Thursday, November 21, 2013

9 reasons why I am NOT a Social Constructivist

Educators nod sagely at the mention of ‘social constructivism’ confirming the current orthodoxy in learning theory. To be honest, I’m not even sure that social constructivism is an actual theory, in the sense that it’s verified, studied, understood and used as a deep, theoretical platform for action. For most, I sense, it’s a simple belief that learning is, well, ‘social’ and ‘constructed’. As collaborative learning is a la mode, the social bit is accepted without much reflection, despite its obvious flaws. Constructivism is trickier but appeals to those with a learner-centric disposition, who have a mental picture of ideas being built in the mind.
Let me say that I am not, and never have been, a social constructivist. My disbelief in social constructivism comes from an examination of the theoretical roots of the social portion of the theory, in Rousseau, Marx and Marxists such as Gramsci and Althusser, as well as critiques of learning theorists Piaget, Vygotsky and Bruner. More specifically, I believe it is inefficient, socially inhibiting, harmful to some types of learners and blocks better theory and practice. Finally, I’ve seen it result in some catastrophically utopian failures, namely Sugata Mitra’s ‘hole-in-the-wall’ project and Negroponte’s Ethiopian farrago.
1. I don’t buy Rousseau (see Rousseau)
With Rousseau, we had the rebalancing of learning theory towards the learner, which was good but it may have led to an extreme reliance on naturalism and intrinsic motivation that is hard to apply in the real world. David Hume wrote, “He is plainly mad, after having long been maddish”, and although Rousseau's legacy has been profound, it is problematic. Having encouraged the idea of romantic naturalism and the idea of the noble and good child, that merely needs to be nurtured in the right way through discovery learning, he perhaps paints an over-romantic picture of education as natural development. The Rousseau legacy is the idea that all of our educational ills come from the domineering effect of society and its institutional approach to educational development. If we are allowed to develop naturally, he claims, all will be well. This may be an over-optimistic view of human nature and development, and although not without truth, lacks psychological depth. Emile, as Althusser claimed, now reads like a fictional utopia.
2. I don’t buy Marxism (see Marx, Gramsci, Althusser)
Although Karl Marx wrote little on educational theory, his influence on learning theory and practice has been profound. In The Communist manifesto Marx states that education has a ‘social’ context, which is both direct and indirect, ‘And your education! Is not that also social, and determined by the social conditions under which you educate, by the intervention direct or indirect, of society’. It was this idea that underpinned the entire communist world’s view of learning in the 20th century, especially through Marxist theorists such as Gramsci and Althusser. In Soviet Russia and its satellite states education was remoulded around political aims and when the Cultural Revolution in China between 1949 and 1966 was unleashed, it had devastating consequences, the nadir coming with Pol Pot and the eradication of teachers and schools. To this day Marxism, to a degree, persists in educational and learning theory, most notably in Gramsci, Althusser and the ‘social’ constructivism of Piaget, Vygotsky and Bruner.
3. I don’t buy Piaget (see Piaget)
Jean Piaget claimed that cognitive development proceeds in four genetically determined stages, and that they always follow the same order. This theory of child development, he called ‘genetic epistemology’, and it saw the minds of children as very different from those of adults. Importantly, this perception must be taken into account in teaching and learning. Big problem – he got it mostly wrong. His famous four ‘ages and stages’ developmental model has been fairly well demolished. How did he get it so wrong? Well, like Freud, he was no scientist. First, he used his own three children (or others from wealthy, professional families) and not objective or multiple observers to eliminate observational bias. Secondly, he often repeated a statement if the child’s answer did not conform to his experimental expectation. Thirdly, the data and analysis lacked rigour, making most of his supposed studies next to useless. So, he led children towards the answers he wanted, didn’t isolate the tested variables, used his own children, and was extremely vague on his concepts. What's worrying is the fact that this Piagean view of child development, based on 'ages and stages' is still widely believed, despite being wrong. This leads to misguided teaching methods. Education and training is still soaked in this dated theory. However, on the whole, his sensitivity to age and cognitive development did lead to a more measured and appropriate use of educational techniques that matched the true cognitive capabilities of children.
4. Above all, I don’t buy Vygotsky
Lev Vygotsky, the Russian psychologist, was as influential as any living educational psychologist. In 'Thought and Language' and 'Mind in Society', along with several other texts, he presents a psychology rooted in Marxist social theory and dialectical materialism. Development is a result two phenomena and their interaction, the ‘natural’ and the ‘social’, a sort of early nature and nurture theory.
Ultimately the strength of Vygotsky’s learning theory stands or falls on his social constructivism, the idea that learning is fundamentally a socially mediated and constructed activity. This is a detailed recasting of Marxist theory of social consciousness applied to education. Psychology becomes sociology as all psychological phenomena are seen as social constructs. Mediation is the cardinal idea in his psychology of education, that knowledge is constructed through mediation, yet it is not entirely clear what mediation entails and what he means by the ‘tools’ that we use in mediation. In many contexts, it simply seems like a synonym for discussion between teacher and learner. However he does focus on being aware of the learner’s needs, so that they can ‘construct’ their own learning experience and changes the focus of teaching towards guidance and facilitation, as learners are not so much ‘educated’ by teachers as helped to construct their own learning.
In particular, it was his focus on the role of language, and the way it shapes our learning and thought, that defined his social psychology and learning theory. Behaviour is shaped by the context of a culture and schools reflect that culture. He goes further driving social influence right down to the level of interpersonal interactions. Then even further, as these interpersonal interactions mediate the development of children’s higher mental functions, such as thinking, reasoning, problem solving, memory, and language. Here he took larger dialectical themes and applied them to interpersonal communication and learning.
