This essay will discuss the Behaviourist, Constructivist and Social Constructivists schools of thought in relation to the learning of young children. It will explain their origins, assumptions and nature. Furthermore, this essay will examine the strengths and weaknesses of each approach and personal analysis will specify which theory or theories best explain children’s learning.
Meggitt and Sunderland, (2003) concluded that cognitive development is the development of the mind - the part of the brain that is used for recognising, reasoning, knowing and understanding. Many specialists have studied this area of development over the years, including, Piaget (ADD YEARS, Bruner, Vygotsky and Skinner.
Piaget (1896-1980) is one of the most influential theorists on cognitive development. Piaget (1962) stated that as children develop and become more interested in the world around them their thinking adapts to make sense of new experiences – assimilation and accommodation. Assimilation is when new information is combined with existing knowledge and accommodation is when familiar information is changed to suit. Originally he based his observations on his own children and came to the conclusion that children develop through a series of stages. Piaget stated that these stages are the same for everybody, irrespective of their culture. According to Piaget (1970) development proceeds through maturation, which are the changes related to
biological development, which the environment has little influence over, and, adaptation which is the term used to describe the ways the child is influenced by its environment. He also stated that these structures consist of schemas, which are ways in which our knowledge is stored, rather like mental files, in which store the information we know about aspects of the world (Walkup, 2004).
Much has been said about the Piaget’s (Add YR) theories and the effect they
have on early years teaching and learning. His approaches had great
influence throughout the 1960’s, but have since been found to be inadequate in many ways when dealing with children,XXXX. Whitebread (1996) highlighted that Piaget’s (ADD YR) work has greatly contributed to the idea of a child’s active role in their learning and concluded his work is still valued in how we understand how children think and learn. When Piaget’s (ADD yr) ideas are used in the application to teaching and learning in the early years, the teacher role is to provide an environment that is rich in stimulation, enabling the child to explore for themselves. The Application of Piaget’s theories should include, the teacher providing the child with the opportunity to construct their own knowledge through their own experiences, use topics, relate something new to what the child already knows and in the use of construction kits and
toys to provide the means to explore and learn the properties of objects (Walkup, 2004). However, Driver and Bell (1986) argued that new information can be problematic at time to learners and that prior conceptions and experiences need to be examined to see where it best fits. .
Piaget has often been referred to as the pioneer of research into
cognitive development in children. His overall approach to understanding cognitive development was known as 'genetic epistemology', this was primarily due to his interest and knowledge that he developed in human organisms. His background was in both biology and philosophy and concepts from both of these disciplines influenced his theories of child development. According to Piaget there are four development stages (cognitive structures);
sensorimotor, preoperations, concrete operations and formal operations. The first stage is the Sensorimotor stage, this is from approximately 0 - 2 years, the child has to learn to organise and interpret sensory information and to co-ordinate motor action. The first step is the reduction of the infants' egocentricity to the point where it can distinguish between 'me' and 'not me'. Another milestone during this period is the development of object constancy. The second stage is the Preoperational stage, from approximately 2 - 7 years. The child's egocentricity is gradually reducing, but its operations on the environment are limited. They are unable to think in terms of logical concepts such as conversation and they are unable to decentre. The Concrete Operational stage, from approximately 7 - 11 years; the child is able to undertake adult-style cognitive operations, but these are mainly limited to targets that exist in material form in the world. The final stage that Piaget refers to is the Formal Operational stage, this starts at approximately 11 years. The child is now fully decentred and can undertake abstract reasoning and perform logical operations.
The theoretical model, which Piaget applied to his theories, was the concept of Schema. Schemas are evolving structures which change from one stage of cognitive development to the next, for example the very first schema is in which an infant develops the 'body-schema' when it is able to differentiate between itself and the outside world. Schemas, according to Piaget are developed through two processes; assimilation and accommodation. Through assimilation, the child takes a new experience and fits it into an existing schema, for example: all animals are called 'doggie'. Through accommodation, the child adjusts and existing schema to fit the nature of the environment, for example: cats can now be distinguished from dogs.
