Disability Studies Quarterly
Spring 2004, Volume 24, No. 2
Copyright 2004 by the Society
for Disability Studies

The Importance of Constructivism and Constructivist Pedagogy
For Disability Studies in Education

Deborah J. Gallagher
University of Northern Iowa
E-mail: deborah.gallagher@uni.edu

Abstract: Many in disability studies approach disability as a culturally constructed experience, owing its existence to the beliefs and practices built around how any given society responds to human difference. This approach is predicated on the belief that all knowledge is socially constructed. But what does this perspective mean for educators in their daily classroom teaching practices? I address this question by examining the practical implications of disability studies scholarship from a constructivist perspective. In so doing, I offer insights into how the constructivist perspective alters not only our understanding of individual differences, but also its potential for changing teaching practices.


During her address to the business meeting of the Disability Studies in Education Special Interest Group (SIG) at the American Educational Research Association last April in Seattle, Co-chair Susan Gabel posed several questions worthy of discussion for the field of disability studies in education. Among those was the question of how actual teaching practices would look from a disability studies perspective (Gabel 2001). The question is essentially one of how ideas inform the practical day-to-day work of teachers, and is one of central importance to educators who, quite understandably, feel that the scholarly literature neglects their primary interests. So, how would actual teaching practices look from a disability studies perspective? This article is my attempt to offer what I hope is some practical implications for classroom teachers from a constructivist pedagogical position.

In framing this discussion around constructivism, and constructivist pedagogy, I wish to acknowledge that not all disability studies scholars subscribe to this philosophical/conceptual framework. Indeed, disability studies encompasses a range of paradigmatic positions (Albrecht, Seelman, and Bury 2001; Williams 2001). Notwithstanding, Albrecht, Seelman, and Bury (2001) state that a persistent question raised in the field of disability studies is: "Who are disabled people, and who should speak for them?" (p. 2). My own disposition is that constructivism, and therefore constructivist pedagogy, is consistent with the aim of disability studies to confront the oppression and marginalization of people with disabilities, particularly with regard to their right to define who they are and their liberty to speak for themselves. This disposition is reflected in Linton's (1998) account of disability studies below:

Disability studies take for its subject matter not simply the variations that exist in human behavior, appearance, functioning, sensory acuity, and cognitive processing but, more crucially, the meaning we make of those variations. The field explores the critical divisions our society makes in creating the normal versus the pathological, the insider versus the outsider, or the competent citizen versus the ward of the state. (p. 2)

If disability is seen as a constructed experience, it would then seem to follow that under this epistemological framework, those with disabilities are afforded a greater autonomy and authority in expressing who they are and what their experiences in the world are all about. Likewise, constructivist pedagogy affords individuals with disabilities greater autonomy and authority in defining and directing their own learning.

At the core of this approach to disability studies is the philosophical concept that all knowledge is socially/culturally constructed. This is a very powerful idea that holds tremendous potential for practical change. First, it has distinct implications for the practice of identification and labeling students because it alters the way we think about and react to student differences. If disability can no longer be thought of as an objectively identifiable condition, then the practice of labeling is subject to serious questions. Should it be done at all; and, if so, under what conditions and why? Second, rethinking the way disability is understood has profound implications for teaching practices and arrangements. For instance, if teaching approaches are predicated on the assumption of objectively identifiable disability, what does it mean if that assumption is misinformed? What if it is the case that traditional teaching methodologies actually contribute to the "disabling" of a large portion of students? Further, why are these traditional practices continued if they are conceptually misguided and prevent students from active engagement in their own learning? Before discussing these questions in relation to teaching practices, let me briefly describe what it means to say that disability is a cultural construct and discuss the implications for identifying students as having disabilities. Later, I will return to the core concept of knowledge as culturally or socially constructed, tying together theory and teaching practice, an activity that is essential in our work.

Disability as a Cultural Construct in Plain Terms

To say that disability is a cultural construct strikes those unfamiliar with constructivist philosophy as a bit ethereal, if not, well, downright nonsensical. One common response to this perspective on disability is, "What...you mean that disabilities are non existent -- that they are made-up!?" Often this interrogatory exclamation might be followed by the subsequent comment, "I have worked with students with mental disabilities, sensory and physical impairments, learning disabilities and behavioral disorders, and I can tell you that they are very real." Fair enough. But what is meant by "real?"

The most widely accepted version of "real" is that something exists independently of anyone's judgment about the phenomenon. In this rendition of "real," a disability is an intrinsic condition, something she or he has regardless of anyone's beliefs or knowledge about it. Identifying her or him as having this disability relies on making an objective (accurate) observation of a condition that existed even before the observation and identification occurs. This of course assumes that observations (even highly "scientific" ones using the most sophisticated procedures) can be objective in the sense that it is possible to separate one's observations from personal beliefs, experiences, and cultural values. This assumption must be acceptable if this version of "real" is to be, under any circumstances, legitimate. Further, it is the only situation under which disabilities can be understood to be real conditions in any scientifically objective sense of the word.

