Re: challenge to constructivism in school instruction

From: Mike Cole (
Date: Tue Sep 07 2004 - 09:08:45 PDT

No, David. That is a fragment from a draft. I thought the question provocative and useful
for us to consider and that our consideration might help the writer -- and us.

I see a couple of responses have already come in with suggestions.

I think the writer offer us an important challenge. For example, my own experience tells me
that the "phonics versus comprehension first" argument is a totally false one (Iam sure others
disagree!). In work such as question asking reading that Peg Griffin invented and which is
described briefly in *Cultural Psychology* we provide **ONE** way to coordinate acquisition of
phonic skills and comprehension so that the dichotomy really goes away, submerged in a mixture
of actions as part of the activity that are a melange of many elements of the full act of reading.

But we know how to arrange this only under some circumstances, and do not even know what the full
range of circumstances is. For example, you need two participants who know how to read with comprehension
(and hopefully interest!) along with learners who can be at various skill levels. We worked with groups
of 5-6 kids at a time. Could it be done with more? I think so. I actually use a version of this method
in interactive seminars with undergrads in various locales using internet video to excellent effect.
But could it be done with more struggling 5th graders? Or do the groups have to stay small? Could it
be done with a teacher and a 6th grader who knows how to read well and a group of 4th graders? I think
so, but its never been tested? Etc.

There was an article recently by my colleague Richard Mayer at Santa Barbara attacking discovery learning,
but it seemed to me it was a straw horse of totally free discovery which he said is the reigning ideology
among educational researchers (I am paraphrasiing from memory and may exagerate, but that was the tone)
and he argued for guided teaching. I actually know of no one who believes in entirely free discovery learning
in classrooms and have never witnessed such an approach being used in my region. But it seems to me that
the person posing the challenge to constructivism is asking for what we know about how to arrange the
right amount of constraint and agency, new and given material, etc under conditions of teaching in a wide
variety of school settings, in many of which the parents of the kids expect, and may demand, strict
transmission, Taylorist, bottom up teaching methods.

Alban Barkley (sp?) who was Truman's vice president said that the main trouble with occupying the middle
of the road is that you are like to be hit from both directions. It can't be some mechanical compromise
that one is seeking, but a plethora of oranic compounds implementable under a plethora of conditions.

So, rephrasing the question, what such compounds can we point to along with the conditions that make them
work. Ann Brown and Joe Campione's community of learners approach was one such compound, but it has not
survived or replicated, so far as I know, from the Oakland classroom where it was implemented some years ago.


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