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Bruno: Constructivism & Special Education

Zds9teddy2_t607Via 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.

Minimally-guided instruction - the kind often favored by constructivists - appears to be less effective than more-guided instruction generally, especially for weaker students (i.e., those who probably already have a history of failure in school). Moreover, research focusing specifically on students with learning disabilities is especially clear on the virtues of guided instruction for students in SPED programs.

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)


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One correction on the last statement -- the bulk of the increase in classification percentages came fairly early in the history of P.L. 94-142. While I am skeptical that entirely unstructured class time is a good idea, it's hard to argue that whatever unstructured teaching may have been ascendant in some districts in the 1970s and early 1980s was a greater force than the child-find mandates, the pressures of parents to get services, and the growth in special-education capacity at the time.

That all makes sense to me, and there does seem to be a big bump 1977-1981. But it looks to me like the numbers continued to go up slowly in the 80's, then accelerated a bit again in the 90s. Were there additional mandates that would explain that in the IDEA reauthorization ~1990?

1977 - 8.3%
1981 - 10.1%
1991 - 11.4%
1996 - 12.4%
1999 - 13%
2002 - 13.4%
2008 - 13.4%

I have also looked at the issue of ineffective teaching and its effect on classifications of learning disabilities is in this article:


I don't call it constructivism; I question whether and to what extent ineffective instruction has contributed to the increase in LD classifications. I bring into the discussion how there is a difference between low achieving (LA) students and learning disability students (LD) and question to what extent LA students were or are being classified as LD. I also question how Response to Interventions (RtI) are working and to what extent RtI may have ocntributed to the decrease in LD classifications. I also question why the effective treatments (explicit and direct/guided instruction) are not used in the first place.

As to how widespread the practices of poor teaching are, one has to consider the effects of student-centered, collaborative group work, project-based and problem-based learning. Many of these programs occur in the K-6 range. Middle school and high school teachers have expressed alarm at the deficient math skills that entering students have. You are correct that in middle school and high school there is less of this type of teaching, most likely because of the amount of material to be covered.

I question the relationship as well, because of the timing of the increase in LD numbers, since they seem to be concentrated in a short period of time. But as for the notion that 'constructivism' isn't particularly pervasive, these classifications are presumably made mostly in primary school, where project-based, collaborative, student-centered and so on instruction -- constructivist in the broad sense -- is overwhelmingly the norm, since it is the only form of instruction that education's commanding heights approve of and therefore teachers are trained in little else.

To be clear, it's not that I think constructivism isn't pervasive. I think it is quite pervasive, and often gives perfectly reasonable accounts of the psychological processes involved with learning.

It's just that, unfortunately, many people have made unjustified leaps from constructivist descriptions of the learning process to what they believe are implications for the teaching process.

So I think you can give a perfectly coherent account of why direct instruction and heavy guidance are consistent with constructivist accounts of learning. In practice, though, many educators assume that genuinely constructivist teaching is inquiry-based and minimally-guided.


In terms of the percentages, a few points:

1) 1977 is not really the best starting point except as the first federal report on 94-142. Right-to-education cases began winning in 1972, and several states such as MA and TN had written statutes on special education rights preceding 94-142.

2) There's some creep inherent in the occasional accumulation on categories, as some portion of children identified as ADD or on the autism spectrum shift from Section 504 to IEPs.

3) I'm not sure how the baby-boom echo would shift percentages (with greater identification in elementary years and some leaving of services for children with primarily language difficulties addressed by speech therapy).

Semantics aside, let's look at why student-centered curricula are problematic for children with special ed. needs. Let's talk about biologically based organizational issues, prevalent not just with kids who have ADHD but with kids who have autism and/or SPD--and keep in mind that these 3 diagnoses are commonly comorbid. These kids thrive on structure and need to learn in an environment that doesn't exacerbate focus difficulties--lots of students moving about, talking at the same time, is a horrifically bad environment for kids with sensory issues or focus issues for any reason to function in.
Moreover, as we've eliminate movement opportunities from students' days to save money, cutting recess and P.E. and trying to minimize movement in unsupervised areas of buildings, we've made it extremely hard for kids with a high need for movement to focus and attend. Student-centered learning, which allows a classroom's ambient noise to reach intolerable levels for kids with auditory issues, has to be counteracted with time spent in quiet sensory breaks getting focusing movement--but the students rarely have this option. Knowing they'll be punished for not focusing or getting hyper or goofy, they use their willpower to keep it together...but learn nothing in these environments. It's the rare parent who hears about auditory therapies to address this particular problem.


Funny because I talked to a mom in our state who recently pulled her kids out of their school due to the constructivism used in the International Baccalaureate Program.

There are many Facebook pages dedicated to eliminating IB from the schools due to the Constructivist approach.

In the case where the mom pulled her kids out to homeschool, her kids were doing group projects that took an enormous amount of time she said was inefficient.

I think you need to look a little harder. Constructivism is being implemented in many of our schools and I'm finding kids getting angry at the teachers for not teaching them. Many kids now using tutors to get the instruction they need.

Hi Paul. Interesting thoughts. I am a university professor in Manitoba who has gotten involved in advocacy in math education after seeing it "go south" (uh ... no offense intended to my American friends ... ) over the last decade here through the introduction of the WNCP curriculum and the associated methodology that has been pushed across all four Western provinces (other Jurisdictions, including all the territories and some Maritime provinces are also using it).