Vygotsky's theory of cognitive development took into account some of Piagets work, but moved the theory forward. It is far from the image of a child struggling to make cognitive sense of the world through problem solving and rules. Vygotsky stressed the importance of context in which learning takes place and the interaction of the learner with their peers. His main emphasis was on the way that culture influences the course of human development, and that through social interaction and language a child receives the motivation to develop. Vygotsky central concept of development is that of the Zone of Proximal Development (ZPD), this is the area of competence that a child is ready to develop into, if provided with the appropriate environmental and social stimulation, that the things children cannot learn on their own are able to learn with the appropriate help. This theory states that the child is provided with a form of scaffolding enabling the development of cognitive skills and understanding. Vygotsky's stages of development take into account the same age ranges but his theories are less structured than Piaget. From approximately 0 - 2 years ;Affiliation. From approximately 2 - 7 years; Play. From approximately 7 - 11 years; Play. And moving towards adulthood, approximately 11 years; the Peer group.
The theories of both Piaget and Vygotsky are used in the classroom today and are based around the concept of constructivism. Many pre-school and primary school methods of teaching are modelled on Piaget's theory and also steer towards previous research into child-centred education. Discovery learning and supporting the developing interests of the child are two primary instructional techniques, challenging the child's abilities but not presenting
information that is far beyond the child's level. The educational implications of Piaget are apparent in all four stages of development.
In the pre-operational stage the use of concrete props and visual aids to illustrate lessons, helps a child's understanding of what is being presented. Instructions are kept brief, using actions alongside words to avoid confusion and encouragement to manipulate physical objects such as the 'glass of water' experiment help the child to understand constant mass, whilst engaging in conversation about the experiment facilitates the child with the understanding of conversation and two-way logic which is needed in the next stage of development. At this stage a child is still very egocentric and therefore unable to grasp lessons about the world too far from its own experiences. Teaching resources in this early childhood stage range from cut out letters, drawings and clay to field trips and watching television.
During the concrete operational stage the use of visual aids and props still continues, especially when dealing with more sophisticated material, for example: time-lines for history lessons and three-dimensional models in science. Students are given the chance to manipulate objects and test out their ideas with simple scientific experiments and craftwork. During this stage the student becomes more able to decentre and discuss open-ended questions that stimulate thought.
Once in the final stage of development, the formal operations, students are encouraged to discuss social issues and given the opportunity to explore many hypothetical questions. Teaching at this stage covers broader concepts, not just facts and students work in pairs on a topic, encouraging them to explain how they solve problems. By this stage the students should have the ability to analyse and discuss.
Although Piaget has helped us to understand that a child learns through active experience, interaction and teacher intervention, his work has since been questioned by various theorists as too rigid, and that a child's development is not as structured into the defined stages as previously thought. Jerome Bruner (1966) believed that although the work of Piaget has greatly influenced the way in which children are taught, his work was strongly affected by the social climate in which he lived. Bruner also criticised Piaget's research stating that he used very little quantitative data, relied on the clinical interview and concentrated more on a child's mistakes rather than their success, and that children can be taught any subject at any age providing it was presented in a way that makes sense to them in the light of previous experience. Another critic of Piaget is Margaret Donaldson (1978), in which she dismisses the idea that children are as egocentric as claimed by Piaget and are not so limited in ability as the four stages of development suggest. Findings and research carried out by Donaldson have concluded that although she has questioned various areas of Piagets work, some of her findings are consistent with what he found, for example the pre-operational stage where a child cannot entertain the idea that an element of any task or
situation, whatever its nature, can belong at the same time to two or more categories or classes. What the child 'sees' is determined by how he thinks (Donaldson 1978, p59).
The theories of Piaget have influenced the move in the 1900's towards more child centred education with the establishment of schools such as Summerhill (1921), child centred education to the extreme, and the publication of the Plowden report (1967). These theories of cognition are used all over the world to facilitate children's understanding of social issues in the world in which they live. In the late 1960's a television programme was created for the children of Brazil, it has adapted and revised its model for individualised programming in more than 20 different countries. Sesame Street emerged amid cultural and
political turbulence in the United States, when the civil rights movement and the war on poverty brought issues such as homelessness and inner-city squalor to the national consciousness. During this time several studies showed that poorer children who were less prepared when they entered school tended to fall further and further behind their more privileged counterparts. Subsequent studies showed that young children who frequently watched the program were better prepared for school and had more developed skills than children who did not, regardless of social influences. The vice president for educational research, Charlotte Cole (1993) puts the programs success down to the original theories of cognitive development and simplicity and states, 'If you are learning to count by counting apples and you have never seen an apple, you are not going to absorb it as readily as you would if you were counting mangoes and they are indigenous to your country'.
This view incorporates the theories of Piaget and clearly shows the contribution to education that they have both made. As with any theory, if not taken to the extreme and incorporating recent research, it can be a great tool in the education of children today, from any culture or social background.