This is the third in a series of posts unpicking the Top 20 Principles From Psychology for Teaching And Learning. This time it’s the turn of Principle 3: Students’ cognitive development and learning are not limited by general stages of development to come under the microscope. 

Most teachers’ understanding of cognitive development begins and ends with Jean Piaget. Piaget’s theory that all children pass through a predetermined sequence of developmental stages has bewitched and bedevilled education for almost a century, guiding how we structure schools and curriculums. Here’s a brief summary of Paiget’s four stages:

  • Sensory-Motor (0-2) In the beginning, a child’s understanding of the world depends on their direct experience of perceptions and objects. Actions discovered first by accident are repeated and applied to new situations to obtain the same results. Toward the end of the sensory-motor stage, the ability to form primitive mental images develops as the infant acquires ‘object permanence’. Until then, children have no that objects can exist apart from themselves.
  • Preoperational (2-7) As children acquire language, they are able to represent the world through mental images and symbols, but these symbols depend on his own perception and intuition. At this stage, children are completely egocentric. Although they are beginning to take interest in objects and people around him, they are unable to see them from a viewpoint other than their own. Their understanding of the world is based on their very limited experience; if they don’t have an explanation for how the world works they will make one up.
  • Concrete Operations (7-11) Mental operations – actions performed in the mind – permit children to think about the past and speculate about the future. The primary characteristic of concrete operational thought is its reversibility; children can mentally reverse the direction of their thought. A child knows that something that he can add, he can also subtract. They can trace her route to school and then follow it back home, or picture where she has left a toy without a haphazard exploration of the entire house. Operations are labeled ‘concrete’ because they apply only to those objects that are physically present. Conservation – the ability to see that objects or quantities remain the same despite a change in their physical appearance – is the major acquisition of the concrete operational stage.
  • Formal Operations (11-16) Piaget’s final stage coincides with the beginning of adolescence, and marks the start of abstract thought and deductive reasoning. Thought is more flexible, rational, and systematic. The individual can now conceive all the possible ways they can solve a problem, and can approach a problem from several points of view. The adolescent can think about thoughts and operate on operations, not just concrete objects and can think about such abstract concepts as space and time. As well as developing an inner value system, adolescents will also develop a sense of moral judgment.

According to Piaget, all children must pass through each stage, and the sequence of stages is fixed and immutable. Later stages evolve from and are built on earlier ones. Whilst all children proceed through the stages in the same order, they may progress through them at different rates. This understanding of child development has been passed on with the certainty of a natural law but is in fact just a metaphor which may or may not be a useful way of viewing the world.

However, more recent research on cognitive development has supplanted stage theory accounts of cognitive development. We now know that infants have been found to have early, possibly native, competencies in certain domains. For example, very young children seem to show an almost innate knowledge of principles related to the physical world, biological causality, numbers and morality.

An alternative to stage theories is the contextualist approach to cognitive development and learning. This approach takes the view that reasoning can be facilitated to more advanced levels when students interact with more capable others and with more advanced materials. This is the good old zone of proximal development. Scaffolding to you and me. Mixed in with all this is the notion that cognition is situated, that it is to say, what we know is the product of society’s knowledge. As we participate in communities, we learn about and from them. This sounds a bit mysterious, but essentially all this means that cognitive development does not follow a predetermined linear progression and that children can do is a bit more complicated than Piaget would have us believe. Some aspects of development are determined by biology, but familiarity with particular contexts and the guidance of experts can have surprising results on what we think children ought to be able to do. Obviously enough, students who are not familiar with particular knowledge domains, are not challenged by knowledgeable others, or find themselves in unfamiliar contexts, may evince less sophisticated reasoning.

What all this means to teachers is that when we decide that certain topics are beyond students or that particular ways of thinking may be unproductive, we condemn children with lower expectations. As we saw in the second of these posts, baseline assessments can be used to assess what children know, and the results can be very informative for instructional design. Teachers’ judgment of students’ developmental levels is important, but as the Top 20 report puts it, “age should not necessarily be viewed as the main or sole determinant of what a student is capable of knowing or reasoning.” The concept of Age Related Expectations (ARE) is potentially misleading and dangerous. There are no age-related expectations in the real world; we can either do or not do something.

All this may well be true, but the report then proceeds to make some truly terrible recommendations. The reasoning seems to go that if development depends on what children already know then they should be exposed only to those things about which they already know a great deal. The report’s authors say, “students are able to comprehend reading material at a higher level and are able to write with greater sophistication when they have substantial knowledge relevant to the topic of the reading or writing assignment”. Well, maybe. I’m unlikely to be able to either read or write well about astrophysics or lacrosse, but that’s because I don’t know much about these things. The point is that I’ll never know about anything outside of my experience unless someone who knows more than I do tells me about it. This is, I think, one of the most toxic, pernicious pieces of misinformation I’ve encountered as a teacher. If we want students to be academically successful they must be given the language (and conceptual understandings) required for academic success.

The next suggestion is less harmful but still widely abused. The idea of, “Presenting topics and domains pitched at a moderate distance from students’ current level of functioning,” is fine. But what does this mean? The second principle that what students’ know affects further learning demonstrates that new knowledge will integrate with existing schemas and so to that extent at least it’s reasonable to build a bridge between a new topic and material with which students are already familiar. But the report claims that doing this will “foster more advanced levels of reasoning”. Honestly, I haven’t read widely enough around this topic to be able to state categorically with this is an accurate interpretation of the literature but it sounds a little implausible.

Another claim is that mixed ability groupings “allow for interaction with higher level thinkers in learning and problem solving.” Instinctively I had always believed that few students are knowledgeable enough to make much difference to their less learned peers. Much better, I thought, for groups, whatever their composition, to be taught by a highly skilled teacher with really deep subject knowledge. But peers and school culture can have a profound effect on students. Nuthall’s discoveries about the power of peer culture make it clear that not only do teachers underestimated the influence of peers, but also that we are largely unaware of it. Nuthall suggest that this means teachers should allow students much more choice and control over their learning, but Judith Rich Harris, in her masterful book The Nurture Assumption, argues that peer culture, or ‘groupness’ as she calls it, is indeed the most powerful influence on how children behave and think, teachers have a formidable effect because, “because they are in control of an entire group of children. They can influence the attitudes and behaviors of the entire group. And they exert this influence where it is likely to have long-term effects: in the world outside the home, the world where children will spend their adult lives.” She goes on to illustrate that the choice we make as teachers have wide-ranging and surprising repercussions. For instance:

When teachers divide up children into good readers and not-so-good ones, the good readers tend to get better and the not-so-good ones to get worse. A group contrast effect at work. The two groups develop different group norms— different behaviors, different attitudes. (p. 261)

This might confirm that mixed ability groupings are better for the totality of children although not for the most able. Maybe the peer effects Harris discusses really do account for the way in which children’s brains develop.

The references cited in the report are as follows: