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Educational strategies evolve to adapt to the present times. In the past, learning was thought to be transmitted from the teacher to the student because the teacher was considered a source of all knowledge while the student was considered as a passive recipient of knowledge.
However, two theorists have emerged to argue with this ideology – Jean Piaget and Lev Vygotsky, who both advocated for constructivist philosophy in education. Both believed that the learner should be active in the construction of his own knowledge and not merely considered as a receptacle of information. At the same time, there are differences in the theories of these two prominent scholars.
Piaget contended that children learn through interactions with their environment. They learn from concrete experiences as they engage their senses. He believed that children think with schemas or a ‘cohesive, repeatable action sequence possessing component actions that are tightly interconnected and governed by a core meaning’ (Piaget & Inhelder, 1969, p. 56).
This means, while playing, a child imagines the schemas and expresses it in her play to sort out meanings of things. Hence, this implies that children should be provided with actual experiences, spaces to explore and materials to manipulate in order to form and understand more abstract ideas (Piaget, 1959). Piaget’s theory is known as Cognitive constructivism.
On the other hand, Vygotsky (1978) believed that children learn best from social interactions. When two or more learners come together, they go through an “intersubjectivity” phase when they have different understandings of concepts due to the differences in their backgrounds. However, upon interaction, they eventually compromise on a shared understanding.
For example, at first children argue on opposite sides of an issue, but with more understanding of the concept that comes from listening to each other’s argument, they both end up seeing the same concept in one direction. Another theory established by Vygotsky is the ‘zone of proximal development’ (ZPD) which is defined as the distance between what a child can do on his own and what he can do under the guidance of an adult or in collaboration with more capable peers (Wertsch, 1985).
For example a child can be taught a certain skill by another child during their interaction. This is known as Social constructivism. Although these theories may differ in terms of attributing where learning commences, when they are taken together, they complement each other. Hence joined together, they are known as Constructivist Teaching Practices and Principles.
The Constructivist theories have been applied to education of children. In consideration of the basic differences of Cognitive constructivism focusing on interactions with the environment and Social constructivism focusing on social interactions, Piaget’s Cognitive constructivism emphasizes experiential learning from discovery and exploration while Vygotsky’s Social constructivism value teacher explanations, demonstrations and support.
Cognitive Constructivists encourage individual children to keep asking questions while Social Constructivists encourage children to voice out their views in a group when trying to solve a problem. Cognitive Constructivists allow children freedom to discover their environment independently while Social Constructivists encourage children to collaborate in projects so they get to interact with each other.
Cognitive Constructivists motivate individual children to be accountable for their own actions while Social constructivists create joint responsibility for joint projects (Bonk & Cunningham, 1998).
In the early childhood classroom, constructivist theory promotes children’s play. When children prefer to play with toys on their own and use their imagination to keep their play alive and interesting, it is cognitive constructivism at work. However, if children join others to play and they get to talk and discuss things on their own, then it is social constructivism at work.
Early childhood classes are now becoming more multicultural. In befriending somebody who seems to be different externally, the two children may at first experience Vgotsky’s ‘intersubjectivity’ in that they examine each other’s differences like the huge difference in skin color or eye color or the way the other child is dressed especially if his or her culture dictates the garments they should wear. However, upon playing with each other, they get to see that they are actually very similar in many ways (Lin et al., 2008).
They are both small, both love to play and both like toys. This is when a teacher can strike with her anti-bias curriculum. At the level of young children, they are not so conscious of bias or prejudice and it is important for the teacher to stress that no matter how different they may seem to be, they can still find ways to be similar and to be friends and there is no reason to dominate anyone because he or she feels superior to others (Hohensee & Derman-Sparks, 1992).
Since cognitive constructivists encourage exploration in children, teachers should make sure that they prepare a safe and secure environment for the children so that they do not get harmed when they are exploring it. Teachers should also prepare interesting materials in the classroom that ensure children’s learning even when they are on their own.
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They can prepare not only educational and manipulative toys but materials that make use of children’s senses – matching sound cardboard cylinders, a “feely” box where objects of various textures are hidden and then touched by a child without seeing it and guessing what it is, smelling bottles that should be matched according to scent, etc.
This is also an opportunity to use familiar objects to foreign students so that they also feel a sense of belonging to the class (Lin et al., 2008). Examples would be exotic fruits available in their country. This will also benefit the other children because they get to know the objects and where it came from.
Young children in early childhood settings are learning to hone their social skills and social constructivist theory can explain how children learn to negotiate with others or learn to manage conflicts. Salomon & Perkins (1998) explain that collaborative activities have certain expectations for each member of the group to share his or her ideas and to cooperate with everyone in order to achieve their goals.
. Salomon & Perkins (1998) have thoroughly discussed the social aspects of learning, especially in conditions where collaboration is necessary. Each participant in the collaboration is expected to share his or her ideas and to cooperate with each other to achieve unity and facilitate the learning process.
“One simple aspect is learning when and how to ask questions or to ask for help. Another is learning how to enter into reciprocal learning relationships (“I’ll help you with this if you help me with that, or we will both help one another with this particularly difficult idea.”) Here, the individual learner’s learning system extends its capacity to deal with the critical conditions of learning by acquiring new ways to capitalize on the social surroundings.” (Salomon and Perkins, 1998, pp. 5-6)
Hence, in Salomon and Perkins’ view, Vygotsky’s social constructivist theory makes a lot of sense.
Both Piaget’s and Vygotsky’s constructivist theories greatly benefit educators of young children in planning a developmentally-appropriate curriculum for them that can maximize their skills and enhance their growth and development.
Bonk, C. J. & Cunningham, D. J. (1998) Searching for learner-lentered, constructivist, and sociocultural components of collaborative educational learning tools in Electronic Collaborators. Web.
Hohensee, J. B, Derman-Sparks, L. (1992) Implementing an anti-bias curriculum in early childhood classrooms, Retrieved from ERIC database. ( ED351146)
Lin, M., Lake, V.E. & Rice, D., (2008) Teaching anti-bias curriculum in teacher education programs: what and how, Teacher Education Quarterly, Spring, 2008
Piaget, J. (1959) The Language and Thought of the Child, London: Routledge & Kegen Paul.
Piaget, J., Inhelder, B. (1969) The Psychology of the Child. New York; Basic Books.
Salomon, G. & Perkins, D.N. (1998) Individual and social aspects of learning. Review of Research in Education , 23: 1-24
Vygotsky, L. S. (1978). Mind in society: The development of higher psychological processes. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.