User:Leighblackall/Notes on Bowers' False Promises of Constructivist Theories of Learning

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Chet Bowers. The false promises of constructivist theories of learning: a global and ecological critique. Peter Lang, 2005. ISBN 0820478849

Chapter 1 - Introduction[edit]

The globalization of the West’s view of economic and technological development is now being accompanied by the aggressive promotion of Western values and ways of thinking—through television and Hollywood films, and by Western universities that have established in the public’s mind (and the minds of foreign graduates of these institutions) what constitutes high and low-status knowledge. High-status knowledge, which is represented as the basis of modernization, includes the assumption that the individual is the basic social unit, the source of intelligence and moral judgment; that literacy and other abstract forms of representation for encoding and communicating knowledge lead to a more rational and progressive mode of being; that change is the expression of progress; that Western science and technology are both culturally neutral and at the same time the highest expression of rational thought; that cultural development is governed by the laws of natural selection whereby the fittest (the more efficient and scientifically based) prevail over the less fit; and that the major challenge is to bring nature under human control and to exploit it in ways that help to expand economic markets. Bowers 2005 Page 2
Western universities have a long history of colonizing the governing elites of nonWestern countries with the same fervor and ethnocentric thinking as Christian missionaries. This ongoing process is now being supplemented by introducing Western values and patterns of thinking into the educational experience of the youth of nonWestern cultures. The Western-educated elites that control the educational bureaucracies of countries such as Peru, Bolivia, Brazil, and Mexico are now promoting what in the West is called a constructivist approach to teaching and curriculum. This same approach is being introduced into the teacher training programs in Muslim countries such as Turkey, Albania, Macedonia, and Pakistan—and in the Baltic countries, Russia, and even in South Africa and Taiwan. At last count, constructivist approaches to learning are being used as the basis of educational reform in 29 countries—and the list is growing. This same approach to teacher education is also being promoted in New Zealand, Australia, Great Britain, Canada, and the United States. Constructivism is, in fact, the dominant approach to the education of teachers in those countries that are characterized by hyperconsumerism. The connections between the form of individualism fostered through a constructivist approach to education and the process of colonizing other cultures to the patterns of a consumer-dependent lifestyle will be one of the main issues to be explored in later chapters. Bowers 2005 Page 2
One of the most important cultural assumptions underlying the high-status knowledge promoted by Western universities, by Western scientists and technologists, and by the proponents of the different approaches to a constructivist pedagogy is that change is the dominant feature of everyday life. Thus, change and progress are viewed as synonymous by most Western thinkers—which transnational corporations exploit by representing every innovation, no matter how minor or superfluous, as a progressive step over previous ones. That what is new and thus interpreted as a progressive step forward is driven by the West’s incessant efforts to expand the industrialization of production and consumption does not seem to bring the myth of progress into question—except for a few critics Bowers 2005 Page 4
The colonizing nature of constructivist pedagogies becomes clearer when its Western assumptions are compared with the patterns of thinking and values of cultural groups that still maintain that traditions are essential to the vitality and interdependence of their communities—or what can be called the “commons” (which I shall use as interchangeable with the nonmarket-oriented aspects of community-centered relationships, activities, and forms of knowledge that do not undermine natural systems). Bowers 2005 Page 5
Generally overlooked in the worldwide effort to promote the Western model of development is that one of the primary driving forces is the further automation of the process of production—which not only makes the possession of skills and craft knowledge economically irrelevant but at the same time reduces the need for workers. That is, the Western technologically driven approach to progress creates the double bind where there is an ever-increasing need for bringing people into a money-based economy so they can purchase the everexpanding list of consumer goods and services, and where there is an increasing number of unemployed or underemployed because robots, computers, and other new technologies have reduced the need for workers. Bowers 2005 Page 5
When governments promote educational reforms that foster the myth of being an autonomous individual in a world of unending progress they are contributing to the spread of poverty and helplessness. This is because educating young people to construct their own knowledge creates a condition of alienation whereby the knowledge and skills essential to participating in the community networks of mutual aid are not acquired. Thus, the double bind. Youth are being educated to become workers in a hypertechnological and capital-intensive environment where there is no certainty of long-term employment. The false promises are now being played out in Mexico where integration into the economic system dictated by the North American Free Trade Agreement is displacing the peasants whose cultural life has been centered for hundreds of years on the growing of corn. Now with China’s ability to combine even lower-wage earners with the most advanced Western technology, Mexico’s manufacturing industries are beginning to disappear. In effect, the promise of economic development that is the basis of so many governmental efforts at educational reform, including that of Mexico, is giving way to the brutal realities of global competition for markets that are already flooded with consumer goods. Yet, the government of Mexico, like many governments in other third-world countries, continued to promote constructivist-based educational reforms. Bowers 2005 Page 8

Chapter 2 - Misconceptions Underlying Individually Centered Constructivism and Critical Inquiry[edit]

On John Dewey[edit]

[Dewey's] silences and misconceptions can be organized into three categories: his failure to recognize the world’s culturally diverse knowledge systems, his failure to recognize how different knowledge systems are based on intergenerational traditions that contribute to patterns of mutual aid that have a smaller ecological footprint, and his failure to recognize the need to conserve cultural traditions that represent alternatives to the industrial model of production and consumption that is now being promoted on a global basis. Bowers 2005 Page 17

Regarding Dewey's preference for scientific mode of inquiry[edit]

The wisdom of elders or of people who have been mentored to carry forward traditions of knowledge gained and refined over generations of collective experiences, such as the knowledge of the healing properties of plants, simply has no place in Dewey’s way of thinking. Rather, what he places an emphasis on is that experimental knowledge must meet the test of only one generation’s experience, which he sees as an ongoing process of reconstruction within the experience of that generation. Bowers 2005 Page 18

Regarding Dewey's view of democracy[edit]

We can recognize that this untiring advocate of democracy argued for the universal adoption of the scientific method of inquiry and the abandonment of what he called the spectator approach to knowledge. He also advocated that his understanding of a progressive linear form of change be universally adopted, and that each generation should rely upon their immediate experience in determining which traditions were relevant to reconstructing current problematic situations. Neither Dewey nor his followers recognized the contradiction in suggesting that other cultures could become democratic only as they gave up their traditions of decision making and approaches to knowledge and values. Bowers 2005 Page 19

Regarding Dewey's view on cultural diversity[edit]

In assessing Dewey’s ideas within the context of multiple cultural knowledge and moral systems, it is important to keep in mind that he relied upon an evolutionary interpretative framework that led him to refer to cultures that were not based on his method of experimental inquiry as backward and as examples of “savages.” In his way of thinking these less evolved cultures were driven by the quest misconceptions underlying constructivism and inquiry for certainty, and relied upon a spectator approach to knowledge. The more evolved cultures, by way of contrast, understand “ideas are anticipatory plans of action and designs which take effect in concrete reconstructions of antecedent conditions of existence” (Dewey. The Quest for Certainty. 1960, pp. 166–167). Bowers 2005 Page 19

On Jean Piaget[edit]

Four dogmas:

  1. That knowledge cannot be conveyed to another person
  2. That curriculum must be appropriate to the student's stage of cognitive development
  3. That curriculum aligned to cognitive development will lead to the autonomous individual
  4. Critical inquiry and experimentalism should be central to process-oriented learning
Bowers 2005 Page 20

Regarding Piaget's Darwinian views of intelligence[edit]

As Keiran Egan points out, one of the most important ideas that Piaget borrows from biology to explain psychological phenomena is that intelligence should be understood as a biological process of development that is genetically driven (Keiran Egan. Education and Psychology: Plato, Piaget and Scientific Psychology. New York: Teachers College Press 1983, pp. 83–95). Bowers 2005 Page 21 and 22

Regarding Piaget's error on language[edit]

Egan, one of the most insightful scholars and critics of Piaget’s theory of learning, notes that Piaget viewed language competence as *following* the development of cognitive structures. To quote Piaget on this critically important issue: “Language is not thought, nor is it the source or sufficient condition for thought (1983, Egan, p. 71). As will be explained in the next chapter, this is one of Piaget’s most basic misconceptions—one that led him and his followers away from considering the role of language in the intergenerational renewal of the epistemologies of different cultures. Bowers 2005 Page 23

