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Jean Piaget's Enlightened Influence On The American Educational System

There are two basic schools of psychology related to children that dominate today's approaches to education. the first is behaviorism, while the second is constructivism. In between, or perhaps overlapping, was the theory of cognitivism, which shares some similarities with both. The two major concepts have resulted in two totally disparate approaches to education, for which I will use the popular labels of "Prussian" and "nurturing". While the Prussian model of education was widely accepted in the United States up to the time of John Dewey, I believe that the influence of Jean Piaget is gradually making a great impact on most modern educators, to the point that we are resisting that original model and leaning towards a more nurturing form of helping young people to learn.

First, some definitions of a few terms are in order:

Behaviorism is based on observable changes in behavior, and focuses on a new behavioral pattern being repeated until it becomes automatic. (Black, 1995)

In cognitive theories, mental processes are the primary object of study; knowledge is viewed as symbolic, mental constructions in the minds of individuals, and learning becomes the process of committing these symbolic representations to memory where they may be processed. (Wilhelmsen, S., et al., 1998)

Constructivism is based on the premise that we all construct our own perspective of the world, through individual experiences and schema, and it focuses on preparing the learner to problem solve in ambiguous situations. (Dembo 1994)

The "Prussian" model is derived from the understanding that modern compulsory schooling began in Prussia in 1819, the first time in history that education was foisted upon a nation by force. It was largely the result of the Industrial Revolution and frequent war, both of which also impacted the U.S. dramatically. The goals were simple: obedient soldiers to the army, subservient workers to the mines, submissive civil servants to the government, compliant clerks to industry, and citizens who thought alike about major issues. The Prussian "Volksshule" educated 92 percent of the children, with only eight percent of children being schooled in "Real Schulen" (private schools). Its purpose was not to develop the intellect, as intellectual development of the masses was seen as the major contributing factor causing armies to lose battles, but to socialize the children in obedience and subordination (Gatto 2002). The results were no doubt pleasing to the Prussian ruling elite: industry boomed and warfare was successful. Obviously, the belief in behavioralism is centric to that form of educational system.

This concept migrated to the U.S. in spite of the fact that Freidrich Froebel founded his first kindergarten in 1837 in Blakenburg, Germany. He also began a training institute for the teachers of his schools, whom he believed should be highly respected people with values such as sensitivity, openness and easy approachability that the children could imitate. When the Prussian government kicked him out, Froebel moved his idea to America. There it was more accepted, although obviously not popular. Schools based on behaviorism were firmly entrenched.

As a learning theory, behaviorism might be traced back to Aristotle, whose essay "Memory" focused on associations being made between events such as lightning and thunder. Some key players in the development of the behaviorist theory were Pavlov, Watson, Thorndike and Skinner. Even in America, for military and industrial training, "behavioral objectives were written descriptions of specific, terminal behaviors that were manifested in terms of observable, measurable behavior." (Saettler, 1990)

In the early 1900s, a movement known as "scientific management of industry" arose in response to political and economic factors of the time. Franklin Bobbitt proposed, in essence, using the Prussian system of education, although his emphasis was that the standards and direction should stem from more of a consumer-driven society than a militaristic one. Bobbitt's ideas emphasized accountability, competency-based education and performance-based education. Because of similar economic and political factors, these ideas experienced a revival in America during the late 1960s and 1970s. (ibid.)

This basic style of education seems to have been the norm in the U.S. in spite of the "more nurturing" form of education that were first espoused by Horace Mann, whom Lawrence Cremin (1957) describes as "The Father of American Education". On April 20, 1837, Mann left his law practice and accepted the newly-founded post of Secretary of Education. During his tenure, Mann published twelve annual reports on aspects of his work and programs, and the integral relationship between education, freedom, and Republican government. Proclaiming "social harmony" to be his primary goal of the school system, he wanted schools that would be available and equal for all, part of the birth-right of every American child, and to be for rich and poor alike. The "great equalizer" would help poverty disappear as a broadened general intelligence tapped new treasures of natural and material wealth. He also felt that, through education, crime would decline sharply as would a host of moral vices such as violence and fraud. In sum, there was no end to the social good which might be derived from a public school system.

