Greg Ashman, an advocate of “explicit instruction”:
In an influential book for the National Academies Press in the US [How People Learn], the constructivist position is explained in terms of the childrenâ€™s book Fish is Fish. In the story, a frog visits the land, and then returns to the water to explain to his fish friend what the land is like. You can see the thought bubbles emanating from the fish as the frog talks. When the frog describes birds, the fish imagines fish with wings, and so on. The implication is that we cannot understand anything that we have not seen for ourselves; each individual has to discover the world anew.
Meanwhile, here is how the cognitive scientists who wrote How People Learn actually interpret Fish is Fish (pp. 10-11):
Fish Is Fish is relevant not only for young children, but for learners of all ages. For example, college students often have developed beliefs about physical and biological phenomena that fit their experiences but do not fit scientific accounts of these phenomena. These preconceptions must be addressed in order for them to change their beliefs (e.g., Confrey, 1990; Mestre, 1994; Minstrell, 1989; Redish, 1996).
To illustrate this phenomenon we need only look at Ashman’s essay itself. Ashman came to his essay with the common misconception that constructivists believe that “each individual has to discover the world anew.” Even though the How People Learn authors interpret Fish is Fish explicitly, that explicit interpretation wasn’t enough to dismantle Ashman’s misconception.
Perhaps the HPL authors should have taken their own advice, anticipated Ashman’s misconception, and addressed it explicitly. It turns out they did exactly that in the next paragraph:
A common misconception regarding “constructivist” theories of knowing (that existing knowledge is used to build new knowledge) is that teachers should never tell students anything directly but, instead, should always allow them to construct knowledge for themselves.
A book is nothing if not a medium for explicit instruction and Ashman illustrates the limits of that medium here. Explicit instruction is powerful, certainly, and I can’t think of any influential scholars, least of all the authors of How People Learn, who would deny it. But it often isn’t powerful enough on its own to remedy a student’s existing misconceptions. Luckily, How People Learn offers many more powerful prescriptions for teaching and it’s free.
BTW. Always relevant: The Two Lies of Teaching According to Tom Sallee.