However, Vygotsky has a pre-Chomsky view of language, where language is acquired entirely from others in a social context. We now know that this is wrong, and that we are, to a degree, hard-wired for the acquisition of language. Much of his observations on how language is acquired and shapes thought is therefore out of date. The role, for example, of ‘inner speech’ in language and thought development is of little real relevance in modern psycholinguistics.
He prescribes a method of instruction that keeps the learner in the Zone of Proximal Development (ZPD), an idea that was neither original to him nor even fully developed in his work. The ZPD is the difference between what the learner knows and what the learner is capable of knowing or doing with mediated assistance. To progress, one must interact with peers who are ahead of the game through social interaction, a dialectical process between learner and peer. Bruner though the concept was contradictory in that you don’t know what don’t  yet know. And if it simply means not pushing learners too far through complexity or cognitive overload, then the observation, or concept, seems rather obvious. One could even conclude that Vygotsky’s conclusion about mediation through teaching is false. Teaching, or peer mediation, is not a necessary condition for learning. A great deal is made of social performance being ahead of individual performance in the ZPD but there is no real evidence that this is the case. Bruner, as stated, was to point out the weakness of this idea and replace it with the concept of ‘scaffolding’.
The oft-quoted, rarely read Vygotsky appeals to those who see instruction, and teaching, as a necessary condition for learning and sociologists who see social phenomena as the primary determinant factor in learning. As a pre-Chomsky linguist, his theories of language are dated and much of his thought is rooted in now discredited dialectical materialism. For Vygotsky, psychology becomes sociology as all psychological phenomena are seen as social constructs, so he is firmly in the Marxist tradition of learning theory. One could conclude by saying that Vygostsky has become ‘fashionable’ but not as relevant as his reputation would suggest.
The resurrection of Vygotsky has led to strong beliefs and practices around the role of the teachers and collaborative learning and the belief that social context lies at the heart of educational problems. Here, it is clear that Marxist ‘class consciousness’ is replaced by ‘social consciousness’. We no longer have Marxist ideology shaping education, but we do have the ideas dressed up in sociology and social psychology.
5. Massively inefficient
Critics of social constructivism are rarely heard but the most damning criticism, evidenced by Merill (1997) and many others since, criticise social negotiation as a form of learning, as it quite simply wastes huge amounts of time to achieve collaborative and consensual understanding of what is taken by many to be right in the first place. This leads to massive inefficiencies in learning. Many, if not most, subjects have a body of agreed knowledge and practice that needs to be taught without the inefficiencies of social negotiation. This is not incompatible with an epistemology that sees all knowledge as corrigible, just a recognition, that in education, you need to know things in order to critically appraise them or move towards higher orders of learning and understanding. In addition, social constructivism largely ignores objective measures, such as genetically determined facets of personality, it is often destructive for introverts, as they don’t relish the social pressure. Similarly, for extroverts, who perhaps relish the social contact too much, social learning can disrupt progress for not only for themselves but others.
6. Damages the less privileged
Constructivist theory, even if correct, accelerates learning in the privileged and decelerates learning in the less privileged. Those with good digital literacy, literacy, numeracy and other skills will have the social support, especially at home, to progress in more self-organised environments. Those with less sophisticated social contexts will not have that social support and be abandoned to their fate. This, I believe, is not uncommon in schools. The truth is that much learning, especially in young people, needs to be directed and supported. Deliberate practice, for example, is something well researched but rarely put into practice in our schools and Universities. In fact it is studiously ignored.
7. Ignores power of solitary learning
Much of what we learn in life we learn on our own. At school, I enjoyed homework more than lessons, as I could write essays and study on my own terms. At University I learned almost everything in the quiet of my own room and the library. In corporate life, I relished the opportunity to learn on trains and planes, havens of forced isolation, peace and quiet. To this day I blog a lot and enjoy periods of intense research, reading and writing. It’s not that I’ve learned everything in these contexts, only that they go against the idea that all learning needs to be social.
8. Blocks evidence-based practice
Social constructivism, is what Popper would call a ‘universal theory’, in that no matter what criticisms you may throw at it, the response will be that even these criticisms and everything we say and do is a social construct. This is a serious philosophical position and can be defended but only at great cost, the rejection of many other well-established scientific and evidence-based theories. You literally throw the baby, bath water and the bath out, all at the same time. Out goes a great deal of useful linguistic, psychological and learning theory. Out goes any sense of what may be sound knowledge and quick straightforward results. Direct instruction, drill and practice, reinforcement, deliberate practice, memory theory and many other theories and practices are all diminished in stature, even reviled.
9. Utopian constructivism
Sugata Mitra and Nicholas Negroponte have taken social constuctivism to such extremes that they simply parachute shiny objects into foreign cultures and rely on self-organised social behaviour to result in learning. It doesn’t. The hole-in-the-wall experiments did not work and Negroponte’s claims on his Ethiopian experiment are quite simply untruthful. The problem here is the slide from social constructivist beliefs to hopelessly utopian solutions. As Mark Warschauer reports “no studies have reported any measurable increase in student performance outcomes in reading, writing, language, science or math through participation in an OLPC program”.
Conclusion

