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Piagets constructivist theory explains human learning behaviour as an individual's attempt to construct meaning about the world around them. A central component of the theory is the active participation of the learner. This means that knowledge is not merely verbally transmitted from the teacher to the pupil but must be constructed and reconstructed by the pupil in order for the knowledge to be understood. This is opposed to them being a 'vessel to be filled with facts' (as cited by Dawson, 2010). As a child develops and interacts with their environment, knowledge is invented and reinvented, suggesting that the process of development comes before the process of learning. In addition, constructivism taps into a child's innate curiosity about the world, suggesting that if a child is curious, they will be more willing to learn.
Piaget argued that if a child's experience of the world is a repeated one, it fits easily - or is assimilated - into the child's existing cognitive structures in order for mental equilibrium to be maintained. This process, which he named assimilation, is balanced by the process of accommodation. If the experience is new, on the other hand, the child loses equilibrium and becomes in a state of disequilibrium. This leads to the development of schemas - mental representations of the world based on previous experience - in order to accommodate the new information for the future. This way, children are able to construct more adequate cognitive structures. It has been suggested that learning takes place when a state of equilibrium has been reached (Curtis & O'Hagen, 2003).
Piaget's theory emphasises that children are unable to learn until they have reached the required developmental stage (Brainerd, 1978). In a classroom, a teacher should attempt to challenge a child's abilities but not present information that is too beyond their cognitive ability. This implies that the ability to learn and understand different difficulty levels of content is related to their stage of intellectual development hence they are unable to understand that of a higher stage. An example of this is maths, where children of a young age are able to comprehend addition and subtraction but may be able to, not always though, comprehend statistics when older. The reason for this will be explained later on.
At the centre of Piaget's theory is the concept of four cognitive stages that are universal in all children. Piaget suggested that movement from one stage to the next happens when a child has reached an appropriate level of cognitive development and through the exposure to relevant experiences. Each stage differing in both the amount of information acquired and the quality of knowledge and understanding gained. The four stages are the sensorimotor, preoperational, concrete operational and formal operational stage.
The sensorimotor stage occurs in children from birth to around two years and is based around motor and sensory schemas. Piaget believed that a child's knowledge is restricted to their motor responses caused by sensory material. The infant is able to use their innate skills such as grasping, looking and sucking in order to understand their environment and to gain control over their own movements.
The aim at this stage is to achieve a sense of object permanence, enabling children to overcome, for example, initial separation anxiety with the realisation that if their mum left the room, she would return shortly. Before object permanence is achieved however, Piaget claimed that children don't realise that objects still exist even when they aren't visible - 'If an object cannot be seen, it does not exist' (Piaget, 1926 as cited by Harris and Butterworth, 2002).
An effective way of helping a child to achieve object permanence would be through playful interaction through games such as 'peek-a-boo'.
In support, Piaget studied the effects of object permanence, in particular search behaviour, in infants between four and ten months old. Between four and eight months old, children were observed to be able to search for and retrieve partially hidden but not fully hidden objects. This study showed that young children are unable to master the concept of object permanence, supporting Piaget's claim. Furthermore, the researchers studied the effects of a child's search behaviour when an object was moved between two places. It was observed that children between the ages of nine and ten months became distressed when they were unable to locate the object in the original place, suggesting that young children do not understand this concept. However in older infants, when an object is covered, the children will continue to search for the object with the realisation that it still exists even though it cannot be seen (Harris and Butterworth, 2002).
The preoperational stage, when the child is around two to seven years old, is characterised by an expansion of vocabulary, symbols and images and an increased development of self-awareness. According to Lefrancois (1995 as cited in Piaget's stages of cognitive development), children respond to related objects as though they are the same. For example, children perceive all women to be "Mummy" and all men to be "Daddy". Furthermore, a child's thoughts are believed to be transductive, meaning they will make comparisons between one object and another (Carlson & Buskist, 1997). For example, a child may ask, "If I eat spinach, will I become big and strong (like Popeye)?" In addition, Piaget characterised all children in this stage as being egocentric, with the tendency to view the world from only their perspective with the inability to take into account the perspective of others. An example of this is a child hiding their face when in trouble due to the belief that as they can't see the adult, the adult won't be able to see them.
Piaget observed the concept of egocentrism through the "Three Mountains" experiment (Piaget & Inhelder, 1956 as cited by Trueman & Rowley, 2010) in which children were asked to perceive what a teddy bear would see from different viewpoints. A child was sat on one side of the model with a teddy sat opposite and moved to different sides of the mountains. They were then asked to choose a picture of what the teddy would be able to see. Piaget children were unable to perceive a viewpoint that differed from their own, until the age of seven, supporting the egocentric concept.
Another problem children face in the preoperational stage is the lack of conservation - the knowledge that quantity is unrelated to appearance and arrangement of objects. This occurs due to a child's thoughts being perceptive opposed to logic and reason. For example, a child of four may be shown a number of marbles and then say that the number has increased or decreased when the marbles are spread out. However, Donaldson & McGarrigle (1974), showed through the "Naughty Teddy" experiment that children as young as four were able to recognise that the number did not change regardless of the appearance, suggesting that conservation is understood earlier than Piaget proposed.
Piaget proposed that the theory of conservation is not mastered until the next stage of development. Also, in the preoperational stage it is suggested that children will approach problems using simple, heuristic methods, however during the third stage, the concrete operational stage, between the approximate ages of seven and eleven; children are able to use refer to logic as justifications for answers to problems (Harris & Butterworth, 2002). Furthermore, children are able to perform mathematical operations such as addition and subtraction and also counting and measurement but in relation to objects rather than ideas. Children are also able to categorise items and think about two of these concepts simultaneously. In addition, children begin to lose their egocentricity, becoming able to understand the perceptions of others (Piaget & Inhelder, 1956).
