A little bit of Piaget and Vygotsky: an unfinished conversation

#DHSTM15 was followed up by a small team curry at Shafiques (delicious), to which I was graciously invited, and a conversation that started with tatoos, but had just got onto the presence or otherwise of Piaget and Vygotsky in the ITT programme at Southampton when David Didau @LearningSpy had to head home. Hence, an unfinished conversation…

As one of several pre-course tasks, @SotonEd trainee teachers are required to write 750 words summarising, and critically comparing, the work of Piaget and Vygotsky, and then a further 500 words relating these theories to what they observe in school. Is this helpful for trainee teachers, or is it the first step in guaranteeing that everything [they] know about education is wrong?

I’m always interested in what other people think, but it’s important to be aware of context here. Whilst a few trainees have extensive experience in school before they start, many barely know which end of a child is which, and are really starting from scratch.

The idea that’s common to both Piaget and Vygotsky is that children learn by developing a mental model of the world and learning is about adding to, or adapting, their mental model to include whatever you are trying to teach them. Because they have different mental models, two children won’t necessarily respond to a learning experience in the same way – what one ‘gets’ another may not. Vygotsky particularly identified a ‘sweet spot’ beyond current capabilities but manageable with support, in which learning is most likely to be effective.

For me, that is constructivist cognitive psychology cut down to its bare essence: exactly what I’m looking for in my trainees’ assignments. If trainees get this then a number of other important ideas follow fairly logically:

A clear explanation of a new idea does not necessarily lead to a clear understanding (the input/output myth) – this clear understanding only comes when the mental model fits, or is adapted to fit, the new idea;

Children’s prior knowledge matters – leading to the importance of knowledge organisers and planning of learning sequences;

The misconceptions in children’s mental models need fixing – awareness of these is therefore a crucial part of teachers’ specialist subject knowledge;

Adapting mental models is an uncomfortable process – so learning can be hard work;

Adapting mental models requires mental wrestling – this is an argument for desirable difficulties;

Children often need to encounter new ideas in several different ways before they understand;

Learning is an active process so children need to be actively thinking in lessons: “learning is the residue of thought“. (There’s a much longer discussion to be had here but hopefully it will suffice to say that this is a comment about how much children should be thinking, not about what kind of teaching approach or learning activity is best).

For trainees starting out with the typical understanding of someone not involved in education or cognitive psychology – that if something is ‘taught’ well, and children are paying attention, then children will learn successfully – I think having some understanding of the constructivist theory of learning is a useful step forward but there are four possible problems, to my mind, with starting with Piaget and Vygotsky.

Firstly, Piaget also suggested that there were four distinct stages in the development of children’s thinking, reached at fairly well-defined ages. However, he based a lot of his work on observation of his own children and it has since become clear that, although children do get better at abstract thinking as they get older, cognitive development does not occur in discrete stages. The whole point of the M-Level bit of the PGCE is to encourage critical thinking about education; our trainees are going to encounter Piagetian stages at some point (in school) so I would rather they did so critically. Including Dan Willingham’s American Educator article in the reading list provides an accessible starting point.

Secondly, Vygotsky’s emphasis on social interaction has been used to imply that collaborative learning should occupy a large part of lesson time. My experience is that trainee teachers don’t read it this way and from Vygotsky pick up the role of the teacher as the ‘more knowledgeable other’ and the importance of getting the level of challenge right.

Thirdly, though, there is all this baggage that comes with constructivist cognitive psychology. I get the impression David didn’t think highly of his PGCE – I’ve not picked up much but maybe the odd, dark hint of unhelpful lecturing on constructivist pedagogy. I certainly am well aware that I’m seriously sticking my neck out with the title of this blog. The problem is that a shedload of progressive teaching approaches were pinned onto the back of Piaget and Vygotsky, such as the suggestion that whole class teaching should be minimised, group discussion maximised, and that learning should be minimally-guided. It’s clear to me that this justification is spurious and I see no way that my trainees could end up with this misconception given what they read, are taught, and experience, during their training.My argument is that we shouldn’t throw the baby out with the bathwater.

Finally, is there an opportunity cost here? Should we start our trainees off with ideas about working memory and Sweller’s cognitive load theory, spaced learning and the Ebbinghaus forgetting curve, retrieval practice and the testing effect, or something else? These are all things they encounter during their training but my feeling is that these are all very important ideas about how to learn more effectively, whereas Piaget and Vygotsky provide important ideas about the process of learning itself. I want my trainee teachers to have this idea at the start.

But what do you think?

5 thoughts on “A little bit of Piaget and Vygotsky: an unfinished conversation

  1. DD a question more than a comment. I read a lot of “we’ve moved on from Piaget” “Piaget is discredited”, your own “cognitive development does not occur in discrete stages” comments. But when I read his work, with detailed interviews with more than just his own kids, I find it pretty convincing. Moreover as a secondary science teacher I find a transition ( or it’s lack) from concrete to abstract a good explanation of what I’m seeing in terms of the kids’ understanding. I could also point to the reported success of CASE. So my question is, can you or your correspondents direct me to work that would convince someone from a hard science background that we have indeed moved on from Piaget?

  2. I don’t think we have moved on from Piaget. Someone at Oxford said that they had asked psychology to review their PGCE and retention og Piaget was seen as essential. His theory of schemas developed through assimilation and accommodation is still important but his theory that there are clear, age-specific stages of cognitive development isn’t supported by more recent work. The bit about “his own kids” is probably lazy of me but his evidence is quite anecdotal in some ways. I think R.S. Siegler might be worth looking at for more recent thinking about cognitive development http://www.psy.cmu.edu/~siegler/books-index.html . I agree with you that the kind of abstract thinking, and visualisation of the unseeable, needed in science isn’t fully available until children reach a certain stage but I’m not sure that this is biological, and what one can do in Y7 another still can’t in Y11. CASE is really interesting – the research on its effectiveness comes largely from the KCL group that developed it (although there’s an EEF-funded RCT running at the moment – but whilst it might be exagerated it’s unlikely to be non-existent. I don’t think it’s success depends on Piaget’s discrete stages, though, just the importance of a particular way of thinking for science (and life!). I also think it has a lot in common with the Direct Instruction programmes, which may explain some of its effectiveness. Thanks for your comment.

  3. I get the feeling from what I’ve read that rejection of development stages comes more from a reluctance to admit that there are things that kids of an age can’t do – and which some kids can never do – rather than from science, hence the question. But you are right the lack of a biological model does leave stages on shaky ground, so I’ve been wondering if the development of white matter during the teenage years might actually provide that model.

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