By: Diane Kashin, Ed.D, RECE. I have been reading a lot about tinkering lately. Tinkering is about hands-on experiences, learning from failures, and unstructured time to explore and invent. And through the processes of exploration and invention lies the potential for innovation. When this image appeared on my newsfeed recently, I thought back to the theorist that most influenced my practice as an early childhood educator starting out thirty years ago.
Swiss psychologist, Jean Piaget’s constructivist pedagogy stands in contrast to more deeply-rooted ways of teaching. Traditionally, learning as a mimetic activity, involves students repeating or miming newly presented information. Constructivist teaching practices, on the other hand, help learners to internalize and reshape or transform new information. When new information is added to what the learner already knows transformation occurs through the creation of new understandings (that result from the emergence of new cognitive structures). This experience can result in tension and this Piaget called cognitive dissonance; the discomfort felt when a discrepancy occurs between what is already known and new information, or a new interpretation of what one already knows. There is a need to accommodate new ideas to resolve cognitive dissonance.
As an early childhood educator, I was very Piagetian in my practice, believing in a learning environment rich in possibilities for self-directed learning. I was a facilitator of hands on experiences for children, setting up the classroom everyday so that children could play and discover for themselves. This is what I understood and internalized about Piagetian theories. However, when trying to learn the stages of cognitve development as a student and later a teacher of teachers, I experienced cogntiive dissonance. I still have trouble remembering the stages. When I had to teach the stages, I relied on lecture notes and textbook readings, becoming the teacher I had feared to be. However, these experiences of cognitive dissonance lead to discovery. After reading, Teaching Adults: An Active Learning Approach by Elizabeth Jones (1986), the way I taught began to change:
Now we teach our adult students all about Piaget. True, they need to know his name, but it does not really matter if beginning students can distinguish accommodation from assimilation (I have trouble with that one myself). What they really need to understand is the concept of active learning; they need know it ‘in their bones,’ which is where they must have theory in order to be able to apply it. (p. 23)
From then on, in every course I taught, I stopped lecturing and instead provided opportunities for active learning. I wanted to allow students to construct their own knowledge and create their own meaning. In this way, students could see for themselves why this approach might work with children. This was particularly easy when teaching Piaget’s three types of knowledge and focusing on physical knowledge.
- Social knowledge
- Physical knowledge
- Logical-mathematical knowledge
I vividly recall the three hour workshop class that I taught to provide the students with a hands on experience with physical knowledge. We cooked, we made potions, we played with ramps and pathways, experimented with balance, velocity and construction. With materials, or loose parts as they are commonly known children can accommodate and assimilate the properties of these objects. Nicholson (1971) coined the term loose parts theory to describe the idea that children should be given open-ended materials to be used alone or with other materials, without specific direction, to spark their creativity. Here you will find a list of suggested items that can be used for loose parts. Thinking deeply about the theory of loose parts will bring to light the complexities of these often simple materials as the basis for learning and development in the early years.
With multiple materials the opportunities expand as the diversity of the objects and their properties will increase. In preparation for upcoming professional learning sessions this fall, I have been happily collecting materials as I comb the beach near my cottage. There is something meditative and healing about my solitary walks along the shoreline and as I stoop to pick up interesting rocks, pieces of drift wood and beach glass, to share with others, I reflect on the provision of collections to learners. Creating environments that have interesting materials, places for exploration, and adults who support their physical knowledge will trigger children’s curiosity, which leads them to “construct knowledge and go on constructing it” (Kamii & Devries, 1993, p. 54). Consider this quotation from a book about John Dewey’s educational theories, which describes what can happen when such materials are brought into the learning environment:
The materials we choose to bring into our classrooms reveal the choices we have made about knowledge and what we think is important to know. How children are invited to use the materials indicates the role they shall have in their learning. Materials are the text of early childhood classrooms. Unlike books filled with facts and printed with words, materials are more like outlines. They offer openings and pathways by and through which children may enter the world of knowledge. Materials become the tools with which children give form to and express their understanding of the world and the meanings they have constructed. (Cuffaro, 1995, p. 33)
I do have to admit that I have often lamented as an early childhood education student, that I had never heard of Lev Vygotsky, the Russian psychologist who developed his theories around the same time as Piaget but died quite young. The two theorists have often been compared to each other. Piaget’s focus is environmental whereas a Vygotskian perspective supports the concept that one learns in order to develop (Rodd, 1997). Vygotsky believed that the only good instruction is that which marches ahead of development and leads it. While Piaget viewed knowledge as being constructed from personal experiences, Vygotsky’s position maintained that personal and social experiences could not be separated. Social constructivism as defined by Vygotsky’s work differs from constructivism which is the theoretical label associated with Piaget. It is not the Piagetian theories that have come to define my work. The theoretical compass for my practice has been Lev Vygotsky. Rather than a Piagetian image of teacher as facilitator, Vygotskian constructivism situates the learner within a social context and the teacher as collaborator or co-constructor of knowledge.
Piaget, like John Dewey, believed in education as construction. Reggio educators believe as Piaget and Dewey did that children construct ideas for themselves (Rankin, 2004). However, Piaget’s attention to cognitive development focused on internal, invariant, sequential, and hierarchal stages of intellectual development. While Piaget recognized the importance of the social setting, his focus remained on the internal development of cognition (Rankin, 2004). Reggio educators disagree with Piaget’s view of invariant, sequential stages; however, they do find that all children go through the same stages of cognitive development (Malaguzzi, 1998). The Reggio Emilia approach according to Malaguzzi (1993) “has gone beyond Piagetian views of the child as constructing knowledge from within, almost in isolation” (p. 10). It places a strong emphasis on children’s social construction of knowledge through their relationships within the context of collaboration, dialogue, conflict, negotiation, and cooperation with peers and adults (Malaguzzi, 1998).
As I walked along the beach, looking for the sparkle of sunlight reflecting from a single piece of glass amongst the rocks, I felt a need to write a blog about Jean Piaget. I felt the need to consider how influential and important his theories are to early childhood education. The terms active learning, experiential learning, and hands-on learning which are often used interchangeably, stem from the work of Piaget. Piaget stressed the need for concrete operations in early childhood with the child manipulating materials in the environment. Every summer after many beach walks, I find myself with a small collection of treasured beach glass which I give away to the teachers that I work with. It is my hope that they too will gift the children in their classrooms with collections of materials so that children can discover, learn about the properties of various objects and construct their own knowledge. By creating and sustaining environments that are rich with materials, they can provide opportunities for children to be expressive and acquire knowledge and skills while thinking creatively and designing their own play experiences and representations. Many questions can be asked about adding materials to the environment. Beverlie Dietze and I have written a few in our new textbook, Empowering Pedagogy for Early Childhood Education and I have listed them below:
- Will the material be used in many ways, or does the material dictate a particular use?
- Will many children use the material, or does the material have limited usage?
- Does the material lend itself to a variety of different kinds of explorations?
- How could the material be introduced to the children to allow for the greatest number of possibilities?
- Is the material better suited for indoor or outdoor exploration? Why?
What other questions can you ask yourself about the multiplicity of materials?