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Monday, November 5, 2012

In defense of direct instruction: Constant constructivism, group work and arrogant attitude are abusive to children

By Laurie H. Rogers

"Of all tyrannies, a tyranny exercised for the good of its victims may be the most oppressive. … Those who torment us for our own good will torment us without end, for they do so with the approval of their own conscience."
-- C.S. Lewis

Many educators believe children should learn math by struggling and failing, inventing their own methods, drawing pictures and boxes, counting on fingers, play-acting, continually working in groups, and asking several classmates for help before asking the teacher. This process of learning is called constructivism (also known as “discovery” or “student-centered learning”). Developed in the early 1900s, it was foisted on the country about 30 years ago, along with reform math curricula.

Proponents call constructivism “best practices” (as if calling it that can make it so). The supposed value of heavy constructivism is one of the most pernicious lies told today about education. Having listened now to students, parents, teachers and proponents of reform, I’ve come to see heavy constructivism as abusive to children. I don’t choose the word lightly.

I’ve heard proponents say outrageous things rather than acknowledge that children don’t prefer constant discovery and group work. At a 2010 math conference, a presenter said that children must learn in groups (“We know that,” she said), and that students who don’t want to do that fall into one of four categories: Bad apple, jerk, slacker or depressive. I was the only one in the room to challenge this; everyone else got into their little groups and prepared stupid skits about bad-apple children.

Welcome to the arrogance of public education. In the midst of “It’s all for the kids” and “We really care about those little kiddoes,” math class has become brutal and cruel.

My teenager said: “Educators talk as though students refuse to be taught, like we’re a dog that can’t be potty trained to use the outdoors. I mean, it’s not like we want to remain uneducated. It’s not like we want to be stuck in high school forever. We want to escape. We want to learn. When we say that we want something, we’re not trying to keep ourselves uneducated. So if we don’t want to work in a group, there’s probably a good reason. Maybe one of us has had a bad day, and we just don’t want to deal with other people. I mean, we all have those days. Maybe two of the people in the group are having a fight and you know that the whole day is going to be more about the fight than it is about the homework. There are so many reasons to not work in groups, besides issues with concentration and work level.”

Younger children don’t necessarily know why they don’t like something. Games can be fun, and reform classes are full of games. Some games are fun for a while; others are confusing; none leads to math proficiency. But students must play games, work in groups, explain things in several different ways, invent and discover, write paragraphs about math, draw boxes and circles, discuss math at length with classmates, play-act, use manipulatives, and take all day to get practically nowhere. The process can be excruciating, not just for natural leaders and quick learners, but also for children who are slower to learn; who feel sad, angry, shy or troubled; who are autistic, English-language learners or newer readers; who have behavioral issues; or who just don’t enjoy working in groups.

When did it stop being OK to be an individual?

Children who learn an efficient method at home and who pass it on to classmates also can find themselves being reprimanded. In today’s constructivist class, children must not deny their classmates the chance to struggle and fail. Students often aren’t even allowed to use the efficient methods their parents taught them, not even if those methods work better for them. They must suffer and fail along with everyone else. Naturally, they can come to resist the constructivist approach, whereupon they will be blamed for lacking motivation. Parents who resist it are seen as problems.

Parents know about connections between student frustration and deteriorating motivation, but proponents of reform are trained to not listen to parents. They say to parents: “You want those methods because they’re what you had as a child, but please don’t teach them to your children. It will confuse them.” Later, those parents will be blamed for their lack of involvement.

After a few years of reform math, many children decide they hate math. I’ve seen this attitude in second graders, third graders, fourth graders, and students from fifth grade on up. They’ve forgotten that they used to like math, that math is cool, that they used to be good at it. Suddenly, math is a huge problem. They need special help, intervention, a special ed program, counseling, drop-out prevention programs, and meetings with parents, teachers, a tutor or a mentor. Their life is spiraling out of control in front of their eyes, but in constructivist classrooms, there is nowhere to hide. Any problems are in plain sight, in front of every classmate.

