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Exploring children's learning


This course examines four of the ‘grand theories’ of child development: behaviourism, social learning, constructivism and social constructivism.

This OpenLearn course provides a sample of Level 2 study in Education.

Learning outcomes

After studying this course, you should be able to:

  • describe the key features of behaviourist, social learning, constructivist and social constructivist theories of development

  • evaluate critically these four theories

  • illustrate their application to practical issues in child development.

1 Child development

Ideas about children and their development have varied across different periods of history and cultural contexts. Four contrasting, commonly held views of how children develop have been identified:

  • development as discipline;

  • development as natural stages;

  • development as experience; and

  • development as interaction.

Developmental psychology, as a field of enquiry devoted to understanding how children's minds and behaviour change over the lifespan, has produced theories of child development that have been empirically tested and that can be applied to real concerns and issues. Such theories ‘formalise’ lay beliefs to some extent, but also in some cases challenge our everyday assumptions.

This course introduces four theories, which are outlined in this section. These theories are sometimes referred to as ‘grand theories’ in the sense that they offer general explanations of child development as a whole, rather than just certain areas. It should be noted that they are not the only theories of child development that exist, but these four have been and continue to be especially influential, underpinning much contemporary theory and research.

The first of these theories, explored in Section 2, is behaviourism, also commonly referred to as learning theory. This approach sees child development arising from specific forms of learning, based on the idea of the child as a passive recipient of environmental influences that shape behaviour. The generic term for the process of learning as defined by behaviourism is conditioning, which emphasises how external factors, such as reward and punishment, affect behaviour. In the 1950s and 1960s, this was the dominant model in psychology, and research with both humans and animals testified to the power of this approach in explaining some aspects of learning.

Section 3 considers social learning theory, which challenged behaviourism by recognising that children can learn by simply observing someone else. This emerged in the 1960s, supported by research that showed how aggressive behaviour was often imitated by children who observed others engaging in it. The social learning model thus recognised the more active part that a child can play in learning from their environment. It also stressed the significance of ‘role models’ in children's development.

Section 4 explores the most ambitious theory of child development put forward to date which was also developed during the first half of the twentieth century: Jean Piaget's stage theory. Contrasting with behaviourist views, this saw children as independent agents in their own learning, and more important than the influences of parents and teachers. It described in detail a series of four successive stages through which all children were believed to progress. This theory, also described as a form of constructivism, because Piaget saw children as having to construct their understanding of the world for themselves, prompted a massive volume of research activity, which continues today.

Finally, Section 5 of this course turns to another theory that also sees children as active participants in their own development, but in addition stresses the roles that other people and the culture the child grows up in play in fostering development. Social constructivism also contrasts with social learning theory, as it argues that the key to learning and development lies in social interaction, rather than in mere social observation.

From these brief descriptions it is already apparent that some of these theories have aspects in common, but all of them differ in important respects, and make contrasting claims about what kinds of things will affect children's development. By the end of the course we hope that you will understand the strengths and limitations of each approach, rather than seeing one as ‘right’ and all the others as ‘wrong’.

Box 1 Evaluating theories

As a student you need to develop your own views on theories that you are introduced to. Questions you might ask yourself include:

  • Does this theory offer a more complete explanation of the topic under consideration than other theories in the area?

  • Does it have the same limitations as other theories in this area?

  • Are the terms used in the theory well defined, such that it is possible to investigate them in the context of a research study?

  • Is it based on sound empirical research? Are the studies that support the theory problematic in some way?

  • Has it subsequently been extended by other researchers or otherwise resulted in further research in that topic?

  • Can its principles be applied to everyday questions about children's development and be used to address ‘problems’ in this area?

Summary of Section 1

  • Theories produced by developmental psychologists have the potential to inform everyday discussions of children's behaviour and development.

  • ‘Grand theories’ attempt to explain the general processes that underlie children's development and behaviour. Four of the most important are behaviourism, social learning theory, constructivism and social constructivism.

2 Behaviourism

2.1 Psychology as an objective science

Behaviourism was an approach driven by an attempt to treat psychology as an objective science. To do this, behaviourists focused only on directly observable, measurable events and behaviours. Consequently, they rejected theorising about ‘mental events’ to explain why we do the things we do. The behaviourist approach considered how the environments that people live in influence their behaviour. Learning was defined as any relatively permanent change in behaviour produced by environmental events. The process of learning was referred to as ‘conditioning’ and two forms of conditioning were identified: classical conditioning, and operant conditioning

At this point, you will find it useful to consider whether this view of learning matches your own understanding of the ways in which people learn.

Of particular importance in the behaviourist view is the way in which the consequences of a particular behaviour influence the chances of that behaviour happening again. Table 1 illustrates how, in behaviourism, an event is defined as reinforcement or punishment depending on how the event influences the frequency of the behaviour it follows. This view sees the significant factors affecting learning and development as being outside the child.

2.2 Classical conditioning

Ivan Pavlov (1849–1936) was a Russian neurophysiologist who studied the physiology of digestion. During this research he noticed that hungry dogs would salivate at the mere sight of the attendant who brought the food. He used this seemingly minor observation to develop his theory of classical conditioning (see Box 2). Classical conditioning is the learning of an association between a reflex behaviour and a previously unrelated environmental stimulus.

Box 2 Classical conditioning

In Figure 1 you can see how, to begin with, food (the unconditioned stimulus) elicits salivation (the unconditioned response). This is a ‘reflex’ response; it is unlearned and ‘built-in’ to the nervous system, like knee-jerking if the knee is tapped, or eye-blinking to a puff of air. The ringing of a bell at this point in time has no effect on salivation. Next the bell is regularly rung just prior to the food being presented. After a period of time the bell alone will elicit the salivation reflex in the absence of food. The bell has now become a conditioned stimulus and the salivation a conditioned response. This association can be weakened if the bell (conditioned stimulus) is regularly presented without the food (unconditioned stimulus). This process is called extinction. Extinction is the decline of a learned association between a stimulus and a behavioural response, as a result of the conditioned stimulus no longer being consistently paired with the presence of an unconditioned stimulus.

Figure 1: Classical conditioning

An example of how classical conditioning has been applied to understanding children's behaviour is found in the work of American psychologist John B. Watson (1878–1958). Watson gave the behaviourist school its name in his publication ‘Psychology as the behaviourist views it’ (1913). His belief in the power of the environment to influence development led him to make the following statement:

Give me a dozen healthy infants, well-formed, and my own specified world to bring them up in and I'll guarantee to take any one at random and train him to become any type of specialist I might select—doctor, lawyer, artist, merchant, chief, and yes, even beggar-man and thief, regardless of his talents, penchants, tendencies, abilities, vocations, and race of his ancestors.

(Watson, 1924, p. 104)

This reflects the behaviourist viewpoint that not only can behaviour be explained by examining the environment, but that by changing the environment the person's behaviour can be altered.

Watson's particular interest was the study of emotions. Together with Rayner he conducted an experiment into the conditioning of fear with an 11-month-old infant Albert B., more commonly known as ‘Little Albert’ (Watson, 1924).

