Not Just a Little Adult

          “Only education is capable of saving our societies from possible collapse, whether violent, or gradual." Those words were said by Swiss philosopher Jean Piaget in 1934, when he was declared the Director of International Bureau of Education.  Contrary to many of today’s educators, Piaget believed that children need to developmentally prepare for the education they are receiving.  He spent years observing children from all nations and walks of life to develop his theories of cognitive (mental) development.  While those four stages can be dissected into smaller stages, I will not address those in this article.  How can Jean Piaget help me understand the best way to teach my child?
            Piaget said that “Children are not just little adults that have not acquired knowledge.”  He said that children who are not in his fourth cognitive stage actually think differently from adults, and adults need to understand this fundamental idea if they want to effectively teach children.  Unfortunately, this is where public schools fail.  It is much easier to just take a difficult concept and break it down into smaller “pieces” and teach it at a younger age.  In reality, the child does not understand the concept that s/he is not developmentally ready for and will not understand until they are ready, no matter how much effort the teacher spends trying.  Instead, teachers have had to content themselves with the child being able to regurgitate the information back to them without “digesting” it, because they are developmentally unable to truly understand. 
            The stages of Piaget’s theory are not set in stone, and children will frequently go in and out of stages as they develop and as they learn new concepts.  Please do not take the ages with the thought that “when he wakes up on his 7th birthday, he will be in the Concrete stage.”  The ages are simply to give you an idea of when most children will enter and leave each stage.  The ages overlap in the various stages, showing that it is normal for a child to be in one stage in one concept and a completely different stage in another area.  A middle school student may be in the Concrete stage in Mathematics, and yet the same child may be in the Formal Stage in World History.  Teachers should use these stages as aids in planning lessons which will lead their child to Formal thinking by using the lower stages in the early lessons.  The ages listed are designed to show most children’s level of development in normal interactions with people and the world around them.
            The Sensorimotor Stage occurs basically from birth to age two.  Children are learning about themselves and the world around them.  They are extremely egocentric during this stage.  It is possible for a two year old to see another child crying and, to ease his suffering, to go get his own mother to comfort the crying child.  He is not able to recognize that the crying child needs HIS mother, not the sympathetic child’s mother, to get his needs met.  They are also exploring the physical world around them by a method of what I call “try it and see what happens.”  It’s impossible to explain to a two year old that if they put a metal fork in an outlet that they will be shocked and possibly killed.  However, if they don’t do it themselves and see what happens, they don’t actually realize the danger.  It’s better at this stage to simply cover up the outlets and keep dangerous objects out of sight and out of mind.
            The second stage is what Piaget called the Preoperational Stage, approximately ages two through seven.  Children start to recognize that words spoken have direct connection to the real world.  Early in this stage, they are still very egocentrically oriented.   However, as the stage progresses, they will start to consider others more often and with better understanding.  They start getting better use of their motor skills and start thinking more, though they are still not able to do logical reasoning (a fact most first grade teachers are very frustrated over, because many first grade objectives require logical reasoning).  At this stage, they are able to repeat numbers in order, but, they are unable to recognize that if I have ten stuffed animals and mix them in different arrangements, there are still only ten animals.  They cannot “conserve” the basic level of understanding. 
            Concrete Operational Stage (ages 7 – 12), the third level of development, is greatly misunderstood, particularly in public education.  This is generally third through sixth graders, and frequently, children in this stage are treated as adults.  It’s easy to see why this mistake is so common, because children are able to do some skills that adults do, including logical reasoning.  The problem comes in that their logical thinking is very concrete in nature.  Put simply, this means they have to be able to touch, taste, hear, see, or smell something and manipulate it (move it around or change its chemical nature) to be able to fully reason it out and create theories, which in turn they will naturally apply to academics and the world around them.  They are capable of understanding that if A is taller than B, and if B is taller than C, then A is taller than C.  In the Concrete Operational Stage, however, you need to have objects actually in hand so they can move them around and compare the different sizes.  They will not understand if you try to write it on a paper, chalkboard, or computer, no matter how creative you are, because those are all abstract media and children do not understand abstracts yet.  They can repeat things back, but they will not understand the concept behind the words.  In this stage, it is important to remember that your child needs to be able to move items around to develop their logical reasoning.  Paper-and-pencil lessons will not develop the depth of understanding that teachers would like to see.  Teaching abstract concepts to a “concrete child” will end in frustration with both the teacher and the student, and can even cause it to take longer for the child to eventually understand the concept, even when they are capable of it.
            The fourth and final stage of Piaget’s theory is called the Formal Operational Stage, and that applies generally to age twelve through adult.  At this point, we would be able to state, with reasonable accuracy, that a child IS a little adult who has not acquired knowledge.  Children are able to research places, objects, events, and people that they have never experienced.  Studying history, grammar, government, and world geography are all perfectly appropriate in this level, where those abstract concepts are not going to be understood by children younger than this stage. I used to experience extreme frustration every year when I taught longitude and latitude to fourth and fifth graders.  They were in the concrete stage of development, yet they could not reach out and touch a line of longitude.  A line on a map or globe helped, and they could repeat back to me what I was saying, but their continued confusion when I asked them to explain it still haunts me today.  They could repeat the words, but they did not understand the concept behind the words.  After age twelve, they are capable of understand the abstract concept and, after instruction, are able to explain with a degree of confidence what a line of latitude is.
            Jean Piaget’s four stages of cognitive development (Sensorimotor, Preoperational, Concrete Operational, and Formal Operational) describe the cycle of a child’s reasoning and method of conveying meaning from the world around them.  Children will generally go into and out of these stages as they learn new skills, which should greatly affect the methods of instruction.  Piaget’s stages describe how we gain knowledge and, using this knowledge, how we are able to explain our own actions and the actions around us.