But if this assumption does not hold, if what one sees is always and inevitably influenced by personal beliefs, experiences, and cultural values, then there is no way to separate that which "existed" before it was observed from that which "exists" as a function of the observer's interpretation. If we believe what we see, it would be just as much the case that we see what we believe. The two would be inseparable. What this would mean, then, is that observation is by its very nature an act of interpretation.

This is, in fact, the case that eminent philosophers of science, such as Danziger (1990); Gadamer (1975); Hanson (1958); Hazelrigg (1989); MacIntyre (1984); Nagel (1986); Putnam (1981); Rorty (1979); Taylor (1971), among many others, have been making for decades. These and other philosophers have argued quite soundly that there is not such thing as theory-free observation and that all of our knowledge is socially and historically conditioned. Knowledge, including our knowledge of disability, is constructed, a product of our social and cultural interpretations. I will elaborate on this further, but here I wish to make it crystal clear that I am not by any means introducing new ideas. Rather, my attempt is to express these concepts in straightforward terms, connecting them to the practical considerations central to teachers' concerns. These ideas have been around a long time, and they form the basis for understanding knowledge as socially constructed. They also have contributed to the conceptual framework for scholars who have made numerous contributions toward our understanding of disabilities as cultural constructs. Among them are: Barton, (1998); Biklen (1988); Carrier (1986); Davis (1997); and Heshusius (1989), to name but a few.

Understanding disability as a cultural construct requires acknowledgment that disability is an interpretation of a particular person's differences as perceived by others through a normative framework. Whether someone's "differences" are interpreted as something that makes a difference is social judgment. This judgment necessarily involves forming a comparison that is always context dependent. Because, for example, most people have the use of their limbs, and because our physical environment has been designed accordingly, those who do not have the use of one or more limbs must navigate differently. This is understood as a disadvantage, and so their difference is deemed undesirable. The same is the case for people with cognitive "differences." The meaning brought to them is an interpretation of disability. Because it is impossible to observe without interpreting, saying that someone has a disability is an interpretation of perceived difference. Hence, disability is a socially/culturally constructed phenomenon.

As disability studies scholars have long pointed out, the very term "disability" is thoroughly laden with social/cultural meanings (Oliver 1996; Shakespeare and Watson 1997). For instance, being a non reader (dyslexic, as it is formally termed), is saturated with negative cultural meaning only in societies where literacy is highly valued, widespread, and prerequisite for social and vocational participation. In contrast, Lane (1997) cites the existence of a small community of deaf people on Martha's Vineyard in the 1800's. In this community, as in a similar one in Henniker, New Hampshire, being deaf was "normal," that is to say it was typical because relatively high proportions of people in these communities were deaf. In these places at that time, deafness was not deemed a disability nor imbued with the same social meaning that it has had in other places and times. In those contexts, being a hearing person might instead have been considered to be a disability, particularly if the individual did not use sign language. It is the meaning we collectively bring to difference, and the social, physical, and organizational arrangements built on our interpretations, that make a person's difference a disability.

That disability is a cultural construction has been further obscured by the ways empiricist science has successfully reified social judgments, thus transforming ideas into seemingly objective "things." The creation of the normal curve provides an excellent example of how scientists have naturalized or objectified the concept of normal, thus making possible the naturalization of deviance and disability. In essence, they appropriated an idea and made it a thing, using statistical procedures in the service of constructing the normal curve. The assumption that ability is normally distributed is an idea that most people in society accept largely because they view the normal curve to be scientifically objective. The history of how the normal curve was invented suggests otherwise.

Citing Donald MacKenzie's (1981) research on the history of statistics in Great Britain, Davis (1997) traced the influences of key figures in the eugenicist movement, Sir Francis Galton, Karl Pearson, and R. A. Fisher, in the transformation of the statistical error curve (used by astronomers to estimate the accuracy of star location sightings) into the normal distribution curve as we know it today. Davis explained that:

The significance of these changes relates directly to Galton's eugenicist interests. In an "error curve" the extremes of the curve are the most mistaken in accuracy. But if one is looking at human traits, then the extremes, particularly what Galton saw as positive extremes – tallness, high intelligence, ambitiousness, strength, fertility – would have to be seen as errors. Rather than "errors" Galton wanted to think of the extremes as distributions of a trait. (p. 16).

To solve his dilemma, Galton used the concept of averaging, thereby replacing at will the original ranking of the astronomical error curve. "That is, he changed the way one might look at the curve from one that used the mean to one that used the median –a significant change in thinking eugenically" (p. 16).

Most contemporary educators are unaware that the standardized tests widely used today, including IQ tests used to identify students as disabled, are predicated on dubious moral goals of the eugenicists movement. Most are also unaware that the construction of the normal curve, which has so permeated our thinking about normalcy and abnormalcy, was conceived by people in a particular historical context with specific ideological and political aspirations. Instead, most educators, and the public as a whole, have been led to believe that the normal curve is a naturally occurring, scientifically objective tool that detects "real" differences. The normal curve, however, was not discovered; rather, it was constructed as a means to interpret difference in ways that fulfilled its creators' wishes to arrange the social fabric of their world.