Figure 2: Little Albert and the white rat (from Swenson, 1980)

When initially presented with a white rat, Albert showed no fear. Subsequently, the rat was shown to him four times. Each time a metal bar was ‘clanged’ behind Albert's head. On the fifth presentation the rat was shown but without the noisy ‘clang’. Although there was no noise, Albert still whimpered and moved away. He had learned to associate fear with the presence of rats through the process of classical conditioning. This response generalised to other previously neutral stimuli that were similar to the rat and which he previously had liked. He now also showed fear of furry toys, a fur coat and a Father Christmas mask. (Generalisation is when other neutral stimuli are sufficiently similar to a conditioned stimulus to elicit the conditioned response.) It should be noted that this study pre-dated ethical concerns about the potential of research to impact negatively on an individual's well-being.

The ethical implications of this type of study need careful consideration. Today any work carried out by psychologists must follow a professional ethical code, for example the British Psychological Society (BPS) ethical principles. It is unlikely that the ‘Little Albert’ experiment would be carried out nowadays.

Classical conditioning can only be used to re-train reflex behaviours (like crying when frightened or salivating when smelling food) and lead the individual to produce them in response to a new environmental stimulus. (Reflex is an instinctive, uncontrolled reaction to a given stimulus, such as salivating when presented with food.) However, what if a behaviourist needed a child to produce a response that was not a part of his or her repertoire of reflex behaviours? In this instance, operant conditioning would be used.

2.3 Operant conditioning

According to behaviourism, all behaviour is learned and maintained by its consequences. B. F. Skinner (1905–1990) devised apparatus and methods for studying these effects. Figure 3 shows a ‘Skinner Box’ designed for use with a rat. The early behaviourists often examined animal learning and then extrapolated it to human learning. This was because they proposed that the fundamental principles of learning underpin the learning of all species.

Figure 3: A Skinner Box (adapted from Crain, 2000, p. 179)

The animal in the box can choose to behave in a variety of ways. The box contains a lever that delivers a food pellet when pressed. Initially, while moving about in the box the animal discovers by accident that when the lever is pressed, food appears. Over time the rate at which the lever is pressed by the animal increases, and other behaviours decrease by comparison. This suggests that the animal has learned to associate pressing the lever with the appearance of food. In Skinner's terminology, the lever-pressing behaviour was reinforced, that is, the consequences of pressing the lever made lever pressing more likely to occur in the future. When the lever pressing resulted in an unpleasant experience, such as an electric shock, then lever-pressing behaviour would occur less often. This is an example of punishment. (Punishment is an environmental stimulus that results in a decrease in a given behaviour.) The important point to remember is that reinforcement always refers to something that increases the frequency of a given behaviour, whereas punishment always refers to something that reduces the frequency of a given behaviour. ‘Punishment’ is therefore used here as a technical term with a precise meaning that differs from its everyday meaning.

Reinforcement, an environmental stimulus that results in an increase in a given behaviour, has both positive and negative forms. The terms ‘positive’ and ‘negative’ refer to the presentation or removal of an environmental stimulus. So, for example, ‘positive reinforcement’ refers to the presentation of a stimulus that increases the occurrence of a behaviour. ‘Negative reinforcement’ refers to an increase in a behaviour following the removal of an unpleasant (‘aversive’) stimuli (e.g. if a child increases the frequency of ‘room-cleaning behaviour’ because it results in the removal of parental disapproval).

Punishment can take one of three forms. ‘Positive punishment’ refers to the presentation of an unpleasant stimulus that will decrease the occurrence of the behaviour it follows. ‘Time-out’ is where a child is isolated from a reinforcing stimulus in their environment, with the aim of producing a decrease in the target behaviour. Finally, ‘response cost’ is where a penalty is applied every time an undesired behaviour is produced, again resulting in a decrease in that behaviour. The penalty, may be, for example, the removal of ‘tokens’ – items that are valued by the person, such as reward stickers or money. Table 1 summarises reinforcement and punishment.

Table 1: Reinforcement and punishment
Positive reinforcementPositive stimulus presentedBehaviour increases
Negative reinforcementAversive stimulus removedBehaviour increases
Positive punishmentAversive stimulus presentedBehaviour decreases
Time-outIsolation from reinforcerBehaviour decreases
Response costFor example token removedBehaviour decreases

As with classical conditioning, extinction can occur if the behaviour is no longer reinforced. However, it should be noted that extinction is usually preceded by an extinction burst, which is a period of increased production of a previously reinforced behaviour following the withdrawal of that reinforcement.

Activity 1 Understanding punishment and reinforcement terms

Timing: 0 hours 5 minutes

This activity will help you to understand the meaning of the different types of reinforcement and punishment.

Read each statement below and identify which ones are examples of (a) positive reinforcement, (b) negative reinforcement, (c) positive punishment, (d) time-out and (e) response cost.

  1. Getting burned when touching a hot pan, and never doing it again.

  2. Getting a gold star for neat handwriting, and increasing your attempts to write neatly.

  3. Watching your parents walk away when you are having a tantrum, and eventually calming down to run after them.

  4. Stopping hitting your brother after you have a favourite toy taken away every time you hit him.

  5. Having not had the opportunity to eat all day, you are eating a large chocolate bar, and then stop having eaten three-quarters of it.


The important thing to note in all these examples is what happened to the person's behaviour in relation to the environmental change, as it is the actual effect on behaviour that defines something as reinforcing or punishing. So, being burned in (1) is an example of positive punishment, as the presence of the burning sensation reduced the future incidence of the behaviour. (2) is an example of a positive reinforcement, as being given the star increased the production of neat writing. (3) is an example of time-out: the removal of parental attention resulted in reduced tantrum behaviour. (4) is an example of response cost – the favourite toy is systematically removed every time the undesired behaviour was produced. (5) is an example of negative reinforcement. Your hunger (an aversive stimulus) is removed by eating three-quarters of the chocolate bar.

However, ideally we should consider all these behaviours over time. For example, in (5) if your future consumption of chocolate decreased, then your ‘chocolate-eating behaviour’ was punished (eating three-quarters of a bar of chocolate may have made you feel unwell). If this behaviour increased in future then it was reinforced – either negatively (by reducing hunger) or positively (because you love chocolate!). This highlights one of the difficulties in identifying reinforcers and punishers in practice: they are defined by their outcomes, which may vary from individual to individual. For example, what is ‘reinforcing’ for one person may be ‘aversive’ for another.

In addition to reinforcement and punishment, Skinner examined the effect that different schedules of reinforcement have on the production of a behaviour: does it matter if a reward or punishment is not presented every time a behaviour is produced? (A schedule of reinforcement is the frequency and/or regularity of a given reinforcement or punishment in a setting.) Of particular significance is the predictability of the environment: the more unpredictable the pattern of reinforcement or punishment, the more resilient the behaviour will be to extinction. Consider the example of a child who has learned to expect a gold star every time she produces good work; as soon as the stars stop appearing she will quickly become de-motivated. However, if she learns that she occasionally gets gold stars for good work, she will be more likely to sustain good work in the expectation that she will, eventually, get a star again.

