Constructivism 1: Piaget and Cognitive Development Theory Lecture
This chapter introduces the broad concept of Constructivism, explaining its origins and the reasons why it has been so influential in many different academic disciplines. It then explains what Piaget's Cognitive Development Theory is, including some key definitions and an outline of the different stages that he proposes in the cognitive development of the child. The chapter also discusses how this theory applies to education. Examples are provided to illustrate how the theory works out in practice. The strengths and limitations of this theory are explored. There are prompts for reflection which focus on key points and help you to relate this material to your own knowledge and experience. The reflection and example sections are very important dimensions of the chapter, because they help you to translate this theory into useful learning for yourself, and this will bring practical benefits for your learners in the classroom.
Learning objectives for this chapter
By the end of this chapter, you should be able to:
- Understand and explain clearly what Constructivism means
- Understand and explain clearly what Piaget's Cognitive Development Theory is
- Explain how this theory is applied to education
- Critically evaluate and discuss the strengths and limitations of this theory
- Link this theory to educational practice
What is Piaget's Cognitive Development Theory?
Jean Piaget (1896-1980) was a Swiss psychologist who investigated the way children develop. His background was in natural sciences and so he started with an emphasis on biological processes, including the genetic inheritance of the child. In this chapter, we will focus on his study of the way a child learns to think, i.e. the cognitive development of the child. Piaget also studied moral and social development, but we will concentrate on his most famous theory with its emphasis on cognition.
Piaget conducted a series of experiments to measure children's progress in different areas, including their cognitive and social skills. He wrote many books, and taken altogether, his work constitutes the first major theory of cognitive development. A key element in Piaget's research is the idea that children, like other animals, are born with reflexes that control behaviour, which are called "schemes" or "schemas". In the animal world, these schemes remain effective throughout the whole of life, but in the case of human beings, each infant starts to construct new schemes, based on the many experiences that he or she encounters. At birth, the human infant is helpless and has little control over its own body and mind. Over time, however, and with the support of carers and other adults, the child constantly absorbs new information, modifying its schemes and adapting itself to the world. The ability to learn is a fundamental part of what it means to be human, and this is what interested Piaget from the start.
Piaget was influenced by a wider theoretical notion called "Constructivism". It derives from the idea that knowledge is not something fixed and stable, but rather it is constructed step by step, and it is frequently changed, as individuals and groups continually try to make sense of the complex world around them. After completing a long series of observations, Piaget concluded that children's cognitive development follows a common pattern that is linear and cumulative in nature: in other words, one step leads into the next (Piaget, 1964). This pattern was described in a series of four stages: the sensorimotor, preoperational, concrete operational and formal operational. They can be summarised as follows:
Stage one: Sensorimotor
This lasts from birth until the age of 18-24 months. The child's body develops very fast in this stage, and as the body matures, the mind also grows with it. Initially, the child's movements are involuntary, such as sucking and grasping, and the child does not have any sense of itself or its relation to the world. It can only understand what it experiences directly through its senses. Gradually, however, the child learns to use the different parts of the body and coordinate movements to achieve its own goals. It becomes aware of its own existence, and understands the boundary between the self and 'other'. The grasping reflex is increasingly used to touch objects in the world. Through experimentation, the child learns to understand the connections between things, and through its actions: for example, by kicking its feet on the floor, or throwing toys, it practices perceptual-motor interactions. Towards the very end of this stage, the infant starts to develop language.
Stage two: Preoperational
This stage starts at the time when the toddler learns to use language. It occurs between the ages of 18 months and 24 months. and lasts until the age of 7 years. The child can refer to both real objects and symbols, using words, and images, and there is some use of memory and imagination. The child is egocentric, which means he or she is focused on his or her own view, and has trouble imagining the point of view of other people. The child engages in different kinds of play, including pretend play and the use of symbols. This stage is divided into several sub-stages. During the preconceptual thinking stage (age 2-4 years), the child can make mental representations of objects and recognise similarities between objects, such as size and colour, for example. During the intuitive stage (age 4-7 years), children ask a lot of questions, such as "Why …?" This shows that the child is aware of what he or she knows, but not aware of how they have gained this knowledge.
