The Problem with Constructivist Teaching Methods

Colleges of education are responsible for training teachers. However, most colleges of education in the US are guided by ideology, rather than by research. Instead of helping prospective educators learn how to teach, colleges of education tend to push a particular perspective on teaching: teaching methods that are aligned with this perspective are advocated, and teaching methods in opposition to it are rejected—even if they are more effective at furthering students’ academic achievement, self-esteem and critical thinking skills.

According to an article by professor Douglas Carnine of the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation, education professors in the United States overwhelmingly tend to advocate constructivist teaching methods. These include discovery-based learning, inquiry-based learning and project-based learning. These teaching methods require the teacher to avoid directly instructing her students: instead, she must simply put them in an information-rich environment, in which they are to discover key information on their own. Cognitive psychologist Steven Pinker describes such methods (specifically with regard to mathematics education) in his book How the Mind Works:

The ascendant philosophy of mathematical education in the United States is constructivism, a mixture of Piaget’s psychology with counterculture and postmodernist ideology. Children must actively construct mathematical knowledge for themselves in a social enterprise driven by disagreements about the meanings of concepts. The teacher provides the materials and the social milieu but does not lecture or guide the discussion.

However, there are serious issues with such approaches to teaching—they are highly ineffective at promoting academic achievement. This has been repeatedly confirmed by empirical research over the past several decades, according to an article in the journal Educational Psychologist. Revered educational researcher Jeanne Chall arrives at the same conclusion in her book The Academic Achievement Challenge. In fact, various different fields related to education—such as cognitive psychology and process-product studies — have arrived at this conclusion, according to Professors Barak Rosenshine and E. D. Hirsch: this consensus from several fields of study is a very strong indication that the findings are valid. Additionally, constructivist teaching methods have been shown to be much less effective than direct instruction methods for promoting critical thinking skills and self-esteem, according to a book by Professors Siegfried Engelmann and Gary Adams. Even so, such ineffective teaching strategies have remained quite popular all the way up to the present.

Professor Richard Mayer, in an article for American Psychologist, notes that constructivist teaching methods have consistently re-appeared under different names throughout the past several decades. Every time one of these teaching methods is shown to be ineffective by empirical research, it reappears under a different label. The educational establishment clearly refuses to give up on constructivist teaching. Scholars such as Charles Sykes, E. D. Hirsch, Martin Kozloff and Siegfried Engelmann attribute this support of constructivism to the ideological influence of colleges of education. Professor J. E. Stone defines this ideology as developmentalism—educators wholeheartedly support any teaching strategy that allows children to develop naturally, while any teaching method that involves an interference with natural development is seen as harmful. This ideology ignores the well-established psychological literature indicating that children have inherently violent and dangerous tendencies. As an article in Science points out: “Babies do not kill each other, because we do not give them access to knives and guns … The question … we’ve been trying to answer for the past 30 years is how do children learn to aggress … [T]hat’s the wrong question. The right question is how do they learn not to aggress.” One goal of education, therefore, should be to develop children’s control of their negative tendencies and to further their positive traits.

Moreover, constructivist teaching methods tend to widen the achievement gap between students of color and white students, and between high- and low-income students, according to an article in American Educator. Even so, most colleges of education claim to support social justice. In other words, despite the fact that colleges of education purportedly support social justice (as noted by scholars Charles Sykes, E. D. Hirsch, Rita Kramer and Siegfried Engelmann), the teaching methods they promote are harmful to at-risk students (students of color and low-income students). This is, to say the least, a baffling contradiction.

What is most concerning is that these dangerous teaching methods, strategies and dispositions are enforced upon and therefore adopted by teachers—most students who go through a teacher education program in university will undoubtedly be indoctrinated into the use of such methods. This leads to teachers’ providing a highly inadequate education to their students, which—in the long term—leads to academic failure, and ultimately, failure in life. Academic achievement is highly correlated with scores on standardized tests and, although standardized tests (such as the ACT and SAT) are very frequently criticized, they are strongly correlated with IQ scores, and IQ scores are strongly correlated with job performance, occupational level, social status and income, and likelihood of engaging in crime. Effective teaching methods can ensure that students will succeed both academically and in life.

