The Great Pedagogical Debate: Behaviorism vs. Constructivism

A recent paper (1) published by The John William Pope Center for Higher Education Policy discusses the conflict between the educational objectives desired by the general public and the different objectives implemented by the state’s schools of education which are training our teachers. (See: “UNC Education Schools: Helping or Hindering Potential Teachers” by Dr. G. K. Cunningham)

Dr. Cunningham, the author of three textbooks on educational assessments and goals, thoroughly surveys the conceptual frameworks of the state’s nine major schools of education. In every case, he finds explicit adherence to a framework called “progressive/constructivist,” the principles of which diverge greatly from the public’s perception of what education should be all about. He finds that the state’s higher education establishment for teachers is totally dominated by adherents to this constructivist ideology. There is almost no inclusion or acknowledgement of the alternative set of principles known as “behaviorism” that inform state law.

Purpose of this Paper
Most of us are familiar with the foundations that lead to competing ideologies in various institutions: in economics (Adam Smith’s capitalism vs. Karl Marx’s communism) and religion ( Christianity vs. Islam) for example. Few lay persons are aware, however, of the foundations that drive the competing ideologies in education.

This brief paper attempts to summarize the origins and salient features of these two contrasting approaches to education—behaviorism and constructivism. In so doing, it is hoped that the lay reader can gain a greater understanding of the reasoning behind each approach and be better able to judge the motives and goals of the adherents of each belief.

Ideology in Education: The twenty-first century dawns with a struggle that began taking place on the pedagogical turf of education in the mid-1900’s. (Pedagogy: from pedo + agogy, literally “child” + “leader”)

The ideological struggle between two teaching methods that is taking place cannot be understood without referencing the work of the founding fathers of the two opposing practices:
for constructivism there is the early work of John Dewey but mainly of Swiss psychologist Jean Piaget (Pee-uh-zhay) and his book, “Language and Thought of the Child” written in 1923 and revised in 1932 and again in 1959.  One may trace the origins of constructivism further back to Rousseau’s “Emil” and then Dewey’s “My Pedagogic Creed.”

for behaviorism there is the empirical research of Watson and Harvard psychologist B. F. Skinner, “The Behavior of Organisms” (1938) and “Science and Human Behavior” (1953) along with Robert Mager, and others.

Skinner’s 1953 book “Science and Human Behavior” lent solid experimental backing to the more traditional methods of education that had been practiced for thousands of years until their overthrow by Dewey. But Dewey’s die had been firmly cast and constructivism continued to gain momentum until it now completely dominates education in the United States. Like the failed Soviet economy, however, the evident failings of constructivist ideology are prompting traditionalists, buttressed by the proven findings of behaviorism, to begin striving for more control in the decision-making and policy setting of our educational institutions.

From schools of education to legal requirements, from curriculum publishers to departments of instruction and their government-run schools, constructivism has evolved since the 1940’s to become the dominant ideology pervading education. A feature of constructivism that makes it popular in some circles is that constructivism places the responsibility for learning with the learner and not with the teacher. In sharp contrast, behaviorism, supporting traditional methods places the responsibility for learning squarely on the shoulders of the teacher.

Constructivism is based on a set of assumptions about what goes on inside the learner’s head. Piaget’s constructivism assumes that genetically controlled brain development governs an assumed time-table of when a child is capable of learning. This idea asserts that our brain constructs its own meanings from the social environment when it is ready according to our genetic abilities and that teachers can have only a minimal effect on learning. Fortunately or unfortunately for constructivists none of these assumptions can be, or have been, proven. They can only be inferred to be correct. We cannot pry a subject’s skull open to see what’s going on inside. The same can be said for the psycho-analytical psychologists and their theories about the effects of our past as being abused as children, spoiled as children, ignored as children, or whatever, on the motives governing our present or future actions (and thoughts).

Behaviorism eschews all discussion about what goes on inside the head because we cannot directly measure or observe it. Likewise, the genetic issue is immaterial to the behaviorist. The behaviorist focuses on:
-the present environment of a subject (antecedent conditions = A) and
-what behavior is exhibited (behavior = B) in that environment and
-what consequences follow (consequences = C). 

All factors are observable and subject to experimental verification or refutation. The A-B-C sequences can be experimentally observed with differing antecedent conditions, A, and differing consequences, C, that are under control of the experimenter. Thus, one may answer a question such as, “In a given situation, A, what types of consequences, C, are more effective for producing a desired behavior, B?”

The implications for developing teaching methodologies based on the two diverging ideas of constructivism or behaviorism are immense.

