Secondary learning
Secondary learning

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Secondary learning

2.2 Constructivism

Dissatisfaction with the limitations of behaviourism led researchers to look for ways to explain the unobservable changes that took place when learning occurred. These developments were rooted in the work of Piaget, in the 1920s, and developed by others, including Von Glaserfeld (2002).

Learning, according to constructivist theory, occurs when knowledge is constructed by the individual as a result of their experience in the world. Piaget’s (1953) view was that children’s intellectual development progresses through distinct stages, and that they make sense of the world in different ways as they grow older. Piaget proposed four stages of development, which he termed:

  • sensori-motor (around 0–2 years)
  • pre-operational (around 2–7 years)
  • concrete operational (around 7–11 years)
  • formal operational (around 11 years onwards).

Piaget believed that everyone passes through these stages in the same order but that the age at which this happens can vary from one child to the next. ‘Assimilation’ (when new knowledge is assimilated into children’s existing understandings and schema) and ‘accommodation’ (when existing schema have to be reorganised to accommodate new knowledge) are key concepts within this view of learning.

Activity 3 Piaget’s theory of development

Timing: Allow about 15 minutes

The video clip below outlines Piaget’s theory of how children develop. As you watch, pay particular attention to the sections on concrete operational and formal operational thinking. Identify how children learning in this way might influence teaching. List what you might look for when observing teachers and students in classrooms.

Skip transcript

Transcript

David Elkind
Hello, I’m David Elkind and I had the good fortune to study with Piaget in Switzerland at the beginning of my career. In the quarter of a century since that time, I witnessed the way in which Piaget’s teachings have become part of our way of thinking about children and how they grow and how they learn. In this film, we will highlight many of Piaget’s most salient observations and conceptions.
Jean Piaget
Our real problem is: what is the goal of education? Are we forming children who are only capable of learning what is already known? Or should we try to develop creative and innovative minds, capable of discovery from the preschool age on, throughout life?
David Elkind (voiceover)
At the age of 10 he published his first scientific paper, an observation of an albino sparrow. By the time he was 16, he was so well published that he was offered, sight unseen, the curatorship of a museum. He had to turn down the offer, however, as he hadn’t yet completed high school.
It is the idea that our knowledge about the world grows in stages which parallel our mental growth that makes Piaget’s a truly genetic of his termology. The first two years of life make up the sensory-motor period.

(New case study.)

David Elkind
I’m gonna put them under here, watch me – OK? She wants them and it disappeared, but she doesn’t think to look under the cloth – yes, that’s too bad – OK, OK. Here they are, here they are – see?

(New case study.)

David Elkind
OK, Bridget do you know your right hand and your left hand? No?
Bridget
This is my right one, and this is my left one.
David Elkind
Very good. And can you tell me my left and my right?
Bridget
This is your left and this is your right.
David Elkind
OK. And show me right and your left again.
Bridget
My left and my right.
David Elkind
OK, very good.
David Elkind (voiceover)
As in the first stage of his work, Piaget was able to create tasks that other researchers could use to reveal the great discrepancy between the way in which infants and older children and adults view the world.

(New case study.)

David Elkind
Where is yours? Where’s mine? Now do we both have the same to drink or does one of us have more?
Girl
I do.

(New case study.)

David Elkind
But isn’t this higher than this one? I mean, this is up here and this is way down here – doesn’t that make this one more?
Girl
Well, this one may be taller but this one is more spaced-out
David Elkind
Oh, OK.
David Elkind (voiceover)
The third stage Piaget called ‘concrete operational’ and it emerges between the ages of six or seven at last until the ages 11 or 12. Beginning at about the age 11 or 12, the adolescent period, young people move into the stage of formal operations.
During the last phase of his work – approximately the last two decades before his death in 1980 at age 84 – Piaget dealt with a number of different issues like memory and imagery. It will be the next century before we fully realise the magnificent legacy of Jean Piaget. We hope that this film and other films in this series will enable us to realise this legacy.
End transcript
 
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Comment

Piaget’s theory of development applies to individuals. It can be a helpful way for a teacher to think about learning when they are working with an individual, helping them to understand a new concept. If the learner is struggling to grasp an abstract idea, finding ways to make it more concrete can be helpful.

In secondary schools, constructivist learning theory relates to young people as they move from the concrete operational stage (7–11 years) to the formal operational stage (11 years onwards). Of course, not all children develop at the same rate: some will develop their thinking more quickly and some more slowly. Teachers taking a constructivist view of learning theory will:

  • think about what the child already knows, so that new knowledge can be related to existing schemata (assimilated or accommodated)
  • look for any misconceptions in the child’s existing knowledge and provide learning activities that enable the child to understand the limitations of their current conceptions
  • prepare learning tasks and activities in which the learners can actively participate; participation might be physical, such as a science experiment, or mental, such as problem solving.

Critics of the theory argue that individually constructed knowledge may not be valid, leading to misconceptions or misunderstandings. Others suggest that teachers can underestimate children’s capability; for example, if their stage of development is not properly recognised or their ‘readiness’ to learn is not responded to. Constructivism has also been criticised for focusing on the individual learner rather than on the social context in which learning takes place, which led to development in the theory.

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