While the theory sounded great, history shows that the educational system turned out to be more like what Gatto described. Even through the mid-Twentieth Century, it seems there was a much more dictatorial structure and curriculum, as corporal punishment was still prevalent and students were "tracked" according to limited tests for intelligence and aptitude. Many teachers were dictatorial, and the system was very rigid in delivery. For example, the Keller plan - developed in 1963 by F.S. Keller, a colleague of Skinner, emphasizing individually paced lessons, mastery learning, and lectures and demonstrations - was used for many college classes.

As early as the 1920s, however, people began to find limitations in the behaviorist approach to understanding learning. Proponents were unable to explain certain social behaviors, such as the fact that children do not imitate all behavior that has been reinforced. Furthermore, they may model new behavior days or weeks after their first initial observation without having been reinforced for the behavior. (Dembo, 1994) Furthermore, while "mastery learning" assumes that all students can master the materials presented in the lesson, it "proved to be more effective for the lower levels of learning on Bloom's taxonomy, and not appropriate for higher level learning." (Saettler, 1990)

Coincidently around the same time frame, Maria Montessori, Jean Piaget and John Dewey all began publishing their theories, probably totally independently. Although Montessori first became interested in the subject for medical reasons, she, like Dewey, was primarily concerned with schooling systems during her career. Conversely, Piaget actually tried to remain "aloof" from having his theories applied to education. On the other hand, Montessori and Piaget were alike in that they were studying the much more basic types of behavior of children, and therefore forming ideas about the way children learned. I believe that Dewey was steeped in the basic goal of raising children in the terms of what their society valued to be productive, in that he claimed both society and educational systems are "living organisms" which must both seek to grow and perpetuate themselves. Still, he was espousing a much more child-oriented schooling system than then existed in America.

Dewey was exclusively an educator and educational theorist. Piaget was a psychologist first and foremost, with an acceptance of his role in education only much later in his life. On the other hand, Montessori began as a physician, gradually worked her way into psychology because of her experiences with children in an insane asylum, and then became a leader in the field of education. Combined, their work led to a cognitive approach to education.

Maria Montessori was born in Italy in 1870. She received her degree as a physician in 1896, the same year in which Piaget was born in Switzerland. She came across feebleminded children during visits to asylums for the insane, and in 1901 she returned to university to study the mind instead of the body. In 1906 she began to work with sixty young children of working families, which is where she developed the educational methods which became so successful that even learning-disabled children began to pass examinations for normal children. (Kramer 1976)

Then came Piaget. "Although major aspects of his theory were formed in the 1920s, Piaget's impact was not felt in the United States until the 1960s, when sufficient English translations of his more important books first became available and American psychology was ripe for a change. To step back and look at research on children's cognitive development, there have been three main waves". (Flavell & Miller 1998)

While their basic theories seem very similar, differing mainly in the ages they ascribed to various developmental stages in children (see Table 1), Piaget is much more recognized as influencing modern American education than Montessori. Perhaps it's because Piaget was a psychologist, seriously proclaiming that he did not want to overtly guide educators in their approach. Many other psychologists and educators picked up on Piaget's basic research and improved on it, applying it to multiple areas. On the other hand, Montessori became an educator whose work evolved into a specific system of educating small children, which may have met resistance from incumbent educators. Whatever the reason, their relative influence can be demonstrated in the two following examples:

"One of the major players in the development of cognitivism is Jean Piaget, who developed the major aspects of his theory as early as the 1920's. Piaget's ideas did not impact North America until the 1960's after Miller and Bruner founded the Harvard Center for Cognitive studies. Each component of (Piaget's) theory (regarding) sensorimotor and preoperational stages of cognitive development receive the most attention in the text, while concrete operations and formal operations are mentioned briefly (and) is then discussed in terms of how it is put into practice. For example, Montessori's emphasis on child-centered environments is examined in regards to providing children with real, child-sized tools and furnishings, keeping materials & equipment accessible to children, & creating beautiful, orderly, well-planned spaces for children." (Mergel 1998)

"Beginning with Piaget, this era (1950s to 1960s) is characterized by studies that documented increases with age in various perspective-taking abilities. Piaget believed that children begin development by being cognitively egocentric, meaning that they do not know about conceptual, perceptual, or affective perspectives." (Flavell, 1999)

Although Bartlett pioneered what became the constructivist approach in 1932 (Good & Brophy, 1990), the process of refining the approach and building teaching tools took a long time. According to Flavell, researchers became focused on children's metacognitive development beginning in the early 1970s, which included the nature of people as cognizers, the nature of different cognitive tasks, and possible strategies that could be applied to cognitive activities. While Bloom's Taxonomy of Learning (knowledge, comprehension, application, analysis, synthesis, evaluation) began to wane a bit, many educators started to lean toward Gagne's Taxonomy, developed in 1972. Comprised of five categories (verbal information, intellectual skill, cognitive strategy, attitude, motor skill), Gagne's system helped move from cognitivism to constructivism by giving the educational system a nine-step process of instruction.

One of the problems was changing from the mind-set of the purpose of education. Was it really to churn out productive little workers who would cause a minimum of problems for the government? Was it to produce knowledgeable, creative thinkers who could advance the cause of humanity, or at least the country? Obviously, another problem was simply not knowing how the thinking process began or how it developed. Until meaningful theories and research helped educators begin to refine the system, we were not likely to develop a system that would be more beneficial to the majority of students than merely being pedantic.

Cognitive theorists recognize that much learning involves associations established through contiguity and repetition. They also acknowledge the importance of reinforcement, although they stress its role in providing feedback about the correctness of responses over its role as a motivator. However, even while accepting such behavioristic concepts, cognitive theorists view learning as involving the acquisition or reorganization of the cognitive structures through which humans process and store information. (Good and Brophy 1990)

Constructivism builds upon behaviorism and cognitivism in the sense that it accepts multiple perspectives and maintains that learning is a personal interpretation of the world. (Mergel 1998)

As stated, many psychologists built upon Piaget's basic theories. According to Smorgansbord (1997), "The most profound influence was Jean Piaget's work which was interpreted and extended by (Ernst) von Glasserfield (sic)." Piaget also heavily influenced the work of Lev Vygotsky, as well as American psychologists John Watson, Jerome Bruner, and Lawrence Kohlberg. The work of these men eventually led to a major research study in 1984 entitled "A Place Called School", conducted by John Goodlad. An educator, Goodlad was president of the Institute for Educational Inquiry and a founder of the Center for Educational Renewal at the University of Washington. Using a staff of trained researchers who entered more than a thousand classrooms, the study found that physical education, fine arts, or industrial arts were the most interesting classes because the students actually got to do something. They were happier to be active participants in learning rather than passive recipients of information, reinforcing the primary message of constructivism: students engaged in active learning make their own meanings and construct their own knowledge in the process.

While the names of Pavlov, Watson, Thorndike and Skinner are probably still much more prominent in both American psychology and education, the work of Piaget and his proponents are making great strides in influencing the current landscape - assuming George Bush, Jr., and other policy makers do not totally reverse the trend towards intellectual freedom. The following quotes serve to both illustrate that trend, as well as explain some of the differences in the philosophies:

"Although cognitive psychology emerged in the late 1950s and began to take over as the dominant theory of learning, it wasn't until the late 1970s that cognitive science began to have its influence on instructional design. Cognitive science began a shift from behavioristic practices which emphasized external behavior, to a concern with the internal mental processes of the mind and how they could be utilized in promoting effective learning. The design models that had been developed in the behaviorist tradition were not simply tossed out, but instead the 'task analysis' and 'learner analysis' parts of the models were embellished. The new models addressed component processes of learning such as knowledge coding and representation, information storage and retrieval as well as the incorporation and integration of new knowledge with previous information." (Saettler, 1990)

Because Cognitivism and Behaviorism are both governed by an objective view of the nature of knowledge and what it means to know something, the transition from behavioral instructional design principles to those of a cognitive style was not entirely difficult. The goal of instruction remained the communication or transfer of knowledge to learners in the most efficient, effective manner possible. For example, the breaking down of a task into small steps works for a behaviorist who is trying to find the most efficient and fail proof method of shaping a learner's behavior. The cognitive scientist would analyze a task, break it down into smaller steps or chunks, and use that information to develop instruction that moves from simple to complex building on prior schema. (Bednar, et al. 1995)

The influence of cognitive science in instructional design is evidenced by the use of advanced organizers, mnemonic devices, metaphors, chunking into meaningful parts and the careful organization of instructional materials from simple to complex. Constructivism, on the other hand, promotes a more open-ended learning experience where the methods and results of learning are not easily measured and may not be the same for each learner. (Mergel 1998)

Overlapping psychology and education is the theory-of-mind development, which began in the 1980s. Theory-of-mind development investigates children's knowledge about the most basic human mental states - desires, perceptions, beliefs, knowledge, thoughts, intentions, feelings, etc. The field has included research on what infants and children know about such mental states, as well as on possible causes and consequences of mentalistic knowledge, and on similarities and differences in this knowledge across individuals, cultures, and primate species. Heavily influenced by Piaget's work, "this type of research continues to dominate the field of cognitive development research and shows no sign of diminishing." (Flavell, 1999)

It is difficult to grasp all of the ways in which Piaget influenced a wide range of disciplines, outside of the normal purview of psychology. Those would include sociology and philosophy, as well as such sciences as physics and computer design.

Vygotsky emphasized the role of social process in learning, suggesting that new concepts appear first socially, and only gradually become psychological. He emphasized providing social models of appropriate activity, enabling groups of learners to do more complex activities than they could handle individually, and that psychologists and sociologists use signs to enable people to negotiate the different meanings they find in social activity. Among others, the philosopher and social theorist Jrgen Habermas incorporated many Piagetan thoughts, most notably in "The Theory of Communicative Action". The philosopher Thomas Kuhn credited Piaget's work in helping him understand the transition between modes of thought which characterized his most famous theory. In his book, "The Structure of Scientific Revolutions", Kuhn presented the idea that science does not evolve gradually toward truth, but instead undergoes periodic revolutions, which he called "paradigm shifts."

Einstein (1950) said that everyday knowledge provides a huge store of useful metaphors and ideas. From these, the scientist makes a free selection of a set of axioms, and thereupon begins constructing a theory. Einstein thought the origin of his theory might relate to a childlike exploration of space, and consulted with Piaget on the possible similarities between his personal intellectual development and that of children (Miller, 1986).

In certain ways, behaviorism may have helped in the development of early computers, as the methods of processing information are very linear and simplistic: basically, on-off switches controlled by a central processing unit that accesses information that has been fed into their memory banks. Consider the following statement, quoted from Mergal:

"Information processing models have spawned the computer model of the mind as an information processor. Constructivism has added that this information processor must be seen as not just shuffling data, but wielding it flexibly during learning - making hypotheses, testing tentative interpretations, and so on." (Perkins, 1991)

However, if that is true, the technological advances of the 1980s and 1990s have enabled computer experts to move toward a more constructivist approach to the design of instruction. According to several of these innovative computer engineers, Piaget had a considerable impact on the field of computer science and artificial intelligence. Seymour Papert used Piaget's work while developing the Logo programming language. Alan Kay used Piaget's theories as the basis for the Dynabook programming system concept, which was first discussed at the Xerox Palo Alto Research Center. Those conversations led to the development of the Alto prototype, which explored for the first time all the elements of the graphical user interface (GUI), and influenced the creation of user interfaces. One of the most useful tools for the constructivist designer is hypertext and hypermedia because it allows for a branched design rather than a linear format of instruction. Hyperlinks allow for learner control, which is crucial to constructivist learning.