Stage three: Concrete operational
This stage lasts between the ages of 7 and 11 years. The child starts to develop a deeper understanding of the world, using abstract concepts such as number, length, weight, area etc. There is now an ability to classify objects, describe things in terms of a series and use measurements, as well as engage in thought experiments that are reversible. As one critic explains: "Thinking now is more flexible and abstract. Actions are still the main source of knowledge, but the actions now are mental" (Miller, 2014, p. 652).
Stage four: Formal operational
This stage starts at 12 years and lasts throughout adolescence and into adulthood. There is now an ability to use abstract concepts and to think logically, although not everyone wholly achieves this and applies these abilities in adulthood. The learner at this stage can form hypotheses based on rational thinking, and then test them out by thinking about them.
This theory of cognitive development holds that all children progress through these major stages, following this general sequence. It is therefore an incremental learning theory, whereby all children are assumed to build on previous stages of learning as they go along. Piaget was aware, however, that there is considerable variation and overlap in the learning of individual children, since some children progress faster than others along this path, and there can be a certain amount of overlap between the stages and sub-stages.
Spend some time closely observing a child under 18 months of age, and then a pre-school child over the age of 2 years. Ask the parent's permission to take a few notes. If you don't have permission to do this, observe some YouTube clips or other types of film of young children in natural surroundings. See if you can match the children's behaviour with the two major stages that Piaget identified.
Why do you think children love dressing up and pretending to be super heroes, monsters, princesses, etc.? What kind of games did you enjoy when you were a child? Can you work out how these games contributed to your cognitive development?
Some further terminology is associated with Piaget's constructivist approach to cognitive development. There is an assumption that cognitive development is all about adapting to the environment, and so the child must be able to deal with new things all the time. Piaget's theory describes the child's growing ability to develop and refine concepts in terms of a cyclical process of assimilation (or taking in information through experiences and fitting it into existing cognitive structures) and accommodation (or adjusting our existing cognitive structures to take account of this new information). As we saw above, schemas are constructed by the child, as far as his or her physical and psychological maturity allow: "This process necessarily brings the child into a state of disequilibrium, in which old and new information contradict each other, which then turns into a state of equilibrium, when the child has managed to assimilate and accommodate new information, so that there is no longer any conflict (Neaum, 2016, p. 122).
How does Cognitive Development Theory apply to Education?
This theory has had a significant impact on the way education has evolved in the last hundred years or so. The major stages described by Piaget map very well onto the UK school education system, so that for example the sensorimotor stage equates to nursery, the preoperational stage equates to Early Years (with a distinction between pre-school and reception matching the pre-conceptual and intuitive sub-stages), the concrete operational stage equates to primary or junior school, and the formal operational covers everything from secondary school level onwards, including further and higher education.
Piaget's theory focuses attention on the needs of the child, and encourages educators to allow children space to engage in concrete experiences and explore the world around them. It has been noted that "Piaget's work can be seen to provide a rationale for play as an effective way for children to learn and develop" (Neaum, 2016, p. 122). Piaget himself, with his emphasis on cognition, sees play as the mechanism through which children acquire concepts, and as an important opportunity for the child's psychological development. As a child's language develops, the child can engage in more and more complex types of thinking and speaking. He notes that "symbolic play frequently deals with unconscious conflicts: sexual interests, defense against anxiety, phobias, aggression or identification with aggressors" (Piaget, 2000, p. 62).
