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.
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.