Constructivists: Constructivists champion practices that emphasize learning through natural peer group social interactions. These practices include such concepts as “brain-based learning,” multi-sensory learning styles, discovery learning, inquiry methods, whole language reading, balanced literacy, authentic learning environments, and many more.

Constructivists may also argue that external rewards such as “smiley faces” on homework or praises such as “Good work, Johnny!” are damaging to the goal of having the student become intrinsically motivated to learn for the sheer rewards inherent in the learning, itself. (See “Punished by Rewards” by Alfie Kohn.)

Behaviorists: Behaviorists point to decades of data from highly controlled studies of matched class rooms that show superior performance when rewards – positive reinforcers – are liberally given for good work. (Behaviorists also like to ask Mr. Kohn if he would have written his book for free without accepting any payment or royalties and why he commands such a high speaking fee.)
Behaviorists point to the proven successes of direct instructional methods and positive reinforcement for motivation that occur with properly trained instructional personnel using carefully sequenced curricula.

Whose fault is failure?
From his childhood, Piaget admitted his disdain for teachers and so tried to undercut their role in the learning process. In so doing, he offered them the perfect excuse for the student’s failure. Unionists and other educational apologists can cling to Piaget and, with the possible exception of falsely blaming societal ills such as poverty and family breakdown, maintain that everyone is blameless in this genetically determined process of the learner having to construct his own learning at a developmentally appropriate rate.

Former Secretary of Education Rod Paige’s book The War Against Hope: How Teachers’ Unions Hurt Children, Hinder Teachers, and Endanger Public Education rails against these apologists but does not identify the theoretical basis for their argued positions.

Constructivists were greatly reinforced by the availability in 1962 of an English translation of the Russian psychologist Lev Vygotsky’s 1934 book “Thought and Language.” As summarized in Susan Path’s recent book “Parallel Paths to Constructivism, Jean Piaget and Lev Vygotsky”, 2004, Path seems to buttress the argument that Vygotsky offers confirming evidence of Piaget’s constructivism.

Even a casual perusal of “Thought and Language” finds, however, a careful attempt to bring order to the divisive field of psychology. Vygotsky tries to first create a taxonomy for the field and includes citations of Piaget (which many may have been mistaken as his confirmation) but he then directly refutes these ideas by saying that “we have developed our own theoretical position in exactly an opposite direction.” Vygotsky goes on to summarize by saying, “Piaget’s view [that the child is impervious to experience – teaching] may hold for the particular group of children he studied, but it is not of universal significance.”

Thus while many seek to use Vygotsky as verification of Piaget, they should heed Vygotsky’s own observation that, “Studying child thought apart from the influence of instruction, as Piaget did, excludes a very important source of change and bars the researcher from posing the question of the interaction of development and instruction to each age level.”

In spite of Vygotsky’s own denial, we now find schools of education citing Dewey, Piaget, and Vygotsky as the unassailable and infallible founding fathers of their new constructivist pedagogy, with the data-driven empirical findings of Skinner being dismissed as mere “rat science.”

North Carolina’s children are woefully deficient in reading comprehension according to numerous tests—both state normed and nationally normed. Small wonder since their education school professors display a similar deficiency by continuing to misread hard data from the research.

The Roger Bacon Academy is a highly successful North Carolina based educational management organization that focuses on behavioral methods in the K-8 classroom.  It manages two rural Title I charter schools which are the highest scoring schools in their counties: Columbus Charter School and Charter Day School.  Applications for employment are always welcome.


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10 Responses to The Great Pedagogical Debate: Behaviorism vs. Constructivism

  1. Ben says:

    As almost any good teacher will attest, behaviorism and constructivism both have their merits and must be combined in appropriate doses, depending on the subject and situation. My wife also got the constructivism-is-everything training in education school, but she found after graduation that out that in the real world, a lot of that stuff just doesn’t work, at least in pure form.

    Take math, for instance. Kids need to know their math facts and need to know the standard arithmetic algorithms, and they need to know them COLD. They should be able to do long division or tell you the answer to 9×7 in their sleep. That takes behaviorism. But when it comes to conceptual learning and problem-solving, constructivism has a very large role to play.

    So that’s one huge problem I have with CCSS. Even though the kids are technically required to learn math facts and the standard algorithms, so little emphasis is placed on these that most will never be able to solve problems efficiently and confidently. Result: Adults who need a calculator to make change for a dollar.