One of the key features of Piaget's theory is its appreciation of the importance of concept formation in children's learning. According to Piaget (1964), children can only think about concrete objects when they are very young, and it takes some time for them to learn to develop abstract thinking, including thinking about things that are not actually in front of them (Egan, 2012). This learning takes place through interaction with the environment, with objects in that environment, and with people who interact with the child. Since all three of these forms of contact are necessary if the child is to develop along the normal pattern suggested by Piaget, it follows that education should provide ample opportunities to learn in these different ways. This has implications for the design of indoor and outdoor learning spaces, for example, which should allow large and small scale manipulation of objects, opportunities to exercise the body, plenty of social interaction, and a large variety of objects and spaces that encourage symbolic play.
This theory also has major implications for teaching styles. Piaget's model assumes that learning takes place from the "inside out", based on these innate developmental stages (Rose, 2005, p. 140). In Victorian schools, for example, education was highly disciplined and very much led by the teacher, or in other words, was based on an "outside in" type of learning. This direct teaching style, which remains popular in many parts of the world today, requires children to listen passively and follow instructions. This teaching and learning style often has classrooms were arranged with the focus on the front of the room, where the teacher stands, while the children are all lined up in rows facing the front. Piaget's theory, however, implies that children learn best in a multi-sensory environment, and that they need to engage with the world, with each other, and with the teacher in a variety of different ways. Classroom organisation reflecting this model of teaching and learning is often less formal, with seating arranged in groups, and parts of the classroom devoted to more active types of learning, often with toys, books and other learning aids.
One of Piaget's most famous tests of cognitive development relates to the pre-operational stage. This experiment has been done many times since he first suggested it, and it shows the difference between children who are able to hold onto the concept of liquid volume, even while some aspects of perception are changed. The experimenter takes some liquid, such as milk or water, and pours the same amount of liquid into a tall, thin glass, and a short, fat glass. The child is asked which of the two glasses contains the largest amount of liquid. An adult knows that the shape of the glass is irrelevant in determining the volume of the liquid.
Some children can detect that the amount of liquid is the same, while others focus only on the aspect of height, and believe that the taller glass has more liquid in it than the shorter, fatter glass. In Piaget's view, this shows that some children can conserve the idea of liquid volume in their mind, while other children centre on just one aspect of the problem, namely the visual dimension of height that they see before them. At first, the child cannot take account of height and width of the glass at the same time, or understand the way in which liquid can have different shapes but the same overall volume.
This experiment illustrates why it is so important to allow children to observe physical objects and materials in the world, and try out their own experiments. It may take many hours of play, and many conversations with adults, before a child progresses into the higher stage, and can accommodate the fact that two glasses with very different appearances can hold the same amount of liquid.
There are some dangers in applying this theory in an extreme way. It often happens that individual children appear to fall out of the expected pattern of development. If education is perceived as a rigid system that channels all children through the same development process, there are bound to be some children who progress faster, and some who are much slower, or who progress only in some areas, and not others. The challenge for educators is to find strategies to encourage all children, while at the same time dealing appropriately with different needs. This is not just an issue that is traditionally defined as "Special Needs" is education. Each child is unique, and there are many factors that affect children's cognitive development, including the home environment and individual attributes of each child including personality, confidence, past experiences, social connections, etc.
In some classrooms, a process of streaming into different ability levels occurs, and this can help educators to focus more specifically on different stages of development. If streaming this is obvious and permanent, however, it can result in some children being labelled as weak students, with consequent negative impact on their self-esteem. In most classrooms in the UK, all children are taught together, but there is a conscious policy to deliver teaching in a child-centred way. This means, in effect, lots of one-to-one conversations between adults and children, and a commitment to adapt materials and styles to match each child's precise needs at each moment, bearing in mind that children develop all the time, and their needs will evolve through each school year.
Mixing children into temporary groups will encourage interaction between children who are at slightly different stages in their cognitive development. Talking with them about joint tasks will reveal differences in the way they understand the world and the task in hand. This, in turn, encourages all children in the group to see things from multiple perspectives, which is a key element in cognitive development.
Examine a teaching context (either from memory or by actually observing a classroom activity in real life or online).
How much of the time are the learners actively engaged with the world around them, and how much of the time are they passive learners?
