Many psychologists were not happy with behaviourism. There was a belief among some that there was too much focus on single events, stimuli, and overt behaviour. This school faced great criticisms, which eventually lead to the development of the Cognitive theory. Most Cognitive theorists now portray learning more as constructing knowledge from the information one receives, rather than directly receiving that information from the outside world. Constructivism is the label given to such a view, which falls somewhere between cognitive and humanistic views. It suggests that the learner is much more actively involved in a joint enterprise with the teacher in creating new meanings. The learner as an active participant in the learning process has been emphasised in such terms as selective attention, processor of information, learning as a generative process, reconstruction in memory, and active retrieval. The following are some of the principles of constructivism:
1. Learning is a search for meaning. Therefore learning must start with the issues around which students are actively trying to construct meaning.
2. Meaning requires understanding wholes as well as parts. Parts must be understood in the context of wholes. Therefore, the learning process focuses on primary concepts, not isolated facts.
3. In order to teach well, we must understand the mental models that students used to perceive the world and the assumptions they make to support those models.
4. The purpose of learning is for the individual to construct his or her meaning, not just memorise the “right” answers. Since education is inherently interdisciplinary, the only valuable way of measuring learning is to make the assessment part of the learning process, ensuring it provides students with the information on the quality of their learning.
It all started with Gestalt theorists (Kohler and Koffka). For them, perceptions or images should be approached as a pattern or a whole, rather than as a sum of the component parts.
It was also much influenced by Jean Piaget and Lev Vygotsky. Here we can distinguish between cognitive constructivism and social constructivism. Piaget’s approach is central to the school of cognitive constructivism, which is about how the individual learner understands things. Vygotsky, on the other hand, is known as a social constructivist, where he laid more emphasis on the part played by language and other people enabling children to learn. Both theorists left a large impact on the educational field.
Constructivism, the school to which Piaget and Vygyotsky have given a large contribution, impacts learning in the following ways:
1. Curriculum: Constructivism calls for the elimination of a standardised curriculum. Instead, it promotes using curricula customised to the students’ prior knowledge. It also emphasises hands on problem solving.
2. Instruction: Under the theory of Constructivism, educators focus on making connections between facts and fostering new understanding in students. Instructors tailor their teaching strategies to students responses and encourage students to analyse, interpret, and predict information. Teachers also rely heavily on open-ended questions and promote extended dialogue among students.
3. Assessment: Constructivism calls for the elimination of grades and standardised testing. Instead, assessment becomes part of the learning process so that students play a larger role in judging their own progress.
Below, Jean Piaget and Lev Vygotsky’s learning theories will be discussed in greater detail, followed by a discussion on their similarities and differences, as well as the criticisms that were placed towards them.
Jean Piaget (1896-1980) was a biologist who originally studied molluscs. He became familiar with psychology because of his reading of Freud, whose concept of stages of development and the pain-pleasure principle greatly influenced Piaget’s thinking. His theory is based on the idea that the developing child builds cognitive structures – in other words mental maps, “schemes”, or networked concepts for understanding and responding to physical experiences within his or her environment. Piaget’s original observations and hypotheses were based on his observations of his own three children. He then tested his theories by designing experiments for children to perform. He has often been referred to as the pioneer of research into cognitive development in children. His overall understanding to cognitive development was known as “genetic epistemology”, this was primarily due to his interest and knowledge that he developed in human organisms.
The following are the Piagetian ideas that are especially relevant to our understanding of human learning and cognition:
1. People are active processor of information.
2. Knowledge can be described in terms of structures that change with development.
3. Cognitive development results from the interactions that children have with their physical and social environments.
4. The processes through which people interact with the environment remain constant.
5. People are intrinsically motivated to make sense of the world around them.
6. Cognitive development occurs in distinct stages, with thought processes at each stage being quantitatively different to those at other stages.
