HOW CHILDREN THINK
Jean Piaget and his theory of the intellectual and cognitive development of the child has been a major influence on education in the western world. Throughout his life, Piaget personally produced an enormous amount of research into how children think and directly stimulated hundreds of other researchers to conduct various projects.
Piaget looked at the mistakes children made and came to the conclusion that children think quite differently from adults. Their minds seem to be organised quite differently from adults. It was not just that with increasing age the child gained increasing knowledge, more that their knowledge was of a completely different sort.
In Unit Eight we looked at Binet’s view of intelligence. If you recall, we said that this view held that intelligence was quantitative in nature, growing steadily as the child develops in this way:
Piaget’s view is quite different. He believes that a child’s intellectual abilities are quite different in nature at different stages, i.e. qualitative, in this way:
What Research Methods did Piaget use?
Piaget’s initial research consisted largely of conducting clinical interviews with children in which he asked them questions such as, ‘Why does it rain?’, ‘Who were the first people to play marbles?’ and so on. Rather than keeping strictly to an identical list of questions for all children, Piaget tailored his questions to each individual child pursuing any interesting points raised by their answers.
His aim was to follow the child’s thoughts without distorting them. He used a cross-sectional technique, interviewing many different children from several different age groups in order to ascertain whether or not there are any similarities in thinking between children of similar age groups. Later, Piaget carried out intensive naturalistic observation of his own three children, two girls and a boy, starting from the very day they were born.
Piaget’s Fundamental Beliefs
Piaget began his research as a biologist. This had a great deal of influence on the view he took of cognitive development. He believes that intellectual development occurs as the child is constantly trying to make sense of his world and adapt to his environment. As each new experience is encountered, the child (and indeed the adult) will constantly organise and re-organise their knowledge into more efficient structures.
Piaget sees all children as being active, curious and inventive – never receiving information passively but acting on everything they come into contact with.
The Building Blocks of Intelligence
Piaget attempted to discover and describe the mental structures of children as they grow from infancy to adulthood. He calls these mental structures schemas. In infancy, schemas are simple and practical, becoming more differentiated and complex as the child grows. As we’ve already noted, Piaget saw intelligence as a kind of mental activity which enables the individual to adapt to his environment.
Assimilation, Accommodation and Equilibration
To begin with, the infant is born with certain basic schemas, which Piaget calls action schemas, such as sucking and grasping. The development of intelligence takes places as these basic schemas are adapted and increased through the joint process of assimilation and accommodation.
Through the process of assimilation, the child uses these early schema to take in information about his environment. Through the process of accommodation, these schema are modified to fit the child’s experiences. In other words:
1. When a person is faced with new environmental stimuli, he will attempt to make sense of it by using his existing schemas – i.e. he will try to assimilate it. 2. If the existing schema are inadequate for the task he will then have to change or accommodate to take account of this new information. 3. Equilibration takes place alongside assimilation and accommodation. If, for example, a person finds his existing schema are