Re: challenge to constructivism in school instruction

From: David H Kirshner (
Date: Tue Sep 07 2004 - 08:43:46 PDT

Can you give us the citation to the report this is taken from?

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                                               cc: (bcc: David H Kirshner/dkirsh/LSU)
                      09/06/2004 03:09 Subject: challenge to constructivism in school instruction
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The following passage from a report I am reading is
written by a person who has spent about 40 years in
the field of foundation support of educational
innovation. It is taken out of context, but it seems
to stand on its own as a challenge to a lot of
members of XMCA, among whom I include myself, so I
thought I would send it along to see if collectively
we could come up with a bibliography of positive
examples that respond to, in particular, the
conclusion at the end of the passage. For example,
Carol Lee's work on teaching highschool english to
African American students might go in such a
bibliogrpahy. And.....??
(Who is avoiding pressing work while waiting to close
the voting on the next MCA article to be read at the
end of this week and wondering how Stanton Wortham's
articles from Ethos can make it into the hands of
It is interesting how little definitive work exists
concerning the most effective ways to teach specific
subjects (RAND, 2003 a and b) given the amount of
paper and breath that have been expended on debating
such things – on the various “wars.” There is a
general understanding of how people learn based on
current cognitive science (NRC, 1999) that stresses
the points that human beings in learning new things
will be influenced by the prior knowledge that they
bring to the situation; that learning is active,
serving the purposes of the learner; that learners
construct conceptions of areas of knowledge that help
them organize the specific facts and pieces of
knowledge in a domain; that experts have conceptual
structures or schemes of this sort that give them
much more powerful and flexible control over
knowledge in a domain and the ability to apply it in
new situations, compared to novices, though it also
is true that these conceptual schemes cannot operate
in a vacuum but are built upon knowledge of facts and
well practiced skills. Socio-cultural approaches in
addition have described the ways in which individual
human knowledge is fundamentally a social product,
derived from the interactions, tools, artifacts, and
affordances provided by one’s family, peers, and
cultural milieu. These general insights make it
clear that it should be important for instruction to
go beyond simple didactic drilling on specific facts
to call attention to higher-level ways of organizing
and understanding those facts and providing active
opportunities to use knowledge in meaningful
activities and to have the experience of making sense
of new knowledge in the light of prior experience and
current active engagement. That said, however, there
is much less rigorous help available on how the
balance between didactic and active learning should
be struck, and how it might vary, for particular
students and particular subjects at particular stages
of learning.

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