Posts Tagged ‘Jean Piaget’

Stages of Development in Classical and CM Education

sDear 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.

The previous posts in this mini-series are:

Having looked last time as Jean Piaget’s theory of the development of the child’s intellect and reasoning abilities, I would like today to look at how the stages he delineates line up with both the classical and Charlotte Mason philosophies of education.

To recap, 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.

We do not typically associate a Charlotte Mason education with stages of development.  I would suggest, however, that there is at least one major stage distinction she does make, that between school-age children and pre-school age children. A Charlotte Mason education did not begin until age 6 or 7 and she did not expect children to do formal schoolwork or to narrate books that were read to them until that age. Over the course of their school career, children would advance in some ways, moving to harder books, beginning harder subjects like Plutarch, and trading copywork for dictation. She did not in any way describe these as stages, however. They seem to represent more of an advancement of knowledge and ability than new intellectual milestones. Even with subjects like grammar which were delayed until middle or high school ages the concern seems to be not so much for the stage of development as the obtaining of background knowledge which is necessary to understand the subject. On the other end of the age ranges, Mason did very much believe in giving the youngest children real ideas to chew upon and not withholding meaty intellectual materials, albeit age-appropriate ones, from them.

Classical education has many definitions and many versions are available today (see this post and this one). I am going to speak today of what I would deem the most regimented of these modern varieties (at least in terms of staging), that first espoused by Dorothy Sayers in her Lost Tools of Learning and later carried on by Douglas Wilson and others. This version of classical education is characterized by its use of the Trivium [1]. The Trivium distinguishes three stages, each of which necessitates a different approach to education. In the early years, the Grammar stage focuses on memorization. In the middle years, the dialectic stage emphasizes logic and disputation. And finally, in the upper years the rhetoric stage focuses on language and making persuasive arguments. These stages roughly correspond to elementary, middle, and high school levels. In each stage there is a different kind of learning. Those in the grammar stage, for instance, learn mainly through memorization. The grammar stage is for obtaining the building blocks. In the middle, dialectic stage, the child begins to manipulate those building blocks and to make logical arguments. In the rhetoric stage the focus is on expressing oneself and communicating those ideas which have been formed. It should be noted as well that there would also be a pre-school stage, an age below which formal education begins.

“The Poll-parrot stage [= the grammar stage] is the one in which learning by heart is easy and, on the whole, pleasurable; whereas reasoning is difficult and, on the whole, little relished . . . The Pert Age [= dialectic] . . . is characterised by contradicting, answering-back, liking to ‘catch people out’ (especially one’s elders) and in the propounding of conundrums . . . The Poetic Age [=rhetoric] is popularly known as the ‘difficult’ age. It is self-centred; it yearns to express itself; it rather specialises in being misunderstood; it is restless and tries to achieve independence; and, with good luck and good guidance, it should show the beginnings of creativeness, a reaching out towards a synthesis of what it already knows, and a deliberate eagerness to know and do some one thing in preference to all others.” (Dorothy Sayers, “Lost Tools io Learning,” Kindle Loc. 169)

Comparing these three systems would give us the following:

Piaget Mason Classical [2]
0-2: Sensory/motor 0-6: No schooling 0-6: No schooling
2-7: Preoperational      “
7-11: Concrete thinking 6+ Schooling 6-12: Grammar stage
12-15: Formal operations 12-14(?): Dialectic
15-17: Rhetoric

The big commonality here is that all three agree that there is a stage (or 2) that lasts up until age 6 or 7 during which traditional, formal education is not appropriate [3].

One might think from this chart that classical education lines up fairly well with the modern scholarly theory of child development as exemplified by Piaget. I would like to suggest, however, that there are some profound differences.

The biggest differences come in the view of the young child. For Piaget the child does not think like an adult but he is always constructing his reality. That is, he is taking in information and responding to his environment, continually constructing and redefining his mental model of the universe.  For Sayers and those who follow her, the young child, up to age 12, is a memorizing machine. His storehouse, if you will, is being filled with information at this stage, information which he will only really start to utilize in the next stage. Mason does not directly address how the child learns but she presents to even young children what she would call vital or living ideas and she assumes that the child is able to take in, or digest, these ideas.