Regarding Piaget's stages of development[edit]

The teacher’s task is to match the curriculum to the stage [of cognitive development] the student has reached... Piaget’s use (or misuse) of science to give legitimacy to his theory of cognitive stages does not provide teachers with a fail-safe scientific approach to interpreting which stage of development the student has reached. In effect, his theory leads to the same problem that is found in Howard Gardner’s theory of multiple forms of intelligence—which is also based on a biology-determines-form-of-intelligence argument (which has not been scientifically proven). Gardner’s theory also places on the teacher the responsibility for determining which form of intelligence the student possesses, and then to match the curriculum accordingly. The problem in terms of both theories of readiness is that the teacher’s cultural biases, subjective judgment, and own lack of knowledge become critical factors in shaping curricular decisions. Bowers 2005 Page 24

Regarding a contradiction to constructivist theory[edit]

One of the differences that should be kept in mind is that Dewey was an advocate of participatory decision making as the basis of social intelligence, while the goal of the educational process for Piaget was the achievement of individual autonomy. The deeper implications of this difference are being generally overlooked as the promoters of constructivist approaches to learning, in their attempt to create the impression that there is a broad consensus of support, often identify with other theorists who have conflicting ideas about fundamental issues. Bowers 2005 Page 25

On Paulo Freire[edit]

In Education for Critical Consciousness (1973), Freire identifies three stages in human, cultural, and cognitive development. He labels the first stage as “semiintransitivity of consciousness,” which is followed by the higher stage of “transitivity of consciousness,” with the highest and most culturally advanced stage being “critically transitivity of consciousness: Men of semi-transitive consciousness,” he observed, “cannot apprehend problems situated outside their sphere of biological necessity. . . semi-transitivity represents a near disengagement between men and their existence. . . (they) fall prey to magical explanations because they cannot apprehend true causality” (p. 17). He identified the oral cultures in the “backward regions of Brazil” as examples of this primitive, animal-like state of existence. The highest stage of cultural evolution, which he identified with critically transitive consciousness, is “characteristic of authentically democratic regimes and corresponds to highly permeable, interrogative, restless, and dialogical forms of thought” (pp. 18–19). Bowers 2005 Page 26

Regarding Freire and democracy[edit]

It is important to note that democracy for Freire means that the nonWestern cultures must abandon their own systems of knowledge—which is the same position that Dewey took—also in the name of achieving democracy. Freire even extends his core idea that each person must speak a true word and not live by the words of others—particularly the words of the older generation. As in all of Freire’s pronouncements, there is no recognition of differences in cultural contexts, the possibility that some forms of intergenerational knowledge are essential to membership in the commons and that autonomy is an ideological construct of Western thinkers who did not (and still do not) understand how thinking always reproduces even as it individualizes the taken-for-granted cultural patterns of thinking. Bowers 2005 Page 28

Chapter 3: Toward a Culturally Grounded Theory of Learning[edit]

Like the physician who needs to understand human anatomy and the lawyer who needs to understand the foundations of the law, teachers need to understand the cultural ecology that influences their ideas, values, and every aspect of classroom communication, as well as the cultural ecology of their students. That is, at the core of their professional knowledge should be a deep understanding of culture in all its varied dimensions. Bowers 2005 Page 35

The Cultural Construction of Knowledge and Personal Identity[edit]

The writings of Peter Berger, Thomas Luckmann, Mark Johnson, George Lakoff, Richard Brown, Edward Shils, and Gregory Bateson can more easily be translated into culturally informed pedagogical practices. Bowers 2005 Page 35
Unlike Piaget’s claim that language competence follows the development of cognitive structures and Freire’s claim that individuals must avoid the false words of previous generations by naming the world themselves, Berger and Luckmann point out that at the center of the relationships that constitute the individual’s social (cultural) experiences are the multiple processes of communication. These include the non-verbal exchanges, the spoken and written word, thought patterns encoded in and communicated through the material/built culture (design of buildings, roadways, organization of public spaces, clothes, and so forth). In some cultures the plants, animals, rocks, wind, rivers, etc. also are understood as sources of communication. In effect, Berger and Luckmann represent the languaging processes of a culture as its core constituting and sustaining characteristic. Bowers 2005 Page 36

