Jean Piaget was the first psychologist to pioneer and create a systematic study of cognitive development in children.
Prior to this discovery, it was thought that children are less knowledgeable thinkers than adults. Through his findings, Piaget came to the conclusion that children think and reason differently at specific periods in their lives (Piaget, 1936). These periods are, according to Piaget, structured from birth to 9 years.
Piaget (1932) believes that the ability to learn any cognitive content is always related to a child’s stage of intellectual development. Children who are at a certain stage cannot be taught concepts of a stage higher than their current intellectual stage, much like Maslow’s hierarchy of needs (1943, 1954), the child needs to follow each stage in order to progress to the next stage and eventually the desired outcome. Piaget concluded that children are inherently born with some existing schemas (knowledge) and construct an understanding of the world around them. When new information arises, and according to their specific developmental stage, they reorganise their new schemas to fit in to what they already know. This process is what Piaget coined accommodation and assimilation (Piaget, 1936).Assimilating causes the individual to develop new outlooks, rethink what were once misunderstandings, and evaluate what is important, ultimately altering their perceptions.
Accommodation, on the other hand, is reframing the world and new experiences into the mental capacity already present (Teachnology, d.u.)Piaget (1958) believed that problem solving skills cannot be taught, they should be discovered.
In order to discover these problem solving skills, assimilation and accommodation require an active learner.Individuals conceive a particular fashion in which the world operates. When things do not operate within that context, they must accommodate and reframing the expectations with the outcomes.
It is by adapting to things that thought organizes itself and it is by organizing itself that it structures things (Piaget, 1936:8).According to Lev Vygotsky (1978) Piaget failed to take into account the effect that a social and a cultural setting may be influenced by cognitive development. Piaget’s studies show that thought precedes language, however, Vygotsky (1978) argues that;The development of language and thought go together and that the origin of reasoning is more to do with our ability to communicate with others than with our interaction with the material world (McLeod, 2015:6).This brings us to discuss the movement of social constructivism.
The leading theorist of Social Constructivism is Lev Vygotsky. He not only criticised Piaget’s work but more importantly developed his theories further. Social constructivism emphasizes the importance of dialogic space, where communication is not the transfer of knowledge, but the interpretation of knowledge within a community of learners (Khourey-Bowers, 2006: p.u.)Lev Vygotsky (1952) strongly believed that learning and social context work hand in hand.
Unlike Piaget, Vygotsky argued that all cognitive function begins as a product of social interactions. The learner, as part of a social group, is integral to the theory of social constructivism. Learning is an actively engaging process and emerges through group interaction (McMahon, 1997; Derry 1999). Learners share experiences and discuss with each other.
Linking back to what Piaget would say is the interaction of assimilation and accommodation. However, Vygotsky believes this process is achieved through dialogue. The learners match new ideas to their existing ideas and then adapt it to make sense through verbal discussion. Not only did Vygotsky emphasise the importance of a social setting but he believe a cultural background also influences a child’s learning. According to social constructivism, the culture in which a child is brought up in gives much of the content of their knowledge.
Culture provides children with the ability of what to think, and how to think. This is guided and facilitated by adults which influence a child’s language, social context, cultural history and modern electronic sources (Draper, 2013). Vygotsky introduced two developmental levels that show the process of learning within an individual, he called this the Zone of Proximal Development (Vygotsky 1978). There seem to be various arguments of what Vygotsky explicitly meant when he described the Zone of Proximal Development (ZPD), but for the purpose of this discussion we will infer that Vygotsky meant there is a direct correlation between what a child learns and how it is being taught by a teacher.
Vygotsky described the ZPD as The distance between the actual development level as determined by independent problem solving and the level of potential development as determined through problem solving under adult guidance or in collaboration with more capable peers (Vygotsky, 1978:86). Vygotsky believes that the desired outcome of learning takes place at the level of potential development. What a child or learner already knows at the actual development is holding the child back from learning anything new, so with the guidance of an adult or more knowledgeable other a learner is able to progress to the potential development stage while all taking place in collaboration with peers in a social setting. Jerome Bruner, another prominent constructivist also emphasized the social nature of learning and attaches great importance to language in determining cognitive development. He, much like Piaget and Vygotsky believed that other people should assist a child or learner in developing skills.
However, he called this model scaffolding. There is a very close relationship between scaffolding and the zone of proximal development. Bruner (1961), believed that scaffolding exists between the process of actual development and potential development. Therefore, scaffolding takes place in Vygotsky’s Zone of Proximal Development.