Making the case that disabilities are cultural constructions does not deny that we experience disability as "realities" of our social world. Yet, it is of tremendous importance to make the distinction between "real" in objectively neutral sense of the word versus "real" as a social, and therefore intensely moral, interpretation. For once it is understood that to describe a person as disabled is to prescribe judgment to her or his worth or adequacy, we must confront the moral consequences of this choice. It is at this juncture where the conceptual meets the practical. This conceptual shift changes entirely how "real" its understood. If we assign a student a disability label with the understanding that it is a condition that exists independently of our cultural values and intentions, then we absolve ourselves from questioning the legitimacy or consequences of doing so (Ballard 1995). On the other hand, if we assign labels with the understanding that we are imposing a powerful moral interpretation, serious questioning is in order. For whom and in what ways is the labeling beneficial and harmful? What responsibilities do we, as educators, have for creating conditions in which labeling appears necessary? What other moral implications are involved when we exercise the power to impose our interpretations (Corbett 1996)? A comparison of two scenarios may serve to illustrate the distinction between "real" as a neutral concept and "real" as a social construction.

In the first scenario, the parents of an elementary school child are welcomed into a school conference room. The members of the school eligibility committee are introduced, and the meeting is opened by various professionals (psychologist, social worker, and so on). The results of standardized testing are reviewed, and discussion ensues about Justin's academic, behavioral and social performance. According to the I.Q tests, Justin is above average. Yet, he is almost 10 years old but reads, writes and spells only as well as the typical first grader. Reading almost anything is a struggle from beginning to end, and his writing is a jumble of misspelled and illegible forms. His classroom teacher is invited to say a few brief words concerning the latter. The school psychologist concludes the discussion by stating, "Justin fits the profile of a student who is learning disabled." Justin's parents may react in any or all of the following ways: resigned (because they were already told that this was suspected), relieved (because this label explains why things were not going well for their little one in school, or stunned and saddened (because it means that their child is irrevocably damaged and flawed). The phrase "is learning disabled" (or "has a learning disability") presupposes that the problem resides entirely within Justin. It places responsibility for failure entirely on a supposedly innate condition that was discovered through supposedly neutral methods rather than constructed in a particular social/moral context. Yet it is the meaning that is brought to Justin's struggle to perform, the context in which it occurs, and how it is responded to that matter.

The second scenario is the same, except that the psychologist offers a different statement: "Given the choices or judgments made at this school about how students should learn and behave, it makes sense to think of Justin as a child with a learning disability." The parents' response to this is likely to be very different, indeed. They might call into question all of these choices and judgments. These are, after all, value statements, what is deemed as good, proper, and worthy as opposed to what is not. They may experience a sense of indignation or anger at the educators' assumptions that their child can be regarded as deficient because it "makes sense" to the professionals; unless, of course, they decide that it makes sense to them, too.

The sheer unlikeliness of a professional uttering such a statement notwithstanding, it conveys that learning disability (or any other disability) is a construction of meaning. Conceptualizing disability as a neutral condition denies the interpretive nature of the identification of Justin as learning disabled. Accordingly, it also preempts any possibility of considering the cultural and educational contexts that make Justin's "differences" (a socially normative comparison) problematic. Is it not schools and society that have made not being able to read, or perform other academic or social acts a detriment? We might consider, for example, questions such as, why has it been decided that students of a certain age must perform at a particular level or be considered to have special needs? Who decides the standards and measures of achievement, and why? What teaching methods, materials, instructional, and organizational arrangements are chosen, and why? We sometimes passingly acknowledge these questions, but rarely if ever give them substantive deliberation. The most likely reason for this lack of analysis is because the reality that we collectively construct incurs such deep consensus that it is mistaken as a reality that exists apart from our cultural values and intentions. The realities of society, schools, classrooms and so on are not the "way things are" in an objectivist sense; instead, they are the way we make them (Gallagher 2001). This is largely ignored when schools use disability as a descriptor.

It is important to note here that these questions are not intended to downplay the deeply felt experiences of students, parents and educators, nor is it to deny that some students cannot do certain things. For almost a decade, I taught students who struggled unsuccessfully to speak, read, write, and generally perform like other students their age. And the failure to achieve these expectations was intensely painful experience for everyone. It took me a long time to realize that educating should not involve making invidious comparisons in an effort to achieve uniformity. Rather, educating should be about the fulfillment of individual students' dignity and humanity. Teaching a child to read, write, use mathematics, and so on are vehicles for this fulfillment, most certainly. Unfortunately, this point is obscured when the drive to rank and sort becomes a proxy for educating, i.e., for helping each child to be more competent, more personally and intellectually autonomous, and more able to participate in his or her community. Ranking and sorting leads to judgments that a student cannot participate, cannot be deemed adequate, unless and until they are able to be like others. Finally I realized that this is a shortsighted and self-defeating criterion, and that these impossible expectations are what, in the end, created the pain I sought to alleviate.

What are the practical implications of understanding disability as a cultural construct? One obvious implication is that we have to rethink whether students should be labeled at all. If labels are assigned, it must be with the fullest possible acknowledgment of the moral consequences of the interpretation. When considered in this light, it is much more difficult to justify the practice of labeling. This is not to suggest that we never say that someone has a disability, but we can no longer make that assertion without thinking very differently about what that means and reconsidering the structures and arrangements that have made the descriptor seem necessary. It obligates us to change those circumstances. One of the most important changes might involve turning away from teaching practices that are informed by the objectivist concept of knowledge and using instead teaching practices that are consistent with the understanding that knowledge is culturally constructed.

