In search of constructivist teachers

“John Dewey,” who’s studying to become a math teacher, wonders if anyone can find teachers actually using constructivist ideas in the classroom. He quotes Jay Mathews of the Washington Post, who states:

“I have yet to observe a teacher who is not putting considerable emphasis on specific information and skills … If you know of a study that shows that Dewey’s principles are actually practiced in any serious way in many American classrooms, I would like to see it, because it conflicts with what I have found.”

All the students in the modern Dewey’s math education class observed math classes that “were traditional desks-in-a-row, teacher-at-the-board in front, and lessons derived from the textbook.”

Mr. NCTM (the professor) was disappointed. So was our one and only future constructivist of the class. Like others in the class, he teaches under a provisional license. Not only did he not see any constructivist-type lessons, he did not have the time to conduct any such inquiry-based lessons in his own classes. “I keep thinking that there are more things I can do to make math interesting for my students,” he said sadly. “I think I should talk to other teachers and get some constructivist lessons going by collaborating. But at the end of the day, I’m so exhausted I can’t think about collaborating. In fact, I don’t want to talk to anyone.” This left him no choice, he lamented, but “to resort to the text book.”

Dewey suspects constructivism is used in the early grades but is dropped by high school. What’s your experience, teachers and parents?

Also, read this Instructivist post on ed school classes that promise to give future math and science teachers “familiarity with the conceptual understanding and skills necessary for teaching in a manner that promotes the inclusion of all pupils.”

Constructivism, the History and Philosophy of Science, and Technology and Society comprise three strands that further the aim of democratic teaching as applied to mathematics and science.

Instructivist predicts the “democratic” discovery-based environment will exclude “students who need special attention and explicit instruction.”

About Joanne


  1. My observations confirm this. I’m a high school math teacher in Houston. We have 26 math teachers on staff and I don’t know of any who take the constructivist approach. It’s just not possible. The kids who come to us from middle school are usually weak in pre-algebra and we’re pressed for time with an all ready crowded curriculum. Because of this we teach computation and “survival” for the most part.

  2. What an odd idea.

    I’d never heard of constructivism until a couple of months ago and I had a hard time believing that average kids would be expected to duplicate in a semester or a school year the work that at least several of humanity’s greatest minds spent their entire lives to produce.

  3. Barry Garelick says:

    I’ve heard from parents whose children are stuck with Investigations in Number, Data and Space, and with the middle school program COnnected Math, both developed from grants from NSF. They have “discovery-based”, “inquiry-based” activities as opposed to the direct instruction approach. Could it be that the weak skills that high school teachers are seeing could be the result of programs such as these that are designed with the intent to teach the “higher order thinking skills” at the expense of the lower level basic skills?

    My daughter was stuck with Everyday Math and I remember many times seeing her worksheets with problems for which they had not been given information or instruction on how to solve.

  4. Mike Curtis says:

    Before you can “construct” anything, you need basic skills and a collection of building materials. Constructivism cannot be a successful teaching method in a class full of tenth graders who do not know how to multiply, divide, add, nor subtract without a calculator. One would get the impression that students who pass middle school courses learn first that fractions hide under their beds waiting for bare feet to devour, and the only way to avoid total destrucion is to learn how to use the fraction keys on their electric magic boxes. No skill, no building blocks…go out and construct something. The taxpayer’s should sue and get their money back.

  5. I am somewat sceptical about “discovery-based” approach to mathematics teaching. Even basics of elementary school mathematics have been, at their time, tremendous and exceptionally hard discoveries. It is unrealistic to expect that a child can repeat them.

  6. At this point I don’t know any children in Westchester County who aren’t using constructivist math curricula.

  7. Arapahoe High School is participating in a grant to enrich their students experience with constructivist learning.

    Each teacher has a blog in which they document their trials, respond to workshops they attend, and share what they are doing in their classroom.

    Fischbowl is the main entry to the blogs.

    I’m surprised to hear all this commentary above about constructivist education. There seems to be an idea that students don’t learn. I view it as an opportunity for students to get real, hands-on participation rather than be passive recipients of their learning. I think a more engaged student learns more and retains more, because what they learn means more.

    Anyway, I did want to share the example of Arapahoe, since you inquired about schools using this method.

  8. I’m surprised to hear all this commentary above about constructivist education. There seems to be an idea that students don’t learn. I view it as an opportunity for students to get real, hands-on participation rather than be passive recipients of their learning. I think a more engaged student learns more and retains more, because what they learn means more.

    It’s hardly the case that constructivism is the only way of creating real, hands-on participation, or engaged students.

    As for why there’s an idea that students don’t learn under constructivist education – may I refer you to Project Follow-through?

    Tested against at least some constructivist programmes, Direct Instruction produced better results in basic skills, cognitive skills and affective skills (or self-esteem). Students in constructivist programmes may indeed learn something, the reason people favour other methods is that other methods lead to more students learning and each student learning more.

    Direct Instruction requires active, hands-on participation by students. Students are called on to respond many times a minute. Lessons are designed so as to minimise ambiguous instructions that students can misunderstand and they are designed so students have mastered all the necessary background information to tackle a new task. Students appear to be learning more and retaining more because what they learn means more, since they’re equipped with the information to understand it.

  9. I am a student at the University of California and for the first two and a half years of college I was a math major. Every single class I took was taught in the exact same way. They were all traditional math classes; sitting at desks, facing the chalkboard, while the professor goes through the textbook, word for word. As long as I can remember all the math classes I have taken from first grade up have been in the same format. For me this way of teaching works, but for other students it does not. With limited time, space, and finances there really does not seem to be a better way. I cannot begin to imagine how constructivist theory can be applied to math education because the traditional format is so engrained in mind. But it is important to figure out different ways of teaching because not every child learns the same way. I hope that in the near future there will be some ways to change the format of math education so that more students will succeed and enjoy what they are learning.