Constructivism revived in NCLB’s shadow: two books

This is a review of two books suggesting a constructivist critique of the public school system as it stands: Kaia Tollefson’s Volatile Knowing, a constructivist critique of NCLB, and Tollefson and Osborn’s Cultivating the Learner-Centered Classroom, a practical guide to constructivist teaching.

(crossposted at Big Orange)

Book reviews: Tollefson, Kaia, and Monica K. Osborn.

Cultivating the Learner-Centered Classroom.  Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin, 2008.

Tollefson, Kaia.  Volatile Knowing.  Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield, 2008.

Kaia Tollefson is an assistant professor of education at Cal State University, Channel Islands.  She’s worked in education for twenty-four years, starting out as a middle school teacher in Kodiak, Alaska for nine years, and in administration there for five more years.  So she’s seen the public-school “real world” that educational theorists often appear shy of approaching.

Volatile Knowledge is the more theoretical of the two works, and it I will review first.  The subtitle of this book is “Parents, Teachers, and the Censored Story of Accountability in America’s Public Schools.”  For Tollefson, that “censored story” is the story of how the current wave of “school reform,” culminating in the No Child Left Behind Act, has rode roughshod over the interests of students, parents, teachers, and indeed school administrators to create a “panoptic” system of top-down control.  Debate about the political moves of the accountability movement is stifled by bureaucratic “discipline” as well as by corporate control over the mass media.  So there is a critique of NCLB and “standards-based reform” here, a critique that argues that NCLB is fundamentally undemocratic.  

Tollefson’s constructivist beliefs are deployed in this critique as well.  While depicting the accountability movement as “organized (and profitable) malevolence against the public schools,” (21) she also suggests that one of the primary pivots of the accountability movement’s success is in shutting out parents and teachers from the debate about what “accountability” is.  Tollefson, then, true to her allegiance to constructivist method, invites teachers and parents to construct definitions of school “accountability” for themselves.

Constructivism is a philosophy of learning which starts from the perspective that learners create knowledge from already-internalized knowledge structures.  Pedagogy based on constructivism seeks to create teaching strategies which start from the learner’s perspective.  Constructivism, it must be noted, does not in itself make a complete philosophy of learning; it has no answer to the question of what should be learned, deferring to the learner’s best judgments in those matters.


Now, if I may be excused briefly to give my own opinion on constructivism, here.  Learners do indeed learn what they want, as the constructivists argue.  But it must be added they do so in interaction with their environments, which themselves must be “constructed.”  And this environmental “construction” is what gives the forces of reaction, the forces of top-down control, their power over education.  This is what Tollefson nails so clearly.

The public-school classroom, with its desks, chairs, and teacher area, is an architectural reflection of the suburban bedroom community.  In the standard-model public school, classrooms feed like cells into the hallways, themselves arteries of a great body which feeds into the brain-structure, which is located in the administrative offices.  In much the same way, the suburban bedroom community feeds into the highways, which themselves feed into the city-center brain structures of modern society.  Both structures have, by and large, been cleared of ecological appearances so as to maintain the architectural structure of cells composing a body which can be directed from brain-centers.

If we are really to change education to suit the coming era of environmental crisis, there must be a change in the architectural set-up of the system itself.  Schools must become more like ecologies, and less like machines imitating bodies.  My perspective upon education, then, would build upon Tollefson’s arguments about schooling, to push in an “ecological” direction.  (Climbs down from soapbox: returns to book review.)


A good portion of Tollefson’s book is an empirical study of “how teachers and parents make sense of the accountability movement” (92), while she assesses their attitudes toward the school system.  Tollefson conducts a rather hands-on piece of research, in which she “facilitated eleven text-based discussions with participants on critical literature in education.”  (177)  Tollefson uses established methods of qualitative data collection, yet the overall design of the project, which she used to advance her dissertation, looks like a rather non-directive college course (albeit one that lasted for six whole months).  The result of such a study seemingly, was that Tollefson had created a conceptual experience for her research subjects that was “both educated and rooted in the discourse of the democratic value system” (122).  She, in short, taught her research subjects how to recover the democracy that was within themselves.

The study for Volatile Knowing may seem to some readers to be a bit far afield from “objective” research, and a bit too grounded in the researcher’s perspective.  All good research discovers something, and Tollefson’s research has discovered the potential for democracy underneath the “panoptic” system imposed upon the schools by the accountability movement.

What’s most impressive about Volatile Knowing, though, is how Tollefson has broken down the rituals imposed upon the accountability movement, and shown how they form a sort of “discipline” which continually subordinates the participants in schooling to the will of external authorities.  Tollefson identifies several instruments of discipline, picked out of Michel Foucault’s Discipline and Punish, and shows from them how schools have become imprisoning, “totalitarian” institutions under the will of the accountability movement.

(Michel Foucault, who certainly deserves a diary of his own, wrote a book in 1975 called Surveiller et Punir, translated as Discipline and Punish into English, in which he compares schools, factories, hospitals, and other institutions to prisons by looking at the rituals of control that govern them.)

Volatile Knowing, then, contains a ritual theory of schooling.  This theory shows how the accountability movement relies upon a strategic set of rituals – rituals which tap the strength of an ideology of “amoral familism,” which is the unsocial pursuit of family interests in a social setting.  Amoral familism tells the world: me and my family are important; all else is meaningless.  Accountability also exercises rituals which isolate individuals and cut them off from the strengths they might use in solidarity with each other.

