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Concrete and Formal Operational Stages in Education

Skinner’s theory sees learning as a continuous process, with quantitative increases in learner behaviours with age. Learner behaviour can also be modified gradually by modulating the degree and frequency of reinforcement. Bandura’s theory also portrays learning as a continuous process where perception, attention, memory and problem-solving skills increase with age. In contrast, cognitive development occurs discontinuously according to Piaget’s theory. Piaget identifies four developmental stages of learning, namely sensorimotor, preoperational, concrete operational and formal operational stages.

These developmental stages are loosely associated with age, but the progression through the stages is better tracked by the achievement of a list of increasingly demanding criterion for each stage than by actual age.

The last aspect to be discussed is that of the locus of control. This is important as educators who subscribe to each theory needs to know how to apply the theory to teaching, and therefore how to “control” learning. For Skinner, learning can be controlled via the manipulation of the environment, namely by reinforcing learner behaviour or by imposing punishment to reduce the frequency of undesirable traits.

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Similarly, educators who subscribe to Bandura’s social learning theory would also control learning by modifying the environment. For Piaget, learning has to come from individual control as learning depends on the developmental stage of the learner. An educator cannot teach abstract reasoning to a learner who is not yet at the appropriate stage (i. e. formal operational), and there is nothing much the educator can do to spur development. Again, it appears that Skinner and Bandura’s theories share more similarities.

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However, there are still some slight differences between Skinner and Bandura in this case. For Bandura, while reinforcements and punishments are used as a control just in Skinner’s theory, providing good role models is also advocated. Bandura’s theory also looks at the importance of learners’ emotions and attitudes in influencing learning, an aspect neglected by both Skinner and Piaget. Boosting learners’ confidence (i. e. promoting self-efficacy) would also help the learner to acquire new skills and knowledge.

Bandura’s theory also differs from Skinner’s theory in that there is a reciprocal determinism involved, whereby the environment influences the learner, who will in turn influence the environment (e. g. by providing models for other learners), whereas in Skinner’s theory, the environmental determinism is not reciprocal. Applications of Theories to the Classroom Scenario: The wide scope covered by the three theories implies that an educator can utilise the findings to different aspects of classroom teaching and management.

For the cognitive development of pupils, Piagetian theory would be especially relevant, while Skinner and Bandura’s theories are more applicable to modifying the behaviour of pupils. In addition, Bandura’s theory could also be directed at promoting pupils’ self-regulation of their own learning. Piagetian theory is especially applicable to the cognitive development of the pupils. In teaching a new topic, pupils may find new concepts difficult, especially when they are phrased in novel terms that are unfamiliar with them.

Steiner (1999) brings up an example of pupils with no economics background finding new concepts of demand and supply difficult. As a result, their previous schemata cannot be activated and new knowledge of demand and supply cannot be integrated into their schemata. In this case, Piagetian theory would suggest that the educator restructure the lesson and rephrase some of the key concepts to make the new terms more relevant to the pupils. This could be done by using examples from daily life so that the new concepts can be assimilated into the existing knowledge.

The pupils’ schemata have to be reorganised to accommodate further new concepts that cannot be assimilated. The importance is that teachers have to use suitable materials and examples, such as analogies, in teaching so that pupils’ existing schemata could be activated. Another way to ensure that pupils’ schemata are activated in learning is to sequence the curriculum in a logical order such that simpler ideas are introduced before the more complex ones, and new information is introduced to the pupils in steps.

Another implication of Piagetian theory is that teachers have to gauge the cognitive levels of pupils before designing learning tasks. According to Piaget, pupils in secondary school should be at the formal operational stage (ages 11 to 15). At this stage, pupils should be able to exercise abstract thinking and hypothetical-deductive reasoning, as well as handle most complex cognitive tasks. Teachers should design tasks that help to promote the abstract reasoning abilities in pupils.

However, if teachers gauge that pupils are not at the formal operational stage yet, they would need to scale down the level of the cognitive tasks. In such cases, it is necessary that teachers use concrete examples and hands-on teaching because pupils could only function at the concrete operational stage. As the pupils develop, teachers should track their progress and gradually introduce higher-order tasks as the pupils advance to the formal operational stage. Teachers should also recognise that pupils are diverse and should design a range of tasks to cater to pupils at different developmental stages.

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Concrete and Formal Operational Stages in Education. (2020, Jun 01). Retrieved from

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