To understand how and when children begin to learn, it is important to look at why we value the process of learning, as Peller (1946) expresses, “The function of early education is to initiate, support and accelerate developmental processes, leading from child to adulthood. ” It is also important to consider the environment that learning takes place in. This has been reflected in the work of such theorists as Maslow and Montessori.
Maslow observed a hierarchy of needs; within this hierarchy he observed that by attempting to understand the needs of children, more children were able to achieve their full learning potential. He suggests only when basic physiological needs such as food and water are satisfied, then cognitive development can occur and the higher needs which he categorizes as ‘Self-Actualization’, such as remembering, understanding and problem solving can then be achieved. Although Maslow documented this Hierarchy of Needs in 1934, it is fair to comment that its principles are still applied to modern education today.
For example, Government legislation now provides for free school meals for disadvantaged children of an income support background, enabling these basic physiological needs such as food and water to be met, highlighting the direct relationship between children’s needs, and their learning. This was observed on SBW in two primary schools. Theorist Maria Montessori, whose work provided the foundation for later theorists as Piaget and Vygotsky, also agreed children have an inherent desire to learn and that they would learn through self-instigated actions in an appropriate environment in which they are placed (Horn et al, 2006).
Montessori believed a child friendly environment which is accessible and understandable to children, is the best setting for cognitive development and the learning process to begin. The two main psychological theories which we can observe to study the process of learning are Cognitive Development theories, and Social Constructivism theories. Cognitive development theory refers to knowledge generated through learner’s active exploration of the world and environment. It focuses on developmental stages children pass through, and how learning expands with maturity.
This psychological theory is most commonly associated with the work of epistemologist, Jean Piaget. The basis of Piaget’s theory underpinned how children arrive at what they know (Mooney, 2000). The two main stages associated with early year’s education are the Sensorimotor and Preoperational stages. Piaget proposed children arrive at rational thought when they pass through these two cognitive developmental stages. From infancy, babies show signs of a strong urge to adapt to their environment. Piaget noted that children’s thought journey was a process of adaptation, assimilation and accommodation (Morse et al, 1962).
He observed this adaptation as a child adjusting their behavior to cope with the demands of the environment they find themselves in. For example, a baby will cry because of hunger, once presented with food, the hunger will go away. Through this adaptation, comes assimilation, the baby will take in from this experience that food combats hunger, and to aid hunger pains, they must eat. As Wood (1988) states, “The complementary process of accommodation enables the child to deal with new information or new experiences by adapting their experiences. For example, the baby may recognize the banana in its yellow skin, but when the banana presented out of the skin, a child can connect the concrete object to the abstract taste. Piaget stated the sensorimotor stage occurred between birth and eighteen months. In this stage of the cognitive development process Piaget observed babies actions as moving from reflexive, simply without thought, to purposeful actions. For example, a newborn baby will often latch onto the fingers of its carers, for no purpose. However, toddlers from twelve months of age will grab their mothers hand as they know it will receive attention.
Piaget labeled this stage as ‘sensorimotor’ as children learn through their senses, manipulating materials. Montessori also believed children learn through sensory experiences, however, unlike Piaget she believed that this could pass through all stages of cognitive development, not simply from birth to 18 months. Piaget believed another key aspect of the sensorimotor stage was children’s ability to manipulate materials. Montessori was of the same agreement, so much so that when she opened her schools, she became involved in making her own child sized materials, tools and furnishings. Mooney, 2000) Piaget defined a progression of the sensorimotor stage as ‘object permanence. ‘ He believed this is when children begin to realize that objects exist when they are not in their direct line of sight. For example, Mooney (2000) illustrates, “before eight or nine months, they drop things from the high chair tray without making a fuss. This is because [for infants] if things are out of sight, they are literally out of mind. Then suddenly at eight of nine months when that spoon drops, they are fussing and wanting it back. This agrees with Piaget’s theory of children as egocentric individuals at the sensorimotor stage, who only see the world relative to themselves. This egocentrism is also illustrated in the Preoperational stage from eighteen months to six years. Piaget believed children could only focus on one thing at a time, and only gathered information that was relevant to them. This is where Piaget used his reasoning of adaptation, assimilation and accommodation, but specifically here, accommodation, to enable children to develop to the concrete operational stage.
While Piaget’s work has influenced early childhood education, many have criticized his work. Piaget believed children could not show reasoning behind higher level ability tasks until they were at the appropriate maturity level and developmental stage. However, Vygotsky believed children could be stretched mentally, and still perform successfully. While Piaget’s work focused strongly on the child’s development as a lone journey which they, themselves could only reach, Vygotsky believed that when teachers or dults place children in settings that challenge their competence, children can learn through instruction. This is classified by Vygotsky as the zone of proximal development (ZPD). Vygotsky used this term ZPD to refer to the gap that exists between the intellectual competence of a child on their own, and what they can achieve working with the help of an adult. Vygotsky developed his idea of ZPD to focus on the theory of social constructivism, studying how knowledge acquisition occurs in children first through experiences and secondly through social interaction with peers and adults.
While Vygotsky and Piaget both agreed activities and learning experiences for children need to be purposeful, they disagreed on the instruction of these activities. (Wood, 1988: 84) Much of work of Vygotsky and Dewey has become known as Social Constructivism Theory and builds on Piaget’s foundations. They argue the level of learning that derives from experience, is determined by the quality of the experience. They suggest practical and purposeful activities that relate to every day life and social settings should be presented to children.
