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The dilemma of applying Piaget

September 4, 2012

The third essay from The Having of Wonderful Ideas focuses on research investigating how a child’s level of understanding sets limits on what he is able to ‘read’ from the environment. Also, conversely, how do environmental experiences (data) change a child’s understanding? Experiments involve a string with three colored beads being placed inside a tube and then rotating the tube once or twice. Children are asked after the rotation to predict what color bead will be on the far right side. Children fairly quickly learn that one rotation will change the color to that of the bead on the opposite end of the string but two rotations is much more difficult to grasp. Some children eventually learn that two rotations leaves the colors the same but they do not understand the rule. The two rotations is not seen as a changing twice which brings the beads back to their original orientation. Instead two rotations is seen as an exception to the ‘rotating the tube switches the colors’ rule with no understanding of mechanism.

One child incorrectly predicts the result of the double rotations six out of seven times. When asked the child explains that he doesn’t get it. When the tube is rotated once the colors change but when it’s rotated twice the colors don’t change. The child has noted the results but does not accept them because the results do not make sense to him. He continues to predict based on what he understands not simply what he observes. In the next session this child comes to understand why the double rotation leaves the colors unchanged and explains the mechanism to the interviewer.

Piaget interpreted these results as evidence that the data itself does not lead to the child’s understanding. Rather it is the child’s own internal struggle to make sense of the data that leads to understanding (i.e. the child can discern, from the data, the rule for when the color changes or doesn’t but this does not automatically imply and understanding of or mechanism for the rule). Piaget looked at learning in this case as involving coordination – coordinating the effect of the second rotation with the result of the first rotation.

Duckworth mentions a few studies that investigated the idea that in order to gain and understanding from some task, the participant must have a theory. A series of tasks can be considered successes or failures (say, getting a board to balance on a pivot point) but these successes and failures do nothing to aid understanding unless they can be interpreted as confirmations or invalidations of some theory (say, place the middle of the board over the pivot to get it to balance).

Constructivism is the idea that we recruit previous knowledge to interpret experiences and to act as building blocks for new knowledge. What prompts a person to recruit particular pieces of previous knowledge in a given situation? Inhelder and other proposed three mechanisms that can prompt us to access previous knowledge:

  • Perception: Something about current scenario looks like something we’ve experienced previously.
  • Action: Something we do resembles an action we have taken in the past.
  • Conception: An idea, word, or formula resembles a similar conception from a previous experience.

Duckworth concludes by saying that the dilemma of applying Piaget is a false dilemma. Yes, in any given class students will be a variety of intellectual levels and their ability to learn a specific task or a specific notion will differ from student to student – this is the apparent paradox. However, this paradox vanishes if we see the goal education not as learning specific notions, but as learning how to notice and understand the world around you. If 30 students of varying levels are all presented with a genuine, interesting scenario that bares some relation to their lives outside of school (so that they are naturally prompted to access their prior knowledge via perception, action and/or conception) then each student will engage with the scenario at his or her own level. In addition, the student will inevitably learn knew ideas as the student attempts to achieve a goal related to the scenario that she has set for herself.

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