Why am I NOT a social constructivist – ALL OF THE ABOVE.

 Subscribe to RSS

16 Comments:

Blogger Will Thalheimer said...

Donald, fascinating stuff and I'm glad someone is looking at it in this way. However, I'm skeptical that painting with a, say, Vygotskian brush (or Skinnerian, Piagetian, etc.) really gets us to what's most important: causes and effects. I prefer to focus on evidence and ignore these overly-broad theoretical umbrellas as I think that they may obfuscate more than enlighten. Or maybe my mind is too small to get my head around the theory so I am left to focus on evidence. Anyway, bottom line, I find your analysis useful--and I'm glad you're at it--but I think some skepticism is warranted given the broad brush strokes inherent in a person's theoretical packaging.

NOTE: I had to verify my identity about 5 times to be able to post this comment. Just so you know that it might be difficult for people to respond. Of course, I understand the problem with blog spam, so I empathize.

2:21 PM  
Blogger Donald Clark said...

Thanks Will. I agree - my view is that the evidence-based approach lifts us put of the rather dated world of -isms. Sorry about the difficulties but Blogger has become terrible for spam.

3:12 PM  
Anonymous Doug said...

I think there are a lot of valid criticisms of social constructivism (and every other theory I've seen related to learning and education), but you're putting together a lot of very different (even contradictory) theories and ideas under the label of social constructivism here. Maybe this is better titled as criticisms of progressive theories of learning and education. Kieran Egan, for example, and many others have written about criticisms of progressive education approaches.

And you are also lumping together theories that span multiple centuries. If, for example, you narrowed the focus to constructivist or social constructivist thought that has emerged since the 1980s (when constructivism became a 'hot' topic in education), then perhaps the arguments would be more clear. For example you include Piaget in your discussion of social constructivism, and then critique social constructivism for de-emphasizing individual learning, when probably the chief criticism of Piaget (other than the stage idea) was that his research was too focused on individual learning.