The final stage, the formal operational stage, is said to begin at around twelve to fifteen years, continuing into adulthood. This stage is characterised by the ability overcome being perceptual thinkers and instead being able to think hypothetically and be able use logic to solve problems. However Piaget proposed that some fail to reach this stage due to the lack of relevant experience required to develop to this depth cognitively. This is supported by a study on adolescent high school students (Kuhn, Langer, Kohberg & Hann, 1977) which found that only a third have the capability to reach the formal operational stage. This could be an explanation as to why some people are able to solve more complicated mathematical questions, whilst others are not able to do so due to not reaching this stage of development.
Piaget's theory of constructivism impacts education because a developmentally appropriate curriculum has to be devised that increases student's cognitive growth. This removes the focus from the teacher and places it upon the student and their own learning, meaning that resources must be adapted for this alternative style of learning. Furthermore, the role of the teacher is fundamentally important, according to Piaget's theory, as the teacher does not act as a dictator but more as someone who coaches and encourages students to develop their understanding and therefore their learning.
In order to create a classroom environment that supports Piaget's theory, teachers must understand the developmental stages that children go through and deliver a curriculum children are able to comprehend, based on that level.
A teacher of children, who have reached the preoperational stage, must understand that children are egocentric at this point, therefore should avoid lessons about different religions and cultures that are too different from the child's own experience and instead focus on discussing the child's own experiences. In addition, as conservation is also a difficulty at this stage, teachers should encourage students to play with clay, water or sand in order for them to understand how the manipulation of objects such as these can retain a constant mass whilst changing their appearance. This type of activity should be actively engaging with the pupil's discussing their own experiences when manipulating objects. Furthermore, teachers should provide many opportunities for children to experience the world i.e. through field trips or teaching words to describe what they are doing, touching or tasting, in order to be the build a foundation for language development and conceptual learning. Piaget said that children should interact with their environment, therefore teachers should approach learning through physical practice, opposed to the verbal transmission of knowledge, ultimately serving as the building blocks for later development (Huitt, 2007).
A teacher of children, who have reached the concrete operational stage, are now able to use the Piaget's concept of assimilation to build upon the methods used in the preoperational stage, due to being more cognitively able. Although they should continue to use props and visual aids, these can now be used when dealing with difficult concepts such a History, where children can be presented with a timeline of events or 3D models in science to represent objects such as the Planets. As children begin to lose their egocentrism, they can now view the world from the perspective of others. Therefore, when reading a story, teachers can ask students' how they would feel if they were a particular character. They could also use stories or characters when approaching mathematical problems for example, "Bugsy bought five carrots for 8p each, what was the total cost?" These examples could be assimilated into the children's knowledge as a starting point and can be referred to when teaching more complicated material. (Huitt, 2007)
Teachers of children at the formal operational stage should build upon the teaching strategies appropriate for students at the concrete operational stage. This could be done by using visual support such as charts and illustrations as well as simple but sophisticated graphs and diagrams. They should also use well-organised materials that offer step by step explanations. At this stage, children are able to use logic as a justification for answers to problems; therefore teachers should encourage students to explain how they solve problems. An appropriate way to do this, whilst actively challenging the students at the same time would be to set an essay, asking them to compare and contrast issues from different perspectives or set maths problems that can be solved using more than one method. Furthermore, students could be asked to work in pairs with one student acting as the problem , describing the steps used to solve a problem and the other student should act as a listener, ensuring that all steps have been mentioned and that everything is logical. (Huitt, 2007)
In comparing and contrasting methods of classroom assessment in both traditional and constructivist methods of teaching, both have similarities and differences. Assessment in traditional occurs almost entirely through tests. However constructivists prefer assessments to have a more 'real life' application. Holt and Willard-Holt (2000) place emphasise on observations and interactive assessment. Rather than being a process carried out by an 'instructor', it is seen as an interaction between both the instructor and student. The instructor must actively engage with the individual in tasks and then share feedback for possible improvement. The feedback formed from the assessment serves as a foundation for further development. Therefore assessment and learning are viewed as being interlinked and not separate processes (Hold & Willard-Holt, 2000).
Although Piaget's constructivist theory has a major influence over a child's cognitive development and education, there are some criticisms that must be looked at in order to determine the reliability of the theory. A major criticism is that it has been shown that the theory underestimates the ability of children. For example, in terms of perspective taking, Donaldson (1978) showed through the 'Policeman task' (as cited by Trueman & Rowley, 2010) that children are able to correctly take the perspective of another as young as 3-4 ages old. This is in contrast to Piaget who said that this isn't possible until the concrete operational stage, occurring at 7 to 11 years old. This theory can also be criticised for showing beta cultural bias as it ignores the differences between different cultures when the differences may have a significant effect. For example, in some areas, differences in schooling and literacy may affect the rates of development and these differences are not taken into account in Piaget's theory. The theory may also be criticised for being too reductionist as it reduces the constructivist theory down to the four stages and therefore does not take into account other factors that may affect cognitive development such as having a disability.
In conclusion, Piaget's theory and other research have provided educators with a deeper understanding of child development that enables them to develop a curriculum that enhances students' logical and conceptual growth from primary school level into early adulthood. From experiments such hiding objects from view, 'the three mountains task' along with his four stages concept, Piaget showed that children's minds differ to that of adults due to the qualitative content of their thoughts, even though both retain the same knowledge, experience and processing power. In addition, it must be recognised that parents can enhance their child's early innate abilities through environmental factors such as playfully interaction along with giving them the opportunity to explore the world they live in. It is these skills learnt as an infant that, as Piaget says, provide the foundations, along with the balance of accommodation and assimilation, for further learning to occur.