This is the final post in a four part series discussing an excellent article written by Harvard Project Zero’s David Perkins. In a previous post, we discussed some of the challenges of using a constructivist approach to teaching and learning. Today, we will present Perkins’ idea of Pragmatic Constructivism. The ideas in this post come from the following:
Perkins, D. (1999). The many faces of constructivism. Educational Leadership. 5(3), 6-11.
One of the common pitfalls of any innovative idea or practice in education is to treat it as though it were a “silver bullet”, a panacea for all that ails education. Perkins warns against this phenomenon and promotes the idea of Pragmatic Constructivism. Perkins explains one way to overcome the “silver bullet” phenomenon is to recognize four distinct types of knowledge: intert, ritual, conceptually difficult, and foreign.
Inert knowledge is the type of knowledge that just sits in the brain awaiting recall before it is activated. This is not to say that inert knowledge is not important – many times it is. The problem at times is that the learner has made no connection between it and the world around them.
A constructivist approach to teaching knowledge that is likely to become inert is to connect that knowledge with the student’s world by engaging them in active problem solving or problem-based learning. Both of these approaches will help the student to connect that inert knowledge with their world.
How many times have you asked a student involved in a learning task, “Why did you do such and such?” and they respond, “I don’t know, that is what we always do,” or something similar. The knowledge involved in this scenario would qualify as ritual knowledge. Students have forgotten, or possibly never knew, the reason that they do a certain task – they just know that it is what is supposed to be done in a certain situation.
In this case, the teacher utilizing a constructivist approach would try to make the knowledge more meaningful. An example here might be the use of a topic sentence in writing an essay. Many students know that they are supposed to write a topic sentence but how many can list reasons why this is important? Getting students to become more mindful is an important aspect of teaching ritual knowledge using constructivism.
Conceptually Difficult Knowledge
This type of knowledge is self-explanatory and I still remember sitting in Algebra II with no clue of what was going on. I was encountering conceptually difficult knowledge. If my teacher wanted to use a constructivist approach to teach me Algebra II – what recommendations would David Perkins give her?
One approach could have been to create a process of inquiry where I would have had to confront discrepancies in my initial theories. Another approach would be to introduce imagistic mental models to me or have me invent my own.