1.2.3 Constructivism 1: Piaget and Cognitive Development Theory
You are an Early Years specialist teacher working in a kindergarten attached to a large, inner city primary school. You have just attended a training day involving all the staff of the unit, where you have been informed that a review of current practice is needed.
The head of the kindergarten has been told that some of the children are not reaching the desired level of readiness for entry into primary school. This is having a negative impact on the children's ability to benefit from the primary school curriculum. A recent parent survey has also shown that some parents are concerned that the daily routine in the kindergarten is too relaxed, and they would like to see more discipline. Other parents value the caring atmosphere in the kindergarten, and would not like to see this change in any way.
The head of kindergarten explained that there are different views on the best way to prepare children for the reception year, but that the kindergarten was obliged to follow the guidelines given in the Early Years Statutory Framework on providing effective teaching and learning through "playing and exploring … active learning, [and] creating and thinking critically" (DfE, 2014, p. 9). These three guidelines are what underpins the planning of each day, and they should also be guiding all educators in their interactions with the children. The issue of discipline was the source of some contradictory parent feedback, but again, the head teacher pointed to these three guidelines, suggesting that the main job of educators was to ensure that all children were engaged in these activities, and that a balance had to be struck between providing safe and orderly environment on the one hand, and offering children stimulation and a chance to experiment on the other.
At the training day, some of the challenges faced by the kindergarten were discussed. These included the increasing social, ethnic and religious diversity of the children attending the kindergarten and some budget pressures which have meant reduced staffing and lower spending on equipment for teaching and learning. The head of the kindergarten informed all the teachers that they were doing a good job, and that part of the problem seemed to be that there was some variability in the way individual teachers understood their role in helping children to be ready for school. She believed that it was time for everyone to reflect on his or her current practice and review two things: what sort of things each educator is doing to encourage children's cognitive development, and what theory underpins these particular actions and approaches.
To help you structure your reflection, the head of kindergarten has asked you to write a short, two-part report outlining [Part one] what you are currently doing to encourage children's cognitive development, and explaining [Part two] why you are doing these things using a relevant theory of children's cognitive development. Write this report in 500 words (250 words for each part) and use what you have learned about Piaget's Cognitive Development Theory for part two.
For quite a large part of the day, I have general duties for the whole class and I have special charge of a group of six children aged 3-4 years. I make a point of talking individually to each of the children in my group every day, for example, asking how they are feeling today, or commenting on something the child mentions as they come into kindergarten in the morning. I think it is very important to get to know the children well, and to let them know that I am interested in their thoughts. This helps me follow their progress and identify the kinds of things they are interested in. I also observe my group carefully, and sometimes I step in to calm things down, more for safety than for any concern about discipline, or to draw in a child who is not participating in group activities. This is to ensure that each child is fully integrated with the group, and no one is left out, or excluded from having a chance to use equipment or play imaginative games.
The most important thing that I do in terms of encouraging cognitive development is to talk to the children while they are engaged in tasks. When we were building a den last week, I asked the children how many sides it should have, and how high the roof should be. When one child said that it was his castle, I asked the other children what they would like the den to be. One said it was a cave, and another said it was a submarine. I then asked them to tell me what kind of walls we would need for each idea.
The children in my group are all in the stage of cognitive development that Piaget would describe as 'preoperational'. They can distinguish between real and imaginary situations, and they enjoy constructing their own little pretend world, and then taking on a role in that world. The discussion about the den/castle/cave/submarine was a good way of helping children to constructing their own perspective, but also at the same time to see that other children have a different perspective. This is important because it helps the child to imagine different scenarios using the same materials. They have to switch from different symbolic representations, and follow through with appropriate answers about the imaginary world they, or their friends, have made.
Piaget's theory requires that children interact with objects in the world. Small children find it quite hard to move large blocks, because this involves sensorimotor development such as good co-ordination of hands and eyes, and good balance as well as preoperational thinking about the desired and actual form. The den building requires some co-operation with others in deciding where the different pieces should go, and actually moving them there. The discussions that children have about putting a block higher or lower, or to the left or right, show that they are beginning to construct their own ideas about three dimensional objects and how they behave. The children have to accommodate the physical sizes and shapes around them, and the limitations of their own strength and skill. Talking about this with each other and with an adult after the event then reveals how aware they are of the properties of objects in space and their own powers (real and imaginary) within that space.
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