The Destructivist Classroom – 1

Photograph by Sam Sherratt. The Roaches, Cheshire, England.

OK, SO THERE’S Instructivism, which is the teacher-centered classroom. Soooo twentieth century, but it still has a place in a mixed economy of good practice. Once in a while, the students want and need to hear an authoritative exposition, a great story, an impassioned rant or two.

Then there’s Constructivism, and that’s the student-centered classroom, and the 21st century way. It promises to be more than a passing educational fad, because this really is how we learn. We teach for understanding: and unlike information, understanding cannot be simply transferred from one mind to another. It has to be constructed afresh by every learner.

I would argue that Instructivism and Constructivism are not a binary opposition but a complementary pair, and that we need a balance of both. The relationship between these two styles is no doubt complex and worthy of further thought. But here I want to focus on a third -ism which has to enter the picture in certain phases of the process. We could call it ‘Destructivism’, because at certain points on the learning curve, some deconstruction needs to take place before the learner can move on to the next level.

The idea of unlearning as part of the learning process is not controversial. For instance, we would not want our children to continue to believe in the various supernatural figures we invent for them in early childhood. We do not really want belief in the Tooth Fairy to persist beyond the age of seven or eight. And letting go of the Tooth Fairy and Santa Claus is not the last or only time in life – or in history – that we as learners need to go through a destructivist phase, a purging of illusions. The beginning of the IB Diploma program is one such moment.

“Tell me one thing you knew at the beginning of this lesson which you don’t know now.” Sarah Schnack, TOK Teacher, International School of Ho Chi Minh City


At the end of last year, I asked the whole of the graduating MYP class to write down their questions about what they had been through for the past five years. When some of them looked more than a bit blank, I threw in the ad hoc instruction: ‘and if you haven’t got any questions about that, questions about life, the world, whatever you want.’ At least, I think I must have said that, because a lot of what I read that night on the pieces of paper the students handed in were visceral teenage questions about identity, attraction, career, predestination, free will, whether ghosts exist, why we live, why we die, is there life after death, all kinds of metaphysical and ontological stuff.

‘Is my blue your blue? one asked. ‘Why is there an infinite giant space just out of nowhere?’ And, ‘If you transferred all my memories and experiences into another person’s brain, would that person then be me?’

The questions about the MYP, I’m sad to report, were not engaged questions. Almost all of them betrayed doubt about the value of what they had been through. ‘Will we use all the knowledges that we learn?’ was one plaintive and ungrammatical cry. ‘Why do we have to study things that we will never use?’ This was a widespread theme, and while the more universal questions reminded me that the MYP years are the time when kids discover death as well as sex, the MYP-related questions showed me that for many kids there is only one thing more terrifying than death: Mathematics. ‘Why don’t we study only simple Maths?’ was not so much a question as a cry for help. ‘Why is Math necessary in life?’ whined another. My favourite, because of its succinctness and agonized use of the conditional, was this:

“Why would Math exist?”

But of all the questions, the one that was perhaps most relevant to our general practice as teachers was this was this smart-assed response:

“Why can’t I think of any questions?”

That’s the question which hits the nail on the head about what’s wrong with a teacher-centered, information-heavy, authority-dependent instructivist approach.


One of the reasons that instructors tend to overemphasize “coverage” over “engaged thinking” is that they assume that answers can be taught separate from questions. Indeed, so buried are questions in established instruction that the fact that all assertions — all statements that this or that is so — are implicit answers to questions is virtually never recognized. For example, the statement that water boils at 100 degrees centigrade is an answer to the question “At what temperature centigrade does water boil?”

Hence every declarative statement in the textbook is an answer to a question. Hence, every textbook could be rewritten in the interrogative mode by translating every statement into a question. To my knowledge this has never been done. That it has not is testimony to the privileged status of answers over questions in instruction and the misunderstanding of teachers about the significance of questions in the learning process. Instruction at all levels now keeps most questions buried in a torrent of obscured “answers.”

Thinking is not driven by answers but by questions. Had no questions been asked by those who laid the foundation for a field — for example, Physics or Biology — the field would never have been developed in the first place. Furthermore, every field stays alive only to the extent that fresh questions are generated and taken seriously as the driving force in a process of thinking. To think through or rethink anything, one must ask questions that stimulate our thought.
Questions define tasks, express problems and delineate issues. Answers on the other hand, often signal a full stop in thought. Only when an answer generates a further question does thought continue its life as such.(1)


So, to the kid who asked this question, whoever you are – maybe you were just trying to be witty, and I like that too, but still, you were telling truth. You went through five years of IB education and at the end of it you had no questions. Maybe you had a lot of answers, I don’t know, but even if you did, without questions you will never know whether these ‘answers’ have any value, because you can never know if something is true until you have doubted it.

So either way, you’ve come out with nothing.

Sorry about that.

We need to do something about this. You need to head along to the The Destructivist Classroom.

You can leave your bag here.


(1) From The Role of Questions in Teaching, Thinking and Learning in Critical Thinking Handbook: Basic Theory and Instructional Structures.
Author: Richard W. Paul, Linda Elder 
 Publisher: Foundation for Critical Thinking
 Copyright: 1999, revised 2000 edition.

Author: Paul Dunbar

I have worked in international schools for the past 15 years, teaching English Literature and Theory of Knowledge in Amsterdam, Bangkok and Ho Chi Minh City. I'm also a musician, and a bit of a writer. Since 2001 I have come to question literally everything, the default position for an uncrippled epistemologist.

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