Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Constance Kamii on Constructivism

Because I'm teaching math for the first time in my career, I have been doing a lot of research on how children learn math. You'll notice that this is not necessarily the same as researching how teachers teach math.

I am so thankful that I came across the work of Constance Kamii (thank you to Alfie Kohn for citing so much of her research in his books and for this tweet). 

Here is an excerpt that I find fascinating from this interview with Constance Kamii:

Question: In a constructivist classroom, the teacher bases instruction on the scientific research of Piaget. If a person spends time in a constructivist classroom and a traditional classroom, what differences would be observed? In the students? In the teacher? In the social atmosphere?

Constance Kamii: In a traditional room you would probably see neatly arranged desks, neatly obedient children, probably lots of worksheets. That keeps kids very neat and quiet and well behaved. In a constructivist classroom you will probably see lots of movement, if not noise, especially when they play games. (The students) will certainly be talking a lot and arguing back and forth. Their opinions will be asked, and the kids will challenge each other. There will be lots of spontaneity and what I like to see, but it’s hard to produce, children who are thinking. Thinking takes various shapes, and arguing is one way. You also see children who are deeply involved with trying things out with their hands or some other thing. You can tell when children have an empty head and an empty expression and when they are really thinking. That’s what I like to see, and that’s what I often see in a constructivist classroom.

Question: Schools of education have come under fire recently. What could be done to improve teacher education?

Constance Kamii: To improve teacher education, I think the best education is to have future teachers in the classroom to begin with and to have them generate questions about certain problems and what to do with certain problems and to start reading and teaching from those questions. I think that what is wrong, at least from what I have seen, is that generally (students of education) are now stuffed with words and theory and so teachers come out thinking that theory is irrelevant and useless. They are going through these theories without relationships to the classroom situations, and so all that means nothing whereas if they generated their own questions and were then sent to theories, education would be much better. On the contrary, future teachers are often told good, useful principles, and they go into public school classrooms and see flatly contradictory, bad practices. That is the reality of teacher education. Schools of education tend to be much more theoretically advanced than the usually awful classroom situations. (Future teachers) have to be very lucky to end up in a constructivist classroom for student teaching. Those things should be improved, but that is much harder to do in reality.

Question: What words of encouragement could you offer educators in our “test happy” environment?

Constance Kamii: There is just no end in capitulating. If your score gets higher, the principal is going to want higher and higher scores. All that for whom? Not the kids. My recommendation is: Do what’s best for the kids.


  1. Joe, you might like this post about a PD session with Dr. Kamii teaching a whole elementary school teaching staff about math teaching. Questioning Assumptions with Constance Kamii

    She has quite a few videos and books about teaching math that are spectacular.

  2. Thank you for spreading the word about the work of one of the most important education researchers of our time. She just finished a 3-day PD inservice in our school!
    See her website: for articles, videos, and more.

  3. Teacher's should not teach algorithims - my view on that claim is that is crap. The constructivists promote count on fingers then calculators as a math teaching strategy. J Bruner and his bean arrangements is just obsurd as is Vygotsky's count on fingers then use pebels of gravel to go beyond(gravel = manipulatives). Strange how these fac of Ed types promote Socrates in one breath then vilify him later. Look to the end of ignorance written by a Mathmetician not a pyschobablist.

  4. I am a homeschooling mom. I had basically been doing a lot of what Constance Kamii suggests in Young Children Reinvent Mathematics. I couldn't stand the thought of forcing my kids to do worksheets (unless they really wanted to). As a result we now play a lot of math games where my kids, 7 and 4, have to add and subtract in their heads. Some of the games are fast and some aren't time dependent but they are very effective and my 4 year old is about at a first grade level now. My 7 year is understanding multiplication and doing some on her own. It is so rewarding to have your kids come to you and say, "Mom, 10 times 10 is 100 or 2 times 3 is 6" especially when you have decided not to force feed your children anything. My four year old came to me and said, "Is 6 + 6+5+5, 25?" I love that she was thinking about it, even if it wasn't correct, she was trying on her own.

    As with any research you have to take what will benefit you, I like Constance Kamii's books. I am now reading Physical Knowledge in Preschool Education. I love that the emphasis is on acting on objects to get a reaction and learning that different actions create different reactions. I believe that all human beings (including children) were born to act and not be acted upon.