7. The rate of cognitive development is controlled to some extent by maturation.
Below we shall discuss some of Piaget’s main concepts:
* PIAGET’S DEVELOPMENTAL STAGES
Piaget proposed that children’s thinking doesn’t develop entirely smoothly: instead he said that there are certain points at which it “takes off” and moves into completely new areas and capabilities. He saw these transitions taking place at about 18 months, 7 years and 11 or 12 years. According to Piaget there are four developmental stages (cognitive structures):
1. Sensorimotor Stage
This is from approximately 0 – 2 years, in which the child has to learn to organise and interpret sensory information and to co-ordinate motor action. Piaget found that a child of this age doesnt have the ability to distiguish between itself and the world. This is known as egocentrism. A child under eight months also lacks the understanding of object permanence – the fact that an object continues to exist even when it is not visble. He believed that it was only through the process of accomodation (described below) that infants gain their knowledge of object permanence. For Piaget the acquisition of object permanence is signified when the infant searches for, and retrieves a hidden object. Near the end of the sensorimotor stage, symbolic thinking – the ability to represent external objects and events in terms of internal, mental symbols – emerges, marking the beginning of true thought as Piaget defined it.
2. PreOperational Stage
This is 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 conservation, and they are unable to decentre. In this 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. Encouragement to manipulate physical objects, such as the ‘glass of water’ experiment (Conservation of Liquid Problem), 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.
3. Concrete Operational Stage
This stage is approximately from 7 – 11 years; the child is able to undertake adult-style cognitive operations. During this 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, Piaget points out that the student becomes more able to decentre and discuss open-ended questions that stimulate thought. Concrete Operational children are limited in one very important respect, however: They can apply their logical operations only to concrete, observable objects and events. They have difficulty dealing with abstract information and with hypothetical ideas contrary to their own reality.
4. Formal Operational Stage
This final stage, according to Piaget, starts at approximately 11 years. The child is now fully decentred and can undertake abstract reasoning and perform logical operations. Once in the final stage of development, 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.
* ASSIMILATION AND ACCOMODATION
In Piaget’s view, each unit of intelligent behaviour is represented by a schema, which contains the information about the particular task or activity it is concerned with. These schema’s change to allow for new information as the child discovers more. He says that people interact with their environment through two unchanging processes, known as assimilation and accommodation. In assimilation, we use our current schemes to interpret the external world. In accommodation an individual either modifies an existing scheme, or forms a new one to account for a new event. The balance between these two processes varies over time. At times children are in a state of equilibrium (steady, comfortable condition), while at other times they are in a state of disequilibrium (cognitive discomfort). Piaget used the term equilibration to sum up the back and forth movements between these two states. More effective schemas are produced each time equilibration occurs.
* PIAGET AND EDUCATION
Piaget has had a major impact on education, especially at the preschool and early elementary levels. There are three major principles that have been derived from his theory, each of which continues to have a great influence on teacher training and classroom practices:
1. Discovery Learning: Spontaneous interaction with the environment is encouraged for children to discover themselves. Teachers provide activities to promote exploration, such as puzzles, table games, and dress up clothing.
2. Sensitivity to children’s readiness to learn: A Piagetian classroom does not try to speed up development. Piaget believed that appropriate learning experiences build on children’s current level of thinking. Teachers introduce experiences that permit students to practice newly discovered schemes and that are likely to challenge their incorrect ways of viewing the world. They do not impose new skills since this would lead to superficial acceptance of adult formulas and not true understanding.
3. Acceptance of individual differences: Teachers must plan activities for individuals and small groups rather than for the total class. This is because Piaget assumes that all children do go through the same sequence of development, but at different rates.
Although the educational applications of Piaget’s theory have been criticized (discussed below), his influence on education has and still remains very powerful, since he gave teachers new ways to observe, understand, and enhance young children’s development.
The work of Lev Vygotsky (1896-1934), which spanned the brief period from 1924 to 1938, has steadily grown in influence. He made a significant contribution to psychology even though he died at an early age of thirty-seven. Lev Vygotsky viewed cognitive development as culturally based. He identified logical memory, voluntary attention, categorical perception, and the self-regulation of behaviour as the highest forms of psychological functioning. He grounded his analyses in the cultural history of the human race and the child’s interactions with others in his or her particular environment. Western psychologists did not fully appreciate the value of the usefulness of his work until several decades later. Although Vygotsky never had the chance to develop his theory fully, his views are clearly evident in our views or learning and instruction today. Some of his most influential ideas are:
1. Complex mental processes begin as social activities; as children develop, they gradually internalize these processes and can use them independently of those around them.
2. Thought and language initially develop independently of each other; the two become interdependent when children are about two years old.
3. Children can accomplish more difficult tasks when they have the assistance of people more advanced and competent than themselves.
4. Tasks within the Zone Of Proximal Development promote maximum cognitive growth.
We will explain some of the above points in greater depth below:
* SOCIALLY MEANINGFUL ACTIVITY
The major theme of Vygotsky’s theoretical framework is that social interaction plays a fundamental role in the development of cognition. Vygotsky (1978) states: “Every function in the child’s cultural development appears twice: first, on the social level, and later, on the individual level; first, between people (interpsychological) and then inside the child (intrapsychological)”. By internalization, he refers to the process of learning (and thereby internalizing) a rich body of knowledge and tools that first exist outside of the child, and evolve into internal mental activities.
* ZONE OF PROXIMAL DEVELOPMENT(ZPD)
Another important concept in Vygotsky’s theory is the zone of proximal development (ZPD). By this he refers to the fact that the potential for cognitive development is limited to a certain time span. In the ZPD, a teacher and learner work together on tasks that the learner could not perform independently because of the difficulty level. Cognitive change occurs in the ZPD as teacher and learner share cultural tools. It is this culturally mediated interaction that produces cognitive change when it is internalized in the learner.
* THOUGHT AND LANGUAGE
While for adults thought and language are closely interconnected, Vygotsky thought that they are distinctly separate functions for infants and young toddlers. Around two years of age, thought and language become intertwined.
According to Vygotsky, at first when thought and language merge, we begin to see self-talk. This eventually becomes inner-speech. By talking to themselves children learn to guide and direct their own behaviours, and thus both self-talk and inner-speech are examples of the internalization process.
* THE MIND IS DISTRIBUTED
Vygotsky’s argument bears a striking similarity to recent movement in cognitive science associated with the notion of distributed cognition and situated learning. Central to this line of thought, is the effort to create an external symbol system approach that “moves formal symbols … out of the head and locates them in the environment of the system.” Vygotsky’s position of the centrality of artefacts in human mental processes, is one that has great resonance in contemporary cognitive science, as well as the human sciences more broadly. For Vygotsky artefacts play a central role in elaborating an account of what and where the mind is.
* VYGOTSKY AND EDUCATION
Vygotsky’s theory offers visions of teaching and learning that emphasize collaboration and the importance of social context. Some of Vygotsky’s ideas which lend themselves to many educational applications are the following:
1. Scaffolding: This refers to the same processes that should occur in the Zone of Proximal Development during instruction. In a learning situation, a more competent individual (teacher/tutor) initially does most of the work and provides some guidance, after which the teacher and learner share responsibility. As learners become more competent, the teacher gradually withdraws the scaffolding so learners can perform independently. The key is to ensure that scaffolding keeps learners in the ZPD.
2. Peer collaboration: When peers work together in cooperative tasks, the shared social interactions can be used in instructional fashion. Cooperative groups are most effective when students each have assigned responsibilities and all must attain competence before any are allowed to progress. This peer collaboration attests the recognized impact of the social environment during learning.
3. Reciprocal Teaching: Reciprocal teaching, another area of application, involves an interactive dialogue between a teacher and a small group of students. These dialogues create a zone of proximal development in which reading comprehension improves. From a Vygotskian view, reciprocal teaching stresses social interaction and scaffolding as students gradually develop skills.
COMPARING AND CONTRASTING PIAGET’S AND VYGOTSKY’S LEARNING THEORIES
As we have just discussed above, Piaget and Vygotsky each have their own important concepts. Their theories share a number of aspects, however they also differ in others. Piaget approached cognitive development from a biological, nature perspective, whereas Vygotsky approached the subject from an environmental, nurture perspective. This leads to major differences in their theories regarding the way in which we learn and the importance of certain aspects. Piaget’s theory focuses on the organisation of intelligence and how it changes as children grow, whereas Vygotsky’s theory centres on the social processes, and he defines intelligence as the capacity to learn from instruction. Below we will delve deeper and look into the similarities and differences of Piaget’s and Vygotsky’s theories and compare and contrast them.