2.4 Use of punishment: spare the rod?

One issue, about which there is regular debate, concerns the use of ‘punishment’ to control children's behaviour. Behaviourism might, at first glance, appear to offer support for using punishment to reduce undesirable behaviour. For example, imagine that a father and his daughter are out shopping and the child steals a bar of chocolate and eats some of it whilst her father is distracted. He then sees her and shouts at her. In operant terms the stealing event is followed by an aversive response. This suggests that the stealing behaviour will occur less often in the future. However, one also needs to consider the contingency of the events. (Two events are said to be contingent on one another if the presence of one event immediately results in the occurrence of the other.) Before the father scolded the child, she had already eaten some of the chocolate. Consequently, eating the chocolate is likely to have been a contingent positive reinforcement, and perhaps the child's hunger may have also been reduced (a contingent negative reinforcement). Both of these immediate consequences increase the likelihood that the child will steal again (Huesmann et al., 2003).

Behaviourist research has shown that for punishment to be effective, it must be immediate (contingent), severe and consistently applied (Klein, 1996). However, outside of the laboratory, it is virtually impossible to achieve such aims: adults cannot supervise the behaviour of children continually and be in a position to intervene immediately with appropriate punishment every time a child misbehaves. In the absence of these conditions, punishment as a means of behavioural control is, at best, short lived. Even Skinner (1938) found that punishment can only temporarily suppress a behaviour in a specific context, not eliminate it. Furthermore, in terms of classical conditioning, the child might associate the aversive response (shouting) with the person delivering the response, and show a conditioned fear response to her parent (see Figure 4).

There is also a risk of inappropriate association: the child who is punished for stealing in the supermarket may associate the punishment with the wrong behaviour (e.g. eating the chocolate, or visiting the supermarket).

Figure 4: Classical conditioning and punishment

Punishment has been found to stimulate aggressive behaviour in some circumstances and to suppress it in others, and its long-term effects on behaviour are often not what was initially expected (Huesmann et al., 2003). A range of research studies has shown that, overall, punishment can be used to successfully manage inappropriate behaviour but it also has many negative short- and long-term consequences (Gershoff, 2002). These include increased aggression, decreased quality of relationships with carers, decreased mental health, and a later increased likelihood for antisocial and criminal behaviour. However, timeout procedures have been found to be effective in controlling the extent of behaviours like tantrums in typically developing children and those with learning difficulties (Klein, 1996). Yet, it should be noted that the need for contingency and consistency would also apply to the application of such schemes.

Punishment only teaches a child what response not to make. For behaviour to change, children also need to learn what alternative behaviour is appropriate and then be reinforced for producing it. For these reasons contemporary techniques of behavioural change based on behaviourism do not use punishment, but teach appropriate behaviours and increase their frequency through reinforcement. One example of such an application is known as applied behavioural analysis (ABA).

2.5 Application: applied behavioural analysis

Applied behavioural analysis (ABA) is a method of teaching that involves breaking tasks into small, discrete ‘teachable’ steps. At each step appropriate behaviours are reinforced. ABA selects developmentally appropriate behaviours as teaching targets. These can range from maintaining eye contact to complex responses such as social interaction. The child is given enough support to ensure success, which is then positively reinforced by consequences that are reinforcing for that child. Gradually the amount of support and reinforcement is reduced.

Early intervention programmes for children with learning difficulties have the potential to produce positive changes in development and consequently reduce the need for later interventions. Therefore in many ABA programmes parents are trained to become the primary therapists and their children receive one-to-one tuition in their own homes. There is evidence that intervening in a child's development in this way can help children with autism to be more successful in mainstream schools (Keenan et al., 2000). However, such schemes have proved difficult to foster widely because of the association with behaviourist approaches and the negative connotations associated with such ideas (Keenan, 2004). It is important to make a distinction between behaviourism as it was originally conceived, and its contemporary manifestation in behavioural analysis, which does not ignore cognitive processes during learning.

Activity 2 Reading A

At this point you should read Reading A, ‘Applied behavioural analysis and autism’ by Keenan (2004). He is an advocate of ABA as a means of helping the development of children with autistic spectrum disorders.

Reading A (PDF, 4 pages, 0.2MB)

View document

2.6 Evaluating behaviourism

As the previous section indicates, although ‘classic’ behaviourism is rare in contemporary explanations of child development, many of its guiding principles have been retained in some form or other in the field of learning difficulties. One of the advantages of behaviourism lies in its utility as a form of direct communication with children who are too young to speak, or who are otherwise difficult to communicate with about their behaviour. It resulted in decades of research, becoming the dominant theory in psychology during the 1950s and 1960s. Behaviourism continues to stimulate research and inform debates both in child development and psychology more generally, albeit in a modified form, as illustrated by advocates of behavioural analysis. ABA shows how operant conditioning principles relating to the reinforcement of desirable behaviour can be successfully applied.

A missing factor in ‘classic’ behaviourist explanations of child behaviour is the importance of children's thoughts, beliefs and interpretations of a situation. The development of appropriate social behaviour is more likely if the child understands why they are being treated in a particular way (Huesmann et al., 2003). It is an oversimplification to propose that children can only learn through direct experience and contingent rewards. This does not seem to explain the vast array of things that children master in the areas of language, cognition and social behaviour. Furthermore, Section 2.4 on punishment indicated some important limitations in the application of that aspect of behaviourist theory. In particular, research has shown that children learn more from experiencing punishment than just its relationship to their own behaviour. Adults who are aggressive towards children, either verbally or physically, are modelling a behaviour and potentially signalling its acceptability as a means of affecting the behaviour of those around them. Such concerns are reflected in the ideas developed by Bandura, in his social learning theory.

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2.7 Summary

  • Behaviourism proposes that all behaviour is learned and maintained by its consequences. It does not theorise about ‘mental events’.

  • Classical conditioning describes how reflex behaviours can become associated with neutral stimuli in the environment.

  • Operant conditioning describes how the incidence of freely occurring behaviours can be increased or reduced as a result of the incidence of pleasant and unpleasant consequences for those behaviours, and how behaviour can be ‘shaped’ by the use of rewards.

  • Punishment is only effective as a means of behavioural control if it is severe, contingent and consistently applied. However, even when these conditions are in place, it is only successful in temporarily suppressing a behaviour in a specific context.

  • Reinforcement is used to help children with learning difficulties make progress at home and at school by using a technique known as applied behavioural analysis (ABA).

3 Social learning theory

3.1 The role of observation

It was clear to Canadian psychologist Albert Bandura (1924– ) that not only is children's behaviour shaped by its consequences, but also that children learn by watching the behaviour of people around them. In contrast to behaviourism, Bandura's social learning theory emphasised the importance of children imitating the behaviours, emotions and attitudes of those they saw around them:

Learning would be exceedingly laborious, not to mention hazardous, if people had to rely solely on the effects of their own actions to inform them what to do … from observing others one forms an idea of how new behaviors are performed, and on later occasions this coded information serves as a guide for action.

