Take a look at these concepts that are likely to appear on the test.
Jean Piaget’s Theory of Cognitive Development
Jean Piaget (1896-1980) was a Swiss psychologist who is best known for this theory of cognitive development in children. Piaget proposed through his theory that intelligence in children grows and develops through stages and he also believed that children played an active role in the learning process. Piaget believed that children learn by interacting with their environment, continually adding new knowledge and building on previous knowledge. Building on previous knowledge is known as schema.
Schemas are categories of knowledge that help people understand the world around them. As children experience new things, their schema is changed. For example, if a child has an experience with a house cat, the child might think that all cats are small, fluffy, and eat food from a can. Then maybe a year later the child visits the zoo for the first time and sees a tiger. The child will absorb this new information and modify his/her understanding of cats.
Children adapt throughout the learning process. Three parts of adaptation are:
- Assimilation- The process of taking in new information into schemas that already exist. In the cat example, seeing the cat at the house and at the zoo and naming it “cat” is an example of assimilating that animal into the child’s cat schema, or what the child knows about cats.
- Accommodation- The process of changing existing schemas when new information is learned. This involves changing existing schemas and developing new schemas. In the cat example, accommodation happened when the child saw a different type of cat at the zoo and understood not all cats look like a house cat.
- Equilibration- The balance between assimilation and accommodation. As children grow developmentally, Piaget proposes that it is important to maintain a balance between applying previous knowledge (assimilation) and changing thoughts (accommodation).
Piaget’s theory was considered revolutionary at this time because until this point children were not considered unique in terms of development and were treated like small adults. Piaget’s theory proposed that children go through four stages of cognitive development:
- Sensorimotor stage (0-2 years)
This stage is takes place over a short period of time, but involves a huge amount of cognitive growth. During this stage a child will grow through experiences with senses, motor responses, and basic reflexes. Children will learn by looking, listening, sucking, and learning to grasp objects. At this stage, children learn object permanence which is a major milestone during this stage.
- Preoperational stage (2-7 years)
Children who are going through this stage begin to think symbolically and begin to use language to describe objects. Language development is the major development during this stage. At this time, children are very self-centered and struggle with logic. For example, a teacher might divide a piece of play-dough into two pieces and ask the child to choose a piece. The teacher might have one piece of play-dough rolled into a ball, while the other is smashed flat. Even though the pieces are the same amount of play-dough, the child will most likely choose the flat piece because it appears larger.
- Concrete operational stage (7-11 years)
Children begin to think logically during this stage. They begin to organize their thoughts better and in the example above, would understand that each piece of playdough has the same amount of playdough, just in different shapes. Children in this stage become less self-centered and begin to consider how others may feel in a given situation.
- Formal operational stage (12+ years)
At this stage children begin to think abstractly and consider morals, ethics, and social and political issues. At this point, children are capable of figuring out multiple ways to fix a problem and they think more scientifically about their environment.
It is important for teachers to consider Piaget’s Theory when planning learning experiences to meet the needs of the various stages of student’s cognitive development. Teachers should:
- Encourage peer learning. This is even more important for students in the preoperational stage (2-7 years), but is valuable at every stage. When students learn from their peers they learn to listen carefully and thoughtfully to different perspectives which provides long term benefits.
- Make learning opportunities out of mistakes. Piaget proposed that children developed knowledge best by trying things and making mistakes. Mistakes can frustrate students and you as the teacher, but teachers should work to guide students towards a different conclusion. When children make mistakes, that demonstrates that the child is actively interacting with his/her environment and trying new things.
- Focus on the process of learning as well as the result. Focus on the steps it took to get to the finished product, rather than being “right” or “wrong”.
- Respect student’s interests, abilities, and limits. Children will reach milestones at different points; rather than pressuring students to change their learning style, change your lessons to fit their needs. Piaget was an advocate for giving children opportunities to discover new things and offering as many hands-on activities as possible.
Lev Vygotsky’s Social Development Theory
Lev Vygotsky was a Russian psychologist who, like Piaget, proposed a theory about child development, but Vygotsky’s theory was based more on social rather than intellectual development. The Social Development Theory proposes that social interaction comes before development and consciousness and cognition are the end product of socialization. Vygotsky’s Theory includes:
- Social interaction- Vygotsky says that learning happens before development and that it begins on the social level (parent to child) rather than on the individual level (inside the child).
- MKO (more knowledgeable other)- Anyone who has a better understanding or a higher ability level than the child. A teacher is an example of an MKO, but the MKO could also be a peer or even technology.
- ZPD (zone of proximal development)- The ZPD is the measure between a student’s ability to complete a task with support and the student’s ability to complete the task independently. Vygotsky proposes that this is where learning occurs for a child.
Traditionally many teachers instruct students by lecturing or giving information to students. Vygotsky’s theory opposes this type of instruction and suggests that rather than lecturing, teachers should have an active role in learning and students should have more say in planning and delivering instruction. Teachers can collaborate with students to help develop meaningful instruction and at that point learning becomes a more meaningful experience for students and teachers.