Connecting Cognitive Development and Constructivism: Implications from Theory for Instruction and Assessment



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Cognitive Development

Connecting Cognitive Development and Constructivism: Implications from

Theory for Instruction and Assessment
Stacey T. Lutz

William G. Huitt


Citation: Lutz, S., & Huitt, W. (2004). Connecting cognitive development and constructivism: Implications from theory for instruction and assessment. Constructivism in the Human Sciences,9(1), 67-90.
This paper provides an overview of the developmental theories of Dewey, Piaget, Vygotsky, and Bruner that provide the basis for the educational application of constructivism. Activities for developing instruction and assessment built on constructivistic theories are also discussed.
A review of the last fifteen years of literature reveals the attempt to consolidate the findings of a number of cognitive psychologists and philosophers who contend that several major assumptions of the information processing approach to cognition are incomplete. For example, one of the assumptions of this approach is that knowledge and competencies of thinking are situated within the individual and can be studied independently of the situation within which they are used (Bruner, 1990). Alternatively, Greeno (1989), a leading proponent of situated learning, proposes that thinking is a result of interaction between the individual and the environment. Greeno argues that person/environment interactions are of such a complexity as to make attempts to discover generalized cognitive processes quite irrelevant. Rather he suggests a need to study how a student’s innate abilities are used to develop knowledge and thinking competencies through interaction with specific environments. This position suggests that the information processing model may be adequate to explain current understandings of how memory operates, but it does not fully describe or predict differences in cognitive development. Situated models, like Greeno’s serve to highlight an ecological model for cognitive development (Huitt, 2003) that focuses on how individuals construct meaning from interactions with their environments.

As in every domain of human development, there are three major questions that are addressed: what is the role of biology, what is the role of experience, and how can the environment be arranged so as to best address the interaction between these two factors? John Dewey, Jean Piaget, Lev Vygotsky, and Jerome Bruner, researchers who provide the theoretical underpinnings for the increasingly popular constructivistic approach to the teaching/learning process, have different responses to these questions. However, the group of theorists discussed in this paper would subscribe to this questioning of assumptions. While they may disagree as to the emphasis on the individual or environment, they would all recognize the importance of studying person/environment interactions. This acknowledgment increases the complexity of their findings, making them that much more difficult to understand and use in guiding and assessing students’ cognitive development. Consequently, there are many questions that remain unanswered. This paper will provide an overview to theories that provide a theoretical underpinning to the constructivistic approach, as well as practical suggestions for classroom practice and methods of assessment and evaluation germane to the constructivistic approach.


John Dewey
John Dewey (1998) was an American psychologist and philosopher who promoted the value of personal experience in learning. He placed relatively little emphasis on maturational factors and taught that human beings understand the world through interaction with their environment and, thus, knowledge is constructed by the individual. Dewey (1944) proposed that a primary function of schooling was to prepare young people to live in a democratic society and that one’s reflection on personal experiences would provide the foundation for the development of the necessary attributes for successful living. He believed the dualistic conceptualization of thinking and doing to be false. Rather he proposed a reciprocal, continuous relationship between thinking and doing that is reflected in the work of the other researchers discussed in this paper (Vanderstraeten & Biesta, 1998). As a leader in the progressive education movement in the early 20th century, his work set the stage for an acceptance of the work of later researchers.
Jean Piaget
Jean Piaget (2001) was a Swiss biologist, philosopher, and behavioral scientist who developed one of the most significant theories in cognitive psychology. His stage theory gained wide acceptance in the 1960s and 1970s as a result of the translations of his work into English and its promotion by influential American psychologists (e.g., Flavell, 1963). His impact on the field of cognitive development cannot be overstated, even though many of the precepts he developed have been criticized by subsequent evidence (Parent, Normandeau & Larivee, 2000).