(Bandura, 1977, p. 22)

There are many examples of children learning complex skills by observation. For example, Guatemalan girls learn to weave ‘almost exclusively by watching models. The teacher demonstrates the operations of the textile machine, while the girl simply observes. Then, when the girl feels ready, she takes over, and she usually operates it skilfully on her very first try’ (Crain, 2000, p. 194).

Bandura's theory explains children's learning by considering four interrelated factors. To imitate someone a child must:

  1. Attend to relevant aspects of the ‘model’ and their behaviour.

  2. Retain what they have seen, through appropriate encoding and rehearsal.

  3. Be physically able to reproduce the behaviour.

  4. Be motivated to perform the new skill, through the presence of reinforcement and punishment in the observed setting.

He detailed aspects of each of these processes and demonstrated, for example, that memorising modelled behaviour by translating what is observed into words or images produces better retention than observation alone (Bandura and Jeffery, 1972). Importantly, he acknowledged the role of observing others experiencing reinforcement and punishment, but argued that its role was in influencing which behaviours children attend to in the first place, and also in affecting children's motivation to reproduce a behaviour.

3.2 Observation and imitation of aggression

Bandura conducted a series of experimental studies into children's tendency to imitate. In these experiments pre-school children watched adult models act either non-aggressively or aggressively towards an inflatable doll called a Bobo doll. The children were subsequently observed to see to what extent they imitated what they had seen – one such study is presented in Research Summary 1.

Research Summary 1: Observing aggression

Bandura's study (1965) observed a group of 4-year-old children watching, on their own, a film of a man being aggressive towards the doll. The man laid the doll on its side, sat on it and punched it repeatedly on the nose. The man then raised the doll, picked up a mallet and struck the doll on the head. He then tossed the doll up in the air aggressively and kicked it about the room. This sequence of physically aggressive acts was repeated approximately three times, interspersed with aggressive comments such as, ‘Sock him in the nose …’, ‘Hit him down …’, ‘Throw him in the air…’, ‘Kick him …’, ‘Pow…’, and two non-aggressive comments, ‘He keeps coming back for more.’ and ‘He sure is a tough fella.’

There were three versions of the film which were shown to three different groups of children. These films were the same except for the endings. For the first version of the film one group of children saw the man receiving treats and praise from another adult for hitting the doll. For the second version another group saw the man being verbally and physically admonished for his behaviour and in the third version the group saw no consequences for the man's behaviour.

Having seen the film, the children went into a room containing a Bobo doll and some other toys. The children who had seen the film of the man being punished imitated much less aggression than did the children in the ‘no-consequences’ and the ‘rewarded’ groups. There was no difference in the amount of aggression produced by the ‘no-consequences’ and ‘rewarded’ groups. However, later when told that they would get a reward for doing what the man (the model) had done, all groups imitated equally. For Bandura the important point was that each group had learned the same behaviours through mere observation; observing the man being punished only affected the conditions in which they chose to perform the behaviour.

Figure 5: Examples of pre-school children imitating aggressive behaviour during one of Bandura's Bobo doll studies (from Bandura, 1965, p. 76)

3.3 Application: children and television violence

Bandura's use of filmed events prompted other researchers (Liebert et al., 1977) to argue that his work had important implications for the influence that television violence may have on young children. In general, children aged 2–7 years watch television for approximately 25 hours per week, a figure that increases for older children (Roberts et al., 1999). By the age of 12, the average child will have viewed over 8,000 murders (Beckman, 1997). Furthermore, children are more likely to give attention to commercials than the programmes themselves (Alexander and Morrison, 1995) and it has been estimated that approximately one-third of commercials that feature children also contain aggression (Larson, 2003). Bandura (1973) also explored the idea that televised aggression may have adverse effects on children's behaviour, and considered some of the variables that influence when a child will imitate. For example, children are more likely to copy another's behaviour if the model is similar to them in age and sex, or if the model has desirable characteristics and is seen as attractive. Reading B describes one study that considered the potential influence of filmed aggression compared to real-life aggression on children's imitative behaviour.

Activity 3 Reading B

At this point you should read Reading B, ‘Learning through modeling’ which is a paper written by Bandura (1973).

Reading B (PDF, 2 pages, 0.2MB)

View document

Bandura was especially interested in learning through modelling. His ideas are highly relevant to an age in which children spend many hours watching visual media each week. An important issue is whether children can learn to behave in particular ways, for example, aggressively, by seeing such behaviour in television programmes, films or computer games. It also has relevance regarding the course's earlier discussion on the effects of punishment, for example, the behaviours that are being modelled through punishment.

Bandura's (1973) view was that children's learning goes through three stages: exposure, acquisition, and acceptance. They may thereby learn, through observation, to be more aggressive and less sensitive to the results of violence. This straightforward account has been disputed by others who argue that other factors intervene in the learning process, such as the family conditions within which the television is being viewed (Kytomaki, 1998). However, there is some support for Bandura's stance. Davidson (1996) reports research showing that the amount of violence children watched as 8 year olds was a better predictor of adult aggression than socioeconomic and childrearing factors.

If children's development is significantly influenced, through social learning, by their television viewing then it also has the potential to act as a positive influence. Huston et al. (1981) found that very young children who spent a few hours a week watching educational programmes (e.g. Sesame Street) had higher academic scores 3 years later than those who did not watch educational programmes. Also, children who watched many hours of entertainment programmes and cartoons had lower scores than those who watched fewer hours of such programmes.

3.4 Evaluating social learning theory

Bandura's work shows that learning can occur without the sorts of reinforcement that behaviourists see as essential, and that children are active in their learning. The sort of learning that Bandura highlighted goes further than simple mimicry. It implies that children extract general principles from what they observe. However, it does not tell us about the nature of the children's thinking or give us an insight into the processes of cognitive change occurring within the child. Moreover, it still places the emphasis on factors that are external to the child as the key influences on their developing behaviour; in this case the behaviour and experiences of people around them. To understand cognitive development a different theoretical perspective is needed, namely constructivism.

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3.5 Summary

  • Social learning theory proposes that it is possible for children to learn by observing other people.

  • Bandura found that pre-school children would copy aggressive behaviour modelled by another person, and that this was most likely if the model was similar to them in some way and not seem to be punished.

  • Social learning research has informed the ongoing debate about television being either a positive or negative influence on young children.

  • Social learning theory does not attempt to explain children's cognitive development.

4 Constructivism

4.1 Genetic epistemology

Jean Piaget (1896–1980) was not primarily interested in child development, but in the nature of knowledge and how it could be seen as a form of adaptation to the environment. He described his work as genetic epistemology – the study of the origins and development of knowledge.

He argued that individuals develop progressively more elaborate and sophisticated mental representations of the environment, based on their own actions on the environment and the consequences of these. Thus he saw cognitive development as progressive and constructive, with the child becoming increasingly competent at acting in more complex ways on the environment as a result of building up mental representations of how the world works. Mental representation are an internalised, personal understanding of some aspect of the external world.

Piaget theorised that there is an inherent logic to the development of human knowledge that means that it is constructed by all children in the same order. This sequence was seen as emerging from the nature of human knowledge and the child's own actions. Although he saw the basic building blocks and the processes of development as universal, he saw development itself as being the child's own construction.

