pedagogy · Philosophy of Education

On extreme instructivism and the social construction of evidence

I was struck by Lorraine Hammond’s recent piece for The Conversation, favourably comparing explicit instruction with inquiry learning. Hammond describes inquiry as “based on a theory of learning called constructivism” and:

(…) a type of learning where, before students are shown the essential information, they are asked to practise a task, and then discover and construct some or all of the essential information themselves. This is sometimes known as inquiry-based learning.

The definition is unreferenced; however, it does echo a passage in Kirschner, Sweller, & Clarke’s 2006 paper Why Minimal Guidance During Instruction Does Not Work: An Analysis of the Failure of Constructivist, Discovery, Problem-Based, Experiential, and Inquiry-Based Teaching:

(…) those advocating the hypothesis that people learn best in an unguided or minimally guided environment, generally defined as one in which learners, rather than being presented with essential information, must discover or construct essential information for themselves (e.g., Bruner, 1961; Papert, 1980; Steffe & Gale, 1995).

Kirschner, Sweller and Clarke (2006) cite three scholars but none of the three advocate that novice learners discover or construct essential information for themselves 1. In fact, this definition suggests that Minimal Guidance During Instruction equates to unguided instruction.

All three are constructivists, Bruner, a well-respected psychologist, is the architect of discovery learning, and later scaffolding 2, whose work is central to many theories of instruction including that of Barak Rosenshine 3.

Papert was an MIT Professor of Computer Science concerned with Artificial Intelligence (AI) and the Logo programming language and finally, Steffe and Gale’s book included a number of different writers with a variety of views. It was not an exposition of minimally guided instruction, and the more radical scholars were not educators; for example, Von Glaserfeld was a philosopher and Gergen, a psychologist.

The passage from Kirschner, Sweller and Clarke, which causes most concern is here:

Current Research Supporting Direct Guidance Because students learn so little from a constructivist approach, most teachers who attempt to implement classroom-based constructivist instruction end up providing students with considerable guidance. This is a reasonable interpretation, for example, of qualitative case studies conducted by Aulls (2002), who observed a number of teachers as they implemented constructivist activities in their classrooms.

He described the “scaffolding”that the most effective teachers introduced when students failed to make learning progress in a discovery setting.

He reported that the teacher whose students achieved all  of their learning goals spent a great deal of time in instructional interactions with students by simultaneously teaching content and scaffolding-relevant procedures … by

(a) modeling procedures for identifying and self-checking important information …

(b) showing students how to reduce that information to paraphrases …

(c) having students use notes to construct collaborations and routines, and

(d) promoting collaborative dialogue within problems. (p. 533).

The passage suggests teacher’s adopt scaffolding and abandon constructivism because constructivism does not work; in reality, scaffolding is fundamental to constructivism.

You wonder whether Kirschner, Sweller and Clarke (2006) sufficiently engaged with constructivist literature prior to writing the paper. Indeed, the paper cited in the passage, Aulls (2002), is written by social constructivists advocating constructivist techniques. More concerning is the number of scholars that base their empirical work on Kirschner, Sweller and Clarke’s definition 4.

The definition has helped to construct a field advocating explicit instruction at the expense of constructivism 5. Yet, few advocates of explicit instruction seem able to engage coherently with mainstream constructivist thinking 6. Surprising, given that constructivism has been around for almost a hundred years and includes world-class scholars like Piaget, Vygotsky and Bruner.  Scholars, with the exception of Rosenshine’s earlier papers, employ the constructivist ideas of Vygotsky and Bruner in their explicit instruction models at the same time as dismissing it as an educational approach 2.

Explicit instruction is growing in popularity, particularly more extreme script-based approaches based on Engelmann’s Direct Instruction. Its advocates suggest that the evidence warrants it; however, the evidence seems largely based on the premise that guided instruction is better than unguided. By definition, it is hard to disagree, but socially constructing a definition to debunk decades of scholarship does not constitute evidence.


1. In the absence of specific references, it is difficult to identify a body of work related to “Minimal Guidance During Instruction”. Tobias and Duffy attribute it to Kirschner, Sweller and Clarke’s interpretation of discovery learning.