Can you identify instances where learners are developing their cognitive capabilities? How does this happen? What role does the teacher play?
Is there anything you could do to make sure that your own teaching encourages cognitive development in your learners?
What are the strengths and limitations of this theory?
The main strength of Piaget's theory is that it provides a framework which allows educational professionals to map and measure children's attainment in a consistent way. This is important for planning a curriculum that has clear goals and a logical progression, and which fits with the natural learning of the child. In the Nursery and Early Years levels especially, the ideas and frameworks that Piaget presents are very useful. They explain why, at particular ages, young children prefer different types of activities. They offer some guidance on designing specific learning activities to help develop the cognitive skills that are considered appropriate for each stage.
Another major strength of the theory is that it demonstrated some valuable research methods that educational psychologists have continued to refine in the years after his original work was done. Asking children to make judgements about objects in relation to each other, for example, is a good way of finding out how children think their way through perceptual problems. Many of Piaget's tests - for example, asking children about whether a person or an object is visible or hidden to another person - are still used today.
There are some quite important limitations in Piaget's theory. Some educationalists agree with the idea of a cumulative progression in child cognitive development, but they think Piaget's supposedly universal stages are too rigid, and that children's development occurs in a modular rather than a linear pattern (Wood, 1998). This means that educators should not assume that there are fixed milestones which apply to every child. Instead, there should be an expectation that children will develop in different directions, some prioritising one type of development while others prioritise a different type. An element of variability can even occur in the same child, since researchers have noted that a child can demonstrate a certain competence on one particular day, but not necessarily on another. All of this suggests that judgements about stages of cognitive development based on observation and experiments against a very fixed framework may not be reliable (Miller, 2014).
It is also quite difficult to work out precisely what is going on in the mind of a child, and educators may easily jump to incorrect conclusions about young learners if they are too focused on Piaget's supposedly universal, linear view of child development. Recent studies, using the metaphor of a computer to illustrate what goes on in the mind of a child, have noted that children's mental processing speed is much slower than that of adults. Because of this, they are not able to weigh up complex sequences of information and hold it in their minds long enough to understand the problems that they are set in an educational test. Depending on how a test is designed and delivered, there may simply be too much information for a child to process at the start of the test. If a task is presented in a complex way, or if the child is rushed, then the task may not be performed very well, even if the child does understand the principles involved. This means that testing based on Piaget's theory might undervalue the abilities that the child actually has. There are implications here both for empirical research into child cognitive development, and for assessment regimes in practical education contexts.
Finally, it has been suggested that there might be some misreading of Piaget's theory that introduces bias in the way child development is understood. Piaget's theory of cognitive development can be misinterpreted as a focus on individual experimentation with little attention to social interaction (DeVries, 1997). In fact, however, the quality of social interactions is a key part of Piaget's view of education, and one of the factors that helps children move from one stage to the next. It has also been noted that at the formal operational stage especially, there are differences in achievement across cultures, whether these be defined by social class, ethnic values, or other variables. It must be conceded, also, that it may not be easy to apply this theory in some learning contexts where the relationship between teachers and students is hierarchical and rather formal, for example, or where there is little physical space and/or equipment for experimentation and imaginative play. One critic notes that the general thrust of Piaget's theory is widely accepted, but "developmentalists now consider context to be a primary variable to consider in answering questions about developmental processes and outcomes" (Schaffer and Kipp, 2014, p. 228).
Based on your observation of children and young people, how convincing do you find Piaget's stages?
Can you think of any child who does not seem to fit the model that Piaget's universal model? Or do you think this theory covers all children you have encountered so far?
How should educators respond to variation in children's development within a single class or group?
How can this theory be linked to practice?
We saw above how the insights reported by Piaget have helped educational professionals to design learning environments and teaching styles that allow the younger child to experiment with objects, play in different environments, and have contact with other children and adults. This may be the most obvious and direct implication of this theory of cognitive development which is linked with teaching practice today.
