4.5 Application: discovery learning
Piaget's theory offers a rich description of a child developing a more abstract and general capacity to tackle problems in the world, in a very independent way. There is little place in Piaget's theory for teaching, and his ideas were used to support the pedagogic principles of discovery learning, in which the provision of a rich learning environment is seen as essential, rather than direct tuition. In this approach, children are given opportunities to actively explore and investigate concepts and physical events in order to build their understanding. According to the main tenets of discovery learning, teaching needs to encourage self-directed investigation rather than a potentially superficial understanding in imitation of adult performance. Piaget also stressed the need for teachers to make the learning environment appropriate to the developmental level of the child.
While discovery learning downplayed the significance of adults as tutors, Piaget did value peer contact as having the potential to foster cognitive development. That is, he suggested that such contact would expose them to other, conflicting viewpoints, which they would need to accommodate their own developing representations to; this was referred to as socio-cognitive conflict (the idea that exposure to conflicting ideas presented by a peer force a child to reconsider their own understanding). Importantly, peer contact was believed to foster this in a way that contact with adults could not, as adults are perceived by children as having greater authority. As a result, they would be more willing to accept adult ideas without experiencing them as a personal challenge that would prompt thoughtful evaluation of the ideas being presented. Thus, this type of contact with adults was believed to hinder children's ability to appreciate other perspectives. Ironically, it was ‘dominance of adults’ that proved to be at the heart of one of the criticisms that have been levelled at Piaget's experimental work.