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This paper will discuss applications of Piagetian theories on education. It will show how influential Piaget is that contemporary education has accepted his theories and have built educational approaches based on it.
Piaget's major ideas on teaching and child development.
Much of the foundation in children's learning and development is based on the theories of the Swiss psychologist, Jean Piaget. He has been very influential in the field of education due to his beliefs about how children think. He emphasized the use of questioning that lead children to think philosophically and designed tasks that call upon high-level cognition; problem solving, reasoning, and understanding of complex concepts (Siegler & Ellis, 1996).
To Piaget, children's cognitive behaviour is intrinsically rather than extrinsically motivated. Even if it is a fact that social interactions and other reinforcements influence how a child thinks, Piaget maintains that children learn and think naturally because they are designed and have been evolved to do so. He came up with the Stages of Cognitive Development because he believed that intellectual development is influenced by both maturation and experience. "Cognitive development is indicated by a growing ability to plan, to employ strategies for remembering and to seek solutions to problems" (Brewer, 2001: 26). Piaget describes that cognitive development of children progress in stages.
The initial stage is the Sensorimotor Stage of babies and toddlers. This period is characterized by interactions with the environment based on the child's reception of sensory input and muscular reactions. The task of this period is to develop the concept of object permanence, the idea that objects exist even when they cannot be seen or heard. (Brewer, 2001). The Preoperational Period (two to seven years) marks the time when a child becomes able to represent objects and knowledge through imitation, symbolic play, drawing, mental images and spoken language. Lack of conservation skills is also characteristic of this stage. "Conservation is defined as the knowledge that the number, mass, area, length, weight, and volume of objects are not changed by physically rearranging the objects." (Brewer, 2001: 46) The ages of seven to eleven or twelve years falls under the Concrete Operational Period. Children at this age begin to think more operationally. Piaget and Inhelder (1969) described the operational thinker as one who employs "identity or reversibility by inversion or reciprocity" (99) in solving problems. They have moved on from being egocentric and consider that others may come to conclusions that differ from theirs.
Adult's role in child development
Piaget is a proponent of Consructivist philosophy in education. This philosophy premises on the belief that learners "construct" their own learning, and in effect, have better retention of it.
"In the Constructivist theory the emphasis is placed on the learner or the student rather than the teacher or the instructor. It is the learner who interacts with objects and events and thereby gains an understanding of the features held by such objects or events. The learner, therefore, constructs his/her own conceptualizations and solutions to problems. Learner autonomy and initiative is accepted and encouraged." (Van Ryneveld, n.d., n.p.).
Adults who adhere to Piagetian theories give the students more power in the acquisition of learning. Using prior knowledge, children are encouraged to invent their own solutions and try out their own ideas and hypotheses with the able support of their teachers. This way, they can indulge in concrete experiences that focus on their interests. The process of searching for information, analysing data and reaching conclusions is considered more important than learning facts.
Teachers come up with several strategies in capturing their students' attention, and courses are offered in helping educators become more efficient in imparting knowledge and skills to their pupils. Aware that children are capable of being active learners, they no longer limit their teaching strategies to boring lectures, dizzying written and oral examinations and students' delivery of memorized answers to expected questions. Teaching aids have likewise expanded from using flashcards, blackboard demonstrations and textbooks to more concrete materials like actual 3-dimensional objects, dioramas and multimedia materials. Activities are likewise evolving to be more learner-centered, as teachers are coming to terms that their students have a hand in directing their own learning. This is not to say that teachers are slowly losing their hold on the learning of their students. In fact, they are important figures in stimulating and encouraging their students' pursuit of knowledge.
In the practice of Piaget's Constructivist Education, teachers need to be vigilant in guiding their students' learning paths. They need to create opportunities for their students to exercise the construction of their own learning. Educational strategies such as cooperative learning, direct instruction, multimedia, computer mediated communications may be combined in a way that suits the learning styles and preferences of the students (Howe and Berv 2000) .
