A response to Harry: the real problem in education is not constructivism but OFSTED’s pedagogic illiteracy

This is a response to Harry’s blog titled “two impossibilities”. There was no reply button on his post and when I pressed reply on the bottom post, it comes up with a tiny little text box. Then the post got longer and longer and I’ve had a boozy lunch so I just thought, oh ____ it I will just blog a response.

Constructivism can be described as three things: an epistemic perspective, a learning theory and a teaching methodology. The epistemic theory posits the view that knowledge is created external to the individual and the individual interacts with it subjectively. The learning theory roughly conforms to this view that learning is constructed subjectively by the learner.

Presuming that we put to one side the more extreme forms of epistemic constructivism, the main area of disagreement resides with the teaching methodology. In other words, how do you get knowledge into the heads of learners so that they can then do, cognitively speaking, whatever it is that cognition does to make representations of knowledge. I don’t think anyone disagrees with the view that knowledge is constructed cognitively by learners. Although Govian rambling often seems to allude to extreme forms of Cartesian rationalism, whereby that the learner is “tabula rasa” and teacher chief “pourer” of knowledge into the empty vessel. I presume few would now agree with that view.

For the purpose of definition I suggest that broadly speaking Constructivist teaching methods should relate to epistemic constructivism or constructivist learning theory or we are not really talking about constructivism. I also presume that there is a really bad type of teaching promoted by OFSTED, that uses some constructivist ideas, but is just risible dross that doesn’t equate to anything intelligent and is certainly not constructivism.

Harry’s central points are that:

1)    The impossibility of communication
2)    The impossibility of research

I’ll reject both points for the reasons stated above that they bear no relationship with epistemic constructivism and the learning theory of constructivism.  Others may agree with Harry and can read his argument at the link above.

On the other hand Harry outlines the story of the Frog and the Fish (see link above), which I think is central to the issue:

The Frog and the Fish

A key point in the book (How people learn) is when it discusses the children’s book ‘fish is fish’. This is about a fish who is friends with a frog. The frog goes on to dry land and then comes back and tells the fish all about it. As he does so, you can see what the fish is imagining; the birds look like fish, the people look like fish etc.

I have seen teachers in meetings nodding sagely like hippies at a Grateful Dead concert when discussing this. It makes a point that is central to constructivist teaching; you can’t communicate complex ideas. No, instead, students must figure them out for themselves. Note that we are not saying that the communication of such ideas is merely difficult. If this were the case, we could think of ways of improving how we communicate; we could work on doing it better.

To extend the metaphor, the frog could, for instance, ask the fish to draw sketches of what he was imagining and then correct him when he went wrong. No, in order for this idea to provide justification for a revolution in teaching methods, we have to accept that communication is impossible.

Now I agree with your Frog story there are concepts that we cannot directly experience; firstly concepts such as fairies or goblins that do not exist in the real world (at least not when you are sober), the knowledge used to make representations of abstract concepts (Math) etc and finally concepts such as time and space, which arguably we have inherent cognition to manage . So in good Kantian tradition and for the sake of argument let’s call these a priori concepts because that’s what they are. Much learning in education does involve experience; Art, IT, business, aspects of English, Science experiments etc etc so we are not talking about all learning but learning that is a priori.

So how do constructivists teach a priori concepts,  they do not say that you cannot communicate complex ideas. Rather it is the learner that constructs ideas and that any teaching methodology needs to acknowledge that fact. It has been argued that the worst way of communicating is by teacher talk alone. The best way is by the teacher creating an object reality around the central idea in question and then allowing the learner to subjectively interact with it. That is after all the basis of epistemic constructivism.

That may include a good deal of teacher talk or it may not. Learners can interact with teacher talk if it is done skillfully enough. I think we can all agree that Ken Robinson could keep a class full of the “hind legs of donkeys” happily occupied even if you don’t agree with what he is saying. Teacher talk is part of the social life of a classroom it is absolutely valid and the decision on whether there is too much of it or otherwise is dependent upon its purpose, just like every other pedagogic approach.

So how would the frog teacher teach the concept of the bird to the fish who has never experienced the bird:

Traditional teaching method

I am old enough to have experienced this (and I am talking the 1980’s and not the 1930’s). The traditional Cartesian teaching method (if you will) was that learners are tabula rasa and simply accepted knowledge as given by a teacher. I fondly remember (ok not that fondly) sessions whereby teachers literally stood at the front of a class and read from a textbook for two hours without looking up.

In this way, the teacher imparts an exact representation of the bird to the learner. Constructivism rejects this notion. Of course, you could say that my example is a rank misrepresentation of traditional teaching methods and little more than bad teaching. Indeed.

Constructivist teaching method

In this case, the Frog teacher may well ask the fish to draw sketches of what they were imagining and then correct them when they went wrong. The Frog teacher may well ask the learners to know the bird in terms of how they feel about themselves in some Fishy variant of anthropomorphism.

The Fish learners will inexorably take a priori concepts inherent to cognition; awareness of physicality, awareness of the material world and impose it onto the bird.

Even so, the learners are to a larger or lesser extent constructing a social representation of a bird. It isn’t the material construction of a bird as it exactly is (we do not have the sensory perception or inherent cognition to do that). So ultimately whatever teaching method is used to teach the concept of the bird is used ends up with a social conceptualisation of a bird.

This is constructivism, the acknowledgement that it is the learner who constructs knowledge and not the teacher. It encourages learner participation for that reason. Even a priori constructs can be taught if the teacher makes it part of the experiential world in some way. Father Christmas exists as a social fact, if not a fact in the natural world. We all know who he / she is.