Another point is that, when criticizing early 20th century theorists, you are criticizing them for not being compatible with Chomsky's theories on language. I would hardly fault them for that, and also there has since been a wealth of evidence contradicting Chomsky's theories, from both neuroscience and psychology. George Lakoff is one person who has written extensively about that, and I remember reading neuroscience papers showing how language rules (like the -ed suffix) can be formed from experience, and don't have require special innate language modules as Chomsky and Fodor argued.

"This is a serious philosophical position and can be defended but only at great cost, the rejection of many other well-established scientific and evidence-based theories. Direct instruction, drill and practice, reinforcement, deliberate practice, memory theory and many other theories and practices are all diminished in stature, even reviled."

There are a lot of studies showing problems with those alternatives to social constructivism which you briefly list. Just one example off the top of my head - a report by Wenglinsky titled "Does It Compute?" showed how using computers for drill and practice activities hindered students' learning in math compared to using computers for more exploratory activities and simulations.

And for another example see Richard Hake's paper summarizing research showing the advantages of active learning approaches over standard lecture-based instruction.

But again, we're going beyond the realm of social constructivism. Constructivism and related theories have evolved since the times of Marx and the like, and even since the 1980s, as have non-progressive theories related to education and learning.

I'm fine with criticizing and even rejecting many ideas from social constructivism, but I don't want to replace them with even older ideas from Chomsky and 1970s & 1980s cognition research that have since evolved or even been superseded.

7:38 PM  
Blogger Donald Clark said...

Hi Doug
Thanks for the critique. Lots of arguments here, so I'll try to extract them one by one:

My overall approach
As I said at the start “I’m not even sure that social constructivism is an actual theory …. My disbelief in social constructivism comes from an examination of the theoretical roots of the social portion of the theory” My view is that social constructivism is not actually a fully formed theory but takes several streams form the history of learning theory, primarily Marxism but also Rousseau, Piaget, Vygotsky etc. Indeed, the poster boy of Social Constructivism was plucked from early 20th C obscurity by Bruner. To narrow SC to post-1980s thought would be to emasculate Vygotsky and much of Bruner’s early work. I included Piaget’s ages and stage theory (not individualised learning), as he still holds an unwarranted influence on the social constructivist movement as the ‘Piaget now Vygotsky’ debate still rages.

Chomsky & Lakoff
You see me as defending “Chomsky and 1970s & 1980s cognition research that have since evolved or even been superseded”. To be clear I am on the Chomsky/Pinker side of the theoretical fence in psycholinguistics and like Pinker, who holds the chair at Harvard, don’t see Chomsky’s theories as having been wiped out and, like Pinker, I regard George Lakoff’s conceptual metaphor theory as ‘lollapalooza’, an idea stretched to incredulity. For a good rebuttal see Pinker’s The Stuff of Thought pp 245-251 (2007).

Computational model
There’s a big difference between the computational model, held by Pinker (and myself) and critiques of the use of computers in drill & practice learning. One is a sophisticated theory of how the brain works, the other is a limited view of how different techniques affect memory.

Lecture-base instruction
I have spent years in Universities and elsewhere fighting the ‘lecture’ as a pedagogy. Active learning does not need social constructivism as an underpinning theory. I invoke modern, evidence-based psychology as doing that job unhindered by social constructivist assumptions and fictions.

Thanks fro the comment - made me think in more depth about my position.

8:59 PM  
Blogger oldandrew said...

What was Merill (1997) a reference to?

6:06 AM  
Blogger Donald Clark said...

Sorry - missed an 'r' David Merrill http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/First_Principles_of_Instruction

2:44 PM  
Blogger Howard Johnson said...

