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7, 204-216 (1982)
and Instruction:
Are They?
How Compatible
The Gruduate
School, City University
of New York
Three views of the compatibility of Piaget’s theory and educational practice are
considered: (a) it is a useful framework to guide instruction; (b) it is antithetical or
unrelated to the goals of instruction; and (c) there are some instructional features of
the theory that can be operationalized and studied empirically. The findings of such
studies are briefly discussed, and in general, more research is deemed needed to
establish the validity of Piaget’s most educationally relevant constructs. Some
general features of Piaget’s theory that have attracted teachers are described, and
the implications of Piaget’s more recent theoretical emphasis on social factors such
as conflict are considered.
When the history of psychology during the 20th century is written, it is
clear that Jean Piaget will be accorded a major role. His impact on the
field of developmental psychology has been profound, and his work has
also been very attractive to a generation of educators. However, the
compatibility between his theory and educational practice is an issue that
continues to be debated after his death. As one reads the invited papers to
this special issue, one finds relatively little agreement about the usefulness of Piaget’s theory to the field of education even among experts.
Depending on what parts of Piaget’s writings are cited and what part of his
theory are stressed, experts can make three highly discrepant cases: (a)
that Piaget’s theory is useful as a theory of instruction; (b) that his developmental stage theory is antithetical or unrelated to instruction; or(c) that
there are some educational features of Piaget’s theory that can be
operationalized and examined empirically. Let us consider each of these
The Compatibility
Many early childhood educators have attempted to translate Piagetian
constructs into curricular experiences. Johnson and Hooper (1982) summarized the results of many of these efforts in their review of Piagetian
early childhood programs. Program sponsors found support in Piaget’s
theory for such practices as (a) qualitative assessment of children’s cognitive readiness for instruction, (b) use of discovery or conflict teaching
procedures, (c) organizing the classroom environment to promote in204
AU rights
@ 1982 by Academic Press, Inc.
of reproduction
in any form reserved.
creasing conceptual differentiation, (d) providing opportunities for the
children to interact motorically with instructional material, and (e) the use
of play as educational experience.
Children’s developmental stage is assumed by Piaget (197Oa)to be the
prime factor determining their responsiveness to experience. Instruction
is viewed as a socially organized form of experience, and thus cognitive
stage measures are assumed to be predictive of instructional outcomes for
a particular child. Children who are not yet “in transition” to the next
stage are not assumed to be amenable to instruction geared toward logical
functioning at a higher stage level. The instructional implications of this
hypothesis seemed clear: Withhold instruction in such areas as mathematics until the child showed “cognitive readiness” according to Piagetian measures (e.g., some ability to conserve, make transitive judgments,
or seriate). Kuhn (1979) described a slightly different instructional approach, termed an “optimal mismatch,” for using mental stage measures
of children. The teacher is asked to diagnose children’s level of development and to promote activities that are challenging for them. The optimal mismatch is an educational experience that is just slightly advanced
for a particular child. Although Kuhn’s version does not deal with the
issue of transition, it is appealing because it suggests that instruction need
not be withheld and that every child is teachable at one developmental
level or another. However, Kuhn readily acknowledges that “the optimal
mismatch formulation fails to explain how higher-stage environmental
models produce developmental change” (p. 353), and thus the cognitive
readiness issue remains.
A second feature of Piaget’s theory with relevance to instruction stemmed
from his description of development as a result of an underlying equilibration process (Piaget, 1977). Cognitive advances were suggested to result from a child’s efforts to resolve conceptual conflicts, and thus instructional procedures which created conflicts such as discovery learning or debates were assumed to be particularly effective (e.g., Sigel,
1969). A widely mentioned example of a conflict teaching method was
Bruner’s (Bruner, Olver, & Greenfield, 1966) perceptual screening during
pouring in conservation of liquid tasks. When the screen was in place, the
distracting water level cues were eliminated and conservation judgments
were more readily made. When the screen was removed, the child was
confronted with conflicting evidence of differing water levels in vessels of
two different shapes. Most of the preschool programs discussed by
Johnson and Hooper (1982) have made discovery learning a central feature of their instructional approach.
