Virus of Constructivism Threatens Puerto Rican Catholic Education

In the February 20, 2005 issue of the Puerto Rican Catholic Weekly El Visitante it was announced that Catholic schools run by the Dominican Order will henceforth adopt a constructivist philosophy of education. It is stated that the goal of this project is to

“develop in the student a healthy self-esteem so as to be able to reach excellence in all aspects of his personality”.

This is an extremely alarming development. The stated goal of this project (self-esteem) and the method proposed to achieve it (constructivism) are quite problematic.

In a talk [21], entitled “The Problem with Self-Esteem”, Paul C. Vitz, Professor of Psychology at New York University and author of Psychology as Religion: The Cult of Self-Worship, states that no major psychological theorist makes self-esteem a central concept.

“The self-esteem theory, that so many people seem obsessed with these days, predicts that only those who feel good about themselves will do well – which is supposedly why all students need it. Yet the research has not supported the theory. There is no evidence that high self-esteem reliably causes anything. Indeed, a lot of people with little of it, have achieved a great deal in one kind of activity or the other.”

Instances abound of poor performance and high self-esteem. In the 2003 Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) study, U.S. students were ranked 28th in performance in Mathematics and highest in self-esteem. On the other hand, Hong Kong-China, Korea, and Japan, were ranked 1st, 3rd and 6th, respectively in performance yet were amongst the lowest in self esteem.

Ironically, Jesuit schools of the past have achieved great educational success by initially undermining the self-esteem of students and then reconstructing it on a healthier and more solid basis. This success has not gone unnoticed by basketball coaches.

Neither is there evidence that self-esteem is correlated with good moral behavior. Many criminals and dictators have high self-esteem and feel good about doing evil. There is, however, strong evidence that certain types of training in self-esteem can undermine moral behavior. In an infamous experiment conducted in 59 California Catholic schools, psychologists Coulson and Rogers applied non-directive, non-judgmental therapy to six hundred Immaculate Heart of Mary teaching nuns. Neumayr [14] describes how after eighteen months of this training all the nuns had resigned from teaching and only two schools remained in the system. Moreover, many nuns abandoned their order. Coulson later blamed these pernicious effects on the moral relativism inherent in this self-esteem enhancing experiment. According to Coulson quoted in Ferreira [6]:

“Christianity is based on absolutes. Non-directive education rejects absolutes and embraces subjectively-chosen alternatives. When any person is convinced that all authority for conduct lies within himself – that one decision or conclusion is as good as another – the inevitable result is rebellion against authority and deterioration of moral conduct.”

In his homily [18] at the pre-conclave Mass in St. Peter’s Basilica, Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, now Pope Benedict XVI, stated:

“We are moving toward a dictatorship of relativism that has at its highest goal one’s own ego and one’s own desires”.

As a youth in Nazi Germany, Pope Benedict XVI witnessed at first hand the asymptotic limit of unbridled relativism. The Nazi dictator Adolf Hitler, himself a relativist stated that:

“We are now at the outset of a tremendous revolution in moral ideas and in men’s spiritual orientation… There is no truth, either in the moral or in the scientific sense. The idea of free and unfettered science is absurd. Science is a social phenomenon, and like every other social phenomenon is limited by the benefit or injury it confers on the community. The slogan of objective science has been coined by the professorate simply in order to escape from the very necessarily that there can only be the science of a particular type of humanity and of a particular age.” [Emphasis added] (Rauschning, 1940, quoted by Cromer [4])

Constructivists maintain that learning is an “active” process by which students “construct their own knowledge”. Radical constructivists go to the extreme of denying the existence of an independent reality. Given that many constructivists ascribe to a relativist ontology which posits the existence of multiple socially constructed realities, the Dominican Order’s plan to explicitly favor the constructivist educational paradigm is especially worrying. In the constructivist classroom group thinking and consensus processes are common. The teacher is considered a “co-learner” rather than as an authority and referred to by such terms as “facilitator”, “resource”, or even “change agent”. Models of community and solidarity typically advocated by constructivists are quasi-anarchical; personal responsibility is replaced by group consensus, trust in God by trust in self, toleration of no sin by toleration of all practices and lifestyles (except Christianity). In constructivist classrooms feelings and shared experience take precedence over facts, logic, and truth.