I don't often use the social constructivist label, preferring to identify as a pragmatist (philosophical), but I do feel a need to defend some of what I think you may be rejecting. Secondly, I don't proscribe to a great men theory of knowledge. People with great core insights also come with lots of bath water and I have no problem focusing on the core insights, but not accepting everything that surrounds it.
In terms of Vygotsky, I also use the idea of scaffolding (referencing Stephen's related post) and the implied ZPD concept. I also agree with much of what he says about the social genesis of knowledge and practice; something echoed by others like Bakhtin and Wittgenstein. Understanding what's going on often entails looking at the social practices in which they're engaged. This is a quote from John Shotter I recently posted elsewhere. Many psych theories obscure the notion that thinking is something that involves more than just the neurological functions in our heads. (from Shotter's 1993, The Cultural Politics of Everyday life):
. . . why shouldn't the expression of a thought or an intention - the saying of a sentence or the doing of a deed, for example - originate in a person's vague and unordered feelings or sense of the context they are in? And their appropriate orderly realization of formation be something that people develop in a complex set of temporally conducted negotiations between themselves (or their selves'), their feelings, and those to whom that must address themselves? Indeed, why shouldn't the process 'within' people be similar to the transactions between them . . ."
Another area I study is measurement validity. People like Lee Cronbach, Paul Meehl and Sameul Messick (logical positivists not social constructionist) came to the realization that the meaning and use of measurements depended on the concept of construct validity; the integrated evaluative judgement of the appropriateness of of inferences. In other words, the foundation of all measurement is an argument. Sounds to me like another example of social genesis.
Now many people are trying to bring validity back toward something like correlations. I'm studying this, but I have not yet seen any explanations that don't seem to be just another way of saying "here's your test score, accept your lot in life, stop arguing, leave me alone and get on with it. I'm responsible for the numbers, not the social consequences".
I do agree that many learning concepts based in social constructionism are absolute failures and should be taken back to the drawing board. But I'm still looking at a core that has a social genesis.

2:54 PM  
Blogger Donald Clark said...

Hi Howard
I have no problem with looking at the social genesis and context of knowledge and practice, but when this becomes a simplistic mantra and translates into crude 'collaborative' techniques in education, then my heart sinks. There's a hierarchy of theory here from high-end, philosophical theory (Wittgenstein, Searle etc),then social contructionism, then social constructivism, Marxist social theory down to the simpler recogition that social practice is an influence. In my experience, there's little or no recognition among the people who profess to be social constructiVists, as to what they actually believe. It's the degree to which things are socially constructed that is the real question.
I have to say that I don't find Bruner's scaffolding theory useful nor have I never seen the usefulness of the ZPD.
The last points are really interesting but I disagree with the idea that measurement leads to moral finality. It's the old 'you can't derive an ought from an is' argument. What we can do is study data (even within social activity - e.g. social networks) that informs good practice. I have found people like Judith Harris, Stephen Pinker and others useful here, as opposed to the tabula rasa behaviourists and social constructivists, who shove everything, lock, stock and barrell into the social realm.

3:16 PM  
Anonymous Lawrence said...

Excellent article. I started off reading with a negative view as I have found the social learning environment to be a positive one. I have also had incredible results with corporate training using what I call a guided-mentorship model which structures some of the novice-mentor interactions. I do not have a strong theoretical background but have done a lot of reading and perhaps incorrectly I associated the success of guided mentorship with Vygotsky's ZPD.

I agree though, that to negate all other forms of learning and to claim social as the only form is counter-productive. Social learning has its place, as does drill & practice and other examples you mentioned.

10:38 AM  
Blogger norbert boruett said...

Donald Clark, how i wish i encountered your article when i use to teach learning theories.Now, where are you eclectic?-
i will preserve it

Norbert Boruett

5:26 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

For me a very interesting blogpost. I am interested in the social constructivist vs social constructionist issue which I have been trying to get my head around and the original post and comments give a good deal to think about.

The issue of throwing the baby out with the bathwater was brilliantly described by Howard.....

"Secondly, I don't proscribe to a great men theory of knowledge. People with great core insights also come with lots of bath water and I have no problem focusing on the core insights, but not accepting everything that surrounds it."

I would be fascinated to know why Howard said this..."I do agree that many learning concepts based in social constructionism".

I will go and read Shotter also.

Thanks to everyone contributing here.

12:02 PM  
Blogger test said...

Still digesting this post and in particular what you say about Vygotsky and the oft quoted ZPD theory. As you know I am very interested in games and learning and in general the children that I engage with and observe in this games and learning world seem to develop the knowledge and skills that enable them to thrive and grow as learners/player independent of adult intervention. Where is the skilled person observing and structuring learning experiences that enables them to cross that bridge from what they can't do to what they can? They've crossed that bridge and built a huge castle in Minecraft by then! I also observe young learners now engaging with nodes of knowledge be they on YouTube or through wikis. They seem to have developed an implicit understanding that knowledge is stored in digitally connected communities, communities that they can access, be part of and even contribute to. Currently sifting through a number of research papers focusing on Twitter use in education and really questioning the nature of knowledge and how one learns now. Thanks for an agitating post.

