Constructionism (was Re: XP on OLPC - a contrarian view)

Edward Cherlin echerlin at
Sun May 18 17:38:54 EDT 2008

On Sun, May 18, 2008 at 11:46 AM, Albert Cahalan <acahalan at> wrote:
> On Sat, May 17, 2008 at 6:28 AM, Martin Langhoff
> <martin.langhoff at> wrote:
>> On Sat, May 17, 2008 at 9:34 PM, Albert Cahalan <acahalan at> wrote:

>>> Constructionism might be a great idea. I have doubts, particularly
>>> in a classroom with 40 students and a below-average teacher.
>>> (remember, about half of the teachers are below-average)
>> Stop here, and please _read_ on constructionism. (Hint: most of the
>> tricks have to do with what happens _without the teacher around_).

Sorry, people can't learn Constructionism simply by reading.

> I've tried. I'm not going to go get a degree studying it.
> From what I can tell, constructionism (c13m) is a buzzword that
> vaguely refers to an age-old teaching practice: learning by doing.

Nope. It is founded on an extended process of research into child
development, neurology, and other fields, and it has resulted in quite
new methods.

> The idea appears to be extremely old, though not the norm. Ditching
> the buzzword would be appreciated; it only serves to obfuscate.

The jargon of any field is a necessity to practitioners, but a barrier
to entry. There are essential reasons, having to do with saving lives,
for the use of precise medical terminology. There are essential
reasons, having to do with shared understanding of fairly difficult
concepts, for the terminologies of mathematics and programming. The
same is true in psychology, if you can filter out those who practice
bafflegab to prevent anybody from noticing that they are not, in fact,
saying anything. Not a trivial practice, but one that some people can
and will help you with.

The problem is that everybody is a psychologist. Nobody thinks that
simply owning a car makes you a mechanic without actually working on
cars, but everybody thinks that having a mind entitles them to an
opinion about all of its workings. The fact is that we are massively
ignorant about minds/brains, but we do know a few useful things, like
Isaac Newton's picture of himself as a child on the beach picking up
pretty shells, while the vast ocean of truth lay all undiscovered
before him.

> From what I can tell, c13m is an awful lot like unschooling.

Nope. Well, the Amish practice of calling farm labor schooling might
qualify, from their point of view. Their children definitely learn how
to farm their way in a rather thorough manner. I think it passes
muster from a Constructivist point of view, looking only at
effectiveness and not desirability.

> Perhaps you can explain the difference.

Richard Feynman attributed a considerable part of his success in
physics to his father's insistence that names were an irrelevance and
a distraction. What counts in the world is being able to observe
behavior and think about how that behavior fits together. In physics
we think in math, in pictures, and in carefully design of experiments
so that they reveal more behaviors that we can think on further. In
education, we need a different toolkit, but the general pattern of
observation, thinking, and planning remains much the some. We are
trying to learn how behavior affects minds and brains, and about how
the behavior and the mind-building might have evolved, and how we can
most effectively harness what we learn for improving the quality and
quantity of education.

The way to learn about Constructivist and Constructionist methods (not
the same thing: Constructionism is the one with the computers) is not
to discuss putative definitions. It is to practice Constructivism: try
them and see for yourself. The most direct way to do that is to go to
an education supply store and buy a set of Cuisenaire rods, and try
them out on yourself and on any children of suitable age that you can
borrow the use of. Caleb Gattegno's little book, included in every set
of the rods, lays out a program that you can do yourself, so that you
can actually see what sorts of things you might do, and what kinds of
result you can get. It takes most people a few hours to begin to get
the idea, which cannot be exhausted in a lifetime.

Piaget and Vygotsky came up with Constructivism as an explanation of
how children actually learn first, and only then as a theory of how to
teach. If you don't understand the learning process, you can't
understand what they recommend, or why it would work.

But some points can be made in advance. Constructionism draws on the
experiences, familiar within the community but a complete mystery to
most outsiders, of diving into computing and learning most of it
yourself, whether by reading, by mucking with other people's code, by
hanging out with wizards and gurus, or any of the rest of what
would-be hackers do. Making, collecting, and criticizing in-jokes, for
example, at alt.religion.kibology or the Internet Oracle, or the
Jargon File, or Stan Kelly-Bootle's Computer Contradictionary (I have
a personal entry) and so on. Trying to find a solution to the spam
problem. Joining any of the multitude of community software
development projects. Trying to imagine an Open Hardware license.
Building the next Insanely Great Computer.

Asking absurd questions: If Extreme Programming is so good, what would
Extreme Living or Extreme Education look like? Pair learning? Wait,
where have I heard of that? Frequent and aggressive refactoring? You
interest me strangely. Can Open Source Management be applied to
corporations or to other kinds of non-profit work? How about to
schools, school boards, Education Ministries? Can an education project
break the Microsoft monopoly and put an end to war and poverty? The
answer doesn't have to be a simple, immediate, and unqualified Yes to
make such investigations worthwhile.

So the next question is, how can we introduce this style of learning,
with its radical implications for management style, economics,
politics, and the rest, to the classroom? Another obviously absurd
question. All attempts at school reform in the last century have
failed. But not completely. So the response to these facts cannot be
given in one sentence. Progress does not have a definition. It is a
process of discovery, like life itself.

Now contrast the picture above with the standard Instructionist
picture of going to school, taking COBOL classes for a few years,
never learning anything not assigned, and getting a job as a cog in a
corporation. It isn't COBOL any more, but the specific language
doesn't matter. This is a picture of learning only enough so that you
never have to think for yourself again, and being taught to _like_ it
that way.

Edward Cherlin
End Poverty at a Profit by teaching children business
"The best way to predict the future is to invent it."--Alan Kay

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