‘The Experience Of Constructivism’ Mexico: The Country That Stopped Reading

Prasad V //

In the context of the new National Education Policy (NEP2020), which has declared constructivism to be the pedagogical approach in the coming years, it may be worthwhile to recall the experience of some of the countries where the said pedagogy has already been implemented. Constructivism is the minimally guided approach in pedagogy that has been called by various names. This includes discovery learning (Anthony, 1973; Bruner, 1961); problem-based learning (PBL; Barrows & Tamblyn, 1980; Schmidt, 1983), inquiry learning (Papert, 1980; Rutherford, 1964), experiential learning (Boud, Keogh, & Walker, 1985; Kolb & Fry, 1975), and constructivist learning (Jonassen, 1991; Steffe & Gale, 1995).There are many references to this in the new national education policy document.

Mexico is a country where the constructivist pedagogy has been implemented for more than four decades. Naturally a significant number of the population belonging to the new generation have studied in this paradigm.  It may be worthwhile in this context to examine the effects as well as some of the debates that have taken place.

The first thing that comes to mind in this regard is about an article written by a novelist in 2013. David Toscana, the novelist in the year 2013, wrote the article named – ‘The country that stopped reading’. The article has become very popular. Many publications have written reviews about that.

The article looks into the changes that happened in the recent past after the pedagogy and the school system has been changed.  While a large number of children undergo schooling in recent times with 5% of the GDP is spent on education, which is near to that of the USA, the general standard of education has not improved. On the other hand, the country has gradually developed a reading crisis. The children know how to read the newspaper, see the advertisements and do the day-to-day activities, which necessitate its reading.  However, the whole country has suffered a reading crisis where by the reading of any serious books by any section of the population have come down drastically.

Let us look at some parts of the narration of that article for getting a clear picture.

The article says – “Despite recent gains in industrial development and increasing numbers of engineering graduates, Mexico is floundering socially, politically and economically because so many of its citizens do not read. Upon taking office in December, our new president, Enrique Peña Nieto, immediately announced a program to improve education. This is typical. All presidents do this upon taking office…….

During a strike in 2008 in Oaxaca, I remember walking through the temporary campground in search of a teacher reading a book. Among tens of thousands, I found not one. I did find people listening to disco-decibel music, watching television, playing cards or dominoes, vegetating. I saw some gossip magazines, too.

 So I should not have been surprised by the response when I spoke at a recent event for promoting reading for an audience of 300 or so 14- and 15-year-olds. “Who likes to read?” I asked. Only one hand went up in the auditorium. I picked out five of the ignorant majority and asked them to tell me why they did not like reading. The result was predictable: they stuttered, grumbled, grew impatient. None was able to articulate a sentence, express an idea.

Frustrated, I told the audience to just leave the auditorium and go look for a book to read. One of their teachers walked up to me, very concerned. “We still have 40 minutes left,” he said. He asked the kids to sit down again, and began to tell them a fable about a plant that could not decide if it wanted to be a flower or a head of cabbage.

“Sir,” I whispered, “that story is for kindergartners.”

In 2002, President Vicente Fox began a national reading plan; he chose as a spokesperson Jorge Campos, a popular soccer player, ordered millions of books printed and built an immense library. Unfortunately, teachers were not properly trained and children were not given time for reading in school. The plan focused on the book instead of the reader. I have seen warehouses filled with hundreds of thousands of forgotten books, intended for schools and libraries, simply waiting for the dust and humidity to render them garbage” ……………..

This crisis in reading has not happened in Mexico alone. Similar experiences happened in other places also where the same type of pedagogy has been implemented.  Many of the people who believe in constructivism for ideological reasons are very enthusiastic about their good theory.  They raise repeatedly so-called jargons like critical thinking, discovery-based learning, etc. However, even after all claims, the results are negative.  Why this is happening necessitates deeper study into the matter.

The intellectual activity of the brain nowadays is explained in terms of formation of schemas and automatisation of the schemas. The cognitive structures that are formed inside the brain that are necessary for letter recognition and reading can be explained in terms of schema theory. In the human brain, there is no particular area that is specifically developed through evolution that is explicit for reading. An area is developed for that purpose through practice the existence of which has experimental evidence.

Schema is our background knowledge; it is what we already know before we even pick up the book. Schema is a mental structure that an individual uses to organize knowledge and guide cognitive processes and behaviour. People use schemata (the plural of schema) to categorize objects and events based on common elements and characteristics and thus interpret and predict the world. New information is processed according to how it fits into these existing mental structures.

Among different types of schema, Linguistic schema refers to readers’ prior linguistic knowledge, including the knowledge about phonetics, grammar and vocabulary as traditionally recognized.

Major “ingredients” of a schema are our memories, the books we read, the places we have been, the movies we watched, the vocabulary we know, etc. Our schema, or background knowledge, is highly fuelled by our interests. Therefore, everyone’s schema is different!

It is possible for us to automate our learned schemas. “Automaticity occurs after practice, normally extensive practice. With sufficient practice, a procedure can be carried out with minimal conscious effort (i.e., with minimal working memory load)” (Sweller, van Merrienboer; . . ., & Pass, 1998, p. 256). Schema automation is just memorization through repeated use.

Experimental evidence shows that practice gradually but significantly improves performance, confirming automatization of task performance. Study further demonstrates that practice in a visually delivered cognitive task predominantly increases efficiency of encoding in primary visual, prefrontal and parietal cortex. Automatization in complex cognitive performance, as increased encoding efficiency in early stages of practice possibly increases the capacity to otherwise interfering information. Naturally, automatization of linguistic schemas that are necessary for the reading speed to be enhanced, that helps effortless reading, develops with automatisation of the same. 

Like that for higher ideas to get absorbed, needs the basic schemas, which are parts of the ideas already stored in our brain. In the absence of that the working memory load increases due to flooding of new information and the individual undergoes strain where his capacity to absorb is decreased drastically.  In this way, the absence of automatisation of both linguistic schemas necessary for reading and schemas necessary for general understanding leads to the reading crisis.

However, constructivism that problematizes the relation between intellect and memory rejects the importance of memory in intellectual activity.  Naturally as part of that system, the language education procedure has been changed to either the ‘whole language approach’ or different other varieties of constructivism which does not give importance to the role of memory.  This prevents the automatization of the schemas related to reading.  If the speed of the reading does not reach a particular level, an individual cannot read without difficulty. Absence of automatization in general schemas follows. Further experimental studies in the last two decades with the help of highly developed MRI scans shows that the constructivist pedagogy is inferior to the already existing one.  This is the essence of what happened in Mexico in general reading.

[Originally published in The Truth: Platform for Radical Voices of The Working Class (Issue 8 / December 2020)]

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