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Christensen Institute’s Julia Freedland Makes An Important Distinction: Behaviorism vs. Constructivism

January 14, 2018

In her recent Christensen Institute post flagging the “5 Big Ideas for Education Innovation in 2018“, Julia Freedland encourages critics of disruption to focus on the distinction between constructivism and behaviorism in their analyses. Under the heading “Stop debating technology, start debating constructivism and behaviorism” she writes:

The ever-simmering edtech debate is starting to boil over. Commentators are stuck arguing whether tech is good or bad, whether personalized learning is synonymous with robot teachers or high-touch teaching, whether technology is under-researched or offers a high payoff. I worry that these debates draw false dichotomies. They risk entrenching different camps in their feelings about the form a tool takes rather than its function. I suspect that the deeper tension undergirding these debates may have less to do with technology itself and more to do with competing behaviorist and constructivist philosophies. I’m hoping that mainstream edtech conversations dedicate more time to examining these competing pedagogical philosophies—and how edtech tools do or don’t support each—in 2018. This year I’ll keep following thinkers like Larry Cuban who have become more vocal about this distinction.

In the article Mr. Cuban wrote, he contends that “personalized learning” is used to describe programs that range from de facto programmed instruction where students more through teacher-constructed playlists at their own pace to technologically enhanced Summerhill-like approaches– where students dictate both content and pace. I think his nuanced perspective, one that eschews “value-loaded” words, is far superior to that of those who bundle all technology into the Skinnerian end of the spectrum.

As one who advocates the elimination of age-based grade levels and the open-ended opportunity for students to explore subjects that interest them in depth once they’ve mastered reading and mathematical skills, I tend toward the constructivist side of the spectrum. But as one believes there is a place for technology in school improvement, I also hope educational critics will heed Ms. Freedland’s dictum and “Stop debating technology, start debating constructivism and behaviorism“.

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