Constructivist teaching methods are highly ineffective: in fact, they compromise the overall life success of students. Therefore, the use of such methods is, quite simply, immoral. Nevertheless, the use of those teaching methods is extremely prevalent, and this use is promoted by the ideological bias of colleges of education. In order to promote equality, value and the development of knowledge in American schools, is it necessary to fight against the ideological indoctrination common in the education departments of American universities.

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  1. I took my PGCE (Professional Graduate Certificate in Education) here in the UK. I already had nearly 20 years’ teaching experience in the ESOL sector. I was shocked and, frankly, infuriated to be told that ‘we don’t teach anything anymore; we facilitate learning’. This is partly why I refuse to work in the State sector. I work online for the Chinese, who appreciate and respect good teaching and expect their kids to be actually taught something in lessons.

  2. The current situation in US schools has little to do with constructivism and more to do with the incompetencies of the teachers. I was brought up and went to college in my home country before I came to the US for graduate work in education and was shocked to see what passes here as teaching. It is ridiculous; even the professors at graduate level classes, with some exceptions, consider talking loosely on the subject to be good teaching. A good amount of all the teachers in the US would not be even employed as teachers in most countries in the world. As most people in the US do not really know what is actually going on in the rest of the world because they are so detached from the rest both geographically and also psychologically, since they think they are on the top of the world and know everything better than anybody else, they have no idea what good teaching looks like in other parts of the world.

    I studied learning and teaching theories and methodologies including constructivism as part of my master’s and doctoral programs. Constructivism does not necessarily recommend the practices outlined here. It is first and foremost an epistemology, from which teaching methods should be derived from. It basically says learners construct their own web of concepts rather than being passive receivers in a classroom. Nowhere does it say the direct instruction should be prohibited; it is just an interpretation of someone, who did not quite understand what the theory was actually saying. A rich learning environment may include many elements depending on the situation, the content and the learners. Unstructured exploration in class is not a constructivist obligation; it is what fits the US teachers who do not know any better. Stop complaining and own up to your dumb choices.

    1. I think a bigger part of the blame lies with the shoddy scholarship that is endemic in education research than the incompetency of American teachers.


      Additionally, if so many people are mucking up the implications of constructivism as an epistemology and misapplying its conclusions, why is there no large outcry from the academic community, for both the good of the field and the good of the student? Could it be because that sort of outcry would not drive speaking engagements, books, and consulting gigs?

    2. Mehmet Akgun, it’s doubtful you attended any other but one school in only one area in the vast continent of the US yet you decided to share a negative blanketed perspective of your extremely narrow US academic experience.

      Only thing to agree on is that most teachers—from every country—may not have experienced other jobs or traveled the world to better incorporate meaningful perspectives for a better, more beneficial way of teaching.

      1. Each decade US campus environments go through current event challenges. Each generation presents their concerns in dramatic ways—sometimes effecting change often for the better amid chaos.

        Only in the US and in a few other countries are campus dramas allowed by academic youth which makes a student from another country lacking freedom of expression who has the family wealth to attend any school in the world sound incredibly small-minded when criticizing schools outside their own country.

        It seems the problem is a lack of communication with parents who are paying for their young adult children to attend university outside their own country. It’s crazy making to assume all colleges are the same anywhere in the world. And equally crazy making to assume one college attended lumps all as the same.

  3. The answer is simple: progressives favor a narrative over facts, while conservatives tend to favor what works. For example, even when told that a $15 min wage will hurt low-income workers (reduce their hours and perks, increase unemployment), progressives insist it is still needed.

    Starting in grad school I was able to follow a constructivist program because I was mature enough to do so. That is I became largely an autodidact. Kids cannot do this. It took thousands of years to discover today’s math–it is a monstrous conceit to think our kids can rediscover geometry in group discussions over a few hours per week. That idea is frankly insane. Kids having more fun does not equal learning.

    While we are on education, my kids hated the whole “group projects” stuff. There was always a total slacker and my kids got bad grades due to them or had to do it all themselves. This is not how the world of work operates. In a group effort everyone has a task and if they don’t do their part, fired.

