Thoughts on Teaching: Constructivism, Essentialism, and Mastery

by John Mays

Occasionally, I have an opportunity to talk with a teacher who is beginning to implement the Novare Science curriculum and finds that some parents raise questions about our mastery-learning approach. Even though mastery learning is supported by a huge body of research literature and has a pedigree going back to the great Benjamin Bloom, sometimes questions even come from people with credentials in the field of education.

In a recent interaction with a teacher, the teacher wrote, “There seems to be a significant portion of people that think science is all about “hands-on” learning. My guess is that their idea of science is a series of “experiments” (a better word might be teacher-led demonstrations) that end in some conclusion stating a scientific principle. Is there educational research or literature on whether (or not) that actually leads to understanding?”

I think the underlying issue here is the current popularity of so-called “discovery learning,” which is, in turn, related to the essentialism-constructivism debate. In brief, the educational philosophy of essentialism, which emerged in the literature in the first half of the 20th century, holds that there is a core of knowledge (math, literature, history, science, etc.) that should be passed on to students, including knowledge of one’s cultural heritage. Essentialist classrooms are often described as teacher-centered, where the teacher delivers content, and the role of the students is to learn what the teacher requires them to learn.

The newer educational philosophy of constructivism holds that all true learning occurs when students “construct” the knowledge for themselves by means of their own experiences. This is why the constructivist philosophy is often associated with “discovery learning.” Constructivist philosophy also holds that since each student’s experience is unique, each student’s learning will be unique as well. Constructivist classrooms are said to be student-centered, where the role of the teacher is to be more of a facilitator and less of a person who delivers content.

The essentialism-constructivism debate is a false dichotomy, and the claims people make in this context are often misinformed. The fact is that even in a traditional classroom structure there can and should be a lot of student “construction” going on. Moreover, some of the criticisms thrown at essentialism are simply criticisms of bad teaching, not the basic idea that there is an important core body of knowledge students should interact with.

Misconceptions and mischaracterizations have led to a great deal of confusion. For example, one website describing essentialism starts off with a video clip of a film produced in the 1950s. In the clip, the teacher mercilessly berates his high school students for their laziness and poor performance on a math exam, calling them “the worst class I have ever had.” Now, this sort of thing is not a characteristic of essentialism; it is simply a terrible and tyrannical way for a teacher to act. But the inclusion of the clip has the immediate effect of making essentialism look bad and making constructivism look good by comparison.

The language people use in this debate also makes constructivism appear superior to the traditional essentialism. Isn’t school all about the kids? Why would anyone want a teacher-centered classroom? Isn’t it obvious that classrooms should be student-centered?

But saying that essentialism necessarily implies a teacher-centered classroom is also a mischaracterization. The truth is that education, done well, should be a loving, communal enterprise. Neither the teacher nor the students are more important than the other and neither should dominate the other. Teachers and students are all humans made in the image of God; all should respect, serve, love, and speak the truth to each other. In the well-ordered classroom, there is a healthy balance of teacher-led and student-led activities and there is no dominant party. Of course, the teacher is the leader, but godly leadership is not domination; it is servant leadership in a context of mutual respect, submission, and cooperation.

I’ll discuss the well-ordered classroom more below as we consider some of the claims people make that emerge from the confusion of this conflict. Claims I have heard over the years include:

  • compelling students to memorize things is bad
  • lecturing is bad
  • school (especially science) should be all about “discovery learning”
  • teacher-centered classrooms are obsolete
  • homework and tests are obsolete

Let’s work our way through this list. First, to say that memorization is bad (because outdated or essentialist or whatever) is simplistic. Memorizing some things is necessary; memorizing some things is not. Almost no one opposes having elementary school students memorize the math facts. Knowing them is so useful both for learning more advanced math and for life in the modern world that school kids still memorize them in nearly every school. Memorization is also necessary for most foreign language study. Unless one is fortunate enough to learn by total emersion, most students must commit vocabulary and grammatical paradigms to memory by intentional practice. But is it necessary for chemistry students to memorize the periodic table of the elements? No, it isn’t. Thus, there is a right balance of things that should be intentionally memorized and things that can be looked up when necessary.

And, by the way, memorization is not just for kids. Who would trust a doctor who had not memorized the names of biological functions, diseases, and medications? Who would hire a CPA who didn’t know the bulk of the tax code by heart?