I asked my daughter what effect it can have on students, to be failing a basic math class. She said:

“It can either have the effect of ‘I’m not good enough.’ You know, ‘The teacher’s spending all of this time on me, and I’m still not good enough.’ And kind of a depressing effect. Or it can be ‘Well, I’m bad at this, so who cares. I might as well skip school.’ Either way, very few students would thrive under that.”

About the idea that students must struggle and fail in order to learn math, she said:

“If 99% of the adults who said that were reversed back in time and put in a discovery classroom, they would have the same opinion that 99% of the kids do. …Saying that kids need to learn in groups and saying that kids need to struggle is so absolutely ridiculous and cruel to kids. School is supposed to be a refuge. It’s supposed to be the place where dreams come true and you can do anything. And it’s the start of your dreams. If you’re going to be an astronaut, if you’re going to be a lawyer, or change the world, school is where it starts. And you’re crushed before you even get half-way in the door.”

Children won’t typically say to adults, “I don’t like reform math” or “I don’t like constructivism.” Children tend to internalize problems and to blame themselves. They take their cues from the adults around them. So, they might say, “I’m not very good in math.” “I’ve never understood math.” "Math is hard." “Math isn’t my thing.” And I have heard that repeatedly, from an alarming number of students of all ages. What’s actually a failure in K-12 education has turned into a self-esteem problem for the children, to a point at which they literally panic over simple calculations. Their self-doubt and lack of skills can follow them forever, limiting them in innumerable ways – dark shadows on their life.

“I don’t get it” can quickly turn into “I hate math,” which can turn into “I hate school” which can turn into “I don’t want to go to school today,” which can turn into illness, dropping out, or behavioral or emotional issues. You’ve heard of “early warning signals” for dropping out? A known warning signal is failed math classes. But many schools gloss over that fact, while obstinately refusing to do the one thing that needs to be done: Allow the teachers to directly teach sufficient math to the students.

You don’t have to take my word for it. Ask the children. Take their difficulties to the district and listen to those adults blame everything on you, your children, your children's teachers, social issues, money, evolving standards, or some other stray-dog excuse. Then, fume just as I do, as those adults turn a blind eye to your children’s misery.

A mom wrote to me last week: “The reform math is tearing my child's self confidence, and her second-grade teacher told me last week that she sees the instant terror or fear on my daughter’s face when she asks them to bring their math materials up for their lesson. I can’t imagine feeling this way in school. … I never have felt so fearful of a subject as I see in my daughter’s face when I say let’s do math homework. Math to her is like a plague and she very easily starts crying because it is so puzzling in her mind. She is a very bright girl and makes straight As in every other subject.”

In constructivist classes, group work is the name of the game. Some math classes are taught entirely through group work. My daughter explained the problem she had with constant group work:

“The leader of the group has the responsibility of keeping everyone in line and on task, and making sure everyone in the group learns. And generally, the leader is going to be someone who cares about whether everyone learns. But the leader has no ability to make the end result happen, and no authority, and everybody knows it. You’re trying to teach people who know they’re not going to remember it or understand it, so they don’t see a point. And when people get frustrated with it, it feels like a personal failure. And through all this, you’re still not getting the math concept down.

“If you’re in the middle, then you’re just trying to get by. You’re just trying to survive around the mix of the two extremes. It’s more of a busywork, and if you’re asked in three or four days what you were working on, then you probably won’t remember.

“And if you’re on the lower end, then it just sucks. You’re so embarrassed that somebody has to teach you, you’re probably not paying attention at all. And you’re going to pass off your ‘not paying attention’ as you being deliberately so. You’ll just write down what you’re told, depending on how many problems and how short of a time you have.

