Jean Piaget (1896 – 1980) became interested in children’s cognitive development when he was working on intelligence tests as a zoologist. He noticed that children would often give ‘wrong’ answers to some questions, and began to investigate why this might be happening. He made detailed observations on his own children, and gradually developed his own influential theory.
Piaget suggested that children ‘constructed’ or ‘built’ their thoughts according to their experiences of the world around them, which is why his theory of learning is referred to as a “constructivist approach”.
Piaget used the word ’schema’ to show the meaning of a child’s conclusions or thoughts and he felt that learning was an on-going process, where children need to adapt their original ideas if a new piece of information contradicted their conclusions. An example of this would be a group of toddlers who are served milk in blue beakers, may come to believe that milk is only served in this way, they will then come to the conclusion that all drinks are served in blue beakers.
This theory can help us to understand why young children’s thinking is different from an adult’s.
Another suggestion Piaget made was that as a child develops, so does their thinking, and he grouped children’s cognitive development into four stages:-
• Sensory-motor (age 0-2) – Development of permanence and child begins to use symbols (i.e. language).
• Pre-operational (age 2-7) – Child uses symbols in play and thought, egocentrism, centration, animism and inability to conserve.
• Concrete operational (age 7-11) – Ability to conserve, child can begin to solve problems mentally using practical supports, i.e. counters and objects.
• Formal operational (age 11-15) – Young people think about experiences that have not happened to them, and they juggle ideas in their minds.
Links to practice
Because of Piaget’s work, early year’s settings and school now attempt to provide a more hands-on approach and more relevant tasks for children and young people. His work has influenced a more “child-centred” approach to teaching, where teachers initially work out the child’s needs and plan their activities in accordance. Piaget’s work has also influenced approaches to the management of children’s behaviour, as he also looked at children’s moral development from a child’s perspective, rather than from an adult’s point of view.
Vygotsky’s theory of Cognitive Development
Lev Vygotsky (1896 – 1934) has also proved to be influential, and has been adopted by the Early Years Foundation Stage framework in England and Scotland.
Vygotsky believed that a child’s social environment and experiences are very important. He believed that children are born to be sociable and by spending time with their parents and friends, they will gain skills and concepts.
Vygotsky also believed children to be “apprentices” who learn and gain understanding through being with others (also known as “scaffolding”)
Vygotsky suggested that maturation was a vital element of child’s development, and that their carers must extend their child’s learning so that the child is able to use these emerging skills and concepts. This idea was defined by as the “zone of proximal development” by Vygotsky, but can also be referred to as “potential”.
Links to practice
Vygotsky suggested that people who work with children should extend and challenge their thoughts so that their “zone of proximal development” can emerge. He also stressed how important social interaction was and is today. He also believed that adults must work alongside children, and also that children can help to develop each other’s full potential. This means now that children and young people are encouraged to do tasks together in early year’s settings.
Although Vygotsky saw that teaching directly was important, he also believed that it is important for children and young people to be active in their own learning.