    Another sad irony of CCSS is that, despite its emphasis of constructivism, it kicks Piaget’s most important contribution to the curb, that being his ideas about developmental appropriateness in early childhood. As pretty much any early childhood educator will tell you, Piaget absolutely nailed it with his theories on cognitive development. The CCSS standards for early childhood grades were created by “backtracking” from higher grades; no thought was put into whether it is appropriate or even sane to expect kindergarteners and first-graders to do some of the stuff they are now required to do.

  2. Shanee T. says:


    I have to respectfully disagree with this passage:
    “Piaget’s constructivism assumes that genetically controlled brain development governs an assumed time-table of when a child is capable of learning. This idea asserts that our brain constructs its own meanings from the social environment when it is ready according to our genetic abilities and that teachers can have only a minimal effect on learning.”

    The author repeatedly uses the term “genetic” to imply that Piaget’s theory has to do with genes in the biological sense, and the further implication is that learning is genetically programmed or predetermined. My understanding is that Piaget used the word genetic to mean “emergence,” as he studied the emergence of knowledge within individuals. I also disagree that Piaget would have stated that teachers can have only a minimal effect on learning. To Piaget, learning was largely the result of experience, and teachers have a significant role in introducing the factors that lead students to experience disequilibrium. Follow-up research has also confirmed that formal education plays a significant role in the timing of cognitive development through the stages that Piaget originally described.

  3. Mesfin says:

    My stand now is to use an eclectic approach, i.e. to use the best of both direct instruction and constructivist approach. I suggest this just based on what practically works (pragmatic consideration). My problem, however, to look for a single learning theory in favor of this eclectic approach .
    Mesfin G.
    Addis Ababa, Ethiopia

  4. Amanda says:

    I’m disturbed because this link was on the second page as I was searching for sources on behaviorism and constructivism. I have done far more than a casual perusal of Vygotsky, and in no way is Vygotsky used as a confirmation of Piaget’s learning theories. Your understanding of these theories and theorists is both limited and inaccurate. Constructivism is absolutely not intended to absolve teachers of responsibility. It’s just the opposite- constructivism challenges teachers to construct experiences for true comprehensive learning, as opposed to the more top-down direct instruction of behaviorist teaching. It’s far more difficult to plan lessons using constructivist teaching methods, but the learning is far deeper and more applicable than anything that happens through behaviorist teaching. These two theories are really two ends of a spectrum, too. No one is calling for the eradication of anything.

    I’m in North Carolina, and wondering why you mentioned my state?

    • bakeramitchell says:

      Amanda, thank you for your comments. (1) I do not claim that Vygotsky confirms Piaget; he clearly takes an opposite approach as I state. However, there are numerous writers like Susan Path who falsely claim that Vygotsky supports Piaget and his constructivism. (2) I do not claim that constructivism was intended to absolve teachers of responsibility. Teachers may use it as such, however. Read Rousseau’s “Emile” if you want to understand the “intention” behind constructivism. I may add a discussion on how Rousseau shaped the writings of Marx and Piaget. Rousseau is the original constructivist.

      I am in North Carolina, also. And I hope McCrory throws out the CCSS. PS. Why did the appearance of this link disturb you?

  5. Steve says:

    I’m doing a paper that looks at the practices in our school (here in Thailand… yes, THAT Thailand) and I’m focusing on the efficacy of behaviourist vs constructivist approaches. In my observations, the Thais use mainly a behaviorist approach, and dare I say, complete with corporal punishment and all that “nasty crap” we had years back. I have to say — it DOES work, to a degree, but at what cost?

    Students can memorise things well, but they don’t seem to be able to apply it by themselves. A very noticeable example of this is how the students can create absolutely superb pieces of artwork for their Thai teachers but when a foreign teacher asks them to create the same thing (without the stick and all) — they produce garbage.

    I agree with Stephen that you cannot have only one or the other. Behaviourist approaches are good for certain things like language acquisition, but for other areas that involve logic, experimentation and even creativity, a constructivist approach works best because it seems that students can readily take what they know and apply it elsewhere. For example in teaching computers I used to have my students ‘memorise’ the user interface of the software they were studying. They could do this very well, but if I changed the wording a bit when asking them to explain what a particular UI element did, they would get confused. Because they were ‘conditioned’ to memorise precisely what they’ve been taught, a simple thing like a little play-of-words confuses them. Later on however, I took a more constructivist approach to teaching my computer classes. Instead of having the students memorise the UI, I asked them to ‘explore’ the UI: test out each tool and figure out what it does. The results were remarkable: the students could answer questions regarding the functions of the UI but in addition they could formulate their own solutions to problems, so questions like “How do I do X?” weren’t met with blank stares just because it wasn’t in their handouts.

