Theorists' Impact on Teaching and Learning

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The government aims to support and develop children’s learning; these include the Plowden Report (1967), The National Curriculum (1999), a more recent review known as the Rose Review (2009) and The Primary Cambridge Review (2009). These reviews were heavily influenced by both Jean Piaget and Lev Vygotsky.

This assignment will compare two learning theorists and the impact they have on teaching and learning. My main focus will be on Jean Piaget and Lev Vygotsky however Jerome Bruner will also be mentioned. Firstly, the assignment will describe and critically analyse Jean Piaget’s theory of cognitive development. Secondly, I will describe and critically analyse the strengths and weaknesses of Lev Vygotsky’s theory of socio cognitive development. Both learning theorists will be examined and compared along with the implications they have on effective teaching practice.

I will then move on to evaluate the impact it has on an individual child in terms of teaching and learning, taking their development needs into account as well as talking about maturation of the child. The school will also be mentioned throughout this assignment. The name of both the child and the school will not be disclosed due to privacy.

I will also discover the factors that influence teaching and learning in the four main subjects, these include: Literacy, Numeracy/Mathematics, Science and ICT.

Jean Piaget (1896-1980) was a biologist who moved into studying developments of children’s understanding by the age of 21, this was done through observation, speaking and listening to the children on a task that he had set.

“Piaget’s work on children’s intellectual development owed much to his early studies of water snails” (Satterly, 1987, p. 622)

Piaget was a well known French speaking Swiss theorist who believed that children learn by active knowledge through hands on experience. To do this the adult should provide the right materials to allow the child to interact and construct effectively.

His views on how a child’s mind functions and develops had a great influence especially in education theory. He mainly focused on child maturation to increase the understanding of their world; children cannot carry out certain tasks until they are psychologically mature enough to do so (Child-Development-Guide, 2010).

Piaget believed that children’s thinking does not develop smoothly throughout childhood as there are certain points in which it expands and progresses into new aims and capabilities. The transitions took place at about 18 months, 7 years and 11/12 years of age; this meant that before these ages, no matter how bright a child is he/she is not capable of understanding things in certain ways.

Piaget used Socratic questioning to get the children to think more about what exactly they are asking or thinking about, the aim of this was to get children to see contradictions in their explanations.

Piaget’s theory of cognitive development was the central structure to his theory. The acquisition of knowledge in childhood which included processes such as understanding, reasoning, thinking, problem solving, learning, conceptualising and remembering, as a whole understanding all the aspects of human intelligence that are used to make sense of the world. Cognitive development is purely concerned with intellectual functions that can be studied individually from socio-economical functions (Atherton, J. 2010)

Cognitive structures are patterns of physical or mental action which correspond to the stages of child development. Both Piaget and Vygotsky believe that children’s cognitive development takes place in stages. However Piaget was the first to show that children go through different stages of cognitive development. According to Piaget there are four primary development stages, these include: sensorimotor, preoperations, concrete operations and formal operations.

The sensorimotor stage ranges from 0 to 2 years; this is where intelligence takes the form of motor actions. By the actions they perform in their environment through sucking, watching, biting and a number of other responses they may perform. According to a test undertaken by Piaget the child will look for an object that s/he has seen being hidden, this occurs when a child is around 8 months old.

Intelligence in the pre-operation period consists of 2 to 7 year olds. At this age the children are capable of using symbols such as words and images to make sense of the world, imaginative play is used and they can tell the difference between fantasy and reality. The child can see a situation from another person’s point of view, this is known as egocentrism. According to Piaget, the egocentric child thinks that others see, hear and feel exactly the same as s/he does. REF! bbc article

The cognitive structure during the concrete operational stage consists of 7 to 11 year olds. Children need a number of mental operations such as classification and conservation so they can mentally manipulate symbols in different ways. Conversion is when the child has to ability to understand that redistributing material does not affect its mass, number or volume. By the age of 7, the child should understand that when a liquid is poured into a glass of different shape or size the quantity of liquid remains the same, only the appearance changes REF.