4.2 The origins of Piagetian theory

Piaget started his career as a biologist, interested in the processes by which organisms adapt to their environment during development. Born in Switzerland, his interest in child development began in 1920 when he worked in Alfred Binet's laboratory, helping to translate items for one of the first intelligence tests into French. Piaget became interested in the wrong answers the children gave. These ‘errors’ seemed to be systematic rather than random, suggesting some underlying consistencies in the children's developing mental abilities.

Piaget based many of his ideas on observations of his own children; Jacqueline, Lucienne and Laurent. One of Piaget's observations is provided in Box 3.

Box 3 Piaget's observations of the infant Jacqueline

Jacqueline tries to grasp a celluloid duck on top of her quilt. She almost catches it, shakes herself, and the duck slides down beside her. It falls very close to her hand but behind a fold in the sheet. Jacqueline's eyes have followed the movement, she has even followed it with her outstretched hand. But as soon as the duck has disappeared—nothing more! It does not occur to her to search behind the fold of the sheet, which would be very easy to do (she twists it mechanically without searching at all). But, curiously, she again begins to stir about as she did when trying to get the duck and again glances at the top of the quilt.

I then take the duck from its hiding-place and place it near her hand three times. All three times she tries to grasp it, but when she is about to touch it I replace it very obviously under the sheet. Jacqueline immediately withdraws her hand and gives up. The second and third times I make her grasp the duck through the sheet and she shakes it for a brief moment but it does not occur to her to raise the cloth.

Then I recommence the initial experiment. The duck is on the quilt. In trying to get it she again causes it to slide behind the fold in the sheet; after having looked at this fold for a moment (it is near her hand) she turns over and sucks her thumb.

I then offer her her doll which is crying. Jacqueline laughs. I hide it behind the fold in the sheet; she whimpers. I make the doll cry; no search. I offer it to her again and put a handkerchief around it; no reaction. I make the doll cry in the handkerchief; nothing.

(Source: Piaget, 1955, pp. 36–7)

From such observations, Piaget reached the conclusion that infants lack an understanding of object permanence (that an object exists when it can no longer be seen). As adults, we know that objects have a continuing existence when they are not actually in our sight; when we put something down we normally expect to find it again when we go back to the same place. Piaget proposed that all of us go through a stage when we are completely without this belief. According to Piaget, the world is totally impermanent for the young infant, and exists only when actually being perceived in some way, such that when an object is out of sight it no longer exists for the child.

The fact that something as fundamental as object permanence does not appear to be innate illustrates how deeply and how early the child begins to build an understanding of the world, at least according to Piaget's theory.

Piaget proposed that an infant's intelligence is essentially practical, in that all interactions with its environment are either sensory (i.e. seeing, hearing, etc.) or motor (i.e. grasping, pulling, etc.). Thus, the first stage of development is known as the sensori-motor stage. The lack of object permanence is highly characteristic of this stage and the infant is considered to be profoundly egocentric (i.e. has no concept of other people or things having a separate, independent existence). The sensori-motor stage lasts from birth until approximately 2 years of age and is followed by other developmental stages (see Box 4). Piaget's theory is probably the most complete theory of child development. It begins from the reflex actions of the newborn child and describes how these develop as the child builds an understanding of the world. In the final stage of this development, formal operational thinking, the child is able to systematically manipulate abstract concepts.

This idea of ‘centring’ – the sense of the baby feeling herself to be the centre and the moving force of her world – runs through much of Piaget's theory, particularly the ideas of centration and egocentrism. (Centration is the tendency to focus exclusively on a single aspect of a situation.) The tendency of infants to focus or ‘centre’ on a single aspect of a situation illustrates the complete dominance of their own perceptions. For example, when an object disappears from their sight and they behave as if the object has ceased to exist, they are ‘centring’ on their own perception. Piaget called this particular sort of centring, where one's own viewpoint is dominant, ‘egocentrism’ – an absence of any awareness of the separate existence of either other people or objects. Thus, other people's views are seen to be the same as the child's own; objects only exist when they are perceived by the child.

If at first the baby sees the world only as ‘fleeting tableaux’, how is the concept of an enduring, permanent world formed? According to Piaget, through the experience of repeating actions and their effects, babies come to understand that actions have consequences. For example, in the earliest stages, looking away from an object causes it to ‘disappear’ and looking back to the same location causes it to reappear. What is happening here, according to Piaget, is that the baby is storing something in the mind about both the act (looking away and back) and its effects (disappearance and reappearance); a mental representation.

As the baby becomes able to grasp objects, the potential for this sort of learning is increased: for example, things can be moved in and out of vision. There are activities that the baby repeats again and again, taking obvious pleasure in the effects of such actions, and according to Piaget, continuing to construct mental representations. Indeed, repetitive behaviour, such as dropping objects or putting one thing in another, is a characteristic of early development. These repetitions give the child a lot of information about the properties of objects in the world. It is also as if the child has some sort of motivation to repeat continually things that she can do.

4.3 Processes of development

A central concept in Piaget's theory is that of the schema, a representation of a sequence of actions developed as a result of a child's action on the environment. A schema is, initially, a simple sequence of behaviour like sucking, or reaching and grasping. Piaget believed that the fact of possessing a schema, such as sucking, in itself creates a motivation for its exercise and for its application to multiple objects and situations which is beyond any immediate physical need to apply it, such as for feeding.

At first, a schema such as sucking has a reflex quality about it, since it does not seem to be adapted at all to the properties of the object being sucked; the same action is evoked by a finger, a nipple or the corner of a cloth. Piaget described this sort of schema activity as assimilation (the process of ‘fitting’ aspects of the environment into existing schemas), when the schema ‘assimilates’ different objects without adaptation.

We see this sort of behaviour in the child initially applying sucking in a more or less indiscriminate way to any object that can be brought to the mouth, as a means of exploring that object. It is as if sucking has a need to be exercised, at first just for itself, then on the baby's hands and later as a means of exploring objects. Piaget saw this intrinsic motivation (the desire to spontaneously apply existing schemas to new situations) as a primary moving force in development, keeping the child actively applying schemas to new situations as they arise.

Gradually, the action schema of sucking becomes more adaptable, more responsive to differences in objects. This introduces a third central process in Piaget's theory: accommodation (the process of modifying schemas to suit the environment better). This happens when schemas are modified to match the special characteristics of objects and situations. For example, the schema of reaching for and grasping objects is, initially, predominantly assimilative: it consists of a fairly crude ‘swipe and grab’ in the general direction of an attractive object. As the baby grows, the schema becomes more refined and is adapted to the object's position and size: it begins to accommodate to the object.

The three processes – of intrinsic motivation, assimilation and accommodation – were central to Piaget's explanation of how development progresses. We can see how this might account for the step-by-step development of behaviour by the gradual modification of schemas, each accommodation introducing new flexibility and adaptive possibilities.