A third educational implication of Piaget’s theory stemmed from his
description of within-stage development as involving progressive differentiation of knowledge (Furth, 1969). Piaget envisioned children’s knowl-
edge as becoming more specialized in much the same way that a fetus
develops increasingly distinctive anatomical structures out of initially undifferentiated cells. Weikart’s (1971) high scope program for teaching
Head Start and Follow Through children organizes the classroom according to Piaget’s principle of progressive differentiation. At the outset,
children are exposed to an environment that provides relatively few
places for storing classroom articles such as toys, books, and games. With
time and experience, the youngsters are required to store classroom articles in an increasing number of categorically specific places. Thus, the
classroom environment demands of the children a progressively more
complex cognitive structure for organizing stimuli.
A fourth hypothesis of Piaget’s (1977) that has intrigued a number of
educational psychologists was his suggestion that conflicts in viewpoints
between children could provoke cognitive development. Murray (1982)
discussed the educational implications of this hypothesis in his article. His
research indicates that pairing conserving and nonconserving children
together to solve conservation problems consistently leads the nonconserving child to adopt a conservation rule. He speculates that peer teaching may be a particularly effective method for organizing classroom instruction. To date, none of the Piaget educational programs that Johnson
and Hooper reviewed has incorporated peer conflict teaching as an explicit feature of its curriculum. Undoubtedly, this pedagogical process will
be explored in the 1980s.
A fourth feature of Piaget’s theory that many early childhood educators
(e.g., Kamii & DeVries, 1978) have adopted in some way is the use of
motoric experiences to facilitate young children’s acquisition of knowledge. This hypothesis (Wolff & Levin, 1972) stems from Piaget’s contention that sensory-motor concepts derive from children’s motoric explorations of their environment. The implication that many early childhood
educators have drawn from Piagent’s description is that preschoolers will
be best taught by a curriculum emphasizing “hands-on” experiences.
Often Montessori’s (1912/1964) tasks have been used due to that
educator’s similar emphasis on the importance of motoric experience.
Johnson and Hooper (1982) caution, however, that this motoric experience implication is now being challenged within Piagetian circles.
Many of the early childhood programs reviewed by Johnson and
Hooper (1982) have emphasized the use of the chidren’s play as an important instructional experience. Rubin and Pepler (1982) reviewed
Piaget’s theorizing on the role of play in children’s development, and they
discussed some common misinterpretations of Piaget’s notions by early
childhood educators. In addition to its virtue in promoting motoric involvement, play is assumed to foster social interactions among children
vis-a-vis learning materials.
The Incompatibility
Other educators and psychologists feel that Piaget’s theory conflicts
with or is unrelated to instruction. They present contrasting arguments
such as (a) Piaget philosophically embraces “natural development” at the
expense of organized educational experience; (b) “learning” is viewed as
distinct from “development” and is degraded in importance to the latter
construct; (c) direct instruction by adults is discouraged by Piaget in favor
of indirect motoric discovery experiences with peers; (d) Piagetian
educators tend to rule out the use of extrinsic rewards to motivate children and presume intrinsic motivation by all chidren; and (e) descriptive
approaches to cognitive functioning such as Piaget’s cannot afford a basis
for instruction because this enterprise is inherently prescriptive in nature. Let us consider each of these pedagogical criticisms.
In his influential book, Brainerd (1978) has traced Piaget’s statements
concerning the importance of natural development to Rousseauian
philosophic origins. It will be recalled that Rousseau expressed the conviction that a child will develop best if left to his own inclinations. He
believed that adults can only interfere with a child’s efforts to develop.
While Piaget’s posture on the “natural development” issue was often
unclear, he (Piaget, 1970a)repeatedly expressed his displeasure with what
he believed to be a preoccupation by American psychologists with precocious teaching of children to function at developmentally advanced levels.
He saw this “American question” as an unproductive pursuit at best and
as potentially counterproductive. Piaget cautioned, “It’s probably possible to accelerate, but maximal acceleration is not desirable” (Jennings,
1967, p. 82). Perhaps he felt such experiences might be confusing or
frustrating because they were developmentally advanced for the children.