The final stage is the formal operations which consist of 11 to 15 year olds. At this age children are capable of mental operations including abstractions and logical reasoning (Schaffer 2004, p.168). The mind of a child who is 11 years or older can carry out mathematical calculations, be creative, have accurate reasoning and imagine the outcome of specific actions REF.

After analysing Piaget’s theory, I believe that his four stages of development and the structure of teaching is closely linked. The sensorimotor stage fits in to the early years foundation stage (EYFS) where children mainly learn by playing and exploring the facilities around them. In the nursery and reception classes of the school, the children have a variety of continuous provisions areas within the classroom that relate to the real world such as shops, post office and kitchens. This allows the children to explore role play and discover real life situations. Tasks are set up to allow the children to explore freely whilst the teacher observes the children’s involvement in the activity (EYFS, 2010, online). This relates to the principle of ‘enabling environments’ in the EYFS themes: ‘The environment plays a key role in supporting and extending children’s development and learning (EYFS, 2010, online).

The second stage links to children who are in key stage 1 (KS1). The children develop words that support play with ideas. The school has a shop corner which contains a till, plastic shopping basket with play foods and plastic money, this allows the children to play within the shop and explore the money. I believe this allows the children to learn as well as play as it’s leveled at their ability. It is important to give the children real life situations and problem solving as the skills can be applied throughout their learning and help them develop into mature adults.

Providing the children with hands on experience in certain areas of the curriculum such as EYFS, mathematics and literacy has been taken from Piaget’s theory. The child is observed during a practical activity and his/her engagement and communication skills are recorded (Briggs et al, 2005, p.27).

I feel it is important that EYFS, key stage one and key stage two should be closely linked and flexible so the child has the correct skills and knowledge throughout the stages to build their confidence and succeed in the future. As part of a Literacy topic the children had to act out Goldilocks and the three bears. They were put in groups and were given a script. The children had to read the script and act it out. This provided the teacher with information on each child’s cognitive ability and allowed her to assess and set targets for each child.

The concrete operational stage ties in with KS2. However, after observing a key stage two there is a change in terms of teaching style and the activities undertaken in EYFS and KS1… The aim of KS2 is to develop the logical process in the learning. Every week the children carry out guided reading, this differentiates from fiction to nonfiction depending on the ability of the child. The children have to read and make sense of the book in order to answer related questions.

Finally, the formal operations stage links to KS3 and consists of children working independently and building on existing knowledge.

Piaget’s theory allows the child to learn actively and gain knowledge from any mistakes that they make. However, I feel that Piaget’s methods are underestimated and may have a huge impact on learning. When learning the core subjects mainly Literacy and Mathematics, Piaget’s theory ignored the social aspects of the child which unvalued the importance knowledge and culture which led to underestimating the ability of the children.

His is widely used in a number of schools, however I strongly feel that the teaching should cover a wider range including the external factors and the environment especially the social and emotional aspects of learning (Isaacs, 1929). On the other hand Vygotsky believed that a child’s learning cannot be separated from its social context.

An example of the importance social context has is Piaget’s’ three mountain experiment’. Piaget concluded that children are unable to see things from another person’s perspective (Schaffer, 2004, p.174). In the experiment he used 3 mountains of different sizes and children aged from four to twelve years old. The children sat on one side of the mountain and a doll was placed on the other side. The children were then shown photographs of the mountains from different positions and were asked to choose a photograph the doll can see from her position. Piaget found that children under seven years of age could not see things from another person’s perspective therefore were egocentric (Wood, 1998, p. 66).

However the appropriateness of the ‘three mountain experiment’ was questioned. Borke states that children performed poorly due to unfamiliarity and not motivating enough for the children to complete successfully (Smith et al. 1998). When the experiment was repeated by Hughes (Donaldson, 1987, p.137) using a policeman and a doll. The children were asked where the doll should hide so the policeman does not find her; he found that nearly ninety nice percent of children aged five were correct. He concluded that if the child is given a familiar situation he/she will think objectively.

