4.6 Evaluating constructivism
Piaget's theory was revolutionary in many respects. It recognised that children thought differently to adults. The view that learning is an individual and constructive process differed sharply from the prevailing climate of behaviourism when it was published. However, the experimental tasks that Piaget used to establish his theory have been subjected to criticism. Subsequent research, most notably by Donaldson (1978), has shown that under certain conditions young children are able to operate at levels above those predicted by Piagetian theory. For example, simple modifications to Piaget's conservation tasks show that many children can grasp this concept at a ‘pre-operational’ age (see Research Summary 2).
Research Summary 2: The chipped beaker
Light and colleagues (1979) studied 80 4-year-old children and tested them in pairs. Half of them completed a standard Piagetian conservation task. Two identical beakers were filled to the same level with dried pasta shapes. When the children agreed that there was the same amount of pasta in each beaker, the contents of one were poured into a wider beaker. Only 5 per cent of the children said that the amounts were still the same.
For the other half of the children the procedure was different. They were told at the outset that they were going to use the pasta shells in a competitive game. But after they had agreed that the two beakers contained the same amount of pasta, the experimenter ‘noticed’ that one of the beakers was dangerously chipped around the rim. He looked around and found the alternative (wider) beaker and poured the contents in, asking the children, before they started their game, whether they had the same amount of shells each. This time 70 per cent of the children judged that the quantities were equal.
Donaldson (1978) argued that young children's reasoning is more sophisticated than Piaget's research implied, that their reasoning is embedded in the social situations it occurs within, and it is this social element that may account for the results obtained by her and others. In particular, she argued that the tasks had to make ‘human sense’ to the children. In Light et al. (1979), putting the pasta into another beaker because the original one was chipped, ‘makes sense’ and there is no reason to suspect that the content would have changed as a result. However, in the standard version of the task, where no rationale for changing the beaker is presented, the children may assume that the adult is demonstrating it for a purpose, and guess that the reason must be to do with the question they are asked about the amount of pasta in the beakers changing. In fact, Hughes and Grieve (1980) demonstrated that both 5-year-old and 7-year-old children will actually attempt to answer bizarre questions put to them by an adult, such as ‘Is milk bigger than water?’ and ‘Is red heavier than yellow?’. Hughes and Grieve argued that the children are simply doing what children do during much of their young lives: trying to make sense of information from a position of relative ignorance. If this idea is applied to Piaget's tasks, then it may be that many of the ‘incorrect’ responses Piaget noted were the result of the children trying to identify meaning in apparently meaningless tasks. When the task is given an accessible meaning, as in the work of Donaldson and others, children are able to offer more appropriate responses. Moreover, it would seem that young children's social experience, especially that of school, teaches them that it is inappropriate to ask for clarification when asked a question by an adult, no matter how bizarre. This feature of adult-child relationships was recognised by Piaget in his theory, but he failed to recognise its potential impact in a research context.
The relative lack of attention paid to the social and cultural context of child development has been a substantial criticism of Piaget's ideas. One of Piaget's critics on this point was a Russian contemporary, Lev Vygotsky. His theory of development only emerged many years after his death and he is seen as the founder of an area of developmental research known as ‘social constructivism’.
Vygotsky argued that the child's cognitive skills begin as social interactions between the child and a more able other. During development this interaction is internalised by the child. The zone of proximal development (ZPD) is the difference in performance level between the child's independent and their collaborative work, which is typically more competent. This higher level, achieved at first only when with a more able partner, later becomes internalised, enabling the child to work at this level without support.