The concept that knowledge is culturally constructed also applies to conceptual, hence practical, changes in teaching. On the other hand, not understanding that knowledge is culturally constructed perpetuates teaching practices that contribute to the construction of disability. To explain what I mean by this, it is first important to discuss how the traditional model of teaching, and its attendant practices, have been based on the view that knowledge is objective in nature. In so doing, I also illustrate how these practices have constrained teachers' efforts to engage fully and authentically in the act of teaching. Second, I describe how this hampers students' learning, and conclude with a section describing teaching practices that are consistent with the constructivist framework of the disability studies perspective, one I believe can lead to more productive, satisfying and inclusionary teaching.

Traditional Teaching Practices: Deskilling Teachers and Disabling Students

A couple of summers ago, I was leading a graduate seminar on critical issues in special education. The topic of discussion during one class meeting centered on the question of how to teach diverse learners in inclusive classrooms. At one point in the discussion, one participant of our group, an experienced special education teacher, remarked with a sense of frustration: "I have spent my entire career searching for the next curricular program or set of materials that would get my students to achieve their prescribed learning objectives. Somehow, I believed that just around the corner I would find the right techniques, the right methods that would work. I just never believed that teaching my students came from inside of me."

This sense that good teaching is a matter of properly applied technique is one that captures quite aptly the traditional view of teaching. What she had spent her career believing in, and therefore searching for, was an objective, external authority in which to ground her practices. In all the years she had taught, she had never found it; but still she had soldiered on, searching for something outside of herself because she had been given to believe in a view of knowledge that offered no alternative.

This view depicts knowledge as a collection of objective facts that exist apart from our interpretations. Knowing how to teach, according to this notion, means that one accumulates data, skills and techniques that seemingly eliminate the uncertainties of teaching. In this objectivist, technical-rational framework, what is lost, or more accurately, eliminated, is the acknowledgment that human beings learn by making sense of the world. Said differently, learning is no longer a meaning-making process. By eliminating the role of consciousness in learning, teachers and students alike are actually discouraged from intellectual engagement necessary for genuine learning.

An objectivist framework drives what Apple (1982) referred to as "teacher deskilling," a term that means teachers focus on a small set of isolated skills such that they lose the connection between their practices and ideas that inform them. Hence, a lack of theoretical or conceptual understanding limits the possibility of actually developing an elaborated and theoretically informed range of skills. More to the point, it means that teachers come to abandon any conviction that teaching involves the construction of meaning. Deskilling, then, is the process whereby teachers come to abandon the idea that intellectual engagement is the very essence of their work. In this framework, they literally learn not to think for themselves. What remains is a focus on the "how-to' demands of instruction at the expense of the "whys" of learning. The acquisition of more and more teaching techniques is an, "...intellectual deskilling in which mental workers are cut off from their own fields and again must rely even more heavily on ideas and processes provided by 'experts'" (Apple 1993, p. 262). In other words, teachers learn to search outside of themselves to define the very nature of their work.

In the following passage, a critical special education scholar expressed rather poignantly the desperation and alienation this framework of knowledge had on her as a teacher, until, that is, she rejected it.

"I remember looking at the drawers full of programmed materials, worksheets, task-analyzed tasks, phonic exercises, remedial programs, all showing a remarkable similarity: pieces of things. Filling in blanks. Filling in letters. Word-attack skills for isolated words. Marking multiple-choice answers. I would force myself to read it all, or rather not to read but to skim, for there was nothing to really read. I would get lost, then force myself to start over again, and I would invariably feel a tiredness, a sudden fatigue. I was not absorbing anything. My own mind had become a blank. Yet, I would tell myself: I need to use them, for weren't others doing so, and didn't all these publishers publish them, didn't theories support them, didn't I see them in curriculum laboratories and at instructional materials exhibitions? I would think of the students I had to teach the next day, and I would feel depressed, powerless, and even desperate. For why would they want to learn something boring, which could not even hold one minute of my own interest, made no sense contextually, and contained nothing a person wanted to learn?" (Heshusius 1984, p. 364).

Does the objectivist, technical-rational framework enable or debilitate teachers? I have little doubt that it accomplishes the latter much more than the former. And when teachers are literally compelled not to make sense of their own work, is it any wonder that students might have difficulty, some of them great difficulty, making sense of learning?

"Special needs" students have been, and still are, subjected to yet heavier doses of technically prescriptive teaching (see: Allington & McGill-Franzen 1989). Students who have experienced failure in general education settings dominated by traditional teaching methods are assumed to need even more tightly controlled, incremental or disjointed instruction. The idea is, break it down even more. Rather than challenging the view of knowledge pervasive in traditional teaching as contributing to their problems, it is assumed that they can be "remediated" (fixed or made more like everyone else) by applying more of the same...only more. As Oakes (1993) pointed out, "They are a group of students for whom 'regular' instructional approaches are not suited. That these regular approaches themselves might be a source of disadvantage is unthinkable, given the assumption of school neutrality" (p. 96).

