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Piaget, Vygotsky, Montessori and Dewey ‘identified authors on learning, including evaluation on their ideas and implications for classroom practice’.
Theories of learning underpin every teacher’s classroom practice. If a teacher is able to understand how knowledge is developed, they are better able to shape the way in which their lessons are presented and in turn, better equipped to meet the specific needs of their children. Although each theorist looks at the different ways in which people learn, each theory is varied due to the fact that each theorist has a different definition on learning. The following essay will look at the theories of Piaget, Vygotsky, Montessori and Dewey and evaluate each of the main ideas of their theories and the effect of these ideas within the classroom.
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The theories of Jean Piaget explained a child’s construction of a mental model of the world (Simplypsychology.org, 2019). He looked at the way in which children were able to create knowledge. Piaget’s theory is actually a ‘stage’ theory of development and covers four stages; sensorimotor, preoperational, concrete operational and formal operational. Piaget believed that children develop in stages and that every child needs to pass through each stage in the same order. These stages also mean that lessons should be structured around what the child is capable of doing at that stage. The stages most relevant for Primary school teaching are preoperational and concrete operational.
Piaget believed that it was during the preoperational stage of development, that a child formed ideas through directly experiencing things. An example of this can be explained through a personal experience. When teaching a reception class recently, the children were learning how to write instructions through a story map called “How to make a Sam sandwich”. The task first required the children to learn what instructions were and then learn the instructions of how to make a sandwich. They then had to change the instructions to a sandwich of their choice. The children then had the opportunity to make a sandwich while following their instructions. By allowing the children this opportunity, the children were able to construct their own understanding of following instructions rather than just learning what instructions were. It was Piaget’s belief that a child’s “interactions with his environment are what create learning” (Mooney, 2000). They are able to build their own knowledge and understanding by giving meaning to the things that surround them. Children will better understand what they are doing if they are able to partake in activities themselves and therefore build their own understanding of what is being taught.
Alongside his stages of development, Piaget looked at the ideas of assimilation and accommodation. Assimilation describes the learning process a child takes part in when they learn new concepts and ideas. These ideas fit into the concepts that they already understand. Accommodation introduces new concepts that cause the child to change their original viewpoint (Whatispsychology.net, 2011). With this in mind, it is important to realise that both these concepts require the children to be learning actively and experiencing the learning rather than passively accepting it. Within Piaget’s Concrete operational stage, children become more active and curious about concepts presented to them. It is important at this stage to allow the children interaction with concrete materials, “Hands-on activities such as science experiments and crafting can help students discover the meanings of concepts using their previous knowledge and logical thought” (Synonym.com, 2019). For example, when teaching money recently to a Year Three class. They were given coins to first create £1, and then to work out the change given when spending money. By physically allowing the children to interact with the money, they were better able to build on their knowledge of money already about money and begin to understand the idea of giving change or taking away. Further building on the idea that within the concrete operational phase, the children begin making connections between concepts, I had a child who, when learning measurement after money, made the connection that just like you find 100 pence in £1, there are 100cm in 1m.
Piaget was however, criticized for focusing “too much on thought processes and not enough on children’s feelings and social relationships” (Mooney, 2000). He believed that the developmental stages were universal. Although both Piaget had similar beliefs to Len Vygotsky in that that children learn through play, Vygotsky differed to Piaget in that Vygotsky believed that children’s learning was shaped through personal and social experiences. He believed that children’s cognitive development would differ from child to child due to their varying cultural backgrounds. Vygotsky’s theories are still important due to Vygotsky’s understanding that the “interaction with teachers and peers” was an important aspect in helping the advance of children’s knowledge (Mooney, 2000).
When discussing Vygotsky, it is important to look at a key aspect of Vygotsky’s work, the Zone of Proximal Development. Vygotsky called the area between the task that a child has mastered and the task that a child can do when offered support, is the Zone of Proximal Development (ZDP). It was Vygotsky’s notion that a child that was near to learning a new idea, would do so much better when interacting with other people. It did not need to be a teacher but could also be help from a fellow student who had already grasped the concept being taught. When teaching place value to children, I witnessed that some of my middle level pupils, who had been able to grasp the concept, were able to explain to a fellow student who had not grasped it yet, in a very simple way.
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Another key aspect of Vygotsky’s theory is the idea of scaffolding. Scaffolding is a way in which “adults and peers can help a child reach a new concept or skill by giving supporting information” (Mooney, 2000). To be able to scaffold a child’s learning, a teacher would need to observe a child’s learning and take note of what they were capable of doing within their learning and where they are capable of going with their learning. The scaffolding or the “guided participation” (Slee & Shute, 2003), allows the child to extend their learning, with help, to a level which they may not have reached yet. ‘Free-flow’ play is a fantastic example of scaffolding a child’s learning. ‘Free-flow’ can be described as:
” children choosing what they want to do, how they want to do it and when to stop and try something else. Free play has no external goals set by adults and has no adult imposed curriculum. Although adults usually provide the space and resources for free play and might be involved, the child takes the lead and the adults respond to cues from the child” (Playengland.org.uk, 2019)
It is important during free-flow, that the adult observes the child’s play and keep in mind ways in which to push the child further in their learning alongside their play. Vygotsky also drew attention to the fact that a child’s learning can also be guided by “more capable peers” ((Slee & Shute, 2003). During a lesson which entailed volcano building, I had a child who had an idea to turn the volcano into a light. Rather than putting a glass ceiling on her learning, I suggested she write out a plan of how to do it. During free-flow, we got all the pieces together that were needed, and the child turned what was originally a simple volcano, into a working light. The child was also supported by another student who understood how electrical circuits worked. This child in turn, added to the learning of the first child by being able to explain to her how a circuit worked. With adult support, the child was able to build a circuit, but with peer support, she was able to extend her learning to better understand how the circuit worked.
The guidance offered to this child leads well into the theory offered by John Dewey. I could have very easily said to the child, ‘no we are making volcanoes not lights’. This however would have put a ceiling on her learning. Dewey talked about a confidence in knowing the children and the learning process. Dewey’s idea of teacher confidence relied on knowing the individual child; (she liked being creative and creating things), individualizing curricula (she was a very independent child and this offered the opportunity to work in a group); the social nature of the learning (the other child helping was new to the school and allowed her to join in on an activity) and preparation for life (she was required to put together a plan before executing her project) (Mooney, 2000).
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