4.4 Structure and stages

Piaget's developmental processes can be described in the context of infant behaviour to show how they explain behaviour becoming more adapted, in a step-by-step way. First, the infant develops the ability to combine different schemas in order to achieve new ends. Then, the child represents schemas ‘internally’; they become representations of actions (‘operations’). Finally, by the age of 2 years, the child becomes capable of combining representations into sets of actions. He saw one of the goals of the first 2 years of life as being the achievement of a set of operations that are represented as a structure; not just a random collection of unconnected actions, but a co-ordinated set of possibilities for manipulating the world.

Piaget's theory described four stages of intellectual development: these are outlined in Box 4.

Box 4 Piaget's stage theory of development

Stage 1: Sensori-motor stage (from birth to about 2 years)

Children are born with innate behavioural patterns (reflexes), which are their first means of making sense of their world. Children can take in new knowledge and experiences as far as they are consistent with their existing behaviours. Eventually they begin to generate new behaviours in response to their environment (schemas). As contact with the environment increases, they develop more elaborate patterns of behaviour. This stage ends when children are able to represent their behaviours internally.

Stage 2: Pre-operational stage (from about 2 to 6 years)

Children begin to use combinations or sequences of actions that can be carried out symbolically. For example, putting two objects together can be represented symbolically as an abstract mathematical principle (addition). However, at this stage children are only able to perform them as actions in the real world rather than to represent them symbolically.

Stage 3: Concrete operations stage (from about 6 to 12 years)

During this stage children are mastering the ability to act appropriately on their environment by using the sequences of actions they acquired in the pre-operational stage. They develop the ability to generate ‘rules’ based on their own experiences (e.g. noticing that adding something to a group of objects always ‘makes more’). Children can now manipulate their environment symbolically too, so they can imagine adding ‘more’ to a group of objects. They are still only able to understand the rules that they have had concrete experience of, but can now begin some mental manipulation of these concepts. What they are unable to do at this stage is use rules to anticipate something that could happen, but that they have not yet experienced.

Stage 4: Formal operations stage (from about 12 years onwards)

By this stage children can reason in a purely abstract way, without reference to concrete experience. They can tackle problems in a systematic and scientific manner and are able to generate hypotheses about the world based on their accumulated representations of it.

Each stage is, according to Piaget, marked by characteristic modes of thought. The general progression through the stages is such that thought, and consequent action, become progressively less ‘centred’. Through increasing abstraction of representation, ‘mental operations’ become less tied to concrete realities and egocentric perceptions.

Using the word ‘stage’ to describe a period of development suggests that children do different things at each of these stages. This idea of stage makes it possible to describe these changes in terms of particular behaviours and ways of solving problems that appear to dominate in particular age ranges. However, it should be noted that Piaget's theory recognises that some children develop more slowly or faster than others, and the development of an individual child may not be maintained at a constant rate. For example, illness can slow development down and, when they have recovered, children often show a spurt of ‘catch-up’ growth, both mentally and physically.

An implication of Piaget's theory is that there is some sort of abrupt change or discontinuity in development that establishes a boundary between one stage and the next. Indeed, if there is no such boundary implied, then it is rather dubious whether we would be justified in calling a particular period a ‘stage’ at all. But using the word ‘stage’ also often carries with it a notion of sequence, that one stage must follow another stage in a set order, or even that there is a causal relationship in which the completion of one stage is deemed a necessary condition for the transition to the next one. Piaget's stages form a necessary sequence, with no child missing out any of the stages, nor passing through them out of sequence.

So, how did Piaget determine when a child passed from one stage to the next? This was achieved by administering sets of experimental tasks, each task being linked to a core concept associated with a given stage of development. For example, pre-operational children, in Piaget's theory, are basically egocentric, centred on their own perceptions because they are still very tied to the concrete world and their actions on it. Also, because this group of children lack the ability to reflect on operations, their understanding of the world tends to focus on states, rather than on transformations. Similarly, such children are unable to comprehend points of view different from their own.

One of the concepts that Piaget suggested was absent from pre-operational children's representation of the world was conservation – the understanding that a quantity will be the same, even if its manner of presentation changes. For example, a quantity of water remains the same whether it is presented in a tall, thin glass or a short, wide glass. His conservation of liquid task involves three basic steps:

  1. The child is shown two identical transparent beakers, each about two-thirds full of water. They are placed side-by-side in front of the child. The experimenter seeks the child's agreement that the quantities of water in each are the same, if necessary adding or taking away small amounts until the child is satisfied.

  2. The water from one beaker is all poured into another beaker, which is either taller and narrower than the first one, or shorter and wider.

Typically, up to the age of about 6 or 7 years, children will assert, when asked, that the amount of liquid has changed. If the children are then asked why this is so, they will tend to say something like ‘because it's taller’. The children's answers seem to indicate that their judgement of quantity is centred on the visual change brought about by the transformation (see Figure 6).

Figure 6: (a) Identical beakers of water. (b) Water is poured from one beaker to another which is either taller and narrower or shorter and wider. (c) Comparison of water levels in different sized beakers (adapted from Light and Oates, 1990)

Piaget considered conservation (the understanding that a quantity remains the same, in spite of any transformation of the way in which it is presented) not just in relation to amounts of liquid, but also in relation to mass, volume, weight, area, length and number. For example, to assess conservation of mass, a child is shown two balls of clay and asked whether each ball has the same amount in it. When the child is satisfied that both are equal, one of the balls is rolled out into a sausage shape and placed alongside the other, untransformed, ball. Then, just as in the conservation of liquid task, the child is asked whether there is more material in the sausage shape, or less, or the same amount. A ‘non-conserver’ will now say that the amounts are no longer the same, as the sausage shape now has more in it.

Piaget's theory involves the child progressively becoming freed from the constraints of their own perspective and the concrete objects around them, as mental operations become more abstract. This process reaches its end-point in Piaget's final stage, when operations become wholly abstract and the child becomes able to reason purely hypothetically and systematically.

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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.

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.

4.7 Summary

  • Piaget proposed that all children pass through an ordered sequence of stages of cognitive development. This development arises through the processes of intrinsic motivation, assimilation and accommodation and equilibriation.

  • Children's actions on the environment are the basic building blocks of development.

  • Piaget argued that children reason differently to adults, as their mental representations of the world are initially centred on their own perceptions and experiences of it. Cognitive development occurs as children become able to act on their environment in increasingly sophisticated ways. Children are therefore seen as active in constructing heir understanding of the world from an initial set of innate behaviours.

  • A pedagogical approach known as ‘discovery learning’ was developed as a result of Piaget's ideas about cognitive development. This positions the teacher as the provider of a developmentally appropriate learning environment, rather than as an active tutor.

  • Piaget has been criticised for failing to recognise the importance of the social context of children's cognitive activity.

5 Social constructivism

5.1 Cultural tools

Vygotsky (1896–1934) wrote two important books, Mind in Society (1978) and Thought and Language (1986), which were only widely published after his death. Due to state suppression, since they challenged some of the orthodox beliefs of the Soviet regime, these books took some time to come to the attention of developmental psychologists. Vygotsky came, independently, to much the same conclusions as Piaget about the constructive nature of development.