This leads to a closely related point. Piaget (1964) repeatedly distinguished between “development”
and “learning.”
Development was
viewed as structural and fundamental to cognitive functioning, whereas
learning was treated as superficial and transitory. Piagetians such as
Smedslund (1961a, 1961b) conducted the first studies of this hypothesis.
Preoperational children in these early studies failed to change their nonconservation judgments despite training, and Smedslund concluded that
children’s developmental stage set limits on their degree of learning. Later,
when other researchers (e.g., Beilin, 1965; Bruner, Olver, & Greenfield,
1966, Kingsley & Hall, 1967) began to report success in teaching children
to conserve, Piagetian scholars demanded further evidence to clearly establish that conservation training outcomes were structurally “real” such
as (a) rule statements or reasons for conserving, (b) resistance to countersuggestion, (c) transfer, (d) retention overtime, and (e) continued growth
after training. The underlying premise for requiring increasingly rigorous
criteria was Piaget’s assumption that learning outcomes were inherently
inferior (i.e., not truly structural) to developmental outcomes. To critics
of Piagetian theory, this distinction between learning and development
implied that significant cognitive outcomes could not emerge directly
from instruction. They felt that such an a priori theoretical posture tends
to discourage systematic educational interventions with young children
and tends to denigrate the importance of obtained instructional outcomes.
A third implication of Piaget’s theory that bothers many educational
psychologists is his discouragement of organized instruction, particularly
direct, adult-initiated forms of instruction for children. Kamii and DeVries (1977) expressed this conclusion in the following way: “In general,
we derive from Piaget’s theory the moral that it is fruitless to try specifically to organize content for children. Whatever we tell children or show
them is bound to be assimilated in ways that are different from adult
notions” (p. 406). The sort of instruction that Piaget (1970b) favored
involved discovery learning: “it is clear that an education which is an
active discovery of reality is superior to one that consists merely of providing the young with ready-made wills to will with and ready-made truths
to know with” (pp. 26-27). While most educators would agree that discovery learning may be desirable at times for certain educational outcomes (e.g., teaching problem solving), it is generally considered to be a
highly inefficient method of conveying information (Wittrock, 1966). The
benefits of specific instructional objectives (Melton, 1978) and direct
teacher instruction
(Rosenshine & Berliner, 1978) is now well
documented, and Piaget’s emphasis on indirect forms of instruction is
difficult to accept in the absence of compelling data.
A fourth criticism of Piaget’s (1977) theory involves his assumption of
intrinsic motivation by all learners (Birns & Golden, 1973). Elkind (1974)
described Piaget’s view as follows: “Education need not, then, concern
itself with installing a zest for knowledge with the child since the desire to
know is part of his makeup” (p. 109). The equilibration notion implies that
children’s motivation for learning must emerge from within the children
themselves. Many proponents of Piagetian instructional procedures have
objected to the use of any sort of environmental task restructuring by
teachers to improve children’s motivation (Elkind, 1974). They refer to all
types of task manipulations including the use of incentives (Maccoby &
Zellner, 1968). However, the positive effects of incentives on children’s
learning has been extensively documented (e.g., O’Leary & O’Leary,
1972). Even those concerns about some possible drawbacks to certain
forms of reinforcers (e.g., Deci, 1971; Lepper, Green, & Nisbett, 1973)
have, under careful scrutiny, been found to be inapplicable to typical
classroom reinforcement procedures (Bates, 1979, p. 572; Horn & Horn,
1980, p. 96). Almy (1964) concluded that Piaget’s theory applies best in
those instances in which the developing child’s needs are being adequately met. Maccoby (1968) cautioned that “disadvantaged” children
should not be assumed to be intrinsically motivated: “In the history of the
culturally deprived child, intrinsic reward for learning has often not been
sufficient enough to overcome the elements in his experience that would
lead him to avoid, or be afraid of, learning situations. External rewards
may be both necessary and desirable to get the child started in the learning
process” (p. 198).
