Failures in Education: Constructivism and 21st Century Skills

Feb 10, 2018 by

Photo by Ryan Tauss on Unsplash

An Australian educator’s blog posting that could have been written from the United States. The truth about current global educational reform and the push for 21st century skills.

Education is global and 21st Century skills are pursued in many countries based on theories from education reformers and non-governmental organizations.  Newly trained teachers have been taught children have been mis-educated and cannot possibly compete in the global workforce.  What is needed in current and future educational goals should not be decided by local communities, it should be planned by private organizations such as Council of Chief State School Officers (CCSSO) here in the United States or by such organizations as the Global Education Reform Movement (GERM).

The NGOs insist their educational involvement and direction will raise educational attainment and help ensure a work-ready citizenship.  The standards and changes in teaching (teachers becoming ‘guides on the side’ instead of traditional lecturers) touted by professional development trainers will unleash learners’ desire to learn and the student will experience knowledge and insight which that student believes is true.  This style of learning is constructivism.  From The Hong Kong Institute of Education (2011)


It is necessary to instill and measure desired Social Emotional goals into the students so they can be able to compare their version of truth with that of teachers and peers to arrive at a socially tested/socially negotiated version of truth.  Learners also collaborate to arrive at a shared understanding of truth in a specific field.  What is the definition of socially tested/socially negotiated version of truth?  What is a shared understanding of truth in a specific field?  Whose truth is accepted as fact?  How can a student (now classified as ‘learner’) know what is ‘truth’ before they have attained knowledge?


Many veteran teachers have experienced this constructivist reform before and data concludes it doesn’t provided the desired outcomes.  From the summary in Why Minimal Guidance During Instruction Does Not Work: An Analysis of the Failure of Constructivist, Discovery, Problem-Based, Experiential, and Inquiry-Based Teaching (2006):



The authors describe the consistent failings of constructivist teaching known by different names:


The minimally guided approach has been called by various names including discovery learning (Anthony, 1973; Bruner, 1961); problem-based learning (PBL; Barrows & Tamblyn, 1980; Schmidt, 1983), inquiry learning (Papert, 1980; Rutherford, 1964), experiential learning (Boud, Keogh, & Walker, 1985; Kolb & Fry, 1975), and constructivist learning (Jonassen, 1991; Steffe & Gale, 1995).


The study concludes:

Although the reasons for the ongoing popularity of a failed approach are unclear, the origins of the support for instruction with minimal guidance in science education and medical education might be found in the post-Sputnik science curriculum reforms such as Biological Sciences Curriculum Study, Chemical Education Material Study, and Physical Science Study Committee. At that time, educators shifted away from teaching a discipline as a body of knowledge toward the assumption that knowledge can best or only be learned through experience that is based only on the procedures of the discipline. This point of view appears to have led to unguided practical or project work and the rejection of instruction based on the facts, laws, principles, and theories that make up a discipline’s content. The emphasis on the practical application of what is being learned seems very positive. However, it may be an error to assume that the pedagogic content of the learning experience is identical to the methods and processes (i.e., the epistemology) of the discipline being studied and a mistake to assume that instruction should exclusively focus on application. It is regrettable that current constructivist views have become ideological and of ten epistemologically opposed to the presentation and explanation of knowledge. As a result, it is easy to share the puzzlement of Handelsman et al. (2004), who, when discussing science education, asked: “Why do outstanding scientists who demand rigorous proof for scientific assertions in their research continue to use and, indeed defend on the bias of intuition alone, teaching methods that are not the most effective?” (p. 521). It is also easy to agree with Mayer’s (2004)recommendation that we “move educational reform efforts from the fuzzy and unproductive world of ideology—which sometimes hides under the various banners of constructivism—to the sharp and productive world of the the­­ory-based research on how people learn” (p. 18).