    1. This is not directly relevant to the article, but this nonsense that conservatives just go for ‘what works’ really can’t stand. There’s plenty of empirical evidence that a harm reduction rather than prohibitive approach to drugs & addiction is what works, that sex education promotes health and reduces unwanted pregnancies, that high rates of imprisonment do little to reduce crime and recidivism, that the death penalty doesn’t reduce murder or violence more generally, (there’s plenty of other examples). People of all political persuasions have a tendency to ignore facts if it challenges their ideology. They also have a tendency to claim it’s the others ideologically driven while ‘we’re’ fact based.

      1. But your post is full of debunkings that are in fact themselves incorrect:
        – harm reduction has it’s merits, but it does increase usage (while reducing back-ally deaths).
        – prohibition works if it is enforced (Saudi Arabia).
        – criminals in prison don’t commit more crimes while they are there. Recidivism rates are more closely tied to the social system prisoners face when they get out. (America fails spectacularly.)
        – the death penalty is very effective, which is why there is virtually no drug problem in Singapore — they hang you. Mind, it is somewhat less effective, as you say, with murder and violence which are more spontaneous.

        So yes, people of all political persuasions have a tendency to ignore facts if it challenges their ideology.

        1. You’ve simply proved my point more than you clearly reaslise, and haven’t ‘debunked anything, Yes, it reduces harm, but…’. The rest of it is only directly relevant if you think some kind of Puritanism is more relevant than reducing harm.
          The second point is merely an argument for things being complex. It doesn’t do anything to show that a lock’em up throw away the key’ approach is based on ‘what works’.
          As for the last example, you appear to concede the point but then chuck in the idea the US should be more authoritarian and kill a different group of people because base fear ‘works’. Based on what you said what’s the non ideological ‘what works’ death penalty policy, execute drug dealers but not murderers?

          1. And you’ve simply proved mine. But I’m not a debunker at all, things have nuance. For example, yes, reducing harm is very good, however if it increases the number of people becoming addicted, then we have an unintended consequence. Puritanism has nothing to do with it, and it proves my point that you would presume Puritanism motivates me; it does not. This is the simple, dogmatic stereotyping that (returning to the main point) each accuses the other side of doing — and you’re doing it even when imagining that you are not.

            For example you suggest that I think “the US should be more authoritarian and kill a different group of people because base fear ‘works’.” … but I do not think that, not did I suggest it. The US legal system is a disaster. However (returning to the point) it is not correct that the death penalty is not a deterrent. It is a deterrent if used quickly and consistently as in Singapore. However the US employs CP so badly that IMHO it should be abolished in the US, at least until they can figure out how to use it effectively. The question of the ‘humanity’ of the death penalty is another issue than the issue of it’s effectiveness.

            See? No, you probably don’t, you will continue to try to paint me as a Puritan (and ‘alt-right’ and whatever other labels satisfy you) rather than face the fact that some of your overly simplistic beliefs are as mistaken as the overly simplistic beliefs on the other side. But reality is never simple and everything is a tradeoff.

          2. I think you might want to go back and read my original response, which was to point out the idea that conservatives go for ‘what works’ and it’s progressives that are ideolically biased is ridiculous. I’m not interested in painting you as anything, nor arguing over the merits specific points. Nor am I saying my own positions won’t be ideologically shaped. Simply basing policy on ‘what works’ is largely meaningless. They were simply examples of where conservatives positions were at least in part ideological biased and not based on ‘what works’. Given you’ve not shown (nor it seems tried, given you appear to concede the point I made) these aren’t examples of where conservatives don’t simply respond to ‘what works’, we’ll end it there.

  4. I don’t know why it has to be a contest. Instruction and discovery should coexist. Even when I’m instructing I’m encouraging students to beat me to the next point. Further, discovery is something to move toward — in lower grades it’s mostly instruction, and kids soak up what they are told. Later on, introspection and discovery become more important.

    1. It doesn’t have to be a contest. Any decent teacher will have a repertoire of strategies to use when needed.

      However, the problem is that the profession of education, at least in the U.S., does not value teacher-led instruction at this point. Most teacher training and professional development focuses solely on constructivist techniques, whether or not they are the most appropriate approach to the task at hand. A more balanced approach is needed, and an awareness about which technique is best suited to which circumstance independent of ideology is needed.

      Teachers are being given a hammer when every problem isn’t a nail, and then we are being forced to use that hammer regardless of our professional judgment or the findings of cognitive science.