Cognitive structures change through the following processes: adaptation, assimilation and accommodation. Adaptation is found in all biological organisms to adjust to the demands of the environment, assimilation involves the individual to incorporate new experiences into existing schemas and accommodation is where the individual modifies existing schemas to fit the new experiences (Schaffer, 2004, p.165).

This relates to other learning theorists in terms of constructivist perspectives of learning including Jerome Bruner and Lev Vygotsky.

However researchers have found it difficult to measure developmental processes: assimilation, accommodation and equilibration. They found it difficult to identify processes that are central to Piaget’s theory (Meadows 1993, p.19).

Piaget claims that his stages are universal regardless of culture, this has also been questioned as a number of studies show that children are able to reach stages earlier that Piaget has stated (Bower, 1974). A three month old baby was shown a toy that was covered by a screen, when the screen was moved the toy had vanished and in another condition the toy was still there. The babies heart rate was measured both when the toy was there and when the toy disappeared. The results showed that there was greater change in heart rate when the toy disappeared. The toy was replaced with different objects and Bower (1971) found that babies show more ‘surprise’. Schaffer (2004, p. 184) felt that Piaget under estimated the abilities of children.

Applying Piaget’s theory requires specific recommendations for a certain stage in the cognitive development. For children who are at the sensorimotor stage, adults should provide them with a rich and motivating environment and a number of objects to play with. However a child who is at the concrete operational stage should be provided with activities in which they can classify problems, order and location of concrete objects.

This allows the adult to see the different explanations the children at different stages of cognitive development will come up with. The activities or situations given should engage the learners and requires adaptation such as assimilation and accommodation. The learning materials given to the children should be relevant and should involve the right level of motor or mental operations for a child depending on his/her age (McLeod, S.A. 2007).

Another critic of Piaget is that he used his own three children for many of his experiments and observations not thinking about the culture they came from (Smith, et al 2003, p. 412). Due to this he failed to take children from different backgrounds into account. A larger sample with children from various backgrounds should have been used to get a more accurate and generalised result.

Piaget’s theory received a number of critic’s however his work had a major influence in the education sector. He disliked the idea of children being taught sat at desks, listening and transmitting information the teacher gives. Piaget believed that children learn through discovery, the task should be set by the teacher and children should be left to discover, any mistakes the children make should provide useful information on the child’s cognitive development. Also for the correct answers, the process of how the child worked out the correct answer should be investigated (Smith et al, 2003, p.388).

The curriculum is set out in a sequence, particularly in the core subjects such as mathematics and science. This is influenced by Piaget’s theory. The choice of learning objectives, curriculum sequencing, grade placements of topics, the assessment of children’s intellectual functioning and teaching methodology (Murray, 1985, p.291)

It is important that the class teacher knows at what stage of cognitive development each child is at as it is an important aspect in Piaget’s theory. This also has an impact on pedagogy as teachers have to change their teaching style to enhance the child’s development.

The second theorist i will be critically analysing is Lev Vygotsky (1896-1934). He was born in Russia in the same year as Piaget. He studied law and graduated at Moscow University. He then went on the study a Ph.D in Literature and Linguistics.

Vygotsky’s began to work in psychology after the Russian revolution where the Marxism replaced the rule of the czar. The new Marxist philosophy emphasised socialism and collectivism. Individuals were expected to give up their personal goals and achievements to improve the society as a whole by sharing and co operation. The success of an individual was seen as reflecting the success of the culture. Heavy emphasis was placed on history, believing that any culture can only be understood through the ideas and events that have made it occur. (Vasta, R., Haith, M.M., Miller, S.A., 1995).

Vygotsky used these elements in his model of human development; this is known as a sociocultural approach. The development of an individual is a result of culture. The theory primarily applies to mental development such as the thought and reasoning process which were believed to develop through social interaction with others mainly parents.