It should always be remembered that constructivist theory assumes an element of progression. It is not sufficient just to fill a nursery with toys and let the children run around doing whatever they like all the time: there is a role for educators, parents and carers, in making sure that the opportunities on offer to the child are pitched at the right level to encourage the assimilation and accommodation process. There is also a need to engage in conversation with learners, asking questions, checking the child's understanding and offering new information or alternative perspectives so that the child constantly has the opportunity to construct his or her own schemas and revise them.
Hamida is a 20-month-old girl who attends a busy pre-school class. She is generally a happy child, although she is quite shy in new situations, or with new people. Hamida's mother is concerned about some episodes that she describes as "tantrums", when Hamida shouts and stamps her feet, sometimes hitting out at others or throwing toys to the floor. She has asked for some advice on how to respond to this behaviour, since Hamida's mother finds it unacceptable, and wants to avoid conflict in the home and in pre-school classes.
This behaviour looks like aggression, suggesting a problem in social relationships with carers and other children. In fact, however, it is more likely to be the result of Hamida's sense of frustration when she cannot understand something, or when she wants to achieve some goal or other, but does not yet have the knowledge or skill to achieve it. Piaget's concepts of assimilation and accommodation are a useful lens through which to view this situation. Hamida may be using a particular schema, for example trying to position a teddy by just dropping it on the floor, as she does with her bricks. She finds that the toy falls over and this is not what she wants. She has not yet discovered that setting it down slowly will keep it in the upright position. Hamida may also lack the fine hand-eye co-ordination that is required to balance the teddy on the floor.
Once she has made the connection between the speed that she uses in placing the object, and the final position, she will adjust her schema and the teddy will be positioned in the way she intended. This will then show that she has recognised some physical differences between bricks and teddies, and has accommodated these differences in her new playing behaviour. At this point, Hamida will not be frustrated or angry, and the behaviour that her mother is worried about will simply disappear.
Piaget's theory helps to show that Hamida's frustration is a natural and necessary stage that she needs to go through, as she notices key properties of objects and the world, assimilates any differences, and accommodates this new knowledge. Hamida's mother should not worry unduly about this, but simply wait a moment until Hamida calms down, and then talk to her about her toys and games.
Most of this chapter has dealt with cognitive development in Early Years and at Primary levels, but how does Piaget's theory link in with secondary education? Piaget's concept of disequilibrium or cognitive conflict still applies at this level. Learners still need to encounter a gap between what they already know, and some new material that they have so far not been able to grasp. At secondary level, there is often a high amount of information that teachers try to impart to learners, but this material may be either too close to what the learners already know, or too far from what they already know. If it is too close, there is no incongruity to encourage new concept forming, but if it is too far, then students may not be able to even start the process of assimilation and accommodation. Finding the right balance for all learners is therefore the key to encouraging cognitive development at secondary level.
It is clear, then, that if teachers are to do this successfully, they need to know exactly where their learners are now, in their stage of development. This can be established in formal testing, but most teachers rely on their knowledge of individual students, and they constantly talk to each student and evaluate the types of answers that students give. The formal operational stage of development (age 12 and upwards) requires learners to operate at a hypothetical level. As Schunk (2012, p. 238) explains: "the formal operational stage extends concrete operational thought. No longer is thought focused exclusively on tangibles." In any one class, the learners' reasoning ability may vary considerably. This is why secondary teachers will devise a range of different tasks, some of which require simple knowledge such as facts, figures and rules, and others which require abstract thinking and the construction of a reasoned argument. To illustrate this with an analogy, there is a difference between an essay title that requires a student to simply summarise the plot of a Shakespeare play, and one that asks a student to decide whether a particular character in the play is a good role model for young adults today, for example. The first essay will contain a number of straightforward observations derived from the play itself, with a certain amount of planning and re-wording involved. It will list specific points in chronological order and take the form of a simple narrative. The second essay, on the other hand, does require some factual knowledge of the play, but it brings in a whole new dimension of comparison and argumentation involving an entirely different historical period and social context. The second essay is much more challenging, and requires hypothetical reasoning, and the use of abstract concepts and multi-dimensional applications. There are right and wrong answers to the first task, since the plot is based on fixed and definite elements of the play's structure. There are many different ways of approaching the second question, however, and there is no obvious right or wrong answer. The student has to define the elements of the character's personality, actions or thinking that he or she perceives as being suitable (or not) for a role model in today's world. Evidence has to be drawn from the play, and most important of all, an argument has to be constructed to persuade the reader.