    But not all students pick up things at the same pace. However, this is a topic I think that’s best reserved for another time. I just wanted to point out that constructivist approaches are not entirely evil and that we, as teachers (and students) should be ‘flexible’ enough to realise that and apply one or the other as we see fit.

    • bakeramitchell says:

      Congratulations on your work in Thailand and thanks for your comment. It is regretable that many people mistakenly associate corporal punishment with Skinnerian behaviorist approaches. Skinner categorized punishment into two classes: positive punishment where something aversive is the continguency (a spanking), and negative punishment where something reinforcing is taken away (no desert). When a student acts out in order to gain attention, ignoring this behavior is negative punishment if the acting out lessens in frequency. This is called “extinction” because you are extinguishing the reinforcement of giving your attention to the student’s undesireable behavior. There will frequently be an “extinction burst” of high frequency acting out – which tells you that your attention was, indeed, the reinforcement for the acting out – but it will pass. (Things will get worse before they get better.) Most behaviorists use positive reinforcement such as adding praise or extra recess time to increrase the frequency of desired behavior or negative reinforcement by removing an aversive (“Your writing is so good that you don’t have to eat your broccoli.”) So you might trying forgetting the stick, ignoring the garbage, and praising the quality work. Many teachers feel the need to praise effort rather than accurate work, and this practice results in little more than additional effort.

  6. mikepage says:

    Looks to me like constructivism is a great way to shirk responsibilty singularly (eg. I was born that way) or as a group (violent parents produce bad children)
    Sounds like the ideals of constructivism fit nicely with what might be the origin of many stereotypes also.

  7. Stephen says:

    I wonder if the author has ever actually read John Dewey’s works. I’m pretty sure he has not, given the claims he makes. Dewey recognized the central importance of the teacher and the environment to student success, which is actually the point the author of this article favors. Learning always takes place as a transaction between student and the environment, which includes the teacher and the other students and the physical and social environments. Change anything in the environment (like the curriculum, the technology, the books, etc.) and you can expect changes in the learning. Similarly, Dewey is experimental — if some techniques are more effective than others, then go with it! Naturally, what success means is important: rote repetition will be effective for certain kinds of educational goals while ineffective for others. And the way the author sets up dichotomies — capitalism vs communism, christianity vs Islam — is loaded, and clearly is intended to draw on the biases of his readers to lead them to think that the first part of the following dichotomy (behaviorism) will be triumphant over the second — behaviorism vs. constructivism. This ignores a great deal of middle ground (for example, varying degrees of socialism-mixed-with-capitalism with varying degrees of success all over the world).

    Brain-based learning theory, for example, is in it’s early stages, and its successes have been, in my view, wildly overstated. However, it makes sense to take it seriously, as the brain is, in fact, the engine of all learning and experience. Perhaps more importantly, brain-based studies recognize that the brain is, in fact, plastic and therefore not so closely linked with genetics; the capacities of the brain are sensitive to environmental stimuli. This explains, for example, why students who are exposed to another language at an early age are much more successful at mastering the language then when exposed afterwards.

    I am sympathetic with some of the authors views and commitments. Whole language learning is a crappy way to teach kids to read. Most public schools in Long Island have returned to phonics. And positive reinforcement — THAT’S cutting edge?? What teacher doesn’t praise students for their successes?? And the idea that teachers adopt Piaget merely to avoid blame for students who don’t succeed, and are just looking to blame the victim, this is incredibly naive and a transparent attempt to vilify public school teachers.

    • bakeramitchell says:

      Stephen, thank you for your comments. You are correct, I have not read a great deal of Dewey’s works, so my comments are based on what I’ve read in the education literature, which claims Dewey as an early constructivist (as Path and others erroneously claim of Vygotsky.) And Heaven knows I have never claimed positive reinforcement is “cutting edge.” It probably goes back to hunter-gatherer cultures! But it does work, but many fawn over the likes of Alphie Kohn’s “Punished by Rewards” so positive reinforcement is thus receiving a lot of bad press (although Kohn may be being misinterpreted).
      Congratulations to Long Island and to Massachusettes (#1 in 4th grade NAEP reading scores) for their use of research-based methods for reading instructions. Such practices are totally absent in North Carolina, to which my remarks were mainly addressed. Just check out Cunningham’s study or the home page for the Reich School of Ed at App State.
      No one should vilify the many dedicated, hard-working teachers or blame them for the shortcomings of the ed schools, and I regret that you got this impression from my post. Finally, Sally Shayowitz’s work make it clear that direct instruction can shape the brain’s activation patterns permanently. So brain development can be driven by instruction rather than Piaget’s erroneous contention that learning must wait on genetically determined brain development.

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