2:20 PM  
Blogger Robin Hoyle said...

As ever, fascinating stuff.

My issue is the possible confusion of social and societal within the assessment of Marx and others. It seems to me that viewing educational environments as social constructs is pretty unarguable if by ‘social construct’ we mean representative and embodying the culture and society in which they exist.

An understanding of Vygotsky without placing his work within the context in which it was created (post-revolutionary Russia) is barely to understand it at all. An appreciation of Marxism as interpreted through the Bolshevik ruling party in 1920s Russia and the fact that Vygotsky was critical of those seeking to develop a Marxist philosophy (and in turn was criticised as anti-marxist) are important footnotes for his work.

As a development of Vygotsky’s work his argument that ‘consciousness is formed through communication’ seems, to me at least, to both recognise that understanding (if that is not too loaded a term) and therefore ‘learning’ can only be usefully measured once demonstrated and, furthermore, the act of expression of what one knows is integral to the process of learning. Regardless of those elements of Vygotsky’s work which fare less well under 21st century scrutiny, this is a valuable consideration for those engaged in supporting learning or directing their own studies.

The impetus which Vygotsky’s work gave to Alexei Leontiev’s activity theory which – through a roundabout development gave us later applications such as active learning and via Engestrom much we would now recognise as Organisational Development – cannot be underestimated.

In my own case, in writing these words and joining this discussion, I have formulated an idea and through that have constructed my own knowledge. I have undertaken this in isolation (your point 7 – a reflective process essential to ‘social’ in my opinion).

The social component of this learning is in formulating these words and having the motivation and opportunity to construct the thoughts which lay behind them.

However, it is unarguable that the point you make under reason 6 – that constructivism in this sense accelerates learning in the privileged – is demonstrated by the fruits of this interaction. I am reasonably privileged and have access to resources which enable me to draw my conclusions.

If there was a more telling criticism of social constructivism than that it remains the preserve of a privileged few I’m not sure what it is. It is, unfortunately, a feature of the discourse on the socialisation of learning which is regularly disregarded.

Thanks for inspiring this stream of (now enlightened) consciousness!

3:16 PM  
Anonymous David Stone said...

You write "Much of what we learn in life we learn on our own. At school, I enjoyed homework more than lessons, as I could write essays and study on my own terms." I would say that this was my own experience, and would hazard a guess that it is true of the majority of academics. But I would be extremely reluctant to extend this to everybody. For many of my students, being able to discuss and argue about things is when the penny drops, and real learning takes place. (At least, this is what they tell me when I ask them!)

7:06 PM  
Blogger Unknown said...

Donald
I really do enjoy reading your blog but I cannot accept that the concept of social constructivism somehow "Damages the less privileged". If I claimed that children who have a good breakfast perform better in school it does not damage the less privileged - it simply identifies that hungry children suffer. If privileged children have parents who read to them (I didn't) and friends who help them learn then that is not the fault of the theory it is a fault of society.

Less privileged children suffer not because of social contructivism but because they are less privileged.

6:54 PM  
Blogger Donald Clark said...

Hi Clive
The theory fails when it distorts the practice of teaching in schools. To take the 'breakfast' analogy further. Let's imagine a lesson that teaches one class to cook a nutritional breakfast. The kids whose parents had bough more expensive cereals, had parents who cooked (did not work shifts and therefore absent), had the time to show their kids how to cook eggs and had fresh orange juice would come to the class with a clear lead on the cultural knowledge needed to cook a good breakfast. The poorer children who come without such a background do not - it's mostly new to them. What is needed is a disproportionate focus on the kids who don't have that background cultural knowedge and practice. Placing them in groups simply allows the privelaged groups to accelerate amd practice their skills, while the poorer kids remain isolated. What's needed is far more focus and deliberate instruction for the poorer group to bring them up to speed. Collaborative environments tend to eliminate and dampen this out, accelerating progress in one group while the others feel demotivated.

12:12 AM  

Post a Comment

<< Home