Where Piaget believes learning is only effective when children construct their own understanding, Vygotsky believes the attainment of knowledge comes from mastering new social situations where learning is shared with others. Vygotsky argues that there are children on the edge of progression, who may not be able to develop cognitively without the help of others in this social interaction. Vygotsky firmly believed experiences should be shared in social settings, and placed a large emphasis on the quality of group work within the cognitive development process.
Within group work, children’s language is encouraged to develop, through questioning, talking and sharing ideas with their peers. This is still valued in classrooms today, as it was observed in SBW in many children will have ‘talk partners. ‘ Many theorists have argued that Piaget’s theory disregards the importance of language development as a learning tool for children, however, Vygotsky values language development as an extension of the learning process.
However, it is fair to comment that Piaget’s theory of developmental stages can be linked to language development also, for example at birth babies will only hear noises, by six weeks, their voice box engages, by age three they can construct complex sentences of 4 words and more, illustrating the relationship between language development and maturity. Bruner also considered language to be directly linked to cognitive development, believing in a structured environment of learning where the adult can facilitate learning by method of Scaffolding.
This metaphor by Bruner is used to explain, much of what Vygotsky argued with his ZPD theory, adults may provide framework and foundations for learning, and by modeling appropriate behavior, children can progress to reason for themselves in Piaget’s preferred solitary experience, but the adult is present to provide hints and prompts. Dewey (1897) stated “Education comes through the stimulation of the child’s powers by the demands of the social situations in which he finds himself. My Pedagogic Creed (Washington, DC: The Progressive Education Association, 1897) by this, Dewey agreed with Vygotsky’s theory that education must involve the social world of children (Mooney 2000), but he took a neutral stance by arguing the principles of both theorists, that children can work both alone, like Piaget suggest, as well as in co-operation with adults, as Vygotsky states. Within Social Constructivism theories, many theorists have pondered the importance of the role of the teacher in the learning process.
Many explore the role of the adult aiding the cognitive development process in a social setting, such as the home, but it is also useful to consider how teachers aid children’s development in the classroom. Vygotsky, Piaget, Bruner and Montessori have explored this. Theorists such as Skinner and Pavlov have also concentrated on how teachers can enforce behavioral learning theories to aid learning. Skinner (1968) argued in his book that Classical conditioning lay ultimately in the hands of teachers to reinforce learning.
He believed it was the role of the teacher to encourage positive attitudes towards learning and this could be established through rewards. By using rewards such as praise it is positive reinforcement that the children are adhering to the desired response. Skinner’s work has proven effective in the teaching of SEN pupils as, when rewarded, they are more likely to repeat positive behavior, or positive attitudes towards learning. Skinner also argued that many teachers use examinations to reveal what pupils don’t know and cannot do, rather than expose and build on what they do know and are able to learn (Wood 1988).
He agreed with Montessori (?? ) who stated, “If teachers aren’t knowledgeable about students, authentic learning will not occur. ” Dewey believed that evidence gathered through observations, would enable teachers to provide a more individualized curriculum for students. (Mooney 2000) For teachers to be able to build on what children know, and are able to learn, these theorists have noted the importance of the teacher as an observer. Piaget observed children were egocentric individuals, therefore he suggested that for learning to be effective and authentic as Montessori desired, the teacher themselves must de-centre and become child-centred.
It is agreeable that in the learning process, frustrated teachers often find themselves complaining children do not understand. However, it is often not considered that Piaget’s idea of egocentrism behavior can be applied to teachers. If teachers placed as much focus on observing children to understand how their educational needs can be met, as they do reflecting on their own position in the cognitive development process, learning would become individualized as Dewey hoped. Piaget, like Montessori also believed that uninterrupted periods of play in early childhood classrooms were beneficial.
With the teacher taking a backward step and respecting children’s absorption from work (Mooney 2000) Piaget believed children could construct their own learning. However, like Dewey, Vygotsky believed that teachers observations were crucial in curriculum planning. By observing children’s ZPD, Vygotsky felt you could clearly see where children were in the cognitive development process. By monitoring the level of adult interaction required, teachers could assess easily where children were struggling, and plan purposeful activities, like Piaget agreed were necessary.
Dewey in (1938 – Exp and education) further agreed with this role of teacher, he believed that by focusing on the concept of ZPD, teachers could determine a more suitable curriculum for the children of their class, based on knowledge and ability they currently possess. Horn et al (2007) recorded Montessori’s belief of observation as critical to understanding children’s needs. She realized the importance of observation to observe children and their ‘individual development levels’, Horn et al (2007) and how observations may highlight children who are not at the ‘sequence of development’ recommended for them, as Piaget outlined.
It was also observed on SBW that observations are a huge part of the role of a teacher, with strict demands of 2 observations per day for a single child. Arguably, if observations are carried out early enough, on supposed struggling children, this allows recommendations to be made to SENCO, Special Schools or Speech therapists to aid children before their cognitive development is further hindered. To conclude, the contrasting but significant work of these theorists illustrate how learning theories developed over a century ago are still highly influential in behavior towards early childhood education.
While there may be differences of opinion between theorists, on which provides the most effective learning method, many of the insights provided by Piaget and Vygotsky all have substantial elements of reasoning. The work of Piaget, Vygotsky, Montessori, Dewey and Bruner undoubtedly still determines the practice of classrooms all over the world today, they have influenced government legislation in the modern world today, and will continue to bear significance on the studies of childhood cognitive development for years to come.