kitchen table math, the sequel: "Constructionism"

Friday, February 28, 2014


Constructionism is a philosophy of education in which children learn by doing and making in a public, guided, collaborative process including feedback from peers, not just from teachers. They explore and discover instead of being force fed information, or subjected to a regime of social control as in the Prussian system adopted in the US and elsewhere, sometimes called Instructionism. Constructionist guidance has to be informed by a knowledge of what there is to explore and discover, including our ignorance, and of a variety of approaches that can be used for children at different developmental levels with various degrees of preparation.

More on this topic can be found by exploring Google using keywords such as "constructionism", "education", "philosophy". See for instance openworldlearning, Seymour Papert's website, , and the wikipedia article on constructionist learning. Constructionism is implemented on the OLPC XO in the form of collaborative discovery.

"I hear and I forget. I see and I remember. I do and I understand." - Attributed to Confucius.

Constructionism is built on the foundation of Constructivism, the theory of childhood learning created by Jean Piaget, Lev Vygotsky, and many others.

One Laptop Per Child
No fun.


Jean said...

That's right. Those people who think it's OK to teach children by telling them things are *Prussians,* that is, the kind of people who caused both world wars. Therefore, direct instruction = Nazism.

There is no middle ground, no spectrum of teaching styles. Either you're a dedicated Constructionist who loves children....or you're a Nazi.

So can I call Godwin's Law on them?

Anonymous said...

"So can I call Godwin's Law on them?"

No. The research university and much of the K-12 education model was built from 19th century Prussian educational models, as those were the leading academics of the day. It has nothing to do with Nazism.

Robin/Student of History said... explains the difference between constructionism and constructivism and why Papert's name keeps coming up.

And it's an excuse for educators to go at our expense to Vienna in August.

On the issue of Nazism, I suggest looking into Johann Fichte's influence on German education. His push to create an emotional impulse that would submit to the collective will did affect what happened to Germany in the 20th century. And it is very much consistent with where the creators of Positive School Climates and social and emotional learning want to go. They are simply ignoring or are unaware of the bad consequences historically of what they are pushing in trying to shut down the individual rational mind.

Robin/Student of History said...

The current push to have kids coding as a Common Core desired practice is directly related to constructionism and Seymour Papert's work. Resnick was one of Papert's students and is at MIT Media Lab. MIT is one of the partners, along with Harvard and Stanford, along with tech businesses like Google, Intel, IBM, Microsoft, UNESCO, the OECD, the State of Massachusetts and more pushing to redesign the very nature of curriculum globally.

I wrote a post about it a few weeks ago after the OECD published an essay on remaking the nature of mathematics globally as part of it. So math would become more equitably accessible and could be used as a tool for social justice.

Don't you wish today were April Fool's Day when I write a statement like that. Unfortunately it is all true.

SteveH said...

"I hear and I forget. I see and I remember. I do and I understand." - Attributed to Confucius.

OK, do homework sets from proper math textbooks. They cover minor issues of problem variations and offer real world problems to solve. Bottom up.

I just grabbed my son's old Glencoe Pre-Algebra textbook off the shelf and turned to the section on "Prime Factorization". The homework starts with problems on identifying prime or composite numbers using simple numbers (<20). Then it goes on to ask for he prime factorization for numbers < 50. "You have to use exponents for repeated factors." Then it goes on to factoring simple monomials. Next, the process is repeated for larger numbers and more complex monomials. Then it gets into word problems. The first one introduces "Mersenne Primes". Next is a problem where the student has to determine how many "prime days" there are in a non-leap year. This is followed by a problem that asks:

"Is the value of n^2 - n + 41 prime or composite if n=3?

This is followed by a problem related to packaging for soda cans. Next is an open ended problem followed by a problem called "Find the Error". Next is a "Challenge" problem. This goes on and on for 70 problems. One does not start with a "Challenge" problem and somehow hope that students will absorb the needed lower level understandings and skills. Years later, when a complex AMC math question assumes that you know all about prime factorization, where did that knowledge come from?

Clearly, the needed understandings and skills can't all happen in class, but that's the only thing that most constructivists care about. They ignore what goes on at home. At best, some talk about flipping the classroom where students listen to lectures on their computers at home. Ironically, that implies that these pedagogues value direct instruction, but just don't want to do it themselves. They want to do only the fun stuff.

It's also clear that Harkness Table approaches can work. Look at Phillips Exeter. However, we have a local Harkness Table prep school in our area that doesn't produce the same results. Maybe something important is going on outside of class. The devil is in the details, but it seems that those details often get ignored by those infatuated with the grand concept. They think the process is all that matters, not the results.

Froggiemama said...

Mitchell Resnick is the person behind Scratch, which is one of the best things to have come down the educational pike in years. I am a huge fan of Resnick. Scratch and its brethren, AppInventor and Mindstorms, allows kids to get to the heart of computational thinking. What is computational thinking? It is abstraction, problem solving, thinking systematically and logically, at a deep level, not the surface level of the "critical thinkers".

Froggiemama said...

(I hit "return" before I meant to, so I am continuing)

One of the moments when I realized the power of Scratch was when my 12 year old son decided to explore path-finding algorithms. He had started with Scratch when he was 10 and had figure things out like parallel arrays within weeks. But when he was 12 I took him to a Scratch workshop in NYC. He came home wanting to do a certain game and realized he needed to do path-finding. He brute forced a solution which was not good enough. At this point, my husband, a PhD in CS (as am I) got interested. He gave my son some hints, and they got into a very deep exploration of algorithms, graph theory, and even a bit of complexity. It was a fascinating process and it wouldn't have happened if my son had been bogged down in a traditional programming language,or worse yet, not allowed to learn this material until college.

SATVerbalTutor. said...

It's also clear that Harkness Table approaches can work. Look at Phillips Exeter. However, we have a local Harkness Table prep school in our area that doesn't produce the same results. Maybe something important is going on outside of class.

To the best of my knowledge, Exeter has been actively recruiting top math students for a while. It seems pretty likely that many of the kids who come there have already reached a point where they have sufficient knowledge for the Harkness model to be genuinely beneficial.

SteveH said...

Exactly. That's probably why Exeter dominates the USAMO winners list. Also, these students do a boatload of work outside of class. It's nice if you can structure class as enrichment or just looking at the big picture, but this can't work for most students unless a lot of direct bottom-up self-instruction goes on outside of class.

SteveH said...

And I'll wager that these winners didn't solve the USAMO problems with just general problem solving skills. I'll bet they worked out and analyzed every single real test problem since 1972. They are online - all pre-calculus material.