Chapter 4: How Constructivism Undermines the Commons[edit]

The key point here is that since the child’s everyday taken-for-granted reality is largely culturally constructed, the analysis here will focus on how constructivist pedagogies and curricula reinforce the Western bias against the intergenerational knowledge that is the basis of the commons of different cultures. The analysis will also be focusing on the destructive impact on the commons when students adopt the Western assumptions that are reinforced in constructivist classrooms. As the Western icons of a consumer lifestyle are being adopted by students in different parts of the world, we can expect that many of them will readily embrace the Western values and ways of thinking promoted in constructivist classrooms. Children and teenage youth in other cultures cannot be expected to resist the allure of Western images of material success and individual happiness when, for example, people rooted in the sophisticated Chinese civilization begin to build in the outskirts of Beijing gated communities with Western street names and California-style houses. Bowers 2005 Page 60

The Commons of Indigenous Cultures and Non Western Cultures[edit]

Perhaps the best way to introduce the profound differences that separate the assumptions and strategies of constructivist-learning theorists (including Piaget, Dewey, and Freire) from the way of knowing that influences what and the way Quechua and Aymara children learn is to consider what Carlos Ortega Hores (a ten-year-old boy from the district of Plateria, Puno) says about his knowledge and responsibilities:
My parents taught me how to nurture the animals: to graze and lead them to the places where the pastures grow. I know all the animals that my father nurtures. I know how to ride a horse . . . I know the diseases like diarrhea of the offspring which we know how to treat with creosol. Mother alpacas are covered at two years of age and at three they are already giving birth . . . We do Uywa chuwa (a welcoming ritual in the nurturing of alpacas) at Christmas time. I know how to cook and sleep alone tending the animals. Rengifo, 2001, p. 12
Carlos did not learn about the practices essential to maintaining the health of the animals through critical or even experimental inquiry. Nor did he acquire this knowledge on the basis of his subjective experience. Rather he learns, like other Quechua and Aymara children, from watching parents and others in the community, from conversations that are part of participating in the work and festivals of the community, and from listening to the sounds and observing changes in what we call the environment—which the Quechua and Aymara consider to be persons like themselves who are engaging in an ongoing conversation. As a group of Smith College students report, based on their field research among the Quechua done under the guidance of anthropologist Frederique Apffel-Marglin, learning is largely embodied and mimetic. Just as the Quechua farmer does not rely upon a chemical analysis of the soil to know if it is “tired,” but on feeling the soil with his hands, the child also learns about the condition of the soil in the same way. Mario Arevalo, a former educator and founder of the NGO, Pradera, further clarifies how Quechua children learn by noting that Quechua knowledge is not viewed as located in the head alone, but in the farmer’s hands, eyes, nose, soul—and in the ongoing dialogue with the other forms of life that are members of the commons (Shmulsky, Marlowe, Daniel, 2003, p. 3). Bowers 2005, p. 62

Notes on this point:

How Constructivism Undermines the Commons in North America[edit]

