Skip to content

January 10, 2010


Empowerment – Constructivism vs Instructivism

by Peter Skillen

Do both lead to student empowerment?

This is a second short post in response to Chris Lehmann’s post about Engagement vs Empowerment.

Let me change direction somewhat here and be a little more provocative.

Many of those who read this blog posting will undoubtedly fall into the ‘constructivist’ camp.  Therefore, I won’t describe the concepts here.  My views of a constructivist school implementation are well documented. Constructivist teachers would, for the most part, suggest that they do a better job at empowering students because they provide greater choice and autonomy of exploration and knowledge construction.

However, many supporters of ‘direct and guided instruction’ would suggest that they are, in fact, empowering students by building their basic skills in a foundational way.  This would give them the power to be successful with higher-level tasks.  Open Court (SRA) reading program is one such example. Carl Bereiter and Marlene Scardamalia are both authors on this series.  They are cognitive scientists who firmly belief in the empowerment of students.  But their approach can be quite ‘instructivist’.  But I would encourage people to read their research and to also look at Knowledge Forum – a collaborative, knowledge-building tool.

I would particularly like to hear from those who find Scardamalia & Bereiter’s two streams of work to be in conflict.

Thoughts?  Please share.

Read more from Uncategorized
3 Comments Post a comment
  1. Jan 10 2010

    After watching you and Gary go back and forth on Twitter for a few minutes, I decided to backtrack and find the post that was being discussed.

    I like to believe that I’m a constructivist – to an extent. I’ve taken Gary’s workshop (NYCATE 2009) and thoroughly enjoyed everything about it. However, in my own classroom I find it hard to fully implement that theory. I’ve tried, and often the quality of work goes down. Way down. Creativity up, quality down. Perhaps I’m mis-managing the class (I hate to think that…) but I’ve noticed this ever since I began opening up my classroom and allowing more student-direction.

    I haven’t seen either Open Court or Knowledge Forum, so I can’t comment on the specifics of your “opposing” point of view. But I will say that success comes down to more than philosophy. It comes down to attitude, approachability, trust, high expectations, and personality. In other words: it comes down to the teacher. I’d rather have an excellent instructivist-thinking teacher in my building than a mediocre constructivist… just like I’d rather have a successful luddite teaching a course than a high tech “educational trainwreck”.

    In a perfect world, there is balance between these “opposing” views. Done right, they can be quite symbiotic.

    • Jan 11 2010

      Hi RjWassink,
      I wonder if you could expand on what you mean by quality going down? I ask this because learning is messy and if students are left to their own devices they often don’t create “bulletin board worthy” stuff…and yet their learning can be much deeper than when they create products for the teacher, the mark, the parents….you get the idea.

      I wonder what grade you teach? A book I enjoyed reading last summer was Teaching For Tomorrow and I think Ted McCain did a better job than many at giving some practical ideas about how to manage authentic projects in secondary classrooms. Here’s a review of the book:

  2. Jan 11 2010

    Hi Peter,

    I think you are right when you say that “many supporters of ‘direct and guided instruction’ would suggest that they are, in fact, empowering students by building their basic skills in a foundational way. This would give them the power to be successful with higher-level tasks.” I think this is the position Scardamalia and Bereiter take as well. I haven’t had those discussions with them personally, as I know you have, but during my OISE days when I was studying knowledge building and computer mediated learning environments, it was a bit of a shock when I discovered that the folks that created this wonderful constructivist software called Knowledge Forum also created Open Court!!! I had some chats at the time with Dr. Earl Woodruff who set me straight about their different reasons for creating different kinds of learning experiences. In terms of KF and Open Court, they are hard to compare…one a networking pedagogy promoting higher level thinking skills and social constructivism (collective knowledge), the other teaching decoding skills using scripted teacher materials (individual).

    I think Chris is really saying the same thing when he says, “Let’s look at coaching for a moment… a coach who is worried about engagement as the goal lets the kids scrimmage most practices because it is engaging and fun. But an empowering coach puts the kids through smart drills that allows them to play their best basketball during the games. Those days when you walk through the offenses and the defenses 100 times aren’t always engaging… in fact, they can feel like a lot of work. But they pay off.” Hopefully that empowering coach would have the foresight to make explicit to students the reason behind his/her approaches, and give feedback that links the work done in drills to the performance during the game.

    My problem with most instructivist environments that I see (and unfortunately I see a lot) is that it’s usually the teacher who decides what and when everything gets taught, with no expression to students about why those choices are made. I may be idealistic, but I still maintain that it is possible to have a constructivist classroom that respects a student’s interests, strengths and their right to take control of their own learning and that also provides a wide variety of instructional techniques (including direct instruction) to make sure that the learning can happen.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

Note: HTML is allowed. Your email address will never be published.

Subscribe to comments