Piaget emphasized changes in the structure of prior knowledge, which brought about several major theoretical perspectives on the process of conceptual change. His theory and methods suggest that educators create tasks that engage learners and create tension between assimilation and accommodation. Engagement in physical aspects of a challenging task can lead to reformulation of intellectual aspects of the task. Dewey echoed that belief, describing the conditions under which inquiry can resolve problematic experience. He wrote that teachers should discover the things that are problematic for learners and establish conditions that support the process of inquiry: time, talk, and tools.

Naturally, we must get back to his influence on education. Because of Piaget, we might echo Pintar, "Plus est en vous" -- You are more than you think you are. In "Conversations with Jean Piaget", he finally says: "Education, for most people, means trying to lead the child to resemble the typical adult of his societybut for me and no one else, education means making creators. You have to make inventors, innovators - not conformists." (Bringuier 1980)

Others who shared this respect for children - John Dewey in the U.S., Maria Montessori in Italy and Paulo Freire in Brazil - fought harder for immediate change in the schools. However, Piaget's influence on education is deeper and more pervasive. He has been revered by generations of teachers inspired by the belief that children are not empty vessels to be filled with knowledge (as traditional pedagogical theory had it) but active builders of knowledge - little scientists who are constantly creating and testing their own theories of the world. And though he may not be as famous as Sigmund Freud or even B.F. Skinner, his contribution to psychology may be longer lasting. As computers and the Internet give children greater autonomy to explore ever larger digital worlds, the ideas he pioneered become ever more relevant. (Boeree1999)

Works Cited

Black, E. (1995). Behaviorism as a learning theory

Boeree, G. (1999). Jean Piaget -

Cremin, L. (1957). The Republic and the school: Horace Mann on the education of free men . New York Teachers College Press, New York, NY

Dembo, M. (1994). Applying educational psychology (5th ed.). Longman Publishing Group, White Plains, NY

Dewey, J. (1916). Democracy and education, The Macmillan Company, Basingstoke Hampshire, England

Flavell, J. (1999). Cognitive development: Children's knowledge about the mind. Annual Review of Psychology , p. 21(16)

Gatto, J.T. (2002). The underground history of American education; a schoolteacher's intimate investigation into the problem of modern schooling; The Odysseus Group, New York, NY

Good, T., and Brophy, J. (1990). Genetic epistemology (J.Piaget). Educational psychology: A realistic approach. (4th ed.). Longman Publishing Group, White Plains, NY

Goodlad, J. (1984). A place called school: prospects for the future; McGraw-Hill Companies, New York, NY

Kramer, R. (1976). Maria Montessori. Women's intellectual contributions to the study of mind and society

Kuhn, T. (1962). The structure of scientific revolutions

Mergel, B. (1998). Instructional design & learning theory

Roschelle, J. (undated). Learning in interactive environments: Prior knowledge and new experience; University of Massachusetts Press, Dartmouth, MA

Saettler, P. (1990). The evolution of American educational technology. Libraries Unlimited, Inc., Englewood, CO

Silverthorn, P. (1999). Jean Piaget's theory of development, ed. 704

Smorgansbord, A., (Undated). Constructivism and instructional design.

Wilhelmsen, S., ...smul, S. & Meistad, . (1998). Psychological theories; A brief survey of the changing views of learning; Department of Information Science, University of Bergen, Norway Don Maker - Don Maker received his B.A. in English and Comparative Literature from the University of California, San Diego, and his M.A. in Education from Chapman University, concentrating on the history and financing o...  

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