Not unlike their teachers, students are also hindered. Because tightly controlled, technique-driven instruction leaves learners passive (Poplin 1988), "traits" such as inattentiveness, memory "deficits," low motivation and behavioral difficulties are actually induced, and certainly not alleviated. As Heshusius (1984) proposed, these traits have more to do with sheer boredom and detachment than the presumed intrinsic qualities of a particular student. In this way, teaching practices can affirm the construction of disability. One might contend that this is more possibly the case with students whose learning difficulties are categorized as mild disabilities. But research involving students categorized as having more severe disabilities has indicated that these students respond the same way (see: Kliewer & Biklen 2001). This does not mean that abandoning traditional teaching practices will lead to uniform student achievement or eliminate students' differences, but it does suggest that this framework contributes to making these students seem more problematically different from their "normal" peers than they might under other circumstances. What would these other circumstances entail? How might actual teaching practices look from a disability studies perspective? It is to these questions that I now turn.

Teaching Practices from a Disability Studies Perspective

Although disability studies encompasses a broad spectrum of scholars, many share a constructivist conceptual framework, a framework that is often worked out with different theoretical influences, such as varieties of postmodernism and so on. By and large, however, many disability studies scholars hold that there is no such thing as value- free or foundational knowledge on which to base claims of truth. The concept that knowledge is constructed, or made, provides the framework for constructivist teaching practices and provides an alternative to the traditional framework of teaching described above.

Describing constructivist teaching is a complex undertaking for many reasons. First, it is not a theory of teaching per se, but a theory of knowledge (epistemology) that can be applied to teaching. Because it is an emerging paradigm, one will find variation in how constructivist principles are interpreted and enacted. As Poplin (1988) observed, constructivism is only one of several terms used to describe this paradigm, all of which share in common, but are not entirely defined by, an opposition to the traditional objectivist epistemology of teaching. Among these terms she cited Piaget's (1970) structuralism, "...a philosophic method for collecting, perceiving, organizing and interpreting phenomena," and, Bronfenbrenner's (1979) holism, which recognizes, "...other, non-cognitive, variables related to learning, such as those generally related with feelings or intuitive thought, motivation, and larger sociological variables" (p. 402). What some educators may also find confusing are a multitude of other terms associated with constructivism, such as: whole language, progressive education, humanistic, learner-centered approaches, and "hands-on" or "discovery" teaching methods.

A second complication is that very often these terms (especially the latter ones) find their way into practice devoid of, or abstracted from, any coherent understanding of their conceptual moorings. It is hugely important that educators who wish to employ constructivist practices must first have a strong conceptual grasp on constructivist philosophy. Otherwise, the actual practices themselves often devolve into something of a "cookbook" approach looking very much like the technical framework of traditional teaching (Brooks & Brooks 1993). The result is that teachers explain that they have tried a constructivist approach to teaching, but it did not work. Sometimes, constructivism is co-opted in an erroneous, though sincere, attempt to locate a compromise or reconciliation between traditional teaching and constructivism. Attempting to blend these two, or "use the best of both worlds" misses the point because it is not the methods that make the difference, it is the understanding that guides the use of methods that makes the two incommensurate.

Related to this lack of conceptual grounding is a third problem, i.e., the propensity to distort and caricature constructivist teaching. Battista (1999), discussing constructivist approaches in mathematics education, expressed this propensity as follows: "Unfortunately, most educators (including many teachers, educational administrators, and professors of education) and almost all non-educators (including mathematicians, scientists and writers for the popular press) have no substantive understanding of the research-based constructivist theory that I have alluded to above. Many of them conceive of constructivism as a pedagogical stance that entails a type of non rigorous, intellectual anarchy that lets students pursue whatever interests them and invent and use any mathematical methods they wish, whether these methods are correct or not." (p. 429)

Because constructivism concerns itself with the developmental appropriateness of learning, some observers and, unfortunately, some practitioners see the teacher's role as merely making classroom arrangements so that students can learn completely on their own or only show what they already know. Lack of understanding inevitably leads to mistaken beliefs that hamper the quality of instruction. In the course of this discussion, I will address several of these.

At its epistemological core, constructivism affirms that because knowledge is constructed (made) rather than discovered (found), therefore all knowledge is inseparable from the individual learner's language, cultural values, experiences, and interests. In diametrical opposition to the tenets of objectivist philosophy, which says that objective facts can be distinguished from subjective beliefs or interpretations, constructivism holds that it is impossible to, "...draw the line between what is outside of us [in the real world] and what is inside of us [our beliefs about the world]" (Smith 1993, p. 9, parenthetical clarification added). In other words, constructivism embraces rather than denies the role of human consciousness and moral autonomy as integral to learning.