WNCP is structured under the assumption of minimal guidance. Accordingly all four standard algorithms of arithmetic (vertical addition/subtraction with carry/borrow, vertical tableau multiplication and long division) do not appear anywhere among the outcomes and learning indicators. And that only begins to indicate the direction things have gone. Instead students are to develop "personal strategies" through interacting with problems in class. I would call this "constructivism", and I would call it "widespread".

There are dozens of widely-used curricula in the U.S. that predate WNCP and involve the same approach, such as TERC. These generally derive from the NCTM 1989 "standards" document and cite work that purports to support the efficacy of constructivist methodology, like Kamii/Dominick and Carpenter et al.

Now, the words "constructivist" and "constructivism" do not appear at all in the hundreds of pages WNCP framework documents, even in the long preambles outlining their philosophy -- although they are in the title of some works cited. But the philosophy outlined, and (I can verify) the methods being vigorously promoted by the provincial trainers and math specialists, and all three of our teacher colleges in Manitoba, is strongly constructivist. They appear to avoid use of this term, perhaps because they don't want to be pigeonholed.

Recently I was involved in a "math summit", a day-long conference here involving about 200 key players in provincial math education. Some high school students started the day by talking about their experiences over the years. One in particular stood out in people's minds and framed much discussion later. She spoke of one class that all the students loved, and which convinced her that she wanted to pursue mathematics later in life, and another that turned her off again, and her classmates also hated. The difference? She said the first was well-structured and expectations were clear. The second was very unstructured, students were expected to "discover" much of the methodology themselves, and expectations were not clear.

This dovetailed nicely with my talk on the importance of algorithms in education, in which I argued that structure both in the classroom and in the material learned in mathematics is a critical need, particularly for young children. (I had not known these kids would be speaking too.) After our talks, there was a question-and-answer period in which the students and us sat together on stage. We were subjected to a barrage of questions and counterpoint, some of them rather fierce, about us wanting to "drag math education back into the dark ages" and full of pejorative phrases about structured learning, like "drill and kill". Most of this came from the consultants, who for the past few years have been criss-crossing the province like first-century evangelists holding inservice sessions on methods for teaching the new curriculum, which has teachers in a muddle.

While Ontario is not using WNCP, they have their own version of the same system, also based on American precursors.

So, while the TERM "constructivism" is not widespread, methods that clearly fall into that category clearly are -- and are still being vigorously promoted.

Some observations:

1. I perceive that the constructivist paradigm is largely abandoned by high school, perhaps partly because math teachers in later grades tend to have more subject-area expertise and can't be told what to do as easily, and partly because there is upward pressure to meet the requirements of post-secondary education. So the amount of constructivist methodology you see will depend largely on which grades you are looking at.

2. In light of the fact that minimal guidance is well-known to be MORE effective for experts and LESS effective for novices, the gradient I observe above is highly unfortunate.

3. As Kirschner et al argue effectively, there is a major distinction to be made between the very respectable constructivist theory of learning, which is descriptive, and the much more controversial "constructivist" theory of teaching, which is entirely prescriptive, and which bears little resemblance to the former. And yet, the former is generally invoked by proponents of the latter as if they were one and the same, or as if the latter follows logically from the former. Kirschner et al calls this conflation of theories the "constructivist teaching fallacy", which I think is apt. You evidently are familiar with this.

4. I believe part of our confusion pertaining to the pervasion of constructivism is due to this conflation of theories ... what, we might ask, does genuine constructivism look like? "Minimal guidance" would appear to be a key aspect, but clearly not the only thing that might qualify. To distinguish the two uses of "constructivism" I favour the use of "pedagogical constructivism" to delineate the teaching philosophy.

5. You are right to approach Nikki Haye's theory cautiously -- there has been too little caution these days in the world of math education when it comes to handling the results of purported research or theoretical writing. I also agree with you that her hypothesis is likely to have some merit, and it would be interesting to see hard data that looks at this correlation with control on other variables.

Nancy posted above while I was writing my lengthy comment and I read it afterwards. I strongly agree about the importance of structure for children, particularly in early and middle years, is a critical issue here. In fact, it may be the primary factor lying behind the correlation Nikki H is suggesting.

The question I raise is whether the shift in instructional emphasis (i.e., to "constructivist teaching") over the past several decades has increased the number of low achieving (LA) children because of poor or ineffective instruction. Would these LA children have been able to swim with the rest of the pack when traditional teaching of math and other subjects was the norm? And of the LA children who are products of ineffective teaching, how many are incorrectly classified as LD?

It would take some solid research to quantify this, but it is research that should be undertaken.

As the author of the discussed article, I will simply add a hearty ditto to Robert, the university professor in Manitoba. His comments offer an outstanding clarity on the topic.

My own clarity came in 1998 and 1999 when I studied with Prof. Rueven Feuerstein in Israel. He supported the constructivist theory of learning, as proposed by Vygotsky, while also supporting direct instruction. He was stunned that manipulatives were being used past primary grades in America. It took two summers of training from 8 a.m. to 10 p.m. for me to qualify as one of his trainers. Because it is a demanding program and based on solid content knowledge and ayalytical reasoning across all domains, few American schools want to fool with it. As Euclid said, "There is no royal road to geometry." In other words, real learning for most of us is real hard work. So, I used my training with my staff and now to tutor my students, of whom 3/4 are "learning disabled."

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