The Australian teacher is experiencing and supporting the 2006 study findings that constructivism (or whatever term is used at the time) is a failure.  How many newly trained (within the last 5 years) American teachers are experiencing the same results?  How do we hold our schools of education, local school boards, state educational agencies, and education reform groups requiring constructivist theories and practices accountable when these theories and practices prove to be detrimental to students and teachers?  Should knowledge not only be withheld from students, but also withheld to those entering the teaching profession?  The teacher’s last paragraph reads as if he was offered only way theory/practice of education which he now finds to be lacking in evidence and not producing students possessing academic excellence or even proficiency.  From  The lure of 21st century skills:


As a (young) teacher, it is a great feeling when recognition falls your way. I’m a middle/senior maths and science teacher at a rural school in Australia and I was certainly short of any positive recognition in my first couple of years! However, I recently had the pleasure of having my work featured in a partnership wide newsletter. Without going into too much detail; it was a photo followed by a short explanation of a project I developed. The project involved senior school students interacting with junior school students as a way of promoting engagement. The winning edge that the photo possessed was the fixed gaze, wonder, awe and amazement of the younger children as the older students explained and interacted. In this project I tied in science, technology, engineering, maths, collaboration, inquiry, problem solving, creative and critical thinking. I was kicking goals.

This is, until about 6 months ago, what I thought the goal of any teaching and learning should be. The engagement.

What I have since learned, is that if the goal of your practice is to engage students in your lesson and lead them to be amazed, it is not sustainable. Many of the senior students in this particular case, when formatively questioned by me about simple, basic facts of the project were not very knowledgeable. The whole notion about using engaging content and having engaged students as your lesson outcome or goal is risky. I have also realised that it caused an imbalance of power to a harmful point where the student has the belief that they can choose whether or not to engage with a lesson or learning task because the teacher either did or didn’t engage them. I believed that the behavior of the students was a direct cause of how relevant and engaging the teacher was.

The main issue with the high level of engagement line of thinking is that if you plan to have lasting, domain-specific outcomes from such a lesson it will likely fall short. A student will struggle to remember any domain specific facts from this method of teaching as the attempt to engage and connect with the student will override the memory.

For over 4 years of my teaching career I believed that knowledge and content was not important. It’s not what you know; it’s what you can do. It’s about skills. It’s about how you engage. It’s about how you let a student know that school can be exciting and the same experience as having fun with your mates. So let’s teach our students 21st Century Skills (21CS).

I believed that with the introduction of the internet, the entire world’s knowledge is at our fingertips, so, anyone can use Google, YouTube, Wikipedia and access research and information. Therefore, the real push is for teachers to encourage engagement and deep thinking. Teachers can become facilitators and simply provide the resources and watch the student’s creatively and critically think themselves into expertise. This would today be labelled as student centered learning where students are masters of their own learning. The student only needs the tools to successfully navigate the landscape of tutorials, YouTube videos and Google searches to chase their own desires in their quest for expertise.

But the research doesn’t add up. Although Hattie’s Visible Learning has its critics, the vastness of his research returned a student-driven approach, labelled ‘student control over learning,’ as having a 0.01 effect size. This seems contradictory to the current push I see and experience in many schools. I have attended EduTech, Google and STEM conferences and they rave about engagement, E-Learning and student driven learning. However, our current technological advancements, that have enabled the notion of Higher Order Thinking Skills (HOTS) due to a learners instant access to information, have totally ignored the current research regarding human cognitive architecture. It is unfortunate that this revolutionary push for HOTS does not line up with implications of Cognitive Load Theory, but the conflict between the revolutionary trend and the research cannot be ignored.

Education is full of false dichotomies. The idea that teaching has to be completely knowledge/content based or completely process/generic skills based is a common argument and I have spent many years arguing for the latter. Yet as I entered my masters degree, I noticed many people have had the same thoughts before me. Many teachers have gone through the same questions, ideas, triumphs and struggles that I have. Why did I feel it necessary to go through this all myself?

Are your school board members aware of the shortcomings and failure of the current education reform in schools?  Perhaps local and state school board members need to read actual research about constructivist learning/teaching (rather than the missives from such private organizations such as the non-governmental Missouri School Board Association), the danger in utilizing close readings of texts vs the body of a work, and why a socially tested/socially negotiated version of truth should not be the desired outcome for students.  It might work well for the desired outcome of a global vision of a compliant workforce but is not so desirable and in fact, is antithetical for individual truth and attainment.

Thanks to Wendy Hart, candidate for Alpine UT School Board for the link on constructivist learning.

Source: Failures in Education: Constructivism and 21st Century Skills – Missouri Education Watchdog

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