Learning is a meaning-making process in that new information must be intellectually engaged or interpreted for learning to occur (von Glasersfeld 1981). Contrary to the traditionalist assumption that new information is simply added to one's storehouse of data, knowledge is constructed when the individual seeks to reconcile the disjuncture between her or his current interpretations of the world with a discordant new experience. Copple, Sigel, & Saunders (1984) refer to this mental engagement as "discrepancy resolution." In creating this resolution, the individual transforms and elaborates both new and former interpretations in accordance with her or his values or purposes. This is crucial because what makes us want to learn is our drive to make sense of ourselves and our world. Put another way, learning is an inherently social and moral undertaking because humans are social and moral beings. Individuals are drawn to information that helps them resolve questions or accomplish acts that are consistent with their values and intentions. That is why, for example, teachers often report that they never fully or deeply understood a particular subject matter until they began teaching it to others. Their desire to help others understand enables teachers to connect with and reconstruct information so that it makes sense for them in a way that it never had before. On the other hand, teaching in a traditional technique-driven mode actually diverts the meaning-making process; thus such teaching attempts, for the presumed sake of efficiency, to impose someone else's constructed knowledge.

One of my former graduate students, a highly regarded teacher in her community, described her own experience of transformation from the traditional model of teaching to a constructivist framework. Her story provides a helpful depiction of what constructivist teaching looks like in practice, as well as the differences between the two frameworks. The turning point, for Sharon, seemed to have occurred almost out of the blue; although it is more likely that she had been grappling with questions about her teaching for a long time. It all came together for her on a sunny afternoon in autumn as she was teaching reading to a group of six students in her "multi categorical" special education classroom.

Things just were not going well. Sharon could feel her frustration mounting as she struggled to hold the kids' attention on her carefully planned lesson. The boys, however, had other ideas. They chattered, poked, nudged and generally provoked each other. They twisted, turned and fidgeted. Sharon tried everything in her behavior management repertoire to get them to straighten up and pay attention. She attempted to make the story they were reading more interesting by adding animation to her voice. She corrected, cajoled, and offered them rewards for their attention. All to no avail.

The situation reached its crescendo when a truck bearing workmen with a load of sod pulled up outside of her classroom in the newly added wing of the school. As the men began work laying the sod on the bare ground, the boys ran to the window to watch with abject fascination. Sharon knew it was all over. She had lost the struggle; and, in a moment of despair that often precedes epiphany, she closed her book. Breaking all the rules of order, plans, and schedules, she told the boys to get their paper and pencils. They were going outside to interview the men about laying sod. It was a last ditch effort, and one with which she was less than comfortable. "Oh well," she thought, "desperate times call for desperate measures."

Once outside, she apologized to the men for the interruption and asked, if it was not too much of an imposition, that the boys be allowed to interview them about their work. The men responded with kind enthusiasm; and, to her delight, an incredible exchange took place between the students and workers. The boys asked impressively informed question; ones, in fact, that would not have occurred to Sharon. The men, in turn, responded with detailed answers, which, to Sharon's complete surprise, the boys began jotting down. Less than a half hour later, she and her students returned to the classroom where she helped them develop "webs" for organizing their reports on sod laying.

The next day, the students wrote rough drafts of their reports using the webs. The drafts contained the expected array of misspellings, mechanical and grammatical errors. Some of the boys needed a lot of assistance getting their draft on paper. But Sharon noted with deep satisfaction the concentration, care and effort they exerted. It occurred to her that she had never seen them write anything of such length and detail. Moreover, she had to admit that she had not considered them capable of doing so. As the afternoon wore on, she assisted them in using various references (encyclopedias, the web, etc) as they expanded their drafts. In the days that followed, she used their drafts to teach grammar, dictionary, and computer skills as they refined and rewrote their papers. Her greatest frustration now was how quickly time slipped by, a frustration apparently shared by the boys who were annoyed when the dismissal bell rang.

The boys were so proud of their finished reports that Sharon arranged a presentation of their reports for the principal and other classes. And it was during the presentations, as she looked on with a mixture of pride and satisfaction, that she knew that she could never go back to the way she had taught before. Everything had changed. The way she viewed her students' abilities had changed, the way she and they related to each other had changed, and everything she had believed about teaching and learning was irrevocably altered. Although she was uncertain about how all this would play itself out, she was also excited by the sense of freedom and challenge she felt.

Before leaving Sharon's story, there are a number of observations that are noteworthy. First, without realizing it perhaps, she had drawn upon the students' interests and familiar experiences as a vehicle for increasing their literacy. As it happened, all of the boys came from the local farming community where planting and building were the activities their parents relied upon for their livelihood. No wonder they had been so riveted by the sod layers. No wonder they were able to ask well-informed questions of the workers. Their lived experiences formed the basis for extending, elaborating, and formalizing their knowledge about the topic, and also served as a forum or context for teaching writing skills. Because the students were motivated by their interests, learning and using these skills served a purpose for them, i.e., communicating their knowledge to others.

Second, she allowed them the time to work through successive drafts of their reports. Instead of teaching isolated skills followed by the usual graded worksheet, Sharon read the students' drafts, noted their errors, and taught them how (and why) to make corrections. She used their errors to decide what each of them was ready to learn. Their preliminary and final drafts served as assessments so that assessment was an integrated, ongoing part of instruction. Just as importantly, errors were not penalized, so the boys were not inhibited by the all too familiar dread of making a mistake. The sense of trust this promoted made a pleasant difference in the way she and the students related to each other.