Relativism often leads1 to belief in generic New Age religious forms, pantheism, agnosticism, or atheism. It is incompatible with Christianity, in particular with Catholicism. In reality, the Catholic Church is a structured, and hierarchical community. Religious truths are derived from Scripture, tradition and the interpretation of doctrines by the Magisterium. These truths are regarded as unchanging and independent of the observer.

According to Graham Cray [3], the Anglican Bishop of Maidstone:

In modernity the great ideological enemy of the gospel was secularism. This is no longer the case; spirituality is back in the public square, in fact any and every spirituality – and there are no maps! I used to believe that our primary new adversary was relativism: that our media saturated age with its bombardment of messages and its shopping approach to choice made relativism seem self evident, and a sceptical or ironic attitude towards truth claims unavoidable. I still believe this is the case but I no longer consider relativism to be our chief opponent, for beyond relativism is constructivism, and it is constructivism which we must engage.

Timothy Radcliffe, O.P., [17] English Catholic priest, and former Master of the International Dominican Order warns:

…we are marked by a culture which has lost confidence that study is a worthwhile activity and which doubts that debate can bring us to the truth for which we long. If our century has been so marked by violence it is surely partly because it has lost confidence in our ability to attain the truth together. Violence is the only resort in a culture which has no trust in the shared search for truth. Dachau, Hiroshima, Rwanda, Bosnia; these are all symbols of the collapse of a belief in the possibility of building a common human home through dialogue. This lack of confidence may take two forms, a relativism which despairs of ever attaining to the truth, and a fundamentalism which asserts that the truth is already completely possessed.

In his document Ex Corde Ecclesiae [11] Pope John Paul II repeatedly reiterates the importance of the search for truth:

” A Catholic University’s privileged task is “to unite existentially by intellectual effort two orders of reality that too frequently tend to be placed in opposition as though they were antithetical: the search for truth, and the certainty of already knowing the fount of truth”.

This is well expressed by the Vision Statement of Christendom College:

The only rightful purpose of education is to know the truth and to live by it. The purpose of Catholic education is therefore to learn and to live by the truth revealed by Our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, ‘the Way, the Truth, and the Life,’ as preserved in the deposit of faith and authentically interpreted in the Magisterium of the Roman Catholic Church, founded by Christ, of which the Pope is the visible head. That central body of divine truth illumines all other truth and shows us its essential unity in every area of thought and life. Only an education which integrates the truths of the Catholic faith throughout the curriculum is a fully Catholic education.

The Puerto Rico Department of Education (PR-DOE) has long based its curricula on the constructivist educational paradigm with dismal results. The concomitant cutting of course content and the abandonment of direct instruction in phonics, grammar, spelling and reading strategies have contributed to the current educational catastrophe. From 1996 to 1999 the PR-DOE and the Puerto Rico Resource Center for Science and Engineering sponsored Star Quest, a regular section in the San Juan Star devoted to educational matters. On December 8, 1998, Star Quest’s central theme was religion. The content of this column is very revealing of the dangers that constructivist education poses for religion. After providing a brief description, actually a caricature, of each of the world’s major religions, it gives the following advice to Mathematics teachers:

Are religions basically similar to each other or different? Have your students analyze three major religions and make a list of what these religons have in common and in what ways they are different. Take the similarities and differences and convert them to percentages. What is the percentage of similarities to the total? Of the differnces? [sic] Do the results agree with your students’ original thoughts on this subject..

Another column in the same series advises students that:

Everyone’s ideas are equally worthwhile… Suspend judgement: nothing is “right” or “wrong”.

It is unlikely that the Dominicans desire to propagate ideas such as this in their schools and colleges. Yet, it is precisely this type of moral relativism which is common in constructivist writings and the main reason why constructivism is so dangerous.

