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

Albert Cahalan acahalan at
Sun May 18 20:41:50 EDT 2008

On Sun, May 18, 2008 at 5:38 PM, Edward Cherlin <echerlin at> wrote:
> 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:

>>> 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.

That is simply appalling. The words that come to my mind are:
nonsense, unlearnable, faith-based, bullshit, and excuses

I'm also reminded that one doesn't really understand a concept
until they can teach it. If you can't teach me, then perhaps
your own understanding is weak.

>> 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.

I checked the wikipedia article for bafflegab, and found it spot-on.

We can do without the words "epistemology" and "ontology" as well.

> 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.

It's not that. I think you need an overview of unschooling.

> 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.

Cuisenaire rods are truly dreadful, along with the decimal blocks
and sandpaper letters. If that's c13m, then it's harmful to kids.
It doesn't get results.

I believe I even have the "children of suitable age". (all even ages
from 0 to 8) I can teach how I please, as they are homeschooled.

Those worthless c13m toys ("manipulatives") gave me an 8 year old
who was struggling with multi-digit addition and subtraction.
I cast that junk aside, and 3 months later he's doing much better.
He can handle most of the math needed for a college-level physics
course targeted at engineering students. That even includes the
bare essentials of integral calculus.

> 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.

Thinkers may look down on non-thinkers, but don't knock it too much.
Being a cog in a corporation will put food on the table and a roof
over the head. It sure beats what the drop-outs face. We thus have
things like No Child Left Behind, which has done wonders for both
math and reading skills. You can't expect every kid to spontaneously
generate the sum of human knowledge by playing with plastic blocks.
Spoon-feeding facts into a kid might not be stylish, but it works.

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