Friday, February 1, 2013

Why nobody is learning anything in school

Did you know that teachers aren't supposed to teach? We're really "facilitators of learning." Did you know that, in the ideal classroom, the teacher will just light a spark, step back, and watch while students discuss, question and answer all by themselves, thus magically arriving at knowledge of the subject being discussed?

Well, at least according to the learning theory called constructivism, that's what's supposed to happen. This theory was invented in the early 20th century, and is still taught in education schools and at professional development sessions throughout the United States. It is still greeted as a radical, new, and challenging theory, mainly because it completely defies common sense and everything most of us think of when we think about what we send out children to school for and what teachers are supposed to do.

To quote Prof. George Hein,

What is meant by constructivism? The term refers to the idea that learners construct knowledge for themselves---each learner individually (and socially) constructs meaning---as he or she learns. Constructing meaning is learning; there is no other kind. The dramatic consequences of this view are twofold;
1) we have to focus on the learner in thinking about learning (not on the subject/lesson to be taught):
2) There is no knowledge independent of the meaning attributed to experience (constructed) by the learner, or community of learners.

So if you thought that in a math classroom, the idea is that the teacher knows math and the students are there to learn it, you're wrong. If you thought that history happened and that a history teacher's job is to teach it to her students, guess again. In fact, there is really no knowledge at all. We all just kind of make it up ourselves!

This might sound ludicrous to the average person who sends children to school thinking that they're there to actually learn something, but in education circles it's taken deadly seriously. Never mind that student achievement is generally measured by standardized tests that test, guess what, knowledge. Apparently every student in a given community is supposed to spontaneously construct knowledge identical to what's on the test. If we're really serious about this constructivism stuff, then shouldn't we give every student 100%? Anybody could validly argue that just because the knowledge they constructed doesn't match the knowledge you constructed doesn't make their construction any less valid that yours, right?

Seriously, though, we teachers are consistently taught that actually teaching students things is bad. It's denigrated as "rote learning," and "drill and kill." Those things are out the window. I personally have found that when I want to teach something, or when a student wants to know something, the most efficient thing to do is just to explain what I know to them. I could spend an hour having them figure out how to play an A minor chord, or I could spend 30 seconds telling them. I'm not supposed to do that, though. Instead, I'm supposed to rely on the "prior knowledge" that students bring to class, and somehow, magically, that prior knowledge, through "facilitated" discussion, will become... new knowledge?

You can't make this s**t up, people.


Hein, George. "Constructivist Learning Theory." Institute For Inquiry. Institute for Inquiry, 1991. Web. 1 Feb 2013 <>. 


  1. I regularly read your posts and find them both sane and insightful (a teacher with a clue is somewhat rare and important if you ask me), so forgive me for only commenting when I see a disagreement. Nevertheless:

    It's obviously shortsighted and odd to aspire "not to teach anything". However, it is perfectly ok to desire not to *forcibly* teach a Pre-university student something he has no interest in learning. The necessary conclusion is that we should not grade or test students based on what *WE* think they should learn, much like you said yourself.

    If a student desires knowledge, we (not just designated teachers) ought to try and help in whatever ways we can, but grading him according to what he doesnt want to know is one of the main reasons modern compulsory schooling can't seem to escape its cycle of failure.

    As you also demonstrated in multiple posts prior, it's not as if modern schooling gives knowledge that is all that important anyway.

    1. Thanks for your comments. To clarify, I'm trying to stress that, ostensibly, parents send their students to school to learn, and the public face of education still maintains that's what's happening in schools, when in actuality the teaching methods foisted on us do not lead to students learning anything at all. John Holt, for example, supports traditional educational methods when needed for study of a chosen subject. Honestly, I think even a majority of home schooled and privately schooled children are still probably taught things that they don't necessarily want to know. Very few children are completely free learners. However, I still strongly support home school and private education because the control rests with the family, either directly or as a result of consumer choice.

      Also, as you pointed out, there are times when students are interested in subjects, even in public schools - my own classroom is a good example of that. And, as you say, I want to help them in any way I can. However, if I were to design all my lessons in the way that my supervisors want me to, my students wouldn't learn a quarter of what they do when I just "teach" them in the way that most people understand teaching.

      In short, the ostensible aims of public education, the outcomes most people expect when they entrust their children to government employees for 10-12 years of their lives, aren't even supported by the teaching methods that are being forced on us from above. I wonder how people would react to the call for more and more money being poured into the system if they knew what was really going on.

  2. Ya you're probably 100% on point in this. Will try to make them more aware in my country. :)