Page 6, 1st October 1971

1st October 1971
Page 6
Page 6, 1st October 1971 — The pattern of developing thought processes

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The pattern of developing thought processes

EDUCATION In this new Education Series B. H. HARRINGTON's second article discusses the work of

Piaget and his research into

THE recent publication of the Oxford researchers led by Dr. Peter Bryant, and the very guarded observations on the work of Professor Jean Piaget by a research officer of the National Foundation for Educational Research in England and Wales, must have caused many non-teaching profession parents to wonder who Piaget was or is and why some banner headlines have apparently queried the validity of his work.

The methods adopted in many primary schools would also then appear to be questionable.

It should therefore he appreciated by parents whose children attend schools the curricula of which have taken Piagct's findings into account, that many other research workers over a number of years have largely substantiated them. It will take time and deep study for the crossimplications of the newer revelations to he assessed. In the meantime readers will understand how unwise it is to base their opinions on headlines alone: the small print has to be read as well.

This is not to snipe at Dr. Bryant's work. but to advise treating it with some reservation, at least as far as the way it has been predictably publicised in certain newspapers. What is needed, before judging it, is a basic knowledge of what Piaget has taught us; otherwise he will be condemned from ignorance.

ACCEPTABLE Jean Piaget, a Swiss biologist, philosopher and psychologist, had been using intelligence tests in his clinic. The tests he used only told him, however, if a child's answers were right or wrong. They did not tell him where the child's thinking had gone wrong to produce the wrong answer, nor if the answer really was wrong for that particular child, taking into account the child's stage of development.

The tests did not seem to indicate to him how he could help or guide the child's thinking, and gradually he became interested more in the qualitative rather than the quantitative aspects of testing.

He set out on a path of elaborating a developmental record of cognitive growth so that he would learn how a child's thinking had proceeded for him to reach the stage revealed in the tests. He deliberately arranged many of his experiments so that they were outside the normal experience of children, in order to gain results which were as independent as possible of previous teaching. He thus attempted to expose the origin and development of thought, and sought to reveal the basic processes which .underly concept development, thereby promulgating the laws which govern those processes.

It may well be that Piaget was wrong in using such purely clinical methods and in separating learning and experience from the development of thought as he did. What is now happening is that some learning under controlled conditions, is being shown as affecting the results Piaget obtained.

Nevertheless, Piaget's theories have inspired much new thinking about classroom practices and made them more acceptable to children and undoubtedly placed their learning upon sounder foundations. They have helped considerably in the revolution in the leaching of mathematics and science, helping to remove much of the distaste adults still experience.


The essence of Piaget's theory of intellectual development is that there are frour

basic factors which contribute to it — physiological development, direct experience with the physical world, social transmission through communication in various forms and involving teaching by all who communicate with children, and equilibration, of which more will be said. What is clear and universally accepted is that intellectual development is not a passive process.

The learner's own actions, especially when they are guided by and through structured situations, insult in partial understandings being revised and completed, and concepts soundly formed. The child progressively relates one idea to another and the skilful teacher plans a programme. to lead the child to discover underlying relationships.

To deal briefly with equil ibration.

Piaget has outlined in different areas of thought and concept-formation the paths of responses to a situation. They start with a complete inability to understand the principles involved, and move though a transitional phase in which there is groping for the truth, revealed in answers being sometimes correct a n d sometimes incorrect, to the third stage of confidence and correctness.

The process is an individual one, and its speed depends upon how far learning principles of the type previously outlined have been followed, the nature-nurture relationship, i.e., the influence of hereditary and environmental factors, and how far the teacher in the school has been successful in devising the self-discovery experiences mentioned above.

One important feature is the fact that children are assessed against themselves rather than against the standardised norms of achievement tests, as useful as the latter may be. The pattern of work in many primary schools owes much to this type of developmental approach to curriculum planning.

DISCOVERY Parents will realise that when this is done properly, learning is not haphazard. It is structured by the teacher in accordance with stage of a child's thinking which Piaget has outlined for us. Verbal answers are not forced on or from the child. They are accepted when they can be seen to have their roots in his experience and planned discovery situations.

There are, according to Piaget, three main stages in the growth of a child's power to think. The first extends from birth to about two years, and is termed the sensori-motor stage. Briefly, in it, thoughtful action develops from the exercise of reflexes present at birth to the emergence of the power to respond or thing about objects or events not immediately observable. Symbols are meaningless, and it is in the next broad period that real symbolic activity emerges.

This is the period of concrete operational thought, and lasts from about 18 months or two years until 11 or 12 years. It covers the whole period of primary education, and a knowledge of it is essential if parents are to appreciate as fully as possible what schools

are trying to achieve.

Incidentally, an operation in this term is a mental act, and concrete is used in opposition to abstract so that the phrase describes the type of thought which is tied to things observable directly by the senses.