He states:

Every function in the child’s cultural development appears twice: first, between people (interpsychological) and then inside the child (intrapsychological). This applies equally to voluntary attention, to logical memory, and to the formation of ideas. All the higher functions originate as actual relationships between individuals (Vygotsky, 1978, p.57).

Vygotsky looked at mental abilities and processes in historical terms using the events that led to them whereas Piaget believed that the child’s development process follows a similar pattern of stages. Vygotsky saw intellectual abilities as being much more specific to the culture in which the child was reared (Vasta, R., Haith, M.M., Miller, S.A., 1995). Culture contributes to a child’s intellectual development in two ways: firstly children obtain knowledge from it and secondly they obtain the tools of intellectual adaptation from the surrounding culture. Therefore culture provides children with the means to what they think and how they think it.

Vygotsky viewed cognitive developments as a shared problem solving experience with another adult, such as the parent, teacher or sibling, this is also known as the dialectical process. Initially, the person working with the child takes the majority of responsibility for guiding the child through problem solving and steadily hands full responsibility over to the child. Every child is different and will react and learn in different ways however Vygotsky stresses language dialogue as adults will use it as a primary resource to transmit knowledge within their culture. The child’s own language is of great help as it is a primary tool of intellectual transformation. Eventually children can use their own speech to direct behaviour usually in the same way as the parent’s speech once directed. This change relates to Vygotsky’s theme of development as a process of internalisation. Knowledge and thought exist outside the child at first in the culture of the environment. Development consists of gradual internalization, primarily through language, to form cultural adaptation (Rogoff, 1990).

The second aspect of Vygotsky’s theory is cognitive development which is limited to a time span that is known as ‘zone of proximal development’ (ZPD). ZPD is the gap between what a child can solely achieve, their potential development which depends on the independent problem solving and what the child can achieve though problem solving with help and guidance of an adult or more capable peers. (Wood, D., Wood, H., 1966).

What children can do independently is known as ‘level of actual development’ and is a standard IQ test measure. However this measure is important but incomplete as two children may have the same level of actual development as it gets the same number of answers right on a test. With help of an adult, again one child may solve a number of problems whereas the other child may only solve two or three. ‘What the child can do with help of an adult is referred to as ‘level of potential development’. (Vasta, R., Haith, M.M., Miller, S.A., 1995).

Maximum development of ZPD depends on full social interaction of an adult with a child. The more the child takes advantage of the assistance the broader their knowledge of ZPD will be.

Scaffolding was invented in 1976 to describe tutorial interaction between an adult and a child. It was used to explore the help and resources an adult provides so a child can carry out a complex task efficiently. This links to Burner’s ideas of the spiral curriculum.

A parallel has been drawn between the notion of scaffolding and ZPD theories of Vygotsky (Hobsbaum, A., Peters, S., Sylva, K., 1996).

Before an adult can provide learning opportunities they much evaluate the child’s development level at present along with the length of the ZPD. It is important that the child values and makes use of the help that is offered. The child needs to be capable to benefit from the give-and-take conversations with others (Bruner, 1983).

In Vygotsky’s theory language plays a major part in the learning and development process. A child is encouraged to think in new ways and gain a new cognitive tool to make sense of the world. Language is used to solve problems, overcome impulsive action and plan a solution before trying it to control behaviour (Jones, 1995). It is also used for a social purpose, so children can obtain help of peers and solve problems. In this process of development the child starts to practice the same forms of behaviour that other formerly practices with respect to the child however this behaviour is only understood in a social context.

Vygotsky has had a great influence on Bruner’s theory with the introduction of scaffolding and spiral curriculum. Scaffolding is an effective strategy that accesses the ZPD. Scaffolding involved the teacher providing the children the opportunity to build on their current skills and knowledge. This involves the teacher engaging the children and simplifying instructions so they are easily understood.

