Constructivism and the Khan Academy

Not long after sitting down at my computer this morning, there was this tweet from David Wees:
“How would you explain constructivism to someone not (well) versed in pedagogy? You have 140 characters. #edchat #BCed”
I took David’s challenge and what followed was a pretty good conversation with David Cox, Ira Socol, and Jennifer Borgioli. For the sake of clarity, yet with an attempt at brevity, I thought a follow-up post would be good here. My goal is to share the kind of knowledge that David asked for -- a short explanation for someone who might be new or unclear about these ideas -- so please excuse me if I don’t touch on some of the nuanced bits (and there are many, trust me!) of the theory.

Before we talk about learning theory, we should take a step back and talk about epistemology - the branch of philosophy concerned with the nature of knowledge. There are multiple epistemologies, but two are important here.

Objectivism: An objectivist epistemology holds that knowledge and meaning exists independently of the learner. It is not just believing that “a rock would be a rock if we were here or not.” Instead, it is a belief that the rock carries some meaning of what it is to be a rock, and when we study rocks we are discovering that meaning. Objectivism is sometimes called empiricism or externalism.

Constructivism: A constructivist epistemology holds that there is no objective knowledge. This doesn’t mean that there aren’t objects, but that the knowledge and meaning we associate with objects is constructed by us as we engage and interact with the world. Constructivism can take several different forms, depending on the importance placed on social and historical interactions.

Hopefully you can already see how different epistemologies can affect a person’s view of teaching and learning. Now let’s compare three learning theories associated with these epistemologies.

Behaviorism: Behaviorist learning theory is often associated with an objectivist epistemology. Human actions, including exhibitions of our knowledge, are viewed as behaviors that respond to a stimulus. The process begins with a transmission of knowledge from the teacher (which can be a non-human source of knowledge) to the student. If the response is the expected behavior, the student is rewarded. If the response is not the expected behavior, the student is punished. By stimulating the student with rewards and punishments, the teacher encourages the student to receive the transmissions of knowledge.

Information Processing: IP theory still applies an objectivist epistemology, but differs from behaviorism in that learning is seen as an inner cognitive process and not just a response to a stimulus. The brain is seen roughly as analogous to a computer -- it has memory and processing systems that serve to store and analyze information, although the analogy doesn't extend to understanding exactly how those systems actually work. Application of this theory in teaching generally involves heavy doses of repetition to ensure that knowledge is retained in memory.

Constructivism: Not surprisingly, constructivist learning theory is associated with a constructivist epistemology. Because knowledge is constructed by the learner, the teaching/learning process focuses on creating conditions for that construction to happen. There is no "transmission" of knowledge. Depending on the form of constructivism, the teacher might facilitate the construction of knowledge through the inclusion of contexts and social interaction.

The science of education would be much easier if we could prove that some theories never work and one works all the time. But we can’t. However, I don’t know of an educational psychologist that doesn’t think constructivist learning theory (in at least one of its variants) works better than those based on an objectivist epistemology. So why doesn’t every teacher do it? Or do it well? Teachers in classrooms have resource, time, and other constraints that makes constructivism more difficult than we all wished it was. Also, it’s not always clear cut which theory is being applied by a teacher. Suppose you were to peek into a classroom and see a teacher speaking to the entire class. Maybe the teacher is trying to transmit knowledge in a behaviorist/IP way. Maybe the teacher is trying to help students get into a certain frame of mind and is a constructivist. You can’t tell at a glance because the learning theories don’t always present themselves as extreme opposite ends of the spectrum. But when there’s controversy, we like to pretend that they do. Enter Salman Khan.

There’s been a lot written about Sal Khan and the Khan Academy over the past several months, including a recent article in Wired Magazine that became a large part of this morning’s discussion on Twitter. The idea of learning by watching videos isn’t necessarily behaviorist or solely an application of information processing theory, but it’s more easily seen as a medium for the transmission of knowledge, not construction, and the point-keeping for problems right and wrong also fits the stimulus/response model. Phrases such as "Khan and Gates both admit there’s no easy way to automate the teaching of writing" also point at behaviorism and IP. (There’s an underlying assumption here that if teaching can be automated, learning will be automated.) The Wired article quotes parents and teachers who are amazed at the progress their kids are making, measured by problems completed, modules finished, and badges earned. Are those students learning? Of course they are, but exactly what they are learning and how well they understand it is at the core of the debate.

Behaviorism and information processing aren't mentioned by name in the article. Perhaps they don't need to be; it’s a style of education that most all of us are familiar with and perhaps it doesn’t need much explaining. Constructivists are named as Khan’s critics, and the theory is described using terms such as "play around" and "fumbling around," the latter of which was probably an unfortunate choice of words by a constructivism supporter. Saying that "it’s better to give kids activities that let them discover the principles of math and physics on their own" doesn’t give enough credit to teachers in good constructivist learning environments. When done well, teachers don’t just "give" activities and students aren’t "on their own." Instead, there’s a careful orchestration going on and the teacher is with the students 100% of the way, asking questions, providing feedback, provoking the student to look at tasks in ways that help students construct deep understandings. Can a video do this? Obviously there are severe limitations -- not limitations that prevent all learning, but limitations that might be preventing the best kind of learning.

Look for an upcoming post about what happens when the instruction is based on objectivism but the student, a kid we'll call "Benny," constructs knowledge in his own, incorrect way. The "Benny" paper by Stanley Erlwanger in 1973 had huge ramifications for research and teaching in mathematics education, and has interesting parallels to learning via the Khan Academy.

I'd like to give great thanks to Jackie Hotchkiss for helping review a draft of this post. (Any final shortcomings are solely mine, of course.) When in doubt, talk to an educational psychologist!