The revitalization of the commons is integral to addressing the eco-justice issues that are increasingly being ignored as public schools and universities in North America align themselves more closely with corporate culture. In the United State, corporate logos, fast-food outlets in public school and university cafeterias, and the use of computers are now the most visible linkages. The forms of knowledge that universities have elevated to high-status print and other abstract language systems, scientific inquiry, incessant drive to create new ideas and technologies, and assumptions such as anthropocentrism (which is also the basis of eco-management courses) mechanism, individualism, and the equating of a university education with a higher material standard of living—provide the necessary conceptual and moral framework that leads to a consumer-dependent lifestyle. As I have pointed out elsewhere (1997, 2001, 2003), what has been relegated to low-status by being omitted entirely from the curriculum or severely marginalized, are the forms of knowledge essential to the health of the cultural and environmental commons. That is, the non-monetized relationships, activities, how constructivism undermines the commons and forms of intergenerational knowledge that enable students to become active participants in the cultural commons makes them less dependent upon consumerism. This, in turn, leads to a lifestyle that helps address eco-justice issues.
The five unresolved and too often unrecognized aspects of eco-justice that are directly related to our hyperconsumer lifestyle include the following: (1) the impact that the industrial toxins and wastes have on the health of marginalized social groups in society; (2) the disruption of local economies and traditions of selfsufficiency in third world countries that results from the exploitation of their resources in order to sustain our level of hyperconsumerism; (3) the destruction of the symbolic foundations of the commons that results in people being more dependent upon consumerism to meet daily needs—even as the opportunities for earning a living wage are decreasing; (4) the failure to limit the pursuit of materialism in ways that ensure that the quality of life of future generations will not be diminished; and (5) the right of other species to renew themselves and to not be reduced to an exploitable resource.
The responsibility needs to be taken on by all teachers and professors—regardless of their discipline. Indeed, one of the most cogent recommendations that Rolf Jucker makes in Our Common Illiteracy: Education as if the Earth and People Mattered (2002), is that a transdisciplinary approach needs to be taken if students are to understand the cultural roots of the ecological crisis, and the cultural changes that will contribute to a more sustainable future (pp. 333–334).
If we examine the educational background of the people who promoted the Free Trade Organization, run the World Bank, and support the expansion of the North American Free Trade Agreement, we would find that they are mostly graduates of the country’s most prestigious universities. And if we inquire into the educational background of the politicians who are now promoting the American imperial world order, as well as the heads of corporations that are supporting this project on the grounds that it will open up new markets for the steady stream of new technologies, we would find that few if any encountered professors who helped to clarify the connections between this imperialistic agenda and the destruction of the commons—both in North America and in other parts of the world. The connections between a university education and a hyperconsumer lifestyle, with its accompanying status symbols of a sports utility vehicle, an oversized house, and latest computer gadgets, would be relatively easy to research—that is, if sociologists and anthropologists were to become interested in how the failure to address eco-justice issues affects the commons. It would also be relatively easy to research the size of the ecological footprint of people whose lives are based on the forms of intergenerational knowledge and values that are currently excluded from the curricula of public schools and universities. Bowers 2005, p. 71-73

Chapter 5 Constructivism The Trojan Horse of Western Imperialism[edit]

Kirkpatrick Sale’s observation about the industrial approach to production and consumption brings into focus what has been generally ignored by constructivist learning theorists who equate emancipation of the individual with gains in social progress, justice, and democracy. In Rebels Against the Future: The Luddites and Their War on the Industrial Revolution (1995), Sale describes how the intergenerational basis of community self-sufficiency had to be undermined in order to create the form of individualism that would be dependent upon the products of an industrial system in order to survive. As he put it:
All that ‘community’ implies—self-sufficiency, mutual aid, morality in the marketplace, stubborn tradition, regulation by custom, organic knowledge instead of mechanistic science— had to be steadily and systematically disrupted and displaced. All the practices that kept the individual from being a consumer had to be done away with so that the cogs and wheels of an unfettered machine called ‘the economy’ could operate without interference, influenced merely by invisible hands and inevitable balances and all the rest of the benevolent free-market system. p. 38
As the constructivist learning theorists share the same taken-for-granted cultural assumptions with the classical liberal theorists who provided the ideological justification, including moral legitimacy, for the earlier and, now, current phase of the Industrial Revolution, they have not recognized how their ideal of the autonomous, critically reflective individual is essential to the industrial, capitalistic system they often criticize.