Strong experimental evidence, which we now outline, shows that direct instruction is more effective than constructivist pedagogy. Renowned psychologists John Anderson, Lynne Reder and Herbert Simon -the latter a Nobel Laureate- have carried out a systematic study of research in the application of cognitive psychology to mathematics education. A summary of their findings can be found in their article “Applications and Misapplications of Cognitive Psychology to Mathematics Education” [1]. The results are not supportive of the constructivist’s notion that students “construct” their own knowledge. Nor do they offer support for the idea that skills can best be learned in a specific (i.e., real world) context. According to Anderson, Reder, and Simon,

It is not the case that learning is totally tied to a specific context. […] In fact, there are many demonstrations of learning that transfers across contexts and of failures to find any context specificity in the learning.” “Knowledge does not have to be taught in the precise context in which it will be used, and grave inefficiencies in transfer can result from tying knowledge too tightly to specific, narrow contexts.” “Representation and degree of practice are critical for determining the transfer from one task to another, and transfer varies from one domain to another as a function of the number of symbolic components that are shared.” “What is important is what cognitive processes a problem evokes and not what real-world trappings it might have.” “When students cannot construct the knowledge for themselves, they need some instruction. There is very little positive evidence for discovery learning and it is often inferior. In particular, it may be costly in time, and when the search is lengthy or unsuccessful, motivation commonly flags.” “To argue for radical constructivism seems to us to engender deep contradictions. Radical constructivists cannot argue for any particular agenda if they deny a consensus as to values. The very act of arguing for a position is to engage in a value-loaded instructional behavior. It would seem that radical constructivists should present us with data about the consequences of various educational alternatives and allow us to construct our own interpretations. (But data beyond anecdotes are rare in such constructivist writings.)

Other serious criticisms of constructivism have been made by Grossen [7], Kozloff [12], Matthews [16], Carnine [2], Thomas [20], and Jennings [10]. Although some constructivist ideas are true (for example, that students are not just passive learners and that they have an interest in understanding themselves and their world), unquestioningly accepting all of its tenets is unwarranted2.

Piaget, a pioneer of constructivism, rediscovered the old idea that it is detrimental to instruct a child in a given material before a given developmental stage has been reached. Unfortunately, as Stanislas Dehaene [5] describes, some of Piaget’s experiments are badly flawed. For example, in a famous experiment of Piaget, young children were shown two rows of equally-spaced glass balls. When the spacing in the two rows was the same, the children stated correctly that both rows had the same number of objects. When the spacing was changed in one of the rows, the children said incorrectly that the longer row had more balls. On the basis of this experiment, Piaget and many educators have incorrectly claimed that even young children who can count have no number sense. Dehaene describes evidence refuting this assertion. When Piaget’s experiment was repeated with chocolates -which of course the children could eat- instead of glass balls, they were found able to answer the second question correctly. Moreover, when a man dressed as a teddy bear rearranged the two rows while the interviewer’s back was turned the children’s performance on the second question improved.

The above illustrates the danger of making inferences concerning most effective educational practices on the basis of very small scale psychological experiments. Unfortunately, Piaget’s conception of “developmentally appropriate” has been interpreted by radical constructivists to mean that children should only be taught things whose purpose they already understand. (e.g. that children not be taught to read before they know what writing means.)

The reality -ignored by many education experts- is that Project Follow Through, the largest and most extensive longitudinal study ever funded by the United States government in more than 180 U.S. schools (kindergarten through third grade) representing 51 school districts, demonstrated that the traditional Direct Instruction method was the most effective when compared to the other models tested, some of which were based on constructivist views. Students in the Direct Instruction groups performed better on both academic and affective (self-concept) measures. The Project, which cost almost a billion dollars and ran from 1968 to 1976 (Follow Through continued until 1995 as a federal service program), collected yearly data on around 10,000 students. Later evaluation of 1,000 graduates of the Direct Instruction groups showed that, in their senior year of high school, their performance was still better than their counterparts’. For details on Project Follow Through, see Kozloff and Bessellieu [13], Grossen [7], Watkins [22], Hirsch [9], and Carnine [2].

