesn't require subject matter knowledge from the teacher?

Catherine Johnson said...

Please add "arrogance" and "jerks" to your tags to be consistent with our indexing.


Catherine Johnson said...

rocky - good question!

Paul B said...

It's instructive to put constructivism in context. I put it smack dab in the middle of; Spiraling Curricula, Curricula Bloat, ** Constructivism **, Inclusion/Immersion, and Grade Level Placement. I'll call these the five horsemen of the apocalypse.

Horse #1, Spiraling Curricula (the Trojan horse), lays the natural hierarchy of a subject on it's side, preferring to teach everything in a strand as a set of increasingly complex parallel universes that never need to be mastered. We spend, on average, 6 years on concepts that other countries dispense with in 3.

Once you install horse #1 you observe that, without mastery, every stovepipe in the spiral is easier to achieve success in (because you don't really measure it anymore). This leads to the evolution of horse #2, Curricula Bloat, where you get to fill your newly invented extra time, with bloated concept development (2-3 times more concepts per year than is common in the TIMMS countries that surpass us).

Horses #3 and #4, Inclusion/Immersion and Grade Level Placement, differ in motivation but produce the same noxious result, an enormous range of student capabilities in a single classroom, with an attendant reduction in the number and type of teachers that address them. And finally with horses 1,2,4, and 5 teamed up you're ready for the lead horse, horse #3,Constructivism.

With an exquisitely complex spiral, delivering an overwhelming number of concepts to a highly diverse population grouped by virtue of their hat size, there is no other choice but to have the kids teach each other. Horse #3 is inevitable.

Every argument you hear for constructivist philosophy is no more than rationalization, devised to make palatable, the misbegotten notion that kids can teach themselves the things that mankind learned over thousands of years, driven by the need to address the maelstrom created by the four horsemen that accompany it. Once you figure out where it comes from you're better able to appreciate why it's so popular. Unfortunately, it's very hard to change the direction of the lead horse when the rest of the team is not cooperating and these horses all tend to be discussed in isolation, where they can be made to sound plausible. Together though, they are undeniably toxic.

And yes I know there are only four horsemen but I'm invoking my 21st century skills to invent my own literary reality.

rgetzel86 said...

Wow, Paul, that is a compelling & concise diagnosis of everything that is wrong with education in the United States today. I would love to see you elaborate on your five horses, because you have the makings of an argument that can chip away at the status quo.