Excerpt from “Constructivism versus Students” by Siegfried Engelmann, creator of Direct Instruction curricula

Constructivism has captured the imagination of many educators, but it is not a strong theory….If we look at examples of first-grade children “learning” in a constructivist classroom, we may observe very few teacher-initiated activities;…it’s clear that the teacher’s role is not to teach, but to facilitate. Children make decisions about their learning or at least the experiences that are designed to promote learning.


[Using Direct Instruction curricula], we do not assume that all children learn at the same rate or make the same mistakes. The two main ways we address these differences is to (1) vary the rate at which program content is introduced and (2) design the material so it preempts major misconceptions that some students will otherwise learn.

We can identify students who require more practice to learn things. We can provide appropriate instruction for them by slowing the rate at which new material is introduced. The students [in Direct Instruction classrooms] are grouped homogenously, placed in instructional programs according to their skill level, and taught at a rate that assures they perform at about 70% correct on any new material introduced in the lesson and nearly 100% correct at the end of each daily lesson. Applying this formula assures that all groups will remain properly placed.

The program we use to teach the specified content must reflect awareness of the mistakes some students will make unless the program is designed to obviate these problems. For example, some beginning students make mistakes in identifying the letters b and d. These are perfectly reasonable errors, because the letters are the same shape in different positions. Students have never encountered objects that have one name when they face left and another name when they face right. So b-d confusion is probably not a result of students having “perceptual problems.” Their perception may be impeccable, but they don’t know when to call that object “dee” and when to call it “bee.”

The simplest way to address this problem is to introduce the letters at different times. For example, introduce d first. Then provide writing and reading practice for several weeks before introducing b. In most cases, b-d confusion is not a problem of students’ learning mechanisms or “perception”; it’s a problem of the program designers and teachers being unable to identify the problem that some naïve learners have in conceptualizing b and d as characters that change their name when they are flipped.

Note that classroom discussions in a typical constructivist classroom never identify the real problem some children have or the fact that their “perception” of b and d being the same are perfectly consistent with their mental schema and experiences.


[T]he first question that must be answered by constructivists is: Do you accept standards as indicators of specific content and relationships students are to learn? If their answer is no, they reveal themselves as radicals whose objectives are inconsistent with agreed-upon skills and information that students are to learn. If they say yes, they must next face what is the most fundamental question about their approach: How successful is your version of the constructivist approach? This question is not answered by how much the teachers or students enjoy their school experiences, but by data on how well students met specific standards. Did they do comparatively as well as students in a highly structured approach?


Mislearning as a Form of Constructivism

I worked with sixth grade “gifted” students who had been in a discovery-math program since kindergarten. The gulf between their verbal skills and their math performance was profound. They thought that the daily discussions about their math experiences were required steps in learning math. In other words, students didn’t simply work math problems; they discussed them and other things that seemed related to the problem or the students’ math history. Possibly the most telling incident of how handicapped they were occurred after I had been working with them for three days. I presented them with a set of word problems that paralleled the problems we had worked in the preceding lesson.

One of the highest performers in the classroom was making no progress on the first problem. He drew some ilk of Venn diagrams and was doing a lot of erasing.

I asked him to read the problem aloud.

Then I asked, “Have you worked any other problems like this one?”

He responded, “What do you mean?”

I said, “Do you remember the problem you worked yesterday about the birds in the barn?”


“Isn’t that problem like this one?”

“I don’t know.”

“Don’t both of them tell about each part and ask about the whole group?”


“You worked that problem correctly. Why aren’t you working this problem the same way?”

The student didn’t understand this relationship because he had never worked two word problems that were the same and had precious few experiences of solving any problem before the teacher went over the problems and led the discussion of various ways students could have solved them.

At the time this student struggled with the fundamental assumption of word problems, we were working with a class of disadvantaged third graders who were at the same place as the gifted students. By the end of the school year they were more than 40 lessons ahead of the gifted students. They progressed much faster because they didn’t have the misconceptions that prevented them from learning. The learning of the gifted students continued to be painful unlearning and relearning. The disadvantaged students had long since discovered that what they learned next built on what they had already mastered. Other discoveries they made included: I am smart; I learn fast and do well in math; I know how to use what I learn; I like math.

The chaotic experiences and failures of the gifted students preempted them from making these discoveries. Their discoveries were consistent with their experiences. Their responses on a questionnaire we gave them indicated serious misconceptions: they thought working a word problem required a preamble that contained many random observations and much discussion; they had learned key word strategies that sometimes helped them figure out how to work some problems; they gave up trying to learn something from the ensuing discussion; more than half indicated that they hated math.


Who Is the Teacher?

The theme of constructivism is that children formulate their awareness of the world from their experiences. In the typical classroom students share their perceptions. Why? Does this provision benefit the student who is sharing or those who are supposed to be attending? If the input is supposed to benefit the listeners, what makes the input better than that of a knowledgeable teacher who has information about both what students are to learn and the students’ current performance? If the input is supposed to benefit the speaker, only about 1/20th of the total time benefits a given student. Compounding the problem is the fact that this discussion robs time from the period, leaving less time for possible productive instruction.

In summary, the “learners” in a constructivist classroom are very strange creatures. They learn from their experiences; they supposedly benefit from the often-inarticulate observations of other children; however, they are prohibited from learning from a knowledgeable teacher who understands what students are trying to learn and who has information about the various mistakes students make. Not surprisingly, those who promote this orientation don’t have one shred of empirical data to support their prejudices. In other words, constructivism is philosophically impoverished and empirically sterile.

Constructivism Versus Students by Siegfried Engelmann | 2015