Scaffolding refers to the steps taken to reduce the degrees of freedom in carrying out some task so that the child can concentrate on the difficult skill she is in the process of acquiring (Bruner, 1978: 19).Bruner likens his scaffolding model to scaffolding on a building. It is there to aid the builders but eventually it gets taken away once the desired outcome has been achieved. Scaffolding is temporary but necessary. Learners are dependent and need help from a more knowledgeable other but once the desired outcome has been achieved, learners become independent and are then placed in groups where they can assess and aid each other in accomplishing tasks. Vygotsky’s theory of social learning has been expanded upon in recent years by Douglas Barnes and Neil Mercer.Barnes believes that as we grow up and learn we relate what we are learning to what we already know.
We evolve our current thoughts or schemas to include new thoughts based on previous thoughts. Barnes calls this “working on understanding” (Barnes, 2008: 1). Working on understanding can be likened to Piaget’s ideas of assimilation. Accommodating new ideas is scary, one simply does not just accept a truth or idea. Barnes believes the best way of working on understanding is often through talk, because talking makes it easy for us to arrange or rearrange new ways of thinking from what we already know. If something does not seem quite right as you are saying it, or hearing it, one would deem it inadequate, or hopefully, much like a puzzle piece, one would rearrange it until it makes sense and ‘fits’ (Mercer and Hodgkinson, 2008). Barnes states that there are two forms of talk.
That is exploratory talk, and presentational talk (Barnes 1976/ 1992); “Exploratory talk is hesitant and incomplete because it enables the speaker to try out ideas, to hear how they sound, to see what others make of them, to arrange information and ideas into different patterns … in presentational talk the speaker’s attention is primarily focused on adjusting the language, content and manner to the needs of an audience” (Barnes 2008: 5). Barnes believes that there are numerous ways to come to an understanding of an idea but through talk it is easier and impermanent. There is much leeway to make mistakes and reorganise your thought in your head and then verbalise it. It is not finite where it is on say, paper. There is room for mistakes and of course this could bring its downfalls. Learners not wanting to embarrass themselves may not engage in exploratory talk, but I will discuss more of this later on.
Exploratory talk is quite literally exploring thought, your own and others, by way of verbal communication. You process, sort and organise ideas to accommodate a new idea. Exploratory talk is where a learner is fully engaged and active in a discussion. Exploratory talk is much more advantageous than presentational talk. Presentational talk lends itself to the idea that you are talking to express the correct answer or idea. Barnes claims that some teachers rush into presentational talk before they have had the chance to work on understanding through exploratory talk. Short answers, as given in presentational talk does not allow the learner to gain a deeper level of understanding. According to the DfE National Curriculum (2014), pupils should be taught to: listen and respond appropriately to adults and their peers, ask relevant questions to extend their understanding and knowledge, articulate and justify answers, arguments and opinions, give well-structured descriptions, explanations and narratives, participate actively in collaborative conversations, staying on topic and initiating and responding to comments, use spoken language to develop understanding through speculating, hypothesising, imagining and exploring ideas, participate in discussions, consider and evaluate different viewpoints, attending to and building on the contributions of others (DfE, 2014).
Neil Mercer (2008) suggests that there are three ways of talking and thinking; disputational, cumulative and exploratory. Classroom communication, also known as Exploratory Talk is expanded upon from the works of Douglas Barnes. Following on from Vygotsky’s theory of the ZPD, Neil Mercer introduced the idea of an intermental development zone (IDZ) (Mercer, 2000). This notion relies on the fact that what is being learned, and whether this was achieved or not, is dependent on all parties involved creating, maintaining and sharing knowledge with a common frame of reference in their learning activity. “For a teacher to teach and a learner to learn, both partners need to use talk and joint activity to create a shared framework of understanding from the resources of their common knowledge and common interests or goals” (Mercer, 2002: 143). Robin Alexander (2000; 2004), who coined the term ‘Dialogic Teaching’ has developed a specific way of ensuring that teachers are trained to enable the learner to develop a higher order of thinking and articulacy by using specific strategies thus improving pupil engagement and attainment (Alexander 2015). These strategies enable learners to reason, discuss, argue and explain their thought process and opinion, rather than just respond to a closed-ended question. Alexander builds on previous researchers to suggest a cross-curricular pedagogic model.