Piagetan Programs

Division Directors' Blog
Posted on December 15, 2014
by Julie Schlossinger, Lower School Director

In my last blog post, I shared findings from John Hattie’s research, which synthesized over 800 meta-analyses pertaining to what programs, methods, or educational choices have the greatest impact on student achievement. The fact that Piagetian Programs were among the most influential has prompted significant discussion in lower school and I’d like to share just a few ways that we are integrating this approach in our classrooms.

Jean Piaget was a developmental psychologist who defined four stages of cognitive development from child to adult. Below are the second, third, and fourth stages which align with students in kindergarten through grade five:

Stage 2: Preoperational (approximately toddlers-age 7):
Children learn through pretend play, but still struggle with logic and taking the point of view of others. They often struggle with understanding the ideal of constancy. For example, a researcher might take a lump of clay, divide it into two equal pieces, and then give a child the choice of either. One piece of clay is rolled into a compact ball while the other is smashed into a flat pancake-shape. Since the flat shape looks larger, a preoperational child will likely choose that piece even though the two pieces are exactly the same size. (Cole, 2001)

Stage 3: Concrete Operations (approximately age 7-11): 
Kids at this point of development begin to think more logically, but often follow very rigid delineations. Abstract and hypothetical concepts can be difficult for them to grasp. They also become less egocentric and begin to develop empathy. Their sphere of concern expands to include how other people might think and feel and they begin to understand that not everyone else necessarily shares their thoughts, feelings, and opinions. (Cole, 2001)

Stage 4: Formal Operations (approximately age 12 and beyond):
The final stage of Piaget's theory involves an increase in logic, the ability to use deductive reasoning, and an understanding of abstract ideas. At this point, individuals become capable of seeing multiple, potential solutions to problems and think more scientifically about the world around them. (Cole, 2001)

It should be noted that Piaget concluded that a child’s progression from concrete to formal operations is not an automatic, genetically pre-programmed event, and may have to be encouraged along with experience and practice. Additionally, it is possible for a child to have reached the level of formal operations in one area of knowledge, but not in another. As an example, a child transitioning might be able to think abstractly about ethics and morality, but not about science or math, or vice versa. 

When a teacher uses a Piagetian Program, or when their own curriculum development is informed by these concepts, they incorporate activities into their lessons that begin with the concrete and then move to the theoretical. Teachers engage their students through activation of a schema (background knowledge), basically setting the stage for learning something new by connecting to things they already know. Then, students are allowed to “mess around” with a concrete example. Next, a metacognitive class discussion or activity should take place where students attempt to make sense of what they’ve seen/learned. This is the most critical stage, and must include scaffolding, guided questioning, modeling, concept mapping etc. Finally, having developed a set of principles or a theory, students apply the theory to a novel problem or situation. 

So what are the Piagetian theories/methods VMS lower school teachers are using in their classrooms today?
  • They take a constructivist approach because we believe students learn best by making their own discoveries, reflecting on them, and discussing them. Example: In a fourth grade science class, Mrs. Warner set out several small mirrors and a laser pointer in front of each student and prompted them to play around. What followed was a group of extremely engaged students investigating what happens to light when it is reflected on a mirror at different angles. Students created their own knowledge through the constructivist approach.
     
  • Our teachers design situations that allow students to learn by doing and they facilitate more than they provide direct instruction. These situations promote students’ thinking and discovery. Teachers listen, watch, and question students to help them gain better understanding. Example: In a Kindergarten math class, Ms. Schmierer observed one of her students choose a geometry template from the art area during a “free choice” activity. She watched from a distance as the child traced geometric shapes one by one onto a piece of paper in size order. She then approached the student and began questioning their work. The student shared, “This shape is the biggest.” In response to that, Ms. Schmierer brought over a bin of pattern blocks and took out the hexagon and several triangles and laid them in front of the student. What came next was an incredible learning moment-- the student played around with the blocks and then slowly began to lay the triangles on top of the hexagon and had a “lightbulb” moment when they realized that six triangles equaled one hexagon. Had Ms. Schmierer directed that learning, I doubt that kindergarten student would have had this realization or grasped the concept.
     
  • They consider the child’s knowledge and level of thinking. We know our students do not come to class with empty heads. They have many ideas about the physical and natural world. They have concepts of space, time, quantity, and causality. Our teachers interpret what a student is saying and respond in a mode of discourse that is not too far from the student’s level. Example: In a third grade math class, Mrs. Douthitt started the lesson with a question designed to tap into her students’ prior knowledge. With the intent of using odometers to teach decimals and place value, she asked, “How do your parents know how far they have driven on a road trip?” Then, she utilized the Think-Pair-Share method where students reflect on the question, partner with other students and share their ideas and background knowledge. When one student answered, “My dad uses his GPS on his phone,” Mrs. Douthitt realized that many of her students did not have any understanding of a car’s odometer. She had to be flexible in that moment and based on their level of thinking, back up and teach about odometers prior to going onto exploring place value with an interactive odometer.
     
  • They promote students’ intellectual health. We believe children’s learning should occur naturally. They should not be pushed and pressured into achieving too much too early in their development, before they are maturationally ready. Example: We work with students every year in the early grades whose reading is slow to develop. Parents often become alarmed and ask if their child has a reading disability. While every child develops at a different rate, historically, we see that students who read late typically catch up to their peers by fourth grade. Evidence-based neuroscience and brain research tell us that children who are pushed to read at a young age (not those who naturally pick it up) tend to rely on right brain processes because that area matures more quickly. Children actually benefit when they learn to read naturally or are taught later because, as the left brain matures and the pathway between both hemispheres develops, it becomes easier for them to sound out words, to visualize meanings, and mentally tinker with abstractions. (Patoine, 2008)
     
  • They turn the classroom into a setting of exploration and discovery. Example: The lower school classrooms at VMS emphasize students’ own exploration and discovery. There are collaborative work spaces with areas full of discoverable items, unfinished science experiments, and many creative manipulatives and supplies for spontaneous use.  

In the VMS lower school, we will continue to keep abreast of the latest in cognitive research and educational theory. Ongoing inquiry and professional development, an area to which we commit significant resources, are key components of mastering the ever-evolving art of teaching and helping every child achieve.

Look for my next blog post on another one of the strong influences on student achievement: formative assessments.

About Vail Mountain School

Founded in 1962, Vail Mountain School is a K-12, coed, independent school in Vail, Colorado. Our philosophy is to provide a demanding, college preparatory, liberal arts education in an atmosphere of mutual respect between faculty and students, where nurturing a healthy self-concept and stimulating academic inquiry are parallel objectives. Intentionally designed cross-age programs promote role modeling, responsibility, self confidence, and a sense of community. Our location in the Rocky Mountains allows us to integrate the outdoors into the academic and cultural fabric of the school through hut trips, all-school Ski Fridays, and other experiential learning opportunities. The result: our graduates possess a quiet confidence that serves them well in college and in life—confidence to assert themselves in their first college level essays; to raise their hand in a class of hundreds; to live on their own for the first time, to meet with and engage their professors; and to lead among their peers.