When talking with parents, teachers can point out that, contrary to what some people might assume, a reasonable measure of memorization is not equivalent to an outmoded methodology dominated by rote learning. In Novare Science courses, students are required to know a handful of unit conversion factors, physical constants, and equations. They must also memorize definitions of technical terms, just as students must do in nearly every discipline. In science courses, there are thousands of conversion factors and physical constants that students could be required to memorize. Novare courses focus on a few that are very handy, and the memorization requirements are limited to these. For example, in Introductory Physics (9th grade), students are required to know three physical constants, eight unit conversions (only four or five of which are not common knowledge), nine metric prefixes, and 14 equations. This is not a burdensome memorization load; it just takes some time to get the items down initially. Moreover, students don’t learn them all at once; they are spread throughout the year. And the practice problems students are constantly working help ensure that once memorized, they stay memorized.

In general, classical education does not shrink from the essentialist idea that there are some things in our heritage that students should know, and memorizing is often involved. Most classical educators would agree that memorizing poetry, key speeches from history or Shakespeare, major historical dates, and facts about major historical figures is important. Most classical Christian schools have elementary students memorizing a lot of Scripture, a great many songs, and a lot of scientific terminology.

Let’s move on to the next item. These days, lecturing seems out of fashion because of the buzz about “discovery learning.” Lecturing sounds like a boring, teacher-centered activity, and “discovery learning” sounds student-friendly and exciting. The fact is, a boring, teacher-centered lecture is just a bad lecture, at least in high school. (College courses are a different matter; I am not writing about those.) In a good lecture, the students are very involved, and with a lively, creative teacher a good lecture is far from boring.

Even more important, perhaps, is the misconception about what is and isn’t happening in a lecture. It is common to think that the purpose of a lecture on, say, working kinetic energy problems is to deliver content, with the goal of teaching students how to work kinetic energy problems. But that is not an accurate description of what is going on. What is occurring is simply an introduction, not the development of intimacy. If a friend introduces you to someone, you have only superficial knowledge of this new acquaintance. Intimate knowledge only comes when you spend a lot of time together. The same is true when the teacher works example problems on the board. All such problems look easy when students watch the teacher solving them. But they aren’t easy, and the students discover this when they begin trying to work the problems on their own. The students don’t gain intimate knowledge by watching the teacher; that only comes by spending time working a bunch of the problems. This activity is essentially a constructivist, hands-on activity—the students are constructing their own understanding of the ins and outs of working this kind of problem by doing the problem solving themselves, over and over. The mental construction involves first-hand experience with interpreting the problem statement, recognizing subtle details that supply key information, knowing what to do next at each step, correctly executing the mathematics, being aware of the kinds of errors one is likely to make, and, eventually, learning to recognize structural similarities to computations in other subjects. Thus, a creative lecture in physics followed by an assignment to work through a problem set is essentially a constructivist pair of learning activities, but they don’t appear to be, and they usually don’t get credit for being so. Instead, parents hearing about such a class may get the impression that the teacher is running an old-fashioned, teacher-centered classroom that emphasizes rote learning, none of which may be true.

The notion of the intrinsic value of “discovery learning” is the next myth to deal with. As smart as Aristotle was, and as much as he wrote about physics, he never did discover what chemical elements are and how chemical compounds are formed. It took an additional 2,200 years for an army of scientists to figure these things out. For students to go discover these for themselves would be beyond impossible. But a chemistry teacher can easily explain what elements are and how compounds are formed in about 10 minutes. What a time saver! Twenty-two hundred years of scientific discovery in 10 minutes! Discovering physics or mathematics or chemistry for oneself is not the point. But neither is the point for the teacher to fill students’ heads full of facts. The point of the classroom is for the teacher to lead the students in a learning adventure—revealing the wonder of the subject matter, engaging students in creative and rigorous activities that result in learning and mastery (with the attendant satisfaction that always attends mastery). Part of this adventure will involve engaging students in discourse—Socratic discourse—in which students respond, question, explain, debate, counter, challenge, answer, and struggle. The struggle of the Socratic dialog is the most ancient and the most reliable learning method there is. It is entirely constructivist and student-centered, but it doesn’t look like it, and again, doesn’t get the credit.

When I am trying on a new idea, I frequently use a Socratic process on myself. I just bring up the idea with a group of smart friends and see what happens as they attack it and I attempt to defend it. By defending the idea with all my might, I find out both whether the idea has merit and whether I understand it well enough.