Traditional OFSTED teaching method (pedagogic illiteracy)

Frog teacher explains the objective of the session. Shows picture of bird then asks Fish learners to get into groups of four and draw a bird largely because that is how they get a grade one or two in observations, and no one really knows why group teaching is good, just that it is good. Three become distracted because drawing a picture is not easily achieved in a group. One learner draws a picture.

Teacher than asks Fish learners to do some independent learning on how a bird may think or feel. Having not drawn the bird nor engaged in any kind of activity to know the bird,  three of the Fish learners are now disengaged and now have no idea what’s going on.

So my assertion is that your examples, whereby the frog could, for instance, ask the fish to draw sketches of what he was imagining and then correct him when he went wrong, is constructivism. The problem is that constructivism is now so embedded into modern pedagogic thinking that it’s critics have forgotten what constructivism was developed to oppose, and that is extreme transmission based teaching that I experienced, and so did many others.

The real problem in education today is not constructivism or progressive methods but OFSTED, and its spreading of pedagogic illiteracy through reports, consultants and a hierarchical education system that largely consists of people who do not understand pedagogy. I see little point in polemics against good teaching methods taught badly.

Harry offers two papers on his blog:

An advocate of Constructivism can be found here:


The classic debunker here:



2 thoughts on “A response to Harry: the real problem in education is not constructivism but OFSTED’s pedagogic illiteracy

  1. I used to get involved in discussions with Harry before I realised that there was no point, I have much better things to do with my time.

    Having said that, I believe that could be said of the majority of blogposts and responses out there in the educational realm.

    I am reminded of the endless arguments in the pub at and after closing time during the 1970s when we would answer all of those questions that were impossible to answer.

    I enjoyed reading this blogpost and I agree with all of the bits that I understood.

    As issues go my feeling is that this one is blindingly obvious. I have a copy of “Frederick’s Tales” by Leo Lionni, and included is the story “Fish is Fish”. I think this is a great story and I reread it every now and then. I also use it to talk to my A level students (last year my AP students) about concepts and their formation in the brain.

    Harry said the following……

    “It makes a point that is central to constructivist teaching; you can’t communicate complex ideas. No, instead, students must figure them out for themselves.”

    I think that when he says “students must figure it out for themselves” he is simply wrong. I believe the story shows that whatever is communicated to learners they will construct their own knowledge in the context of their existing knowledge. The story tells us that students “will” construct their own knowledge not that they “must”.

    However learners are exposed to new information with which they will refine exisiting concepts and create new ones, they will indeed create their own knowledge. It might be similar knowledge or indeed identical knowledge to mine or yours but they will have created it themselves.

    Harry’s suggestion that communication is not therefore possible according to “constructivists” is for me a bit daft. I had discussed these issues with Harry several times before I gave up.

    It was Harry’s comments on “Fish is Fish” that finally made me think. I believe that when he rants about “progressives” and “constructivist teaching” he is akin to the fish in the story. I decided not to get involved in daft discussions so although I now read a couple of blogs (including this one as of today) I rarely post a comment.

    I now concentrate on improving the ways by which I can help learners to develop conceptual understanding in ways that allow them to solve problems they encounter in the World and I find this to be a much better use of my time.

    I think there is an argument to be had about the frog actually experiencing the world and relaying his experience to the fish. For me this small story is the foundation of my practice as it sums up the difficulties and issues at the root of learning.

    This is not meant to be a rant about Harry, just the futility of people who like to promote their understanding of the world as the correct one.

    I have been heartened however by the following …. http://hippocrates-poetry.org/news/press-releases-2/harvard-poet-and-physician.html.

    Harry, Oldandrew and others like to promote the idea of the “perfect” way to cram information into the brain of a learner. Harry is convinced that Kirschner and Sweller have the empirical answer and indeed that the answer to the teaching/learning question is one that will be solved by science, RCTs and experiments.

    Harry and Oldandrew (among others) love to compare the education and medical professions.

    Doctors and academics, concerned that the medical profession has gone too far down the road of treating patients as little machines that will respond to treatments shown to be successful in large clinical trials. They want doctors to treat patients as people, and people are a little more unpredictable than clockwork machines. There are now a number of training establishments at which poetry competitions are used to make doctors think about patients as people.

    Hopefully, the teaching profession will not have to become as impersonal as the medical profession before we see a move towards the Fish is Fish approach. Despite the fact that scientists, bloggers, tweeters and academics like to promote the idea that teaching/learning is rocket science I believ this not to be the case. The more we try to pretend it is rocket science the worse we make it for the kids.

    I will continue to read this blog as I find you talk a lot of common sense. I won’t however comment again as I will be busy thinking of ways to try to transmit my understanding of the world to the fish so that he may refine his understanding of the same world. This may be progressive, it may be traditionalist but most of all it will be Fishist.

    Kepe safe

  2. LOL thanks for your post though I found it a bit fishy (in a nice sense). Harry constructed an article based on two straw men but still everyone is entitled to an opinion. And he does write interesting articles.

    I agree with you about constructivism. Students will construct their own knowledge of the world. I think all this memorising stuff is basically “fishing in the wind”. Learners remember remarkably few facts but do develop their abilities to think and do modify their attitudes slowly and often imperceptibly.

    I once recall studying a piece of research before being struck by something familiar. I had actually written a dissertation on it only a few years earlier. And I don’t write that many dissertations believe me.

    I’ll write a de-construction of Kirschner, which should be fun. Feel free to comment anytime. A couple of fish gags are always welcome.

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