      1. Well said James. But it seems to me it’s time for competent teachers to take back their classrooms from the ideologues. The solution is not a counter ideology, but an end to ideology.

  5. Mr Butler, this article would be better if it provided some of the evidence for and against constructivist education. To just provide the conclusions of respected – or even ‘revered’ – researchers is an appeal to authority. Also, it would be a good idea to outline the ideas of the original constructivists, which are worthy of discussion. The uninformed reader of the article will come away with a very shallow conception of what Vygotsky, Piaget and Dewey were on about. To completely dismiss constructivist ideas would be to throw the baby out with the bathwater – what is the appeal of constructivist education? From the article linked by James Birrell:

    “The report notes that inquiry-based teaching increases students’ joy in science significantly more than teacher-directed learning does. (Teacher-directed is also positively correlated with joy, though the impact is less.) Inquiry-based also helps convince students that science is worthwhile for their future careers. Since passion often results in perseverance, which can lead to better student (and life) outcomes, joy matters. Also, joy just matters.”

  6. There is nothing wrong with a bit of “discovery based” learning provided they’ve got enough background knowledge and incentive to do it properly.

    “Let’s give the kids a load of shapes and sit back while they invent Euclidean geometry for themselves!”

    Maybe not.

  7. Academic achievement is highly correlated with scores on standardized tests and, although standardized tests (such as the ACT and SAT) are very frequently criticized, they are strongly correlated with IQ scores, and IQ scores are strongly correlated with job performance, occupational level, social status and income, and likelihood of engaging in crime. Effective teaching methods can ensure that students will succeed both academically and in life.

    Can teaching increase IQ now?

  8. Surely those in support of constructivist teaching methods aren’t unintelligent. It would be nice to see someone help we casual readers to better understand their arguments in favor of these methods, rather than simply listing the negative outcomes they generate. What are the steel-man arguments in favor of constructivism in education?

    Perhaps this doesn’t relate to constructivism directly, but since I get the sense that this “feel your own way through your education” is another in a series of efforts to make sure nobody feels bad about their poor academic performance (coddling self-esteem is apparently a virtue, after all), maybe it does.

    My preference in education would be to remove the problematic children from regular classrooms, such that teachers can focus their time and resources on those who have a chance to achieve academic excellence, rather than spending all their time dealing with the distractions of the troubled few who should be educated somewhere that can cater to their needs. My experience in public school was that curriculum was dumbed down to a mushy pablum so it could be spoon fed to students who had no interest in gaining anything from the lessons. This is so wrongheaded and backward imo. Teachers should aim to stretch the skills and aptitudes of their pupils by challenging them.

    Kids are “anti-fragile”. They need some stress, some challenges and failures to grow strong. Letting them wander curiously through an education free of challenge, and free of failure is disservice to them.

    1. The best evidence I can find in favor of inquiry-based learning methods can be found here: https://bit.ly/2y1BYgi

      Basically, the idea is that inquiry methods do not result in students with more knowledge, but they result in “happier” students (for lack of a better term). From the article posted above, the most effective way to teach is a mix of teacher-led and student-centered approaches, with a slight nod towards teacher-led methods, especially when students are being introduced to a concept for the first time.

      The problem becomes that in most professional evaluations systems (with Charlotte Danielson’s framework being one of the most popular), there is little to no thought given to monitoring a teacher’s facility with teacher-led instruction. In fact, if you are evaluated during a lesson which has a significant portion of teacher-led instruction, you can expect a poor job performance review! Most metrics of this kind are written from a philosophical perspective, and not from a perspective that values student learning of an academic subject.

      As the author says, an additional problem arises in the schools of education, where teachers are not educated in the best ways to deliver teacher-led instruction because that sort of instruction, though powerful, does not align with the dominant ideology of most education departments. This results in wave after wave of teachers entering the school system, applying poor ideology-inspired practices in their classrooms, coming up short, and eventually leaving the profession feeling like a complete failure, not understanding that they’ve been hamstrung since the beginning.

      And finally, while inquiry learning projects may result in “happier” students, I have noticed in my years as a science teacher that students now expect and demand to be entertained in class pretty much every day. In our rush to provide “engaging” (i.e. fun) rather than effective lessons, students have become acclimated to a steady diet of fluffy lessons with little to no academic content or expectations.

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