“I mean, I love how the schools keep saying, ‘Don’t plagiarize, don’t cheat,’ but they practically force half the kids in their classes to do it, to get something down before the time to turn in worksheets is up. If they were going to give us a terrible method of solving stuff, they could have at least told us how to use that terrible method. And they never taught us how to work in a group.”

Where is the teacher in all of this, I asked her? Teachers are to be a “guide on the side,” she said, not a “sage on the stage.” Many pro-reform teachers have rules like “Ask three (classmates) before you ask me.” This means children must always admit to several classmates that they don’t understand. It can change the nature of relationships and cause children to become resentful or dependent on others.

I’ve heard adults call children who are having trouble in math “the low group,” “unmotivated,” “selfish,” “dummies,” “typical teens,” “lazy,” “problems for teachers,” or students of “low cognitive ability.” I’ve known children who were assessed as special ed, but when their parents got them direct instruction from someone, the children suddenly stopped being special ed.

I’ve known Honors students who didn’t know basic arithmetic. Last year, I called every middle school and high school in my city to find out how to help a specific student who was in that position. Only one person in 12 schools criticized the curriculum -- but just lightly and only after first suggesting that the student be tested for a disability. Instead, I was told that the student couldn’t be real, probably should be tested for learning disabilities, likely forgot what she was taught, must have lied or cheated, or perhaps fell on her head and developed brain damage.

Ponder that for a moment. Brain damage. Are you angry yet? Are you seeing the abusive nature of this? I have long thought that proponents of reform would truly say and do anything rather than criticize their precious program.

I’ve seen high school graduates panic when asked what 6x8 is. I’ve seen children cry over math, and heard many students say that their math-inclined parents can’t help with math homework. In 2010, just 38.9% (later “scrubbed” to 41.7%) of Spokane’s 10th graders passed a simple state math test that required just 56.9% to pass. Local administrators dismissed what was obviously their failure with: “That number is irrelevant.” And to them, student outcomes are irrelevant. The real priorities in reform aren’t testable: Group work, struggling, failing, discovering and “deeper conceptual understanding.”

You’d think administrators would want to know the truth about the children’s math ability, and that they’d want us to know. You’d think when children are struggling and failing – they wouldn’t say, “Yes, that’s what’s supposed to happen.” You’d think they’d do everything in their power to kick out failed approaches and to buy a good curriculum RIGHT NOW. You would be wrong.

School districts love committees, so whenever there’s a change, they form a committee. It needs 60 people who aren’t you, plus sticky notes, Power Point presentations, butcher paper, highlighter pens and taxpayer-funded food. The committee takes six months to come to fake consensus, plus another six before a new curriculum arrives. Much professional development is required, and the new curriculum is reform and constructivist because that’s “best practices.” They just know that it works. (Well, not for your child, but that’s probably because your child’s in the “low” group.)

I asked my daughter how she thinks students learn math best. She said:

“I think we all have an individual way of learning best. I think that, in trying to create an individual way of learning, the schools have created an even smaller box. But I think kids want to be told what we’re supposed to do. We want to be given a set of parameters and a set of rules. I believe we want to be heard, because that’s the biggest thing. Whether or not we learn best with this format, we should be able to say that and tell that to our teacher or the principal or whoever would listen. But if nobody listens, then whatever way actually works, educators will never know.”

I asked her if groups of K-12 students really can “discover” good process and efficient methods. She said:

“I’m sure that at some point, some adult discovered good process because otherwise, we wouldn’t have it, but asking a child to do that, especially in a group, especially when we’re tired, and we don’t really care that much about it because we have homework, and it’s a sunny day outside, and it’s lunch, and especially if we’re only 10 or 11… You’re asking a child to essentially create a nuclear bomb with a marshmallow and a set of pliers and no instructions. It’s never going to happen.”

