Bruno: Constructivism & Special Education
Via Catherine Johnson, teacher and administrator Niki Hayes has written an interesting piece speculating that "constructivist" teaching has contributed to growing enrollment in special education programs.
This is because, she thinks, many academically vulnerable students who could be successful in more traditional, guided educational settings flounder in the less-structured constructivist environments. (The percentage of students served under IDEA increased from 8.4% in 1977 to 13.4% in 2008. Over the same period the prevalence of ADHD seems to have roughly tripled.)
There are a lot of theoretical reasons to think Hayes may be on to something here, as well as some practical caveats. Read inside for some of my thinking, and let me know what you think.
In many ways constructivism is a pedagogy of privilege: perhaps adequate for strong students, but often inadequate for - and unfair to - less fortunate students who have not yet acquired the social, behavioral, and academic knowledge and skills that allow them to be successful without additional guidance from a teacher. So it's not hard to see how Hayes' story could be true: constructivist teaching may result in the sort of persistent academic failure that makes adults suspect the presence of a learning disability.
That being said, I'm a little skeptical about the likely magnitude of the problem. For starters, the term "constructivism" is actually a pretty vague one that means different things to different people. For example, Hayes is right that misguided "learning style" theories probably lead to a significant amount of bad teaching, but learning style theories aren't really "constructivist" per se, are they? Plus, many of the recommendations of contemporary "constructivism" actually pre-date the term itself.
Also, I don't think it's at all clear how widespread this sort of highly-unstructured constructivist teaching is. Constructivism certainly has its vocal advocates, but I haven't seen all that much of it in practice, even among science teachers who claim to believe in "inquiry" as a method of science instruction. And the more constructivist-oriented research journals are packed with studies in which constructivists bemoan even sympathetic teachers' unwillingness or inability to implement constructivist pedagogy with fidelity.
So while I agree that constructivism has nudged many educators into adopting less effective teaching practices at the margin, I don't think its recommendations are novel enough or its influence widespread enough to explain more than a small fraction of the large increases in SPED classification rates we've seen over the last 40 years. - PB (@MrPABruno) (image source)