2. In their paper, Teachers Taking Up Explicit Instruction: The Impact of a Professional Development Model Including Directive instructional Coaching, Lorraine Hammond identifies scaffolding as a key theme but do not mention its constructivist origins.

3. Rosenshine is an important advocate of explicit instruction, attributing scaffolding to Vygotsky and constructivist theory in this paper The Use of Scaffolds for Teaching Higher-Level Cognitive Strategies in 1992. 

4. In a piece, for ResearchEd Professor Mujis, Head of Research at Ofsted, cited the 2010 paper, Meta-Analysis of the Effects of Early Education Interventions on Cognitive and Social Development, in which Camilli, Vargas, Ryan and Barnett defined explicit instruction and contrasted it with inquiry-based educational activities as follows :

(…) DI involves teachers explicitly instructing children in academic skills and procedures, usually through activities designed and led by the teacher. The DI approach contrasts with inquiry based educational activities that involve mostly hands-on, student directed learning.

5. Tobias and Duffy in Constructivist Instruction: Success or Failure suggest that “Minimal Guidance During Instruction” is Kirschner, Sweller, & Clarke’s 2006 interpretation of discovery learning noting the apparent contradiction:

The lack of a well-specified instructional theory or articulation of learning principles may also be seen in the discussions of scaffolding, i.e., providing guidance in instruction. It was introduced by Wood, Bruner, and Ross (1976) and referred to creating a “highly constrained situation” (Pea, 2004). This is interesting since Bruner also introduced discovery learning, which has been interpreted as providing minimal guidance in learning (Kirschner, Sweller, & Clark, 2006).

6. Another sceptic of constructivism  Mayer offered some insight into how constructivism had become associated with unguided instruction in the paper Should There Be a Three-Strikes Rule Against Pure Discovery Learning?

The idea that constructivist learning requires active teaching methods is a recurring theme in the field of education. For example, in a textbook for teachers, Lefrancois (1997) summarized the field by noting that “the constructivist approach to teaching . . . is . . . based on the assumption that students should build (construct) knowledge for themselves. Hence, constructivist approaches are basically discovery oriented” (p. 206). This statement—and similar prescriptions—may be interpreted to mean that a constructivist theory of learning in which the learner is cognitively active translates into a constructivist the active translates into a constructivist theory of teaching in which the learner is behaviorally active.

Mayer correlates “cognitively active” with “behaviourally active” but without references, it is difficult to identify who, other than Mayer, makes this connection.

Mayer describes it as the constructivist fallacy:

I refer to this interpretation as the constructivist teaching fallacy because it equates active learning with active teaching.

There are no references to contradict the view he has constructed the fallacy himself.

2 thoughts on “On extreme instructivism and the social construction of evidence

  1. I think the confusion stems from constructivism as a way of knowing and constructionism as a way of teaching (John Hattie: Visible Learning, pages 243-244). Like many education debates, it revolves a false dichotomy. Learners construct their understanding as Bruner suggests but this has been taken to an extreme where teachers and teacher training in the UK feel it is not their place to get involved in this process. Students and new teachers who work in or school seem to imagine that by creating activities that the children will discover complex social constructions. In reality, they leave the poor five year olds alone to realise how the world works. At our school it has been helpful to use Sweller’s ideas to emphasise the role of the teacher and the place of instruction, but I would also emphasise the role of the more able other, scaffolding and concrete/symbolic/abstract stages. Good old fashioned constructivism.

    1. Great comments thanks. Constructionism is Papert’s idea in the field of computer science education and I would argue it has had limited traction. The main ideas on constructionism emerged in Sociology with people like Berger and Luckman, which is really about social structures and agency etc. You are right; however, there have been a number who have made the distinction between constructivism as an epistemic perspective and as a teaching method. My problem with it is that I see scaffolding, concrete/symbolic/abstract stages as teaching methods and scholars like Bruner as educationalists, not epistemologists (admittedly that distinction is blurred with Paiget). If, as you say, there are teachers who leave children alone to discover complex social constructions (and I am aware of that kind of practice with older students) then that is bad practice not advocated by any mainstream constructivist scholars working in the field of education. Or at least none that I am aware of.

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