However, he differed in the role he ascribed to the social and cultural world surrounding the child. Vygotsky's perspective was that human history is created through the construction and use of cultural tools (a means of achieving things in the world which are acquired during development and passed on to subsequent generations. Cultural tools can be either physical (e.g. a hammer) or psychological (e.g. language) in nature). The inventive use of tools is what makes, and has made, humans human. Cultural tools are ways of achieving things in the world, acquired in the course of development and passed on to subsequent generations. So, for example, a hammer is a physical example of a cultural tool: it is a means of knocking sharp objects (e.g. nails) into surfaces. Its form and function are the result of generations of cultural development and adaptation. Moreover, its meaning and use is not immediately obvious to someone who has never come across a hammer before, or who has never needed to knock nails in – this information is also culturally transmitted. Each generation may adapt a hammer for its own needs or use it in new ways; a process referred to as ‘appropriation’.

Not all cultural tools are physical objects: they include ways of thinking as well as ways of doing. For example, perhaps one of the most significant cultural tools people use is language, and it shares the same characteristics attributed above to the hammer: long-term cultural development, adaptation, transmission and appropriation. Vygotsky proposed that it is through social interaction that ways of thinking begin to be appropriated by children, not, as Piaget thought, by children constructing them on their own. Cognitive development takes place within a social context and is supported by it.

Activity 4 Thinking in context

Timing: 0 hours 15 minutes

This activity will demonstrate how even adult cognition is facilitated by the social context.

Try these two puzzles and write down your answer to the first puzzle before moving on to the second.

Puzzle 1

There are four cards, labelled either A or D on one side and either 3 or 7 on the other. They are laid out like this:

A rule states: ‘if A is on one side then there must be a 3 on the other’.

Which two cards do you need to turn over to find out if this rule is true?

Puzzle 2

As you walk into a bar you see a large sign stating that ‘To drink alcohol here you must be over 18’. There are four people in the bar. You know the ages of two of them, and can see what the other two are drinking. The situation is:

  • Ailsa is drinking beer;

  • Dymphna is drinking Coke;

  • Maureen is 30 years old;

  • Lauren is 16 years old.

Which two people would you need to talk to in order to check that the ‘over 18 rule’ for drinking alcohol is being followed?

Puzzle 1

The correct response is A and 7 but most people answer A and 3. Clearly, turning the A over will enable you to check that there is a 3 on the other side of that card. You need to check that the 7 also does not have an A on the other side, as that would ‘break’ the rule if it did (an A must have 3 on the other side). Turning the 3 card over will not help you because the rule only states what should be on the other side of an A card; it does not insist that all 3 cards must always have an A on them. However, people often make this (logically false) assumption.

Puzzle 2

This puzzle requires exactly the same reasoning, but you are more likely to solve this one first time around. This is because the problem is embedded in a familiar social situation. The correct solution is to ask Lauren what she was drinking, and ask Ailsa her age.

Your knowledge of the social situation means that you are less likely to make the same kind of mistake that you did in Puzzle 1 – the equivalent error in this problem would be to assume that the rule ‘implies’ that if you are over 18 you must be drinking alcohol (and so you would ask Maureen what she is drinking)! In the context of this puzzle, such a suggestion is clearly illogical.

The puzzles illustrate the significance of reasoning and cognitive ability being embedded in, and affected by, particular social contexts. The second puzzle is much easier than the first for most people, but the logical form of the reasoning required in both puzzles is the same. The significance of social context for Vygotsky is well illustrated by his views on the development of thought and language.

5.2 Thought and language

For Piaget the development of thought and language was dependent on underlying ‘intelligence’. Language is therefore simply a reflection of mental ability: intelligence precedes language and is independent of it.

Vygotsky (1986) however, proposed that language has two functions: inner speech, used for mental reasoning, and external speech, used for communication with other people. He suggested that these two functions arise separately. That is, before the age of about 2 years, children use words purely socially, to communicate with others. Up to this point, the child's internal cognition is without language.

At around 2 years thought and language merge. The language that once accompanied social interaction is internalised to give a language for thought. This internalised language becomes a means of guiding the child's actions and thinking. As a result of internalising ‘social language’, the social environment becomes embedded in children's mental reasoning:

Every function in the child's cultural development appears twice: first, on the social level, and later, on the individual level; first, between people (interpsychological) and then inside the child (intrapsychological) … All the higher functions [thought and language] originate as actual relations between human individuals.

(Vygotsky, 1978, p. 57)

Between the ages of 3 and 4, children often talk to themselves. Piaget (1923) called this self talk egocentric speech. As children get older egocentric speech disappears and Piaget suggested this disappearance was indicative of the child becoming less egocentric. In contrast, Vygotsky (1978) identified self talk as a critical part of the child internalising previously external social speech. Further, unlike Piaget, Vygotsky did not believe that such speech disappeared. He argued that to believe this is like believing that children stop counting when they stop using their fingers to do so.

Vygotsky argued that self talk becomes internalised and guides the child's actions. Evidence supporting this is found when children are presented with tasks of increasing difficulty, when their conscious use of self talk is seen to increase in order to guide their efforts. Moreover, this type of speech is more common in cognitively mature and socially competent children. For Vygotsky the young child is an intensely social being and self talk is a crucial process in the development of inner speech and thought. Reading C is taken from Thought and Language (1986), in which Vygotsky writes about the significance of self talk.

Activity 5: Reading C

At this point you should turn to the end of this chapter and read Reading C, ‘Egocentric speech’ which is written by Vygotsky (1986).

Reading C (PDF, 2 pages, 0.2MB)

View document

5.3 Teaching and learning

Vygotsky proposed that through contact with other, more able people children appropriate new ways of thinking and doing. Indeed Vygotsky saw learning as best supported when there is a degree of inequality in skills and understanding between two people. People of different abilities working together can create what Vygotsky termed a zone of proximal development (ZPD) – the difference between what a child can do unaided, and what the same child can do with the help of more able others.

[The zone of proximal development] is the distance between the actual developmental level as determined by independent problem solving and the level of potential development as determined through problem solving under adult guidance or in collaboration with more capable peers.

(Vygotsky, 1978, p. 86, our emphases)

The support provided by a more able partner allows the less able to tackle a new task, which in turn encourages development into a new level of competence. The social interaction and situation that create the ZPD supports the child's cognition. The concept of scaffolding (the type of assistance offered to support learning. A key characteristic of scaffolding is that it does not simplify the task) was developed by Wood to describe the way in which adults or more able peers can support a learner to operate in the ZPD (Wood et al., 1976). The metaphor of a scaffold, which is gradually withdrawn as the learner becomes able to work with less support, stresses the significance of social support in learning and development.

Vygotsky was positive about the potential of school instruction, as he believed it ‘does not preclude development but charts new paths for it’ (Vygotsky, 1934, p. 152). He believed that formal instruction had the potential to enable children to disembed their thinking from social contexts and thereby foster metacognition: the ability to gain conscious insight into one's own thought processes. For example, perhaps the only way that someone is able to solve the first puzzle in Activity 4 is if they have been taught how to disembed the underlying principles from socially acquired reasoning. Donaldson (1978) also saw this as a key outcome of formal education.