Here is another thing about “discovery learning”: it is pretty much impossible to learn anything if you don’t already know something. It is possible, of course—babies do it all the time. But it is a slow, slow process. If you took an intelligent person from a primitive tribe and sat her down and said, “go learn chemistry; discover it for yourself,” the effort would be painfully slow. To speed it up, the teacher could prime the pump, so to speak: explain that everything is made of atoms, that there are 118 different kinds of atoms, with such and such chemical behavior, and so on. But now we are back to the supreme usefulness of the introductory lecture.

Yet another thing about discovery learning is the inherent cart-and-horse problem of knowing what needs to be discovered. If you tell students to go find an interesting project to work on and then hope they discover a bunch of science, you will be disappointed. Leadership by the teacher is crucial: the teacher knows (or should) what is important for the students to learn and what is of less significance; what knowledge is relatively easy to acquire and what is more laborious. The teacher should specify learning objectives pertaining to the significant topics. And the learning objectives should be coordinated as part of an overall disciplinary program spanning several grades. I hope it is clear that I am not arguing against “discovery learning.” I am merely saying that the process of students constructing knowledge by discovery is a process that takes place in any well-ordered classroom. It is not necessary to go and manufacture a lot of specific “discovery learning” activities. (It is necessary to avoid acting like the history teacher in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off. That’s the point.)

I have already addressed the issue of the teacher-centered classroom. To summarize: just because a teacher is lecturing doesn’t mean the classroom is teacher centered; the way the teacher interacts with the students determines whether the learning environment is healthy, rich, and compelling. Moving on then to the last of those comments in the list above, we encounter the claim that homework and tests are obsolete. Dealing with this requires me to separate the two. To quote myself, homework is a necessary learning activity; it is not a legitimate indication of whether learning has occurred. Most people think homework is for grades; it isn’t, and I don’t give grades for it. Students must work through their assignments to learn; doing the homework is an essential part of the lesson. One cannot learn how to solve kinetic energy problems except by working a bunch of them. But this is not for an assessment or a grade; it is for learning. This situation is not unique to science and math. In a literature class, one of the best ways to learn how to talk and write about literature is to write papers. The initial outlines and drafts might be compared to the problem sets in physics—this is the practice phase of the lesson in which the student is constructing his or her own understanding. The final draft could be the equivalent of the test, where the assessment and grading occur. A similar process is going on in both cases.

Now let’s talk about tests. If humans were not fallen, I would agree that tests would be unnecessary. If every student were diligent, committed, responsible, timely, forthright, honest, and transparent, all the time, then we wouldn’t need tests at all. Learning would happen all by itself. We would just tell our students that everyone in the chemistry class needs to mastery stoichiometry, and bingo—the students would go after it like ants on an apple pie at a picnic.

We also would not need tests if each student simply worked one-on-one with a private tutor. The tutor would say “work this problem,” the student would do so, the tutor would be satisfied that the student knows his stuff, and they would move on to the next thing.

Sadly, we live in a fallen world and people must be held accountable. We also live in a complex and expensive world where individual instruction by an expert private tutor is available only to a privileged few. Administering tests addresses both challenges. Students are fallen, so they must be held accountable. Education is expensive, so teachers must assess the proficiency of many students simultaneously. (In a homeschool, this limitation is usually manifest differently—as lack of expertise; the effect is the same.) Given these realities, tests are properly regarded as a necessary instrument by which students demonstrate their proficiency.

Almost. I’ll conclude by acknowledging that there may be other school and classroom paradigms that are effective. I know of schools that seek to place the bulk of the learning process in a series of student-led projects. This is very difficult to do, and I don’t think it can be done at all unless the entire school is set up this way. Even then, teachers must still find ways of enabling students to acquire the basic knowledge they need in order to accomplish the project. And it is colossally difficult to ensure that every student project is associated with an academically rigorous set of learning objectives, and that these objectives encompass all of what students need to learn. I have seen many projects in which students put in a lot of time and effort to accomplish something relatively trivial. This is why these schools are rare. I applaud their efforts, but I think it likely that traditional classrooms will continue to be the norm, and teachers will be challenged to design creative lessons that engage the students at all levels, while leading them to mastery and long-term retention.


© 2022 John D. Mays