It’s always been mystifying to me why some equate a constructivist/constructionist/project-based/inquiry-based approach to education with “teacher doesn’t have to do any work” (actually, I’m pretty sure why some people are fond of that idea, but we won’t go there). Some years ago, Kirschner, Sweller, and Clark stirred the pot with their article Why Minimal Guidance During Instruction Does Not Work: An Analysis of the Failure of Constructivist, Discovery, Problem-Based, Experiential, and Inquiry-Based Teaching.
Those of us who have advocated (and practiced) this style of teaching with success immediately recognized some of the serious problems with this paper. It’s pretty clear that doing truly original work without any scaffolding from a knowledgeable other is hard. Really hard. They give you PhDs for that. In the entire history of the human race, only two people (that we know of) have invented calculus. Odds that a student is going to discover calculus by him- or herself? Not very good.
That’s not to say that students can’t learn from unstructured exploration — I’m a big advocate of tinkering (bricolage, if you want it to sound impressive), and have learned many useful things from it. But, you know, students don’t really need to pay you tuition to do that. If they aren’t getting any (or “minimal”) guidance from the instructor, why are they even in school? Why is there even a “teacher”?
(there are some who would argue that school as we know it is a bad idea altogether, but that’s a separate discussion).
The best response to Kirschner, et al, that I’ve seen is Hmelo-Silver, Duncan, and Chinn’s Scaffolding and Achievement in Problem-Based and Inquiry Learning: A Response to Kirschner, Sweller, and Clark (2006). Their discussion matches closely with my own experience. Correct application of these methods doesn’t mean that the teacher provides no guidance, as Kirschner, et al would have it. On the contrary, I would argue that doing a good job in this respect requires more work, not less. It’s really much easier for the teacher to make every student perform exactly the same task, which can be graded with a check-off rubric. Giving students the freedom to pursue their own interests means (or should mean) that the instructor gives each and every student individual attention and careful guidance to prevent them from wandering off into the weeds.