We cannot teach everything using 'activities!'
We have been doing this wrong!
Continuing teacher professional development and in-service teacher training reached their tipping point in our country in 2009 when the Central Government introduced the Right to Education Act (RTE). A series of intense national and state-level school improvement interventions followed the RTE. Schooling experts began recommending 'teacher training' as the panacea for all the woes that befell the infamously substandard Indian Schooling System, as exposed through a series of international and national student achievement reports like PISA and ASER. School Boards began insisting that schools allow at least 50 hours of in-service teacher training every year. What were they to be trained on?
National Education Policy 2020 clarifies what good pedagogy looks like. It says, "Pedagogy must evolve to make education more experiential, holistic, integrated, inquiry-driven, discovery-oriented, learner-centered, discussion-based, flexible, and, of course, enjoyable." In other words, policymakers wanted continuing teacher professional development and in-service teacher training to revolve around a social constructivist approach to teaching.
For the uninitiated, Social Constructivism is a theory of learning developed by Soviet psychologist Lev Vygotsky. It rejects the notion propagated by educational theorists like Jean Piaget that one can separate learning from its social context. Social constructivism promotes the idea that children construct cognition through social interaction and language use.
Social constructivism is the reason we actively discourage teachers from lecturing in classrooms and encourage inquiry-based experiential learning in schools. However, research in cognitive science suggests that we have been approaching this wrong from 2009 to date. Instructional Coaches and School Improvement Consultants across India have been training our teachers to develop the misconception that experiential learning and inquiry-based teaching mean they do a series of collaborative and resource-heavy behavioural activities in the classroom and not use any traditional teaching methods like lecturing. In other words, we allowed the constructivist teaching fallacy to guide our professional development initiatives for teachers throughout the country for over a decade now.
What is the constructivist teaching fallacy?
In January 2004, Richard E. Mayer, University of California, published "Should there be a Three-Strikes Rule against pure Discovery Learning?" in American Psychologist. In the paper, Mayer claims that many of us confuse social constructivism as a prescription for teaching, though it is merely a theory of learning.
Most Instructional Coaches and School Improvement Consultants in India design their teacher professional development interventions, like workshops or classroom observations, taking only the constructive and the social nature of learning into account. We conveniently forget that the social constructivists also talk about the Zone of Proximal Development, the space between what a learner can do without assistance and what a learner can do with adult guidance or peer collaboration. As a result, we encourage student-to-student collaboration in classrooms and discourage adult guidance, as though it is nefariously sinful if an adult interferes in learning. This means that we ended up training our teachers to inundate their students with behavioural activities in the classroom, assuming that children need to discover knowledge without explicit guidance from the teacher. Mayer calls this assumption 'the constructivist teaching fallacy.'
You see, cognitive activity can happen with or without behavioural activity. Behavioural activity, however, does not guarantee cognitive activity. Novices do not usually know how to think and what to pay attention to when they engage in behavioral activities unless an expert makes the process of thinking required for the activity explicit and clarifies the new concepts. The constructivist teaching fallacy compels us to overlook these facts.
Blinded by the constructivist teaching fallacy, our teacher professional development interventions neglect the need to discuss the role of reflection and adult guidance in inquiry-based experiential learning. Our teachers go back from professional development workshops and seminars thinking that good teaching is about doing a set of collaborative behavioral activities in the classroom. When they try some of these so-called learning activities in their classrooms, they immediately notice the dissonance - while children enjoy participating in these activities, they do not seem to be learning. As a result, most of our teachers view direct instruction and learning activities as mutually exclusive. Disappointed about the perceived uselessness of inquiry-based experiential learning, most of our teachers revert to the traditional teaching methods. They consider learning activities merely as opportunities to click pictures for their social networks. 'We cannot teach everything using activities," they tell us. Consequently, though the National Achievement Survey 2021 claims that more than 90% of our teachers use a variety of formative assessment strategies in the classroom, outcome-based student achievement in our schools is still discouragingly low. At Innerkern, a part of our work with teachers across India during Classroom Shapeshift involves correcting the constructivist teaching fallacy.
What does classroom management look like when you are not misled by the constructivist teaching fallacy?
Many teachers in India struggle to keep their students on task as they teach. Adding insult to this injury, teacher training, influenced by the constructivist teaching fallacy, might have forced our teachers to misconceive how they must approach classroom management too. We may have failed in helping our teachers understand that keeping children on task and learning has got more to do with how they teach than how they use the hundreds of classroom management strategies that are floating around. In the following write-up, Sojo Varughese explores a four-part formula for effective classroom management, informed by the latest research in cognitive science.
Mark Twain once said, 'Teaching is like trying to hold 35 corks underwater at once.' We banned the only tool Indian teachers had at their disposal to manage 30 to 60 noisy kids in the classroom without telling them how else to. Here is a four-part formula that might help you manage your classroom effectively.
What does running a school look like when you are not misled by the constructivist teaching fallacy?
Many of our school leaders manage the pedagogy in their schools, confused about the role of instructional guidance during teaching. Do we advocate unguided and partly guided instruction or fully guided instruction? In this context, what Ryan Chadha wants to tell us about the Uncertainty Curriculum in the following Innerkern Dialogue is highly relevant.
As we conclude this issue of #WorkLessons @Innerkern, we want to assure you that, through Classroom Shapeshift, we are working hard to support school leaders and teachers across India shed the constructivist teaching fallacy and approach experiential learning and inquiry-based teaching more scientifically to make learning meaningful for our children. However, we would like you to notice that Classroom Shapeshift is a little more than helping schools shed the constructivist teaching fallacy. Classroom Shapeshift is about setting up a staff learning system in your school and aligning the pedagogic practices in your school with the most recent research in cognitive science, educational psychology, and behavioral economics. Should you like to talk to us to understand how we can add value to your school through Classroom Shapeshift, please write to us at email@example.com.
Thank you for your time.