Unsolicited Advice for Those of You Who Have Kids or Work With Them: Piaget and Vygotsky

Today’s post is the latest installment in my continuing quest to enlighten the world with nuggets of wisdom gained from my experience as a student of the field of education.

Today we are going to talk about child development.

It should be no secret to anyone who has spent any significant amount of time around children that they are NOT miniature adults.  Instead, they are totally different creatures, with their own interests, wants, needs, thoughts, feelings, and ways of looking at the world.  For this reason, it is vitally important to anyone who works with children in any capacity to understand how children develop and change as they move through the various seasons of life.  Any education system worth its salt will take this into account in order to devise learning experiences that are appropriate and relevant to the unique ways in which children look at the world.

The three biggest names in child development nowadays are Piaget, Erikson, and Vygotsky.  Piaget and Vygotsky were concerned with cognitive development–that is, the development of children’s thinking.  Erikson was primarily concerned with emotional and social development–that is, how children feel and how they relate to others.  Piaget and Erikson each came up with their own road map of the process of development over the course of life.  Vygotsky did not come up with a comprehensive road map like Piaget or Erikson, but he has very strong views about how learning happens.

According to Piaget, cognitive development happens over the course of four stages:  sensorimotor (birth to age 2 or thereabouts), preoperational (preschool), concrete operational (grade school), and formal operational (adolescence and beyond).

The sensorimotor (sensory + motor) stage is primarily concerned with exploring the world through the senses (that’s the sensory part) and developing the basic motor skills (such as reaching, grasping, sitting, crawling, standing, and walking) that a child will need throughout the remainder of his/her life (that’s the motor part).  The primary cognitive milestone of the sensorimotor stage is the development of object permanence–that is, the awareness that objects are still there even when you can’t see them.  Piaget believed that this happens at around seven to eight months; research using technology that was not available in Piaget’s day has shown that babies as young as three to four months have at least some awareness of object permanence.

The preoperational stage begins at around age 2 and lasts until around kindergarten or first grade.  Here is a simple experiment which you can try at home (if you have a preschool-aged child) to give you an idea of how preoperational children think.  Start with two exactly identical glasses.  Fill them up with the exact same amount of water.  Make sure that your child recognizes that both glasses contain the exact same amount of water.  Now, pour the water from one glass into a round pie pan.  Let your child see you doing this.  When you are done, ask him/her whether the glass has more water, or the pan.  If your child is in the preoperational stage, then he/she will say either that the glass has more water, or that the pan has more water.

This little experiment illustrates two key features of preoperational thought:  centration and irreversibility.  Centration is keying in on one aspect of a problem and ignoring everything else.  If your child said that the glass had more water, it is because he/she keyed in to the fact that the glass is taller than the pan.  If he/she said that the pan had more water, it is because he/she was focused on the fact that the pan is bigger around than the glass.  Irreversibility is the inability to mentally “undo” an operation.  If your child could see the water in the pan and know that it came from the glass, that it could be put back into the glass, and that if you put it back into the glass it would be exactly the same amount as the water in the other glass, then the game would be up.

Other features of preoperational thought include animism, attributing the characteristics of living things to inanimate objects (Charlie Brown’s kite-eating tree is a prime example of this), and trouble recognizing transformations.  For example, if your child is used to seeing Dad with a beard, then he/she will probably not recognize Dad if he shaves.  Or if your child is playing with the icemaker and some ice spills onto the floor and he/she goes away and comes back in a couple of hours when the ice has melted, he/she will have no awareness that there is any connection between the ice that spilled onto the floor a couple of hours ago and the water that is there now.

The concrete operational stage begins at around kindergarten and lasts almost all the way through grade school.  And here is the key difference between the preoperational stage and the concrete operational stage:  If you try the experiment above with a child who is in the concrete operational stage and then ask whether the glass or the pan has more water in it, he/she will look at you like you are the dumbest person on the face of the earth.  Your concrete operational child knows that both the glass and the pan contain the exact same amount of water.

Other characteristics of concrete operational thought include seriation (the ability to put things in order), classification (the ability to sort), and transitive thinking (recognizing that if A > B and B > C then A has got to be greater than C).  Concrete operational children get the concepts of identity and commutativity, not just in math but also in real life.  For example, the real-life application of the identity principle is that if you have something and you take it away, you don’t have it anymore.  Once children get this, it leads to planning.  The real-life application of the commutativity principle (if you add or multiply two numbers, you can switch the order and still get the same result) is that for some processes, you don’t have to go exactly in order (for example, you don’t have to put the right shoe on first and then the left).  This leads to greater flexibility in thinking and doing.

To sum up, concrete operational children can deal with anything that they can see or touch.  They cannot yet deal with abstractions.

The formal operational stage is where one gains the capacity to deal with abstractions.  This happens at adolescence.  With formal operational thinking comes the ability to grasp abstract concepts like truth, justice, love, unknown quantities in algebra, quarks, black holes, light rays, etc.  Other characteristics of formal operational thought include the ability to deal with hypothetical situations, to use deductive reasoning, and to use the scientific method to test hypotheses.

That is Piaget’s theory of development.

Vygotsky did not have a comprehensive road map like Piaget, but his theories include several big ideas that have had a great deal of influence in the field of education.

Vygotsky believed that learning was primarily a social thing, that it happened within a social and cultural context.  One of his big ideas is the “zone of proximal development”.

There are certain things you can do on your own, without any help from anyone else.  There are other things which you can’t do at all, and there are some things that you can do with assistance from others who are more competent than you.  Whatever you can do with the help of others is your zone of proximal development.

Everyone has a zone of proximal development.  It doesn’t matter what age you are or what season of life you are in.  For a baby, his/her zone of proximal development may include learning to walk.  For a child, it may include learning to swim, ride a bike, or throw a baseball.  For a teenager, it may include learning to drive or to do trig.  For a college student, it may include learning to write a term paper.  For an adult, it may include learning a professional skill such as a programming language or a piece of software, or something academic like learning to do research or write a dissertation.

Vygotsky’s other big idea is the concept of “scaffolding”.  The term comes from construction:  when you are building a building, you put up scaffolding to support the walls.  When the construction has progressed far enough that the walls are able to stand on their own, you remove the scaffolding.  In the same way, when a child is learning something, you help him/her out.  This help is called “scaffolding”.  When the child has attained sufficient mastery to do it on his/her own, you remove the scaffolding.

These two big ideas fit together:  “scaffolding” is the assistance you give to children to help them do things that are in their “zone of proximal development”.

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One thought on “Unsolicited Advice for Those of You Who Have Kids or Work With Them: Piaget and Vygotsky

  1. You’ll really be interested in Nurture Shock, Joseph. Some very interesting new research into early childhood development is summarized in this book.

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