It is the view of how learning happens and how the child reasons (or doesn’t) that is behind these differences. For Mason the child is able to reason; this is not a taught but an inborn skill and he simply must be given quality material on which to use this skill. An analogy which used to be used frequently in Charlotte Mason circles is that of pegs and things to hang on them. A Charlotte Mason approach says that children need pegs first; they need fixed points, so to speak, things they have relationships with and only when they have some connection can they take information and hang it on those pegs. A classical approach, on the other hand, starts with the information and only when there is a stockpile of facts learned does the child have pegs which allow him to sort it all and fit it all in (of course this analogy was provided by the CM folks, not the classical ones). Another way to say this would be to say that in Mason’s philosophy the facts and information do not make sense to us and will not be retained or be useful until and unless we have a context in which to make sense of them.

In a classical education, the early years, up to age 12, are largely for memorization and the acquisition of information. Reasoning as such is not done at this age and is a skill which must be taught.  The analogy for this would say that the child needs material to work with before he can build. Supplying the building blocks, in the form of facts and information, is the first stage. [4]

Piaget says that children do not reason as adults do but he does see their reasoning skills developing naturally given the right educational circumstances. It is not that young children don’t reason for Piaget but that they do so differently. He sees a process of disequilibrium and accommodation by which children learn. They begin with one view, a thesis, which is then challenged, the antithesis, so that they must adjust and come to a new view, the synthesis [5]. If there is an age before reasoning for Piaget, it is the 0-2 age bracket. The awareness of object permanence he sees as the foundation for all later learning. After it is in place, reasoning can begin. Elkind, who follows and expands upon Piaget’s ideas, sees the years between 7 and 11 as the period of “work” for the child [6]. This work, however, does not equal rote memorization which Elkind deems “anathema to critical, innovative thinking” (Power of Play, introduction). “Even at this stage children  . . . want to understand, not just repeat and imitate” (ibid., p. 7).

The role of the teacher also varies. The teacher in classical education is paramount. He is a mentor and guides the process of learning in a fairly involved way. Though modern applications vary, the process of dialectic which is characteristic of classical education involves a dialogue between teacher and student(s) in which questions are asked and answers elicited. Piaget’s approach, in contrast, sees the teacher as one who creates an environment in which the child can learn, but he would say that the teacher cannot in a real sense teach anything. The child must do his own learning as he builds his concept of the world. Charlotte Mason is a little closer to Piaget on this. For her, the teacher does not create an environment but spreads a feast of ideas, the focus being on intellectual materials more than physical ones, and the child has freedom to “ingest” these materials but cannot be forced to do so.

In the end, I am not sure that the specifics of the staging matter as much as our ideas about children’s ability to reason and how they may or may not develop over time. For both Piaget and Mason reasoning is natural though Mason would say that the child is born with all his faculties intact and Piaget sees reasoning ability as developing over time. For classical educators like Sayers, reasoning ability is something that is taught. The view of the role of the teacher in each follows upon the view of reasoning, with classical educators giving teachers the most involved role and Mason giving them the least. All three would agree that formal learning is best delayed until around age 6 or 7. What happens between ages 7 and 11 is perhaps the biggest divide. For Sayers this is a time of memorization. She calls this the “poll-parrot” stage and says that children of this age take pleasure in memorizing and have little desire to reason (see quote above). For her it is a time to gather materials but not to construct. For Piaget, the child is always constructing reality and takes little pleasure in memorization but desires to understand. Mason’s motto (or one of them) is that “education is the science of relations” which for her means that children must always build relationships with what they are studying.  Information without relationship or context is useless.

My quick take-away from all this would be that modern developmental psychology tends overall to support Charlotte Mason’s views more than those of Dorothy Sayers and the other classical educators who follow her with the caveat that it does lead to a more staged approach which it might be wise for us to take into account.

Nebby

Notes:

[1] There has been a movement in classical circles away from the Trivium as Sayers defined it. See Shawn Barnett, “Dorothy Sayers was Wrong: the Trivium and Child Development,” Circe Institute (Aug. 9, 2019).

[2] The ages here are somewhat fluid depending on whom one is reading. I am basing the specifics on “What is the Trivium”  by Harvey Bluedorn from Trivium Pursuit (1993).

[3] I say “traditional formal education” because Piaget would have schools for children below age 6/7 but they would not be doing seat-work and the other things that we think of as traditional schoolwork.

[4] It is a bit unclear to me why the age divisions given in Sayers’ Trivium are what they are. According to Elkind (The Power of Play, p. 122), the ancients, i.e. the original classical educators, saw reasoning as a necessity for formal education and since this education begins around age 6 or 7 we must posit that reasoning also does.

[5] We can see in this process the influence of the evolutionary mindset which assumes that the organism (a child in this case) must adapt to its environment when there are changes or any kind of conflict.

[6] See this earlier post on Elkind’s theories.

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.