Veritas (truth) is the Dominican motto. It would be ironic, indeed, if the school system of the Order of Preachers in Puerto Rico is “relativized” by adopting the same constructivist epistemology and ontology that has so catastrophically failed in public education. The Dominican Order has a long and distinguished tradition of Catholic education in Puerto Rico. A curricular “reform” based on constructivist ideology will undermine this illustrious tradition, thereby harming generations of students. It is our sincere hope that in reforming their schools, the Order will heed the following words of Timothy Radcliffe, O.P. [17]:

In the face of that despair which is relativism, we celebrate that the truth may be known and in fact has come to us as a gift. With St Paul we can say: “What I received from the Lord, I also delivered to you.” [ I Cor 11:23 ] Studying is a eucharistic act. We open our hands to receive the gifts of tradition rich with knowledge.

Philip Pennance
22-02-2005, Updated 22-04-2005


  • …leads1
    • See for example, Chapter 5 of John P. Lynch, Jr. et al. A Postmodern Cosmography which asserts that: “Gaia, complexity, relativity, animal consciousness, and the legitimation of esoteric knowledge have allowed Gnosis, with the aid of constructivism”, to throw off its yoke to Religion and stand independently. [Emphasis added]
  • …unwarranted2
    • In the United States and elsewhere this discussion has reached a wide audience. Articles in the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal and the San Francisco Chronicle, among others, report of widespread parental protests against the new math, MathLand, Connected Mathematics, and other projects inspired by constructivism (Hartocollis [34]; Saunders [69]; “Math wars” [52]).


  1. J. R. Anderson, L. M. Reder, and H. A. Simon, Applications and Misapplications of Cognitive Psychology to Mathematics Education, Carnegie Mellon University, Pittsburgh, 1966.
  2. D. Carnine, Why Education Experts Resist Effective Practices (And What It Would Take to Make Education More Like Medicine) , Thomas B. Fordham Foundation, Washington, D. C., 2000.
  3. Graham Cray, Postmodernity – under construction , The Gospel and our Culture Newsletter 27, 2000
  4. Alain Cromer, Science and Postmodernism Oxford University Press, 1997.
  5. Stanislas Dehaene, The Number Sense, Oxford University Press, 1997.
  6. Cornelia R. Ferreira, What is New Age Education? Part I, Catholic Family News, Vol. 10, No. 9, 2003.
  7. B. Grossen, What Does it Mean to Be a Research-based Profession? In What’s Gone Wrong in America’s Classrooms, edited by Williamson Evers, California: Hoover Institution Press, Stanford University, 1998.
  8. A. Hartocollis, The New, Flexible Math Meets Parental Rebellion, The New York Times, April 27, 2000.
  9. E. D. Hirsch, The Schools We Need and Why We Don’t Have Them, Anchor, New York, 1999.
  10. Marianne M. Jennings, MTV Math Doesn’t Add Up, Wall Street Journal, December 17, 1996.
  11. Pope John Paul II, Ex Corde Ecclesiae, Apostolic Constitution on Catholic Universities. August 15, 1990.
  12. M. A. Kozloff, Constructivism in Education: Sophistry for a New Age , University of North Carolina at Wilmington, May 1998.
  13. M. A. Kozloff and Frances B. Bessellieu, Direct Instruction Is Developmentally Appropriate , University of North Carolina at Wilmington, April 2000.
  14. George Neumayr, Mad Scientists , San Francisco Faith, November, 1997.
  15. Math Wars, Wall Street Journal, Lead Editorial, January 4, 2000.
  16. M. R. Matthews, Old Wine in New Bottles: A Problem with Constructivist Epistemology, Philosophy of Education, 1992.
  17. Fr. Timothy Radcliffe, OP., The Wellspring of Hope Study and the Annunciation of the Good News , Santa Sabina, Rome. October 1996
  18. Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, Homily, Pre-Conclave Mass for the Election of a New Pope, April 18, 2005.
  19. D. J. Saunders, No Such Thing as Malpractice in Edu-Land, San Francisco Chronicle, February 4, 2000.
  20. O. Thomas, Some Contradictions of Education Reform: Constructivism, High-tech, and Multi-culti, Special Session on Mathematics Education and Mistaken Philosophies of Mathematics, American Mathematical Society Meeting, San Antonio, Texas, January 13, 1999.
  21. Paul C. Vitz, The Problem with Self-Esteem , A talk given in New Westminster, British Columbia on September 29, 1995.
  22. C. L. Watkins, Follow Through: Why Didn’t We? , Effective Schools Practices, 15, 1-14, 1995.