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Reaction Paper 1: Stages or Cages?


In Educational Psychology: Theory and Practice, Robert Slavin presents two basic types
of theories of cognitive development in children. A continuous theory of development is a
theory which assumes that development occurs in one unbroken process over the course of a
childs life. A second type of theory is a discontinuous theory of development, in which certain
inborn factors determine development of a child over time (Slavin, 2012, p. 30). According to
Piagets discontinuous theory of development, a childs cognitive abilities are fundamentally
different from one stage to the next (Slavin, 2012).
One weakness in a discontinuous theory of development is that it limits the perspective
on particular children. According to Piagets theory, if we assess that a child is in a particular
stage of development, we assume that the child will have a host of other features appropriate of
their stage. For example, through a conservation task, we may assess a child as preoperational.
We may assume, then, that the child is egocentric in their thinking as well. However, studies
have shown that children can be trained to be successful in egocentrism tasks despite showing
some features of the preoperational stage (Slavin, 2012, p. 39).
In fact, studies show that children can be trained to be successful in many of the very
same tasks that Piaget was using demonstrate the childrens development. Piaget admitted that
children can show skills in multiple stages at a time, but still maintained that children are
generally tied to one distinct stage at a time (Slavin, 2012). Margaret Donaldson reviewed much
of Piagets research and concluded that many of the tasks used by Piaget did not accurately
assess childrens abilities because they were asked in ways which were not appropriate for a
childs way of thinking (Donaldson, 1982). It is therefore not surprising that children can display
an ability to think in ways outside of their Piagetian stage if they are trained or asked differently.
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In applying Piagets techniques to the world of education, the inevitable result of stage-
based perspectives in education is a self-fulfilling prophecy similar to that of the famous
Rosenthal experiment. In that experiment, teachers taught students who were predicted to be
bloomers were in fact the most successful students, presumably because teachers teach
students who they think will succeed different than they teach others.
Unless students are grouped by Piagetian stages, teachers will certainly have children
who are in different stages in the same class. According to Piaget, these students should be
taught in very different ways, due to their differing cognitive abilities. Due to Piagets system,
teachers may fall into the same trap as the teachers in Rosenthals experiment they may teach
children differently under certain assumptions and give certain students an unfair advantage.
Despite these issues, it is impossible to ignore the accomplishments of Piagets research
in the world of psychology and education. Firstly, Piaget was very much an innovator in his
approach to the thought of a child. The characteristics of Piagetian stages apply to many children
surprisingly well the argument I have been positing is simply that the stages are not necessarily
as formal or as unique as he describes. Secondly, Piagets methods in interviewing children are
of incredible value for teachers as well as psychologists. In his interviews, Piaget asked questions
which had been posed by children themselves, always interpreted their responses as valid, and
taught children to view issues from varying perspectives by presenting counterproofs (Elkind,
1972).
David Elkind explains that this basic approach to childrens thinking as different and
valid allows the childs thought to be on a level playing field with the adult. Rather than being
told that his answer is either right or wrong, a child is always encouraged to express himself
further (Elkind, 1972). Furthermore, offering varying perspectives to a child allows him/her to
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think through ideas fully without being concerned with what is correct. Elkind calls this
discovery learning in the truest sense. (Elkind, 1972) Many modern viewpoints on education
encourage teachers to allow students to encounter information by themselves, so they can truly
own their learning. Through his interviews with children, Piaget displayed these concepts years
before they became popular in the world of progressive education.
In its applications to education, Piagets theory of development may have been a bit too
aggressive -- his attachment to stages does not make it easy for a teacher to approach every
student as an individual. However, it is impossible to deny Piagets brilliance as a researcher and
developmental psychologist. As current educators, we are forever indebted to the path he paved
in his approach to unearthing what exists in the mind of a child.













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Works Cited
Donaldson, M. (1982). Conservation: What is the question? British Journal of Psychology, (73),
199-207.
Elkind, D. (1972). What Does Piaget Say to the Teacher?. Today's Education, 72.
Slavin, R. E. (2012). Educational psychology: Theory and practice (10th ed.). Boston, MA:
Pearson.