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