During the years 2-4, a subperiod given the name of 'preconceptual thought', the child uses ideas which lie between the concept of an object and that of its class. Leonard Marsh in his very readable book, "Alongside the Child in the Primary School," (A. & C. Black) says that it is now that we see the beginnings of symbolic behaviour.

"Thought is seen in the invention of signs, albeit somewhat rough and ready : 'pussy' stands for rabbits and dogs as well us cats."

PLAYGROUPS More facility in language enables the emerging thought to be verbalised. The value of a stimulating environment here cannot be over-emphasised and underlines the social significance of playgroups, play centres, nursery schools and classes. especially for children whose normal home environment is in a deprived area. (More detailed reading about it can be obtained from the bibliography.) The next sub-stage, the period of intuitive thought, is that of the early years of primary education. There is an increasing internalisation of actions into thought which can become more complex if experiences are carefully planned. This is tit period of questions and answers and the child's cognition develops far more when reasons are explained.

Gaps in understanding will be filled by phantasy, which is itself an aid to growth along with painting and other creative activities, through

which the fantasy is worked out and given expression. There is a real danger of future maladjustment if the child is here blocked and refused.

"[here is. however, one feature at this stage which takes time and lots of experiences to resolve itself. It is that the child only gradually is able to grasp More than one relationship at a time, and is unable in thought to return to his starting point of an activity. Thus, if a quantity of liquid is poured from one glass into another of a different shape, he will say that there is more or less in the second glass according to the level the Liquid rises or falls.

If the second glass is longer and thinner and the level therefore higher, he will say that it contains more. He is unable to reverse his thought, and is too involved in present action to relate it to the past. (It is on this type of experiment that some doubt has been thrown by the recent Oxford research, although many other psychologists have previously largely confirmed Piaget's theory.) Gradually his thought becomes less irreversible and more flexible, so that at about the age of seven he is confidently able to relate the quantity of liquid in the second glass to the first. Acknowledged success is here, as in any other sphere, a stimulating factor.


It is essential to remember that this use of logic and reasoning is still very elementary and applies only in the manipulation of concrete objects. Thus. whereas using materials the child may be able to place a series of dolls into their correct order according to height, he will have considerable difficulty with such a verbal problem as "John is taller than Bernard, John is shorter than William. Who is

the tallest? Who is the shortest?"

The ability to solve such verbal problems does come, of course, as the child's experience grows during final years of the whole period of concrete operational thought from the years of about 7 to 11. It still is most soundly based if it deals with abundant practical situations. Otherwise somewhat like the Parable of the Sower, understanding and action are not deeply rooted, and verbal replies alone must be suspect.

The power to deal with logical relationships verbally requires the use of formal, as opposed to concrete thought, and does not normally emerge until the age of 11 or 12. It is only then that children are really able to interrelate the various operations on the basis of formal logical principles.

Piaget and Barbel Inhelder, one of his chief collaborators, believe that this ability to apply logical rules and reasoning to abstract Problems and propositions, is the essence of intellectual ability and the final stage of its growth. The adolescent can generalise and consider what is hypothetically possible, as well as what is real.

INTERNALISED Further, his language is more contracted and internalised. He can formulate rules, engage in self-instruction without stating his rules and the results of his thinking overtly. It is likely that the extensive use of covert speech is related to the advance in the thinking powers of the adolescent who reasons deductively, makes hypotheses and tests them, keeping in mind several variables simultaneously.

He can reflect, reason scientifically, evaluate, criticise. Being no longer dependent upon the concrete, his thinking and reasoning extend far beyond the immediate situa

tion. He now needs reasons to satisfy his questioning and the authorities given to him as the foundation of the reasons must be able to stand up to his own questioning. Questioning, of course, is not to deny but to discover truth. It is indeed a critical stage in the teaching of religion.

The consequences of Piaget's theories, whilst they have been worked out in most detail in the teaching of mathematics and science, are being increasingly recognised in other fields. There is, for example, much of value for those concerned with religious formation in his studies of moral development and to which some reference will be made in a later article.

Again, it can only be emphasised that in whatever pattern intellectual development proceeds through the years of compulsory schooling, the methods adopted for the learning of those parts of religious knowledge for which the responsibility lies with the school, must be in accord with that pattern. There is evidence that children's religious thinking goes through the intuitive, concrete opaational and formal operational stages.

The full implications of that final stage must be considered if the accusation of indoctrination is to be shown to be false, especially when the compulsory leaving age will shortly be raised to 16, ncreasing the population of our secondary schools by thousands.

They may not be the only considerations but more and more young people are judging their religious education methods by those used in secular subjects. The religious methods must not be found wanting.

NEXT WEEK: Fr. David Koustant on the international catechetical congress in Rome.

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