Scaffolding has been used in every subject to support learning especially when introducing new topics. In Literacy the children had to write a story ending. Work was set according to their ability, through the spiral curriculum. The child expressed his ideas and the teaching assistant wrote them on a dry white board ready for the child to copy onto paper. The child was assisted by questions directing her to revisit the story and think about the ending. However this can be a problem as the teacher may offer too much help which may lead to the child expecting help every time and not thinking on their own.

Also when observing an ICT lesson, the teacher guided the child through the stages of what needs to be done. The children were then left to complete the task independently. The guidance given relates to Vygotsky’s approach and the creativity and constructivism is enhanced by Piaget.

I observed a year two class in mathematics; they were starting a new topic on ‘difference’. The objective of the lesson was to work out the missing number in a sum. To explain this, cubes were used to visually represent numbers so they are easily understood. Both the addition and subtraction methods were shown. Many examples were given until the child fully understood and could work on their own initiative. The activity was then extended to using two digit numbers. The teacher adopted Vygotsky’s method of ZPD and found that most children had understood the word ‘difference’ and how to work it out after a number of examples were shown.

Unlike Piaget, who concentrated more on individual learning rather than providing adults with a role to help children learn, whereas Vygotsky believed that both other adults and culture play a major part in the development of a child’s cognitive ability (Schaffer, 2004, p.90). However Vygotsky constantly mentions how children develop with guidance and help from other adults but does not state how they individually develop (Schaffer 2004, p.215). He failed to recognise how children are motivated to learn individually. Vygotsky focussed more on co-operative learning and little attention was given to individual learning.

Vygotsky never took development changes of a child into account. He viewed the child in the same way at the age of two and at the age of twelve. Also the ZPD has been critically analysed by researchers. They have found that teachers have control over a child’s thinking as they can ask questions that require certain answer which limits their learning. This kind of questioning is only suitable for children who are achieving below average. A teacher has to be extremely talented to successfully apply the ZPD and guide the children through a task instead of telling them what to do. However the ZPD cannot be applied to every child within a class as the teacher does not have sufficient amount of time to do so (Schaffer 2004, p.217).

A final criticism is that Vygotsky failed to take the emotional aspects of a child into account. He did not recognise what happens when a child cannot complete a task or gets something wrong. If a child continuously gets something wrong, does the child lose motivation or continue with the task and hope to succeed? A child goes through many forms of emotion when they are unsuccessful in a task or get something wrong however this has not been mentioned anywhere within Vygotsky’s theory. Likewise Piaget also failed to take the emotions of a child into account (Schaffer, 2004, p.218).

Vygotsky’s behaviour is particularly relevant to those who are concerned with the use of language as it can be crucial and interrelated with the action. Both Vygotsky and Piaget looked at preschool children in problem solving situations. Piaget believed that the self directed behaviour is egocentric and has a minimum relevance to a child’s cognitive growth however Vygotsky referred to it as private speech. Vygotsky believed that private speech grows through interactions with adults; they begin to use parent’s instructions to direct their own behaviour (Sólrún B. Kristinsdóttir, 2008).

Both Piaget and Vygotsky had a conflict when explaining that development theories should not be taught until the children are at the right development stage. Piaget believed that the children are the most important aspect of cognitive development which conflicted with Vygotsky’s zone of proximal development. However Vygotsky argued that the social environment can be of great help when it comes to cognitive development of the child. The social environment can help children adapt to new situations with ease. Both theorists had the same aim of finding out children think of ideas and translate them into speech.

Piaget discovered that children like to explore for themselves the way the world works and what it has to offer however Vygotsky wrote in Thought and Language that human mental activity is the result of learning. This led to Vygotsky believing that acquisition of language has the biggest influence on a child’s life.

Piaget had a huge emphasis on universal cognitive change and Vygotsky’s theory expected to have variable development depending on the cultural experiences a child has had. Piaget’s theory had an emphasis on the natural line whereas Vygotsky preferred the cultural line of development (Gallagher, 1999).

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