Chapter 6: Toward a Culturally Informed Eco-Justice Pedagogy[edit]

The principal concerns that should guide the reform of teacher education, and thus the education that occurs in classrooms, have been articulated by several writers who have kept in focus the connections between the cultural patterns that are degrading the environment and the rise of political conflict, as well as the spread of poverty around the world. In the last chapter of Our Common Illiteracy (2002), Rolf Jucker discusses 27 reforms that will contribute to transforming classrooms from sites of indoctrination into the culture of consumerism and environmental exploitation into sites for learning how to live in ways that contribute to a sustainable future. His recommendations range from incorporating into the curriculum examples of ecologically informed approaches to development in other parts of the world and making education for a sustainable future the core feature of every course, to providing staff development in how to teach an ecologically informed curriculum.
David Orr has also recommended several basic reforms that will contribute to ecological literacy. In addition to suggestions for how to contribute to the student’s knowledge of place, as well as his recommendations for making school buildings more energy efficient, Orr’s insights into the pathology of American culture that teachers need to avoid perpetuating express a Wendell Berry-type of wisdom. As he writes in The Nature of Design (2002):
Ecological design at the level of culture resembles the structure and behavior of resilient systems in other contexts in which feedback between action and subsequent correction is rapid, people are held accountable for their actions, functional redundancy is high, and control is decentralized. At the local scale, people’s actions are known and so accountability tends to be high. Production is distributed throughout the community, which means that no one individual’s misfortune disrupts the whole. Employment, food, fuel, and recreation are mostly derived locally, which means people are buffered somewhat from economic forces beyond their control. Similarly, the decentralization of control to the community scale means that the pathologies of large-scale administration are mostly absent. Moreover, being situated in a place for generations provides long term memory of place and hence of its ecological possibilities and limits. pp. 9–10
His summary of the basic relationships that are too often ignored can be interpreted mas a set of guidelines for teachers in how to renew the commons and local democracy. While some readers may interpret Orr as suggesting that we should return to an earlier, less technologically driven lifestyle, a more accurate interpretation would be to view these recommendations as practical steps for resisting the technological and economic forces that are subverting what remains of local democracy and are increasing the economic vulnerability of local communities.
In effect, Orr is reiterating the danger of becoming increasingly dependent upon an industrial system that is not accountable in terms of the needs of local communities, the limits of local ecosystems, and the prospects of future generations.
Bowers 2005. p. 103-104

The Teacher as Cultural Mediator: Guiding Principles[edit]

  1. The teacher needs to be aware that the student’s ability to exercise communicative competence in the political sense where language and background knowledge are essential to the determination of what issues are raised and future consequences are made explicit is dependent upon how the teacher mediates the process of primary socialization. p.113
  2. The teacher’s mediation between the different cultural forces and trends needs to contribute to the revitalization of the commons. Furthermore, the teacher must be knowledgeable about the differences in cultural ways of knowing and the characteristics of the local bioregion in order to avoid mediation’s becoming a process of colonization. p. 115
  3. Mediating between the neoliberal ideology promoted in universities and by politicians and spokespersons for corporate culture and the conserving practices of environmentalists and others working to renew communities and cultures should be a constant focus of teachers who are concerned about eco-justice issues. p. 119
To summarize the main point: the key question that needs to be asked in both Western and nonWestern classrooms does not fit what teachers in constructivist classrooms would consider to be politically correct. However, I suspect that in non-Western classrooms many students will recognize the messianic and colonizing nature of the neoliberal ideology that underlies constructivist approaches to learning. And while their Western-educated teachers and educational bureaucrats may not recognize that the liberal assumptions underlying modernization are not universal principles that govern the “evolution” of all cultures, the parents and other members of the community still steeped in nonWestern traditions will be aware that the state’s educational reforms are a source of intergenerational alienation. Whether the students will resist the pressures to become entirely dependent upon a money economy, which is promoted through the spread of industrial culture, is another question—especially when they realize that the promises of the industrial culture can only be achieved by the elites who control the system. Bowers 2005. p. 120

Themes and Issues that Need to be Addressed in a Western Curriculum[edit]

  1. the tensions between the sustainable practices within the commons and the spread of industrial culture— with its dual emphasis on consumerism and the further automation of production;
  2. the difference between modern and indigenous (or low-impact) technologies;
  3. the gains and losses connected with scientifically based technologies, including the colonizing nature of Western science;
  4. the ideology that represents change as a progressive force and traditions as a source of backwardness—and the destructive impact of this view of tradition on revitalizing the commons and local democracy; and
  5. the aspects of everyday life that can be enhanced by learning to think ecologically as opposed to thinking via an industrial model.
Bowers 2005. p. 124