I asked what she would say about this approach to a room of educators, if she had the chance. My daughter was quiet for several seconds. Then she said softly and carefully:

“I would say that they have taken people who are my equal or better in how smart they are and how well they learn, and how nice they are and not as sarcastic. And they have screwed them over. And they have taken their futures and stomped them into the dust. It makes me really, really mad.”

Thank you for speaking up, daughter. It makes me mad, too.

Please note: The information in this post is copyrighted. The proper citation is:

Rogers, L. (November 2012). “In defense of direct instruction: Constant constructivism, group work and arrogant attitude are abusive to children." Retrieved (date) from the Betrayed Web site:

This article was published Nov. 6, 2012 on Education News at:


R. Craigen (WISE Math co-founder) said...

My only point here Laurie is that we should stop calling this methodology "Constructivism". I propose the term "pedagogical constructivism", to distinguish it from constructivism, which is a well-established theory of learning.

Pedagogical constructivism is a prescriptive theory of teaching which purports to derive from the constructivist theory of learning, but which actually bears little resemblance to it, and certainly derives little of its prescriptions from anything said in the latter theory.

Constructivism, in contrast, is a descriptive theory of learning, which is agnostic about prescriptive measures in the classroom.

In constructivist theory, students may construct their knowledge through discovery, direct instruction, reading, social interaction, possibly even divine revelation. It is about how the brain assembles and organizes knowledge when given.

Constructivist pegagogy recommends providing what is perhaps the weakest level of externally input knowledge for the learner .. "teaching by not teaching", if you will. Constructivist learning theory prescribes no such thing.

Conflation of constructivist learning theory with pedagogical constructivism is being called by some the "constructivist teaching fallacy"; I think the name is apt, and I think we should speak of these two theories in precisely these terms.

Keep writing. You're making some excellent points.

Unknown said...

Interesting article. I remember, with nausea, what it was like to fail to learn via THE one and only method. This isn't just a math can be a problem in virtually any subject from literature analysis to foreign language. I wouldn't pound the schools quite so hard, though. I worry that the impetus for this goes all the way back to collegiate departments of education coupled with a dearth of education funding, not to mention overcrowded classrooms. The biggest point this article makes, with which I agree, is that parents are chronically excluded. It's as if the only thing we're good for is supplying cookies at school parties. Bah humbug.

Laurie H. Rogers said...

Robert, do you have a reference handy? I'd like to read more about that. I've never seen a differentiation made between constructivism and some improper application of constructivist theory.

Very interesting. It could be worth some conversation. It wouldn't be the first theory to have wandered miles away from its roots, if that's what has happened.

momof4 said...

Ther is NO dearth of ed funding. The ed world has had a river of money for decades and has wasted it on admin, "PD", useless/unnecessary technology etc. Waste, fraud and abuse abound. As a student who had 29 in my 1-12 class, and the wife of a guy who had 100 in his (parochial school) class, I don't think class sizes are the problem, either. Full-inclusion, mainstreaming, heterogeneous grouping and lack of disciplinary enforcement (including removal to alternate placements) are problems. Constructivism/discovery/groupwork are problems; even if such methods were effective (and I don't believe it), they are monstrously inefficient. Put the kids in rows, make the teacher teach and have the kids work individually.

R. Craigen (WISE Math co-founder) said...

Hi Laurie.

Happy to help. A good place to start is this recent summary of research on minimal-guidance instruction, by Kirschner et al.

"Pedagogical Constructivism" is my own term, which came after some reflection on Kirschner's contentions about the subject. There has been a successful conflation in the world of Education between these two concepts, and it is a source of much confusion. I think they need to be divorced, and the agenda for doing so must begin with the habit of using terminology that clearly separates them.

So I advocate for both terms: "Pedagogical Constructivism" and the "Constructivist Teaching Fallacy" to become part of the common lexicon.

You'll find Kirschner's article full of invaluable observations about what is actually known in the field of developmental psychology concerning effective teaching practices. Note his reference to the well-known "Worked Example Effect", for example. Well worth a read!