The fifth criticism is more general. Rosenthal and Zimmerman (1978)
have argued that Piaget’s theory is an essentially descriptive approach.
Piaget studied age-related changes in children’s cognitive functioning but
did little to examine the role of the environment. Some inferences about
environmental influences were made during Piaget’s research on infants
and toddlers (first 2 years of life). Such data allow few conclusions about
how a teacher can best instruct a child. Studying the outcomes of teaching
of children requires an experimental methodology. From experimental
research, prescriptive rules for instruction can be drawn. Piaget’s genetic
epistemological account affords relatively few prescriptive rules, as he
acknowledged shortly before his death (Sinclair-DeZwart, 1977).
The “Define and Conquer” Approach
Many educational psychologists, even those who side with either the
compatibility or incompatibility arguments, have decided to ignore the
more general philosophical aspects of Piaget’s theory and to concentrate
on empirically examining specific Piagetian constructs that relate directly
to instructional concerns. Some general features of Piaget’s theory can be
redefined in operational terms; others cannot. The following topics have
been defined and studied to some extent: (a) Do stage measures predict
learning? (b) Is conflict necessary for learning to occur? (c) Do stage
measures predict performance on non-Piagetian cognitive tasks? and (d)
Is motoric involvement necessary for learning?
The issue of the utility of stage measures in predicting learning was one
of the first to be studied by Piagetians. There were a series of studies
(Beilin, 1965; Strauss & Langer, 1970; Brainerd, 1972; Langer & Strauss,
1972; Inhelder, Sinclair, & Bovet, 1974) that examined this issue by correlating pretest scores on Piagetian tasks with posttest outcomes after
instruction. Positive correlations emerged in these studies, and they were
interpreted as indicating the predictive utility of stages as constructs.
Brainerd’s (1977) analysis of these studies, however, revealed a flaw:
Posttest scores were composed of both pretest differences and learning
outcomes. These two effects needed to be separated in order to answer
the stage question. Brainerd (1982) argued that efforts to answer this
question must involve the use of a different type of research paradigm
than has been used in the past, and he proposed an AT1 (Aptitude or Stage
Treatment Interaction) model to provide definitive answers to this question. Thus, the question of the usefulness of stage measures in predicting
learning remains open.
A second issue involves the claim by Piaget that cognitive conflict is a
necessary condition for development. Murray (1982) summarized research on use of social conflict in teaching children to conserve and found
consistent evidence of the successfulness of this procedure. However,
social conflict research is not definitive on this issue since social conflict
is different from cognitive conflict (disequilibrium) as Sigel (1979) has
noted, and no study of social conflict, to my knowledge, has yet examined
whether cognitive conflict was in fact produced. An operational definition
of disequilibrium that is separate from social conflict (and learning outcomes) is necessary before such research can be undertaken.
A third issue that has attracted considerable recent attention by researchers is the usefulness of stage measures in predicting children’s
performance on non-Piagetian tasks. This issue has been termed
“operativity” research, and correlations between performance on a wide
variety of Piagetian tasks and performance on mathematics, reading,
memory tasks, language tests, and discrimination learning tasks have
been reported. In general, results have been unimpressive (Liben, 1980;
Zimmerman, 1980). The correlations have typically been quite low, and
the use of correlational designs have been challenged (Zimmerman, 1980).
Performance on Piagetian tasks is known to be correlated to some degree
with children’s age. Similarly, performance on the non-Piagetian task is
known to be correlated with age. The fact that a child’s performance on
both tasks is correlated to some degree says nothing about a causal relationship between stage measures and performance on non-Piagetian
task. The best research on the operativity issue has been carried out by
Gholson and Beilin (1979). Controlling for children’s age, they found that
concrete operational youngsters (conservers) could learn a complex type
of discrimination learning requiring hypothesis formation and testing,
whereas nonconserving children could not learn. They interpreted their
results as supporting an operativity hypothesis. However, Spiker and
Cantor (1977; Cantor & Spiker, 1978) challenged this conclusion and
showed in their research that preoperational children could profit from
discrimination learning if a less confusing experimental methodology was
used to determine the youngsters’ hypotheses. Zimmerman (1980) argued,
however, that definitive evidence supporting an operativity hypothesis
can come only from a research paradigm in which operativity (e.g., the
ability to conserve) is taught specifically. If discrimination learning occurred after operativity training but not before, then an operativity assumption appears justified. Such research has not been conducted to date.
