The problems with constructivism in school - Granite Grok

The problems with constructivism in school

constructivist knowledge

Parents are probably hearing how schools are committed to a "student-centered" approach to teaching.  But what does that mean?  In Constructivism it means that your child will be participating in "discovery learning." 
 
In this setting the students work in groups or with other students, and the teacher takes on the role of "facilitator" rather than "instructor."  The goal is to get the students to come up with their own solution to the math problems (although this approach is used in other subjects too); and if the students have problems, they would turn to another student before asking the teacher.
 
This is exactly what is going on in many of the New Hampshire classrooms.
 
Reform/Fuzzy/New Math programs are generally built around a Constructivist methodology.  In 1989 the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics (NCTM) called for this approach to be used in the classrooms. 
 
Supporters of Constructivism will often say that this approach gives the students a "deeper understanding" of the concepts.  Yet the critics argue that students become frustrated and that it actually can hinder the learning process.

An organization called Mathematically Correct provides an amusing explanation of constructivism:

“This notion holds that students will learn math better if they are left to discover the rules and methods of mathematics for themselves, rather than being taught by teachers or textbooks. This is not unlike the Socratic method, minus Socrates.”

If under Constructivism it sounds as if the students are rein venting the wheel, that is exactly what they do. While it makes sense that engaging a student can be beneficial in a classroom, this particular approach does not work well in mathematics where explicit answers rather than process are required to help students to master the higher-levels of mathematics.  
 
The fallacy of Constructivism (process over right answers) is why so many mathematicians around the country have become vocal in opposing Constructivism.  Teaching a logical progression of basic math skills allows students to learn the skills.  Taking this logical progression out of order only creates confusion. 

One of the other problems with a Constructivist approach in the classroom is the lack of practice.  Reformers have criticized drilling students on math facts by referring to this approach as "drill and kill."  Rote memorization is frowned upon by the promoters of reform math.

Parents know from watching their children that repetition works.  Just watch a toddler who insists on watching a Disney movie over and over again.  Soon the toddler begins repeating exactly what she/he has heard numerous times. 
 
Removing "drill" from the learning process has left many students without the ability to come up with answers quickly and accurately.  The process-over-content approach is not used when teaching doctors, athletes, or musicians.  They go through their activities hundreds of times until they respond  almost automatically to basic activities, leaving their brains to concentrate on higher-level decisions.  Why should math teachers remove "drill" when it comes to the basic math functions?
 
Does it make sense to expect a child to learn how to swim on his/her own with little-or-no practice?  Should a tennis player sit down and only analyze how to serve, or should she/he jump up and practice serving one ball after another until it becomes almost automatic? 

In 2008 the National Mathematics Advisory Panel addressed the need of practicing basic math skills:

“Practice allows students to achieve automaticity of basic skills – the fast, accurate, and effortless processing of content information – which frees up working memory for more complex aspects of problem solving” (Foundations, 2008, p. 30).

Unfortunately the reform curricula says students need to work in groups and reinvent math concepts without adequate practice.
 
Children thrive on direction.  Lack of instruction often leads to frustration which sometimes gives students the idea that something is wrong with them.  “Why can’t I figure this out?  Why is this so hard for me to learn?  Why do I need a tutor to explain what my teacher should be teaching me?” 
Students who feel so inept, discouraged, and lacking in prerequisite skills not only are miserable within themselves, but they also slow down the pace of the entire classroom.

While students who are taught traditional math are moving right along, students in “fuzzy math” classes tend to move at a slower pace.  Students in the top performing countries in the world begin Algebra I sometimes by sixth and seventh grade.  The National Math Panel, pushing their Constructivist math, suggest that U.S. students be ready for Algebra I by 8th grade; but most students in reform math are not ready for Algebra I until 9th or 10th grade, if even then.  

When American students enter Algebra I in 9th grade, most parents are unaware that their children are behind the rest of the top-performing countries.  Constructivist/Reform Math is now the approach being used in many of the NH public class rooms.  Why?  Because this is the approach the NH State Board of Education promotes by setting standards that are based on the Constructivist methodology.  

For more information on this subject, check out this report: Why Minimal Guidance During Instruction Does Not Work: An Analysis of the Failure of Constructivist, Discovery, Problem-Based, Experiential, and Inquiry-Based Teaching