Theories on Thursday

A new weekly feature, Theories on Thursday, starts today.  Apparently, I am full of features over here at Upcycled Education....Tech Tuesdays, Bonus Wednesdays, and now, Theories on Thursday.  Do you have an idea for another weekly feature?  Leave me your thoughts in the comment section below.

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.
....This is why I teacher smile when I see students struggling.  They are in disequilibrium, yippee!

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....
  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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. 
Speaking of hats, I need to get going and put on my grading hat, which is probably a sign as I am on my way to authoring my own online Educational Psychology textbook via Upcycled Education.

Cheers to you and Piaget,



  1. A suggestion to do for your blog on another day, could be a day where a
    new classroom activity/strategy/motto that has either been used or has seen being implemented in the classroom. These could be shared by you, other teachers, and your students. This would be another way for teachers to continue collaborating, as that is an important skill to have as a teacher, but will also benefit your students so they have a box of strategies ready to use when they start teaching.

  2. Hi Cutedancrgirl04 :) I love your idea about a strategy share. Maybe that could be a Monday or weekend feature? Hmmmm.....I like that and the online collaboration. You've got me thinking.


  3. I was thinking and I know how you like your different fun days, and I thought a funky fact Friday would be kind of interesting to get people thinking. A funky fact or phrase can get a persons attention and can get people thinking outside the box.

  4. Samantha - I love our funky Friday idea! I've got a list of ideas going and will add yours to it. I decided to contain my posts to three days a week now so 1)I don't "bother" too many folks and 2) so I can still have a life! This blogging thing is time-consuming (but gratefully enjoyable).

    Best, Jen

  5. i can see how the preoperational stage can link with disequilibrium, if a student stays in a math class for 3 hours and was lost within the first 30 minutes then the child not only will not remember what was taught but will be behind even more by not knowing the material.

    Gyler T

  6. While working with special education students I see a lot of the process, which always leads and ends in disequilibirum. The student will be trying their best to stay with the class, but eventually can't go any further due to disequilibrium, the only difference is they can't reach equilibrium. It becomes frustrating as a teacher because you try so hard to help them, but their self esteem starts to drop and they become discouraged from learning.

    Lucy A.

  7. I really love seeing students sort of "bridge" from pre operational to concrete operational. They begin to ask more questions and reflect on they schemata to create their own opinions. They don't just believe what we tell them and teach them but instead want to see it and understand it.

    Meredith L.

  8. Piaget theory reminds me of the Cognitive Learning theory. When students are being taught new material teachers do need to activate prior knowledge (schema). A student’s schema is very important and teachers should try to understand their schema so they are able to make connections. Ana V.

  9. What I found most interesting about this theory is the ability to rewind back a stage. Most students want to learn what they are being taught; however, sometimes they just are not getting the information in a way they understand. This could be due to lack of schema, but giving them the opportunity to rewind back a stage could help them grasp the information.
    Patricia L.

  10. I agree with Meredith on the "bridge" from preoperational to concrete operational. My daughter used to always say WHY? (I'm sure you all with kids or all you teachers have experienced this) but one thing she would always say that kept me on my toes was "show me"- wow! Show you?? How was I supposed to show her why the sky was blue? or when she stopped believing in the tooth fairy- because "If she was real, I could see her" But I get it- I admit I am one of those adults that at times straddles formal operational and concrete. Especially in Math-maybe I should have gone to Montessori where I could have "Held One Thousand" and my Math Schema would have been a bit different.

  11. Kristin F had me thinking about meta-issues in philosophy of education. I do not, by any means, worry about static categorization; theories are meant to be challenged, and one must use the right tool for the right job. I am hardly surprised if a theory encounters lacunae due to problems with data. Or are they "problems?"

    If a child does something extraordinary, I don't try to stuff her into Piaget's preconceptions. More likely, the theory needs modification, or even discarded for a teacher's personal use...

    John H

  12. Schemata and the logic of experience

    Before we get all excited about schema theory, don't forget the role of THE STUDENT (in the use of schema theory). In other words, we as educators are NOT applying schema theory "top-down", using the child as a litmus test--merely the "receiver" of the theory. Rather, it's more like the child's "data of experience" (Bertrand Russell) inductively provides the input for the REFLECTIVE aspect of the schemata themselves.

    In other words, we examine the child through assessment (either formative or summative), THEN we reflect on the schemata; it's not like we give the theoretical perspective initially.

    The child is EVERYTHING in this...

    John H