A final issue that has attracted the attention of several researchers is the
role of motoric involvement in preoperational stage children’s learning.
Wolff and Levin (1972) have demonstrated that motoric contact with toys
improved the children’s recall. Such a finding does not establish motoric
involvement as a necessary condition for learning, only as a facilitative
one. Nor does it indicate why motoric involvement was facilitory. In fact,
evidence was available in the Wolff and Levin study that indicated that
memory was improved by viewing interactions among the stimuli whether
they were carried out by the children themselves or by the experimenter.
This finding is in accordance with rather extensive evidence in the memory literature showing that embedding stimuli in an event sequence greatly
improves recall (e.g., Jensen & Rohwer, 1965; Jenkins, 1974). Wolff,
Levin, and Longobardi (1974) studied the relative effects of vicarious and
personal motoric experience using a yoking design. One child could manipulate toys in a paired-associate study and a second child was instructed
to watch. While no differences were found on an immediate posttest, toy
manipulators displayed greater recall than observers after a day’s delay.
These authors concluded that motoric involvement was necessary for
learning in addition to exposure to interaction experiences with the
stimuli. However, Brody, Mattison, and Zukerwise (1978) conducted a
study in which an adult model’s manipulations and child manipulations of
toys were factorially controlled, and they found significantly greater adult
manipulation effects compared to child manipulations. When viewed together, these studies indicate that the quality of the manipulations of toys
in the most important determinant of recall (Zimmerman, 1981). Motoric
involvement can assist children to form stable representations, but it does
not appear to be a requisite condition for learning by kindergarten-age
Attractive Features of Piaget’s Approach for Teacher
It is possible to consider Piaget’s contributions to teaching in a less
explicit by nonetheless useful sense. Perhaps ultimately these will be his
most enduring contribution to the field of education: (a) his description of
children as constructing coherence from reality based on their experience
to date and his conclusion that their cognitive framework differs from that
of an adult in important ways; (b) his concern for interrelations among
units of children’s knowledge; (c) his suggestion to look at children’s
errors to deduce the nature of that personal construction; and (d) his
advocacy of research involving careful observation of a single child’s
activity in naturalistic contexts.
Many teachers are attracted by Piaget’s description of children as fundamentally rational beings who from the earliest moments of life strive to
make sense out of the world as they encounter it. To Piaget, thinking is
never fragmented to the child even though it is usually inaccurate by adult
standards. Therefore, children are never creatures that enter the learning
setting with a “blank mental state” or “tabula rasa.” Rather, they apply
to each learning encounter the most relevant concepts they have available, and these concepts will constitute the initial basis for subsequent
cognitive constructions. This viewpoint demands that teachers treat students as active individuals who have a “vested interest” in a unique point
of view. Knowledge cannot be “force-fed” in an adult form to children,
but instead must be adapted to the youngsters’ current mode of understanding.
A second feature of Piaget’s theory that appeals to many teachers is his
emphasis on the interrelationship among units of knowledge. All too
often, non-Piagetian psychologists have studied children’s acquisition of
a concept (such as choosing the odd stimulus in an array) without much
concern for previously held, related concepts, such as the meaning of
terms like “same” or “different.” Unlike most researchers, teachers are
responsible for instructing children in many concepts, so the interrelationships of units of knowledge is a very relevant issue in their instructional decision making. While Piaget was not very interested in determining potential functional relationships among concepts (e.g., can
conservation of number be taught before counting), he was interested in
naturally occurring sequential relationships among concepts. Obviously,
sequential relationships among concepts may eventually prove to be
functional ones. Such information about the relatedness of concepts is
valuable in making instructional decisions.