In any secondary subject area, locate a GCSE or A-level examination paper (or equivalent) and analyse it carefully.
How much of the paper is devoted to concrete tasks, and how much to hypothetical reasoning tasks?
Think of some teaching strategies that you might use to help students answer each type of question.
Do you think some subjects require more hypothetical thinking than others? If so, which ones? Does this have implications for the way different subjects should be taught?
This chapter has introduced Constructivism, and Piaget's theory of cognitive development in children particularly. It has focused mainly on the earlier years of education, which is where this theory has had the greatest influence. You should be able to observe how a number of key insights from this theory are still being used to underpin education today, particularly at pre-school and early primary levels. Such theories are useful because they help to explain why things are done in the way that they are, and they can help you to unpack some of the challenges that you and your learners face every day in school or college. We have noted the strengths of this theory, and its weaknesses, including some objections that have arisen due to later understandings of the brain and the way it processes information.
You may not agree with everything that Piaget's theory contains. Indeed, developmental psychology has moved on quite considerably since the time when Piaget conducted his famous experiments. New technologies and different experiments have shown that the path of cognitive development is not quite as monolithic and universal as Piaget first claimed. There is still more work to be done in this area, but educationalists will always be indebted to Piaget for his insight into the way children's knowledge is incrementally constructed, and his insistence on active learner engagement, and child-centred education, rather than a dependence on direct teaching methods which cast learners in a passive role.
By the time you have finished reading this chapter, and thinking about the issues raised in the examples and reflection sections, you should
- understand what 'constructivism' means in the context of educational research
- understand Piaget's theory of cognitive development, including the four main stages
- be able to use the technical terminology associated with this theory, such as assimilation, accommodation, cognitive conflict and equilibrium to explain how this theory applies to education.
- relate this theory to educational practice at different levels from infancy to adulthood.
Now you should complete the 'hands-on scenario' at the end of this chapter. Use what you have learned in this chapter to complete the short task described there.
DeVries, R. (1997) Piaget's social theory. Educational Researcher 26, pp. 4-17.
DfE (2014) Statutory Framework for the early years foundation stage: Setting the standards for learning, development and care for children from birth to five. London: Department for Education. Available at: https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/early-years-foundation-stage-framework--2 [Accessed 16 October 2016].
Egan, K. (2012) Primary Understanding: Education in Early Childhood. Abingdon: Routledge.
Miller, P. H. (2014) Piaget's theory: Past, Present and Future. In U. Goswami (Ed.), The Wiley-Blackwell Handbook of Childhood Cognitive Development. Chichester/Oxford: Wiley/Blackwell, pp. 649-672.
Neaum, S. (2016) Child Development for Early Years Students and Practitioners. Third edition. London: Sage.
Piaget, J. (1964) The Early Growth of Logic in the Child. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul.
Piaget, J. (2000) The Psychology of the Child. [Originally 1966, in French]. London: Basic Books.
Rose, D. (2005) Democratising the classroom: a literacy pedagogy for the new generation. Journal of Education 37, pp. 131-167.
Schaffer, D. R. and Kipp, K. (2014) Developmental Psychology: Childhood & Adolescence. Ninth edition. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth Cengage Learning
Schunk, D. H. (2012) Learning Theories: An Educational Perspective. Sixth edition. Boston. MA: Pearson.
Wood, D. (1998) How Children Think and Learn. Second edition. Oxford: Blackwell.
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