A third and final point has implications for inclusive classrooms. The students in Sharon's special education class varied dramatically in their literacy development. The quality of their final reports did not reach uniform standards, although some of them were not too far off the mark. Nevertheless, each student made obvious progress compared to their earlier efforts. This left Sharon wondering why the same thing could not be done in inclusive settings. Why did it matter so much if they were not reaching the same standards at the same time as the other students in a regular education classroom so long as they were growing and learning everyday?

At this point, it might be helpful to offer some guidelines for how educators can move toward teaching practices consistent with the constructivist framework. These guidelines are meant to characterize rather than proceduralize. Constructivist teaching cannot be proceduralized, otherwise it becomes just another form of technique-driven teaching that crowds out both teachers' and students' intellectual engagement. In developing these suggestions for practice, I have drawn upon a number of well-known theorists (Bruner 1966; Bronfenbrenner 1979; Chomsky 1957; Dewey 1939, 1974; Piaget 1970; Vygotsky 1962), as well as several contemporary scholars (Brooks & Brooks 1993; Kamii 1985; Poplin 1988; von Glasersfeld 1981). None of these share absolute theoretical unanimity, but their work offers invaluable ideas and information which are reflected in the following suggestions.

Start with a Problem

Rather than simply delivering information, or telling students how to do something, constructivist educators begin by posing problems and asking questions. This does not mean that they never provide information or offer directions. It means that they frame all new learning within a context that is meaningful and purposeful for the students. The emphasis is on conceptual understanding. Consider, for example, the two following approaches for teaching addition of fractions. In the first approach, the teacher writes the problem (one-third plus two-fifths) on the board, tells the students that they must calculate the least common denominator, shows them how to do so, and solves the problem. She may repeat this process several times, then provide some problems for them to solve. In the second approach, the teacher gives the students pieces of a plastic fraction pie, say one-third and two one-fifths. She then asks the students, "What part or how much of the whole pie do you have?" She waits while the students attempt to construct a pie and count the pieces. After a few minutes, one of the students says, "We need the pieces to be the same size before we can figure it out." She then asks, "How can you make all the pieces the same size?" Another student ventures a guess that they can trade the two one-fifth pieces for two one-third pieces. Rather than pointing out the error, the teacher gives them two one-third pieces, and lets them construct a pie. They immediately see that the new pie is larger, and this does not answer the original question. After several more minutes, another student offers, "Maybe we can take the pieces you gave us at first and divide them up so that they are all the same size." The teacher continues her questioning until the students arrive at the point where they apprehend the need to calculate the least common denominator.

Certainly the second approach requires more time than the former, and there are no prescriptive procedures for the teacher to follow because she cannot know ahead of time how the students will respond. In this regard, more is required of the teacher. She is not the passive bystander, but rather a careful, observant, and patient facilitator. More importantly, the students are not passive receptacles, merely receivers of information. They are deeply involved in the challenging process of constructing knowledge beginning at the conceptual level.

Teach Skills in a Conceptual Context

Perhaps one of the most grievous misunderstandings about constructivist teaching is that teaching skills is taboo. I wish to disabuse anyone of this notion. Of course students need to learn skills. Constructivist educators recognize, however, that skills taught in the absence of meaningful and purposeful context are never really learned at all. At best, they are memorized for a time, at least by students who have a propensity for rote memorization. There are, for instance, a number of youngsters (and adults) who can identify the subject and predicate of a sentence in a grammar exercise but cannot consistently write in complete sentences. In the above example, the teacher did teach the students to add fractions with unlike denominators, but she helped them to build the conceptual groundwork so that they not only understood how but also why it is useful. Most likely, these students will still remember what they learned not only next month, but next year, and so on.

Treat Errors as Useful Information

Most of us have unsavory memories of having our schoolwork returned with copious red ink marking our errors. Ostensibly, this practice was intended to assist us in learning from our mistakes. Unfortunately, the red marks were seldom followed by instructive input and served only to sanction. In turn, this often inspired either apathy or resistance. Notwithstanding, penalizing students' errors have long been a school tradition, mostly because grades cannot be assigned otherwise. Also, the traditional technical-rational framework, because it is predicated on the goal of efficiency, views errors as things to be avoided.

On the other hand, constructivist educators view errors as useful information. Student errors provide insight into students' current understanding and suggest ideas about how to assist them in refining their knowledge. Rather than immediately providing the correct answer in response to a student's error, the teacher might ask the student how he or she arrived at that answer. This approach avoids penalizing and offers the student an opportunity to "think things through." Teachers might also ask a student to compare his or her answer to another student's and have them decide whether one makes more sense and why.

Some controversy has arisen about the constructivist's tolerance of errors. Practices such as invented spellings have incited critics to charge that students are being misinstructed and even neglected. Also, even advocates have expressed the concern that constructivists elevate cultural sensitivity or students' self-esteem above accuracy and correction (Davson-Galle 1999). Underlying some criticisms are anxieties that the nonrealist epistemology of constructivist philosophy leads to the kind of relativistic "anything goes" attitude. While time and space do not permit a thorough deliberation of this issue (see: Davson-Galle 1999), I will assert that good constructivist teachers are anything but inattentive to errors, and they do not subscribe to an "anything goes" posture. Instead, what all of this means is that teachers must think very carefully about how to respond to students' errors in an effort to guide them toward practical competency and theoretical coherency.