A third attractive feature of Piaget’s approach is his interest in examining children’s errors to determine their understanding of their environment. In retrospect this seems like an obvious approach to understanding
children’s thinking, but in fact it has been infrequently used by developmental psychologists before Piaget. For example, most tests designed
to assess children’s mental development, such as the Wechsler intelligence test, give little attention to the nature of incorrect responses.
Piaget’s fascination with these errors began when he worked for a time in
Binet’s laboratory in Paris. Siegler’s (1982) article is a compelling account
of how children’s errors can be used to infer the underlying rules a child is
using. Many psychologists, and I suspect many teachers, will find
Siegler’s rule notion to be even more useful than Piaget’s stage construct
for instructional decision making because a great deal is known about how
to teach rules to children (e.g., Gag&, 1968; Zimmerman & Rosenthal,
1974), and thus misunderstandings of children that can be defined in rule
terms can be directly corrected.
A final useful feature of Piaget’s approach to studying children for
teachers is his demonstration of how careful observation of a single child
in a naturalistic setting can yield useful knowledge about children in general. Piaget’s descriptions of his own children’s learning during the sensory motor period was, in the opinion of many developmental
psychologists, his best work. In his research, he described his children’s
reactions to naturally occurring events such as their foot striking the side
of their crib. These accounts provided some evidence about which experiences led to cognitive development, unlike his work with older children
which was primarily concerned with establishing developmental milestones. Piaget’s descriptions of circular reactions between infants and their
environment were particularly vivid portrayals of learning experiences.
Many psychologists were initially skeptical about the reliability and
generalizability of data emerging from Piaget’s intensive study of a single
child; however, his results have been widely replicated with children from
throughout the world. Piagetians, along with psycholinguists, ethologists,
and operant psychologists have demonstrated the scientific value of intensive research on relatively few children in naturalistic contexts. Because teachers must ultimately deal with individual children if a student
fails to learn, they are attracted to the findings of individual child studies.
Piaget’s contributions to developmental psychology have been enormous. The scope of his theory and his compelling research studies did
much to define the parameters of developmental psychology for over 2
decades. While his interpretations of his findings have been widely challenged, even his severest critics will readily acknowledge the heuristic
value of his theory. During this period of time, Piaget’s theory has
changed substantially in its emphasis, if not in its precept. Piaget’s initial
picture of children as solitary constructors of their own concepts from
motoric experiences and as persons who are relatively impervious to the
forces of social experience has slowly changed. For example, Piaget’s
(1946/1962) early arguments with Guillauime (1926/1971) about children’s
capacity to adopt or “internalize” knowledge from social models (see
Furth, 1969, pp. 75-76) have taken a “back seat” to his more recent
discussions (Piaget, 1977) on how social conflict, particularly among
peers, might lead to cognitive development. In my judgment, recent research from across the entire spectrum of developmental psychology,
particularly in the area of language learning (e.g., Fillmore, 1971; MacNamara, 1972; Cohen, 1973; Nelson, 1974) is making constructivist conceptions of cognitive development that treat the child as a solitary determiner of his or her own cognitive organization increasingly untenable.
The role of social agents in influencing a child’s constructive activity is
becoming increasingly well documented (Jenkins, 1974; Labouvie-Vief &
Chandler, 1978; Rosenthal & Zimmerman, 1978). The importance of cul-
ture, social group, and early childhood filial experiences on cognitive
development are now widely recognized as issues in need of further
study. These issues have been historically important to educational
psychologists, and as Piagetian scholars move to address them more fully
in their research, Piaget’s theory will undoubtedly become more useful to
educators. Although some critics may question how flexible or specific
Piaget’s theory will be in guiding socially oriented research on cognition
during the 198Os, Piagetian scholars remain convinced of its heuristic
value. The continued existence of such controversy would, as Johnson
and Hooper (1982) have noted, disappoint Piaget if he were alive today
because it indicates his ideas have not yet been fully assimilated into the
field of developmental psychology. Ironically, however, such conflict reflects the continuing relevance of his theory to developmental
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