Consider today's Theories on Thursday a primer to development theories. Shall we begin? By the way, if you are a parent, consider applying our theories to your child(ren).
Old-favorite-who-seems-to-stand-the-test-of-time: Jean Piaget
Swiss psychologist, Piaget is well known for many theories related to development and teaching/learning. Let's just highlight a few "must-knows."
- All people are born with schemata (that is the awkward plural of "schema). This includes our natural, inborn reflexes: blinking, squinting in bright light, grasping, sucking, crying, etc.
- As we development, we learn new schemata from our environment and through our senses.
- Schemata is uber-important to learning. What makes this complex is when we arrive to school, we each have a different collection of schemata. For example, growing up by the beach, I have a schema for life by the ocean versus someone who grows up in a land-locked state. See? Our schemata collection will be different. Which could explain why one student would have an advantage in a science class during the marine biology chapter over another student.
- Take home message - Find out, pre-assess, ask a ton of questions to determine your students' prior knowledge - their schema! Then, build on that schema when introducing new concepts or lessons. If they have zero schema on a topic, guess what, you will really earn your paycheck that week as you will be building on a smaller foundation.
- Take home message, part II - When we apply our schema to a new situation or problem and it doesn't work (or solve the problem), Piaget says we are in a state of "disequilibrium." The great news is, according to Piaget, disequilibrium is the best time to grow and learn! Yahoo! That means teachers need to assist students in expanding their schemata and accommodating (or adapting) it to new situations or problems.
PS - Too much disequilibrium is stressful. Plan your lessons to create disequilibrium for each student, but not freak them out for extended lengths of time. Sometimes this is easier said than done, but aim for it.
Onto his four main stages of human development....
- Sensorimotor - This stage is reserved for the youngest of citizens those who coo, crawl and toddle around. Just as it sounds, the little person is experiencing the world through their main senses and locomotor activities. Little kids are notorious for exploring their world through their mouths, by touch/texture and by complete trial & error. What this means for us, as teachers, is we need to provide safe opportunities for all the aforementioned (say, "hello" to non-toxic crayons and paints and open floor plans!). SPECIAL NOTE: For kids with special needs (e.g. intellectual disabilities, autistic spectrum disorders, learning differences, etc.), you can expect to see these same explorations at older ages. No judgment, just know these early ways of learning will continue through adulthood for some citizens with special needs.
- Preoperational - If you teach early childhood or early elementary ages, you are all about this stage Piaget defined. These younger students are making sense out of their environment, looking for patterns, learning experientially (versus, "Today, we are going to conjugate 'be' in the subjunctive tense...") and they are completely gullible (e.g. Santa Clause, the Tooth Fairy and the Easter Bunny all exist). What most teachers adore about this stage is their industrious nature. Erik Erikson noticed the same thing: These young students are ready to do and create! The only piece to 100% remember with this age group and their industrial nature is attention span. Plan your industrious learning activities in small chunks and just to entertain yourself, include something imaginative as these cutie pies innocently embrace unreality.
- Concrete Operational - Since this post is rivaling most college textbooks in length, I will get right to the point. These intermediate learners (though, this can and does include some adult learners, as well!) like things to be tangible. "Teach me about photosynthesis, but by golly, make sure you have a plant and light source handy!" "I want to know about the Grand Canyon, I need to see a video on Teacher Tube?" This is why mathematics, in many schools, has become more tactile as students in this stage require concrete objects to enhance understanding. Maria Montessori (more on that fabulous woman another day) would be ultra-proud. Project-, problem- and place-based learning all makes great sense to use with these students as all three types of learning tend to employ experience, industry, and the concrete.
- Formal Operational - Piaget thought this stage would be reserved for ages 11 and older, but most theorists after him disagree. I concur with them - not Piaget (sorry, Mr. I-like-everything-else-you-have-to-say). After teaching middle, high school and now college for 15 years, I have had many a former student who dwells in the concrete operational stage - not this formal one which highlights thinking abstractly, hypothetically and sans concretely. No judgment, I'm just sayin'; some adults will not make it here. OR more practically speaking, some adults will straddle both concrete and formal operational stages depending on the situation or type of learning. In fact, give me a physics question to answer right now and you better make it concrete. I want to hold "force" and "gravity." OK? Which brings us to the last part of this theory tutorial. If your students aren't understanding a lesson, rewind back a stage. If you are used to them be formal operational learners and they aren't getting it, rewind back to a more concrete operational inspired lesson. Same for the other stages, move down one stage when students aren't "getting" it. That means, you may have to tap into your sensorimotor ideas and have students "taste" photosynthesis or "feel" force, etc. Rewind one and put on your creativity hat.
Cheers to you and Piaget,