Piagetian Influence On the Use of Learning Centers
The National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC) advocates for the use of learning centers in classrooms. Stemming from Piagetian theory, it can be said that learning centers allow children to learn by interacting with their environment. These learning centers may include a dramatic play area, a small library or reading corner, a manipulatives area for fine motor activities, a block area, a math and science area, an art area etc. Learning areas are set up in the classroom in such a way that children may go to one learning area after another to work and play with the materials provided in each area. In a sense, they are actively constructing their own learning.
Having learning areas in classrooms provides many benefits for children. They develop social skills as they interact cooperatively with others, share materials and teach each other. Centers encourage communication because children can talk and verbalize freely.
With free access to learning centers, children can move and be active, so there will be fewer discipline problems and disruptions. Learning centers involve a greater use of the senses. This also implies that centers encourage children to learn in ways that are natural to them.
Learning centers allow children to work independently, in small groups, or one-on-one with the teacher. They provide for a wide range of abilities and interests because children can progress at their own rate. It fosters creativity, curiosity and experimentation.
In line with Piaget's stages of cognitive development, teachers prepare age-appropriate materials with bigger and more of the same items for toddlers and more variety and challenge for older children. Since Piaget believes that toddlers are in the sensorimotor stage, they still learn mostly through their senses. Being so, they have the tendency to put things in their mouths, so larger toys should be available to them to avoid swallowing and choking on smaller pieces. Also, since toddlers are more egocentric, they find it difficult to share, so more pieces of the same toys should be available to avoid conflicts. For older children, they have more skills developed already, so their learning materials should be more challenging because to help further sharpen their growing cognitive and fine motor skills.
Schools should encourage children to be independent, make decisions and solve problems. Since learning materials abound, it reflects that it offers diversity and flexibility in terms of materials and learning activities (Brewer, 2001; NAEYC, 1997)
4. Children and the Learning Environment
Piaget believed that intelligence develops from action. He "believed that children create knowledge through interactions with the environment. Children are not passive receivers of knowledge; rather, they actively work at organizing their experience into more and more complex mental structures." (Brewer, 2001:6). For Piaget, learning takes place after development. He insists that children need to use all their cognitive functions. His theories were designed to form minds which can be critical, can verify, and not accept everything they are offered. Such beliefs reflect his respect for children's thinking. In the classroom, a child should be encouraged to explore and discover things on his own, as this develops ownership in his discoveries. The child derives much fulfillment in this, and hence, his self-learning is motivated.
The environment provides children with endless opportunities to learn. When children are allowed to explore their environment with their senses and imagination, they are able to come up with their own theories and they get to test these theories out. On the other hand, if their interaction with the environment is restricted, such as learning about their world just through pictures and not being able to experience it first hand, then, the context of their learning also becomes limited. Piaget advocates learning from experience. He believes that more concrete learning becomes relevant and meaningful to children and better retention of the concepts and skills learned is achieved.
5. "Assimilation" and "Accomodation"
Piaget's "assimilation-accommodation" model of cognitive growth explains the child's active involvement in his thinking processes. The child's cognitive structure dictates both what it accommodates (notices in the environment) and what is accommodated is assimilated (interpreted or given meaning). For example, a child's attention is captured when he sees a cup (accommodation). Such cup is studied and analysed until the child learns that it is to hold liquids for drinking (assimilation). This model helps one understand that "cognitive development is a gradual, step-by-step process of structural acquisition and change, with each new mental structure growing out of its predecessor through the continuous operation of assimilation and accommodation" (Flaveli, 1996: 200). It also explains that as children grow and learn more about things, their assimilation-accommodation allows them to expand their concepts of things and that they learn from more simple concepts to more complex concepts as they go through the stages of cognitive development.
Piaget has come up with complex theories that he was able to dissect for educators to understand and apply to their learners. Indeed, the man was ahead of his time and contemporary teachers and students now enjoy the fruits of his labour.