Let Them Seek Solutions

Implicit in the above examples is the recommendation that constructivist educators must exercise a great deal of patience and restraint in order to resist simply giving students the right answers. Traditionally, giving the right answers has been the teacher's job, and relinquishing this role can sometimes feel like giving up authority and rigor in the classroom. I find it a bit ironic that the constructivist approach to teaching is viewed by some as being non-rigorous when the kind of engagement required by both teachers and students involves serious intellectual rigor. Both are required to look inside of themselves, and that is far more challenging than it's opposite.

As noted above, posing problems or questions and encouraging students to find their own solutions or answers initially takes more time than straightforwardly supplying information. Under these circumstances, it is difficult to abstain from temptation to save precious time. In the end, though, this is time well spent because when students develop a genuine conceptual understanding of what they are learning, they are unlikely to need recitation, drill, and redundancy.

Know Your Students' Interests

Connecting new knowledge with students' interests obviously requires knowing what interests them. It is not difficult to accumulate this information. A great deal can be gleaned just by listening to students' discussions with each other or observing the kinds of books or subjects they gravitate toward. Also, students are typically thrilled to be asked what interests them. Unfortunately, teachers are often not in the habit of asking, in large part because the curriculum may be prescribed and there seems to be little room for involving students' particular interests. Nonetheless, constructivist educators realize that students are likely to have a storehouse of experience and knowledge about topics that interest them. These are indispensable in creating new knowledge and new interests. I would like to highlight the part about creating new interests because using students' existing interests does not confine teachers only to those areas; and, with a little innovation it is very possible to connect these to topics covered in the school's curriculum. Ideally, teachers would not be constrained to a prescribed curriculum, but there is still room to involve student's interests in any event.

A final point seems in order before moving on. In making this recommendation, I do not wish to imply that students must always find a particular topic or activity absolutely captivating (see: Heshusius 1984). Such a recommendation would be quite difficult to live up to. Instead, we emphasize the connectedness of students' experiences to new knowledge and new understanding.

By now it should be clear that constructivist pedagogy does not involve a set of prescribed methods. Constructivism can be characterized, but it cannot under any circumstances be proceduralized. There can be no "cookbook" of procedures, because attempts to develop one would obviously signify a failure to escape the technical-rational approach incommensurately at odds with constructivist philosophy. Bluntly stated, those who ask for specific constructivist techniques are simply asking the wrong question altogether. Such a request reveals a mindset still entangled in the technical-rational framework, still searching for something outside of oneself.

Becoming a constructivist educator requires nothing short of a complete conceptual shift involving one's fundamental beliefs about the nature of teaching and learning. One must now understand that teaching comes from the inside. It is a process of intense intellectual and personal engagement. As Giroux (1993), affirmed:

"By viewing teachers as intellectuals, we can illuminate the important idea that all human activity involves some form of thinking. No activity, regardless of how routinized it might become, can be abstracted from the functioning of the mind in some capacity. This is a crucial issue, because by arguing that the use of the mind is a general part of all human activity we dignify the human capacity for integrating thinking and practice, and in doing so highlight the core of what it means to view teachers as reflective practitioners." (Giroux 1993, p. 275)

Consequently, teaching cannot be prepackaged, standardized, or scripted because no two teaching acts are ever the same.


The process of achieving these changes requires not only intense conceptual and philosophical shifts, but also inevitable moral and political challenges. One of the most imposing barriers to relinquishing the traditional technical-rational framework is that it has become so deeply entrenched in the way we see the world. For most educators, there is little in their previous experiences to help them realize such a transformation. Almost everything in their lives serves to reconfirm existing hegemonic forces, including traditional teacher "training" programs which are precisely what the term implies, programs that elevate technical training above authentic, intellectually transformative education. What is, or should be, apparent is that teachers cannot accord students intellectual autonomy if they are not given the opportunity to exercise it themselves.

Educational experiences that facilitate intellectual autonomy are especially important for students who have been labeled as having disabilities. Perhaps more often than not, in traditional special education programs, these students are subject to pedagogies that erect barriers to the kind of authentic learning experiences that promote such autonomy. These pedagogies subsequently contribute to their "disablement" and lead to increased educational and social restrictiveness.

In challenging dominant philosophical and conceptual frameworks, disability studies can offer alternative ways of thinking about current educational structures and practices. How these ideas look in actual practice can only be suggested, debated, and negotiated among communities of educators. Disability studies scholars focus on the philosophical and conceptual not to avoid practical issues, but because ideas facilitate these discussion through challenge and critique. Perhaps the question they raise might be captured as follows: "Are our ways of describing things, of relating them to other things so as to make them fulfill our needs more adequately, as good as possible? Or can we do better? Can our future be made better than our present?" (Rorty 1999, p. 72). In the end, the purpose is not to impose certain practices. Instead, it is to help articulate those purposes and decide if certain practices are consistent with and adequate for those purposes.


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Copyright (c) 2004 Deborah J. Gallagher

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