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Jean Piaget (1896 – 1980) was a constructivist theorist. He saw children as constructing their own world, playing an active part in their own development. Children are intrinsically motivated to interact with their environment and so learn about the world they live in. Piaget’s insight opened up a new window into the inner working mind and as a result he carried out some remarkable studies on children that had a powerful influence on theories of child thought. This essay is going to explain the main features and principles of the Piagetian theory, how Piaget has influenced education and relate the Piagetian theory to two challenging perspectives, social constructivism and connectionist modelling.
Piaget saw children as constructing their own world, playing an active part in their own development, which was the bulk of his work but also believed that social context was an important feature as well. Children are intrinsically motivated to interact with their environment and so learn about the world they live in. Piaget believed that children had the ability to adapt to their environment and saw intelligence as an evolutionary process.
Piaget alleged children’s thinking goes through changes at each of four stages (sensori motor, concrete operations and formal operations) of development until they can think and reason as an adult. The stages represent qualitatively different ways of thinking, are universal, and children go through each stage in the same order. According to Piaget each stage must be completed before they can move into the next one and involving increasing levels of organisation and increasingly logical underlying structures. Piaget stated that the ‘lower stages never disappear; they become integrated into the new stage (hierarchic integration) (Inhelder and Piaget, 1958). Children themselves, through their actions on the environment, interacting with there biologically – determined level of maturation, bring about the cognitive changes, which result in adult thinking.
The stages theory is open to criticism as they are too rigid and neglects individual differences such as memory span, motivation etc. Piaget also underestimated the age at which children could do things. This maybe because he failed to distinguish between competence and performance. Piaget’s studies tested performance and then he assumed that a child who failed simply lacked the underlying cognitive structures that he believed were needed to succeed on that task.
Subsequent research suggests that a child may have these competencies earlier than Piaget suggested. However, simply to focus on age limits is to miss the central point of Piaget’s theory that universal, qualitative, biologically regulated cognitive changes occur during development. This is supported by cross-cultural research that has replicated Piaget’s findings (Smith et al, 1998).
A positive aspect is that Piaget’s view of children as active constructors of their own cognitive world had considerable educational implications, with its emphasis on discovery learning, sensitivity to children’s readiness to learn, and acceptance of individual differences. Piaget’s main features suggest ‘that the role of the teacher is to allow children to engage with their environment in an active way and have appropriate experiences at appropriate times so as to foster their natural capacity to learn.’ (Gupta and Richardson, 1995 p8) These experiences will only be effective if full account is taken of the children’s level of understanding. As a result Piaget’s psychological research has provided evidence for the Plowden report and some teachers have applied Piaget’s theory to their teaching methods in relation to the importance of ‘ active learning, qualitative differences between child and adult thinking, and the influence of environmental experience on development.
Piaget’s theory is immensely rich, deep and quite often very difficult; as such it resists encapsulation. However, it is possible to draw out certain themes. Piaget clearly distinguishes between development and learning, believing the former to be a spontaneous, structured whole, in contrast to the provoked, limited nature of the latter. Piaget argued that there are four main factors in the development of one set of structures from another: maturation, experience, social transmission and equilibration.
Piaget devised a number of ingenious tests of thought to illustrate this style of thinking and to study ‘how children developed the ability to realise that there are things that do not change even when there are perceptual transformations.’ (Light and Oates, 1990 pg 101). He illustrated his concepts of egocentricism by using a three mountains task and conservation tasks. These studies came to the following conclusions that children are: 1) unable to conserve, 2) They are unable to reserve mental operations and 3) they are perceptually egocentric. When discussing Piaget’s experiments ecological validity needs to be taken into account. Piaget used his own children as participants and the clinical interview method also casts doubts.
Another criticism relates to the concept of biological maturation or ‘readiness’. If the development of cognitive structures is related to maturity, then practice should not improve performance. In other words, if a person is not biologically ready to move on to the next stage then no amount of practice should get them there. However, there is evidence to suggest that practice can make a difference (Danner and Day 1977).
Piaget did not deny the role of experience. He used the concept of ‘horizontal decalage’ to explain why it is that not all aspects of the same stage appear at the same time; for example, the ability to conserve number and volume may not appear at the same time, but one after the other. He suggested that uneven cognitive performance is probably due to different learning experiences.
A third criticism relates to the role of language and social factors. Piaget did not feel that language influenced cognitive development. To incorporate these two elements researchers have extended Piaget’s experiments. Margaret Donaldson (1978, as cited by Lights and Oates, p 114) argued that the real problem with the Piagetian tasks is that they are testing diembedded thinking on the part of the child; they are asking the child to solve problems unrelated to the child’s own knowledge and experience. A change in materials used will enable children to perform better on some tasks than on others.