CM said...

So true, Laurie! Keep up the great work. Trust me, there are still many of us out here battling it out--or not.

I gave up and just pulled my daughter out of CMP2. She was texting me "HELP! Get me out of here!!!" My husband was helping her and he saw within 2 weeks what the problems were. He couldn't even believe it and said to get her out.

So, they (generously) offered to put her in a computer-based math class but she didn't want it--she just wants to do Saxon! Seriously--many kids LOVE to do math if you give them the freedom!

You'd laugh--I used their arguments and terminology against them and said, "She just prefers to learn math a different way", "She wants an authentic pre-algebra class, one that will actually prepare her for Algebra 1 next year." "She is frustrated by the pacing and the pedagogy. If you were actually following the book (btw--I have copies of the teacher's manuals so I know...), then she'd probably be fine..."

The good news is that she is doing GREAT now--(thank you John Saxon!) Just wish that all the kids could too. That's the really sad part. There other kids were either bored or lost.

We are not going to win this in the short run and so meanwhile we have to take care of our own. I am hopeful that they will see how much better it is, especially after seeing how much more she accomplishes in a day --but I'm not holding my breath!

Education in USA said...

There's so many reasons of public education failing..and the major one is quality of infrastructure and facilities..

Bruce Deitrick Price said...

Well, the description of the problem can hardly be improved upon. So what, as Lenin asked, is to be done?

Doesn't everyone feel that these people are morally reprehensible? But the resistance to their perversities is so polite, so muted. Do they deserve that?

Perhaps a frank description would be helpful. I'm seeing the Education Establishment in this country as an unhealthy cult, with sociopathic tendencies.

Or here's a somewhat simpler perspective. When George Orwell wrote "Animal Farm" and talked about Pigs, he was not speaking of tycoons, the super-rich, or the 1%. No, I believe he was speaking about the elite commissars then wrecking Russia. He was speaking about our Education Establishment.

Doug1943 said...

As a long-time conservative, whom some would even call a black-hearted reactionary, may I make a plea to my fellow education reformers?

Please, please, please, don't politicize what we are trying to do. And don't personalize it.

I know -- believe me, I know! -- how enraging some of the horrible PC Leftist types who are prominent in the EdSchool world are. There are certain websites, a view of which can raise my blood pressure by 25 points.

BUT ... the fact is, there is a huge spectrum of humanity involved here. There are people who are otherwise completely orthodox Lefties, who understand the damage that the EdSchool types have done. There are nice wooly liberals who are uneasy about the direction our educational system has taken.

Some of the best articles on education have appeared in American Educator, a journal of the American Federation of Teachers.

Even the most orthodox and dogmatic constructivists are not evil, just deeply misguided. Or, in any case, we must pretend that they are just misguided.

We need to build as broad a coaliton as possible, for sensible reform. This must include, to be successful, people from the Left and the Right, and others who are not on the spectrum at all.

We will be most effective if we do not question the motives of our opponents, but simply, with the utmost courtesy and calm, keep pointing out the evidence.

I don't put this forward because I am a nice guy. It's the most effective way to wage political war. (See Trotsky on "How to make offense look like defense" in his History of the Russian Revolution.)

Wise as serpents, gentle as doves.

Anonymous said...

"What’s actually a failure in K-12 education has turned into a self-esteem problem for the children, to a point at which they literally panic over simple calculations. "

This happened to us. I have a daughter that has taken a couple of years to recover from the botched implementation of CC integrated math in high school. She finally had embraced the fact that math wasn't all that bad when this happened. Now, her future and college opportunities have been stunted.

I have also detested the years I have endured as a parent, being told by teachers, that math is different now. I may not have achieved my engineering degree, because I switched to the arts, but it is not because I don't generally understand mathematics. Renaming a process has nothing to do with the fact that the process is still the same. Yes, this is anecdotal, but it seems I am not the only one to experience this.