Ritual theories of schooling are especially important in light of the highly ritualized nature of most schooling practice.  I can say with certainty that much of public schooling practice is ritualized in light of the need for “classroom management” in the schools.  (I know this well from experience.)  Defining “classroom management” was a significant part of my own Ph. D. dissertation, which was a communicative ethnography of schools.  Classroom management, to be sure, has an architectural aspect to it – teachers can arrange classrooms, and they can arrange the placement of students in those classrooms, in order to create classroom environments which are peaceful, pleasing, and conducive to “classwork,” typically the privileged activity during school time.  But at many points classroom management is the orchestration of classroom ritual so as to complete “classwork” and generate “learning” from within classrooms which are occupied by whole communities of students, perhaps from twenty to forty students in each classroom.

What classroom management illustrates is the need for a ritual order to grant schooling its identity.  Tollefson points out aspects of the “accountability” ritual order: timetables, for instance, can be used keep teachers constantly harassed by a lack of adequate preparation time, so they can be more easily manipulated.  Or examinations, the linchpin of NCLB, can be made into “high-stakes tests” which can be made to judge “winners” and “losers” in the educational game and thus preoccupy the minds of the school system for the entire year.  The “overall goal” of this, says Tollefson, is that of “decreasing the people’s political power while maximizing their productivity and utility in efficient, cost-effective ways” (131) in a profits system that grants political and economic benefits to testing corporations, wealthy parents, and holders of political office.

In Volatile Knowing Tollefson, understandably concerned with the welfare of her research subjects concentrates upon the generation of a democratic movement to create some people-power against the pyramid of power exercised in the name of accountability.  But if she’d investigated the power-structure a little more deeply, she’d have looked at the money system as a source of power for the advocates of accountability.  Teachers, for instance, are unlikely to rebel against NCLB, since it could mean the loss of their paid positions, and parents are typically too busy earning wages during school hours to pay too much extra attention to what’s happening to their children during those hours.  A reflection upon the money system would radicalize Volatile Knowing even further, showing how the economy of late capitalism tends to generate phenomena like the No Child Left Behind Act.


In the same year as Volatile Knowing, Tollefson published a teacher’s guide with a New Mexico schoolteacher, Monica K. Osborn, titled Cultivating the Learner-Centered Classroom.  As far as I can tell, the classroom being recommended here is really “learner-centered,” but, rather, a classroom that would “realistically” create opportunities for student and parent empowerment from within school systems which take the coercion of children as a given.  “Involve students and parents in discussing and setting goals,” it advises (77).  “Community development in the classroom (as opposed to classroom management) must be a priority,” we are told.  (90)  And, lest this “community development” be viewed as a mere euphemism, the authors continue:

Students who believe in the importance of their own community norms, who feel responsible for honoring them, and who know that you have faith in their abilities to do so can release you from the role of sole enforcer and allow you to become an observer.  Clearly, this won’t happen overnight.  You will be spending the first several weeks, perhaps even months, slowly working your way toward increasing student ownership of the classroom environment.  (91)

This can be liberating, or it can merely be “student ownership” of something that has been imposed upon them from the outside.  Cultivating the Learner-Centered Classroom makes a good survival guide; but one sometimes has the feeling, upon reading these pages, that something more substantive than teacher adaptation will be needed in the end.  Thus books such as Volatile Knowing are also good for teachers to read; exposing the school system is a depressing but necessary prerequisite to change.

Tollefson and Osborn have been careful not to write a specialist book dealing with only one aspect of teacher life.  There are chapters on “community development” (as defined above), classroom organization, assessment, instructional planning, evaluation, and dealing with parents.  The chapter on evaluation has a comprehensive critique of letter grading, which appears (after the authors’ analysis) to be quite harmful as a practice.  Their practical advice, in this light: “If you have to give letter grades, as most teachers in the intermediate grades and above do, involve students in establishing criteria for them.”  (143)

What the authors of Cultivating the Learner-Centered Classroom do, then, is create a “progressive” manual for teachers, and especially for new teachers, which goes a long way to keep all of the organizational details of teaching together, even the contingent ones (in the chapter on evaluation, one piece of advice is: “think now of the typical in-between student who doesn’t stand out as being a particularly good or particularly poor listener” (87).)  In many environments, teaching has become a disempowering activity; this is what I experienced in my unsuccessful attempt at earning a teaching credential in the year 2000.  I wish I’d had this book then; maybe it would have made my job more palatable.

I can’t really say for sure whether teachers today would be able to use this manual; I haven’t been in the system for some time.  But I do think they should give it a try.


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  1. It’s only part of a philosophy, but it’s a good part!

  2. Dean was running in 2004. I was curious about him and went to a meet up in my neighborhood. Almost half of those that were there were really freaked out teachers, school board members and parents. We all broke into groups to discuss our ‘priorities’ ours was lead by a board member of our school district. She was really upset about just the issues your speaking of. We all learned a lot about this important issue. Education is our future, thinking citizens are more important then corporate drones.  

    She contended that the aim of NCLB was to privatize and corporatize our educational system. Her dire predictions of what would happen if the Republicans were allowed to continue dismantling public education were right.  Up till NCLB Portland schools were moving toward a very flexible humanist model. She was not exaggerating shortly after this our major hired a corporate type from Ohio to take over and fix our system. What a disaster. She’s gone but not the damage done.

    It worries me that our candidates talk of fixing NCLB, as though tinkering will help when the whole concept sucks. Shades of “Universal Healthcare” from insurance companies or NAFTA will be okay if we just enforce it properly. Thanks for the reviews, I have many friends who teach and are administrators, and I will pass it on.


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