5.4 Application: deaf-blind education

Vygotsky's ideas have been applied to the remediation of the developmental barriers encountered by a wide variety of children, most notably deaf-blind children, and those with learning difficulties. As mentioned previously, for Vygotsky, cognition is actively developed by language. Therefore the social constructivist approach sets out to develop the language abilities of these children (often through using sign language or alternative communication systems) and through this they are enabled to develop the higher order psychological skills which can then be used to manage their lower level sensory ones.

The approach begins by teaching any basic skills that the child lacks, such as feeding him or herself. This is achieved through adult support and during such tuition the adult stimulates the child's interest in aspects of the environment relevant to that task. Once the child has developed basic skills and the desire to explore their surroundings, the next task is to develop social language. At first this will be through the introduction of gestures during routine activities and the gestures used will retain some immediate similarity to the action that they represent (e.g. the gesture for food might be an action mimicking eating). These gestures are extended by ‘gesture equivalents’ that contain some more arbitrary movements of the hand or fingers, but that make a distinction between different related concepts (e.g. ‘food’, ‘eating’, ‘to eat outdoors’, etc.). This moves the child towards an increasingly symbolic form of communication. Finally, the children are taught to associate their gesture equivalents with spoken words, by touching the face and throat of their teacher while she speaks, and eventually trying to produce the same movements and sounds themselves.

5.5 Evaluating social constructivism

Vygotsky highlighted how intrinsic developmental and cultural forces interact, and as Moll concluded ‘Vygotsky's primary contribution was in developing a general approach that brought education, as a fundamental human activity, fully into a theory of psychological development’ (Moll, 1990, p. 15).

His focus however was largely on the cultural elements and how these became part of the child. Yet he did not consider the ‘inside out’ forces from the child's point of view. This is reflected in his support for school instruction. The Soviet schools for children with developmental difficulties (except deaf-blind schools) that applied his principles were run along very formal teacher-led lines. There was little room for pupils to talk to each other; the teacher was the transmitter of the cultural knowledge.

Vygotsky's model, at least as used in the Soviet Union, promoted separate special educational practices for separate identified groups of children. This would run counter to current moves toward inclusive education in which teaching styles are developing to accommodate diversity. However, in the United Kingdom Vygotsky's theories have been used to develop ideas about inclusive education (Thomas and Glenny, 2004), effective peer tutoring and to challenge static models of learning which constrain the possibilities for children's potential development.

Crain (2000) has suggested that this theory could lead to instruction focusing too much on the young child's future attainments and exerting a pressure to get her or him started on a formal curriculum and conceptual and analytical reasoning. This might ignore the young child's need to develop their ‘childish’ capabilities – imagination, being physically active, drawing, singing and so forth. However, one argument against such criticism is that waiting until a child is ready for instruction is waiting until the child does not need teaching. For example, the deaf-blind children discussed might never be ready for instruction and would therefore remain locked out of the world without the tools to access it.

Crain's argument is based on the concept that children pass through a fixed sequence of stages, as in Piaget's theory. They need to master each stage in turn before proceeding to the next. Their ‘childish activities’ are part of this process. At particular stages they are ready and able to learn particular things. Crain's points also imply that childhood, and a time for being a child, is something that needs to be protected to promote healthy psychological development.

5.6 Summary

  • Vygotsky saw learning as a cultural and interpersonal process that involves the acquisition of ‘cultural tools’ from others.

  • Language is, according to Vygotsky, initially used solely for interpersonal communication. When it becomes internalised for the purposes of thought, the social environment is reflected in children's reasoning.

  • Vygotsky argued that adult tuition was important as it is through contact with more able others that children are able to achieve what would otherwise be beyond them. Such experiences lead them into new levels of reasoning.

  • Sensitive teaching creates a ‘zone of proximal development’ (ZPD) which can foster cognitive development.

  • Vygotsky's ideas have been used to teach children with special educational needs, including teaching deaf-blind children how to communicate with others.

  • Vygotskian-inspired approaches to tuition have been criticised for being too formal and teacher-orientated.

6 Conclusion

At the beginning of this course we recalled four views of development. The ‘grand theories’ reviewed here can be seen to capture elements of those views:

  • development as discipline – behaviourism;

  • development as experience – social learning theory;

  • development as ‘natural stages’ – constructivism;

  • development as interaction – social constructivism.

However, these theories have more in common with each other than such an overview suggests.

Activity 6

Timing: 0 hours 15 minutes

This activity will help you to begin to think about the similarities and contrasts that exist between the four theories explored in this course.

Consider which of the following statements apply to each of the theories. Put a tick in the boxes to indicate the statements that apply to each theory. When you have done this, compare your table to the one provided at the end of the chunk.

Here is a copy for you to print out (PDF, 1 page, 0.1MB)

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BehaviourismSocial learning theoryConstructivismSocial constructivism
The environment is important.
Innate factors drive development.
Experiencing consequences of behaviour affects development.
Observing other people affects development.
Interacting with peers can promote development.
Interacting with adults can promote development.
Children are active in constructing their learning.
Development during childhood occurs in a predetermined sequence.


Here is a copy of the answers for you to print out (PDF, 1 page, 0.1MB)

View document

BehaviourismSocial learning theoryConstructivismSocial constructivism
The environment is important.
Innate factors drive development.
Experiencing consequences of behaviour affects development.
Observing other people affects development.
Interacting with peers can promote development.
Interacting with adults can promote development.
Children are active in constructing their learning.
Development during childhood occurs in a predetermined sequence.

What you may notice is that the theories have more in common than one might at first realise. For example, all the theories value the environment the child develops within, although they differ in the extent to which they see the environment as central and what aspects they see as of key significance. Behaviourism is perhaps the most extreme ‘empiricist’ position, but the environment is also seen as important in each of the others: ‘environment’ in the sense of other people and their behaviours (Bandura); environment as affording opportunities for exploration and therefore cognitive development (Piaget); and environment as culture and social interaction (Vygotsky). That is not to say that nativist theories of child development do not exist, but they often only explain one aspect of child development (e.g. language development), rather than offering a grand theory. Moreover, contemporary theories are less clearly identifiable as ‘nature’ or ‘nurture’, but recognise the impact of both internal and external influences on development, although some will see either the environment or innate abilities as ‘driving’ the development of emergent skills.


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The content acknowledged below is Proprietary (see terms and conditions) and is used under licence.

Grateful acknowledgement is made to the following sources for permission to reproduce material in this course:

Course image: fdecomite in Flickr made available under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Licence.

Reading A: pp. 81–83 Keenan, A. (2004) ‘Autism in Northern Ireland: the tragedy and the shame'’ The Psychologist, vol.17 (2), The British Psychological Society;

Reading B: pp. 85–86 Bandura, A. (1973) ‘Origins of aggression’, in Aggression: a social learning analysis, Prentice Hall, Inc., Copyright © Albert Bandura;

Reading C: pp. 87–88 Vygotsky, L. (1986) ‘Piaget's theory of child's speech and thought’, in Lozulin, A. (trans), Thought and Language, The MIT Press, Copyright, © 1986 by The Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Figure 5: Copyright © Albert Bandura

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