Piaget described himself as a genetic epistemologist. His work focused on developing a general theory of knowledge, how a child develops a knowledge of his or her world, and the role that biology plays in that development. To Piaget, intelligence is represented by how an organism interacts with its environment through mental adaptation. This adaptation is controlled through mental organizations or structures that an individual uses to represent the world; it is driven by a biological impulse to obtain balance (homeostasis or equilibrium) between those mental organizations and the environment.

Piagetian theory can be discussed in two parts: 1) his theory of adaptation and the process of using cognitive schemes and 2) his theory of cognitive developmental stages (Huitt and Hummel, 1998).

The process of coming to know, the first aspect of Piaget’s (2001) theory, starts with the fact that individuals are born with reflexes that allow them to interact with the environment. These reflexes are quickly replaced by constructed mental schemes or structures that allow them to interact with, and adapt to, the environment. This adaptation occurs in two different ways (through the processes of assimilation and accommodation) and is a critical element of modern constructivism. Adaptation is predicated on the belief that the building of knowledge is a continuous activity of self-construction; as a person interacts with the environment, knowledge is invented and manipulated into cognitive structures. When discrepancies between the environment and mental structures occur, one of two things can happen. Either the perception of the environment can be changed in order for new information to be matched with existing structures through assimilation, or the cognitive structures themselves can change as a result of the interaction through accommodation. In either case, the individual adapts to his or her environment by way of the interaction. It is clear that Piaget believed that cognition is grounded in the interface between mind and environment. The result of this interplay is the achievement or working toward a balance between mental schemes and the requirements of the environment. It is a combination of maturation and actions to achieve equilibration that advances an individual into a higher developmental stage.

Piaget (2001) proposed four sequential stages of cognitive development. Other researchers have critiqued his theory, using four criteria implied by it (Driscoll, 2000). First, if each stage is progressive, as he asserts, then each must represent a qualitative (discontinuous) change in cognition, or there must be an obvious, substantial improvement or change when a child moves from one stage into the next. Second, the stages of progression must be consistent for all children across all cultures and societies. If Piaget’s theory is true and cognitive development is biologically based, cultural and societal factors should not impact that development. Next, preceding stages must be integrated into later stages of development. As growth occurs in a stage theory model, the abilities and structures from all previous stages should be present and operational at all higher stages. Finally, at any point in development, a child’s mental structures or schemes and his or her physical operations join to form a whole unit, and as development occurs, this unit becomes more complex. These four criteria form the backdrop for Piaget’s four-staged theory of cognitive development. Because his theory asserts that the stages are age dependent and based on cognitive readiness, the approximate ages for each stage are included in the discussion of each.

Piaget differentiated three types of knowledge that must be present at all stages of cognitive development: physical, logical-mathematical, and social (Driscoll 2000). Physical knowledge is gained through hands-on interaction with the environment. It deals directly with experience and perception of objects and is very concrete in nature. This type of knowledge can only be gained from personal, direct contact with environmental elements. Logical-mathematical knowledge is an abstract reasoning that is applicable beyond physical interaction with a concrete stimulus. While physical knowledge is discovered, logical-mathematical knowledge is created through actions. It can only be gained by repeated exposure and interaction with multiple objects in multiple settings in order for mental structures to be modified and created. Here, it is the manipulation of objects in different patterns and contexts that allows for generalizations and abstractions to be created. Likewise, social knowledge can only be gained through interaction with others. This type of knowledge is culture specific and its acquisition is based on actions rather than physical perception of objects. These types of knowledge are at work at all stages of cognitive development and are not necessarily hierarchical in nature—as are Piaget’s proposed stages of development.

The first stage suggested by Piaget is the sensorimotor stage. In general, this stage lasts from birth to about two years of age. At this point intelligence is based on physical and motor activity, but excludes the use of symbols. Mobility, crawling, and walking facilitate knowledge acquisition, and progress is shown through the modification of reflexes in response to the environment. One important milestone of this stage is the development of object permