Applying Piaget

Dear Reader,

I am in the midst of a mini-series on developmental psychology. My goal with this series is to evaluate the major trends and ideas within this field from a (reformed) Christian perspective with an eye to seeing how we can appropriately make use of the insights of these mostly secular scholars.

In the first post we looked at how as Christians we should think about the social sciences. We then looked at some of the major thinkers in the field of developmental psychology with particular emphasis on their personal belief systemsAnd last time we looked at some of the major trends within the field and how we as Christians should approach the subject.

Today I would like to focus in on the ideas of Jean Piaget. As we saw last time, the various thinkers tend to concentrate on different areas of development. Piaget looked primarily at intellectual development and how we come to know things (i.e. epistemology). Since my on-going project is to create and refine a reformed Christian philosophy of education, this side of things is of particular interest.

Piaget distinguished four stages of development:

  • birth-age 2: the sensory-motor period in which the major goal is for children to learn object permanence, the idea that things which we cannot see still continue to exist
  • ages 2-7: the preoperational stage which is characterized by transductive thinking. Children in this stage see things as belonging only to one category. Thus one’s mother cannot also be a sister and the person who is taller is assumed to be older.
  • ages 7-11: the stage of concrete operations in which children begin to be able to do things in their heads. At this point we begin to see that our knowledge comes not solely from the things themselves but also from our logic and the images we construct in our heads.
  • ages 12-15: the stage of formal operations in which children begin to be able to think about thinking. At this point they can handle grammar which thinks about words and algebra which uses abstract concepts.

Beyond these stages Piaget saw no further growth in intellectual ability though one could still acquire new knowledge.

When we looked at how a Christian should approach the social sciences, we said that we are most likely to glean information from these secular scholars when they are speaking of mundane (=this-worldly) issues. Of the thinkers we have been considering, I find Piaget’s theory most intriguing and potentially helpful because it does seem to stick to fairly concrete matters. Though Piaget himself seems to have had a fairly materialistic outlook (in the sense of considering only the material universe and nothing of a transcendent or spiritual nature), we can still appreciate his scholarship as it touches on these concrete areas.

David Elkind, who largely follows Piaget, says that children do not think the way we do though they do feel as we do. Piaget gives us some guidelines for how children do think and what may be expected of them at various ages. As Christians we have to note that children are fully human. Spiritually they are as we are, accountable for sin and capable of a relationship with their Creator (dependent upon His grace of course). But this does not rule out the idea that their thought might be different than ours in some ways.

With these ideas in mind, I would make a few observations about the specifics of Piaget’s schema. Though the very youngest children may not think as we do, we should not underestimate their intelligence. The thing they have to learn in their first years which Piaget sees as the foundation of all later intellectual effort — that objects continue to exist even when they disappear from our sight — is huge. This is a giant intellectual leap and it is taken largely without any help from older people. We seem naturally to want to play peek-a-boo with small children and we delight in their delight in the game, but the cognitive leap that is made here would be made even if we did not do so. Though this is not an idea we directly teach to children, I would venture to say that very nearly 100% of them learn it [1]. And this is a major intellectual accomplishment. We could look at a one-year-old and say: “How stupid! He does not know his mother still exists when she leaves the room” or we could look at the same situation and say: “How brilliant! These very small people accomplish a major intellectual paradigm shift, larger than any that will occur later in life, without any direct aid from us.”

One last note on this first stage — the realization that objects and people still exist when we can’t see them is the huge intellectual advancement that characterizes this stage. It is nothing less than a paradigm shift which allows further logical thought. But it is far from all that these little people are learning. The attainments they make in understood and to a lesser degree spoken language in their first two years are astounding and we should not underestimate that degree of real intelligence that is at work there, largely without intentional teaching on the part of adults.

If we all come to understand object permanence, yet many adults seem to be stuck in various ways in the other stages. Most of us are able to accept that one person can be both a mother and a sister, but we are often fooled by the bigger=better mentality even as adults. Elkind gives the example of a glass that is short and wide versus one that is round and tall. Once she has learned some degree of abstract reasoning (ages 7-11), a child will be able to discern that the taller glass does not always hold more [2]. And yet restaurants use this glass trick to give us less for more money all the time. We may know the truth if we stop to think about it but even as adults we are not always aware of the truth.

My own very unscientific observation would be that, beyond the acquiring of object permanence, there are ways in which we all — and some more than others — fail to fully demonstrate that we have mastered these stages. On the other end, the students in my Sunday school classes (ages 2-6) have at times demonstrated reasoning beyond their stage (though this varies a lot from child to child). This would lead me to a much more fluid understanding of the stages.

I would add to this Lev Vygotsky’s understanding that as we progress we are often able with help to do that which we cannot yet do on our own. This leads to a mindset which says not “don’t expect this child to do X task yet; he is not yet at that stage” but “we need to push the child a little; he may be able to do more with some help.” [3]

There are a number of implications here for how we approach education–

We must acknowledge that children will not always see the world as we do. Piaget said they think differently. The things which matter to us will not always be the things which stand out or matter to them. I believe this supports Charlotte Mason’s technique of narration rather than more traditional reading comprehension as it allows the child to tell what he knows and does not expect him to get from a text what an adult would.

We must also be patient. There are some subjects which the child will not be ready for until they have achieved certain intellectual milestones. Grammar instruction is wasted on the very young. Subjects like grammar and algebra should be saved until the child is at least 12.

Yet, following Vygotsky, I do not think it is wrong to push children a little beyond what they may think of for themselves. Some children will progress faster than others and some will be able to grasp ideas if we give them a little direction that they may not have thought of on their own. Practically speaking, an example would be that when we are reading a story which raises issues of morality it is okay to ask questions which get the child thinking about nuances that would not have occurred to him on his own.  I also think it is okay to do some level of literary analysis that introduces terms like protagonist and antagonist and thereby gives children the vocabulary and categories to discuss concepts that they would not otherwise have grasped. [4]

One might conclude from all this that it is good to teach logic in a formal way. I am not sure I am ready to go there. The attainments which Piaget describes, if they are not gained naturally, can be taught through casual, conversational methods. Formal instruction in logic as it is often done is not necessarily going to match these stages or to aid the individual in moving along from one to the next.

The Charlotte Mason approach, which my own philosophy of education largely follows, does not speak of stages of development whereas the classical approach, which I have been fairly critical of, does delineate stages. Next time I would like to address this issue head-on and to look at how the stages of development delineated by modern scholars line up with each of these philosophies.

Nebby

Notes:

[1] One question I have is whether this stage, the discovery of object permanence, is ever missed. When Bowlby discusses attachment, we can say that there are young children who fail to attach to any caregiver and who are scarred for life by this lack. Do any children, even the most developmentally delayed, ever fail to obtain the idea of object permanence? That’s a sincere question; I don’t know the answer.

I would also note that, ironically, many adult scholars and philosophers have operated on the assumption that we cannot know anything that our senses and direct experience do not tell us. They seem by this to start by jettisoning this very first stage of human intellectual development.

[2] David Elkind. Giants in the Nursery (St. Paul: Redleaf Press, 2015) p. 170.

[3] This is a point which Carol Mooney makes in her book Theories of Childhood (St. Paul: Redleaf Press, 2013).

[4] For introducing literary analysis, I highly recommend the book Deconstructing Penguins. See this post for an example of how we have used it in our homeschool.

One response to this post.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s