Friday, September 01, 2006

Cognitive Approach

Jean Piaget

Piaget (1896-1980) described himself as a genetic epistemologist indicating his interest in growth (genetics) and his concern with the understanding of knowledge (epistemology). His research was conducted by using a system of observation, description, and analysis of behavior. Generally, his conclusions were that children are not merely uninformed adults. Rather children have distinctly different ways of viewing the world than adults do. For Piaget, intelligence is the process of actively constructing an understanding of reality. Interactions with the world are the foundation of that understanding. The basic assumptions of this theory of development are as follows:

  • When they are born, children have some primitive strategies for interacting with the social world. These primitive ways of interacting are the starting point in developing thinking.
  • As the child encounters new experiences, changes in these beginning strategies are gradually produced. These changes are the result of assimilation and accommodation. An active interaction with the environment is essential in the developing processes.
  • During childhood and even adolescence, the child constructs a series of theories, or ways of thinking, which are based on the level of understanding that has been achieved so far. According to Piaget, children have consistent ways of changing the abstractions and complexity of thought. Evidence of this consistency, he says, is that all children seem to go through a series of discoveries about the world, make similar mistakes, and arrive at the same solutions. Piaget's theory of cognitive development is founded on these sequences of change. His theory is an explanation of stages in which children pass through one period before moving to another.
  • Learning skills, maturation, and social interaction are important parts of the developmental process, but the essential ingredient is the child's construction of reality. This construction involves the child actively exploring and experimenting with the environment.

This whole process of cognitive development and learning occurs in ways that are common for all children. Piaget found it useful to write about this process as stages of cognitive development. You may be familiar with these from the AS level course (Samuel and Bryant's study). Below is a table which summarises the main aspects of the 4 stages of cognitive development -

Stage Approximate Age Major Characterisitcs
Sensori-Motor 0-2 Years Learning to co-ordinate motor actions and sensing (e.g. see and pick up objects). Child is Egocentric. Begins to make use of imitation, memory, and thought. Begins to recognise that objects do not cease to exist when they are hidden. Moves from reflex actions to goal-directed activity
Pre-Operational 2-7 Years Can not conserve. Reason is dominated by perception. Egocentrism declines. Difficulty in performing cognitive operations (addition, subtraction, etc). Gradual language development and ability to think in symbolic form. Able to think operations through logically in one direction. Has difficulty seeing another person's point of view.
Concrete Operational 7-11/12 Years Can conserve. Can perform most cognitive operations when using concrete examples. Able to solve concrete (hands-on) problems in logical fashion. Understands laws of conservation and is able to classify and seriate. Understands reversibility.
Formal Operational 11-14/15 Years Ability to deal with the hypothetical. Ability to perform cognitive operations without concrete examples. Able to solve abstract problems in logical fashion. Thinking becomes more scientific. Develops concerns about social issues, identity.

According to Piaget, all children progress through these stages in the order specified, though the age boundries are approximate. The stages are inevitable and in this order because of how the human organism, in particular the brain, develops over time. We can not expect a young child to learn what an older child knows because they are not maturationally ready yet to do so. It is worth noting that Piaget recognised that not all adults reached Formal Operational thinking in regards to all of the mental operations they perform.

Practical Applications

Providing Opportunities for Physical and Mental Actvity: Activity, argued Piaget, is fundamental to buiding concepts and understanding the world. For example, children's ability to deal with classes, relations, and numbers results from the activities of combining, separating, and setting up correspondences among real objects during the preoperational stage. Internalized mental activities are constructed from these actual physical activities. It follows, then, that teachers should provide children with many opportunities to engage in meaningful activities with real objects, as well as opportunities for mental activity (thinking).

Providing Optimal Difficulty: Cognitive growth, argued Piaget, arises from a tendency toward equilibration—that is, maintaining a balance between assimilation and accommodation. Recall that assimilation and accommodation are children's two ways of interacting with the world; all activity involves both. Assimilation occurs when children can react to new objects or events largely in terms of previous learning; accommodation involves modification or change. Assimilation requires that a situation be somewhat familiar; accommodation will take place only if the situation is also somewhat different. If schools are to encourage equilibration, a minimal discrepancy between new material and old learning is required. Learners need to be provided with experiences that are familiar enough that they can understand them (assimilate them); they also need to be challenged so that they will be forced to accommodate. The result, ideally, will be the construction of new understanding (accommodation) on the back of old learning (assimilation). Providing learners with an optimal level of difficulty presupposes that teachers know their level of functioning, their interests, and their capabilities—hence the fundamental imporance of understanding how children think.

Understandinq How Children Think: Although it has always been recognized that there are some important differences between children and adults, Piaget, more than anyone, has demonstrated precisely what some of these differencescer are. When a child says that more water is in a tall container than in a short, flat one, they truly believe what they are saying. These and other discoveries about the world of young children should help teachers both to communicate more effectively with children and to understand and be sensitive to the limitations of their thinking.

Providing Social Interaction: One of the chief factors in making thought more objective, claims Piaget, is social interaction. The egocentric point of view of the young child is essentially one that does not recognize the views of others. Children become aware of the ideas and opinions of peers and adults largely through social interaction. Piaget contends that the socialization of thought, the development of moral rules and game rules, and even the development of logical thought processes are highly dependent on social interaction. One implication for teaching is that instructional methods should provide for learner-learner as well as teacher-learner interaction.

Assessing Students' Readiness: Detailed accounts of Piaget's experimental procedures and findings provide teachers with many informal and easily applied suggestions for assessing students' thought processes. It is not particularly difficult or time-consuming, for example, to ascertain whether a child has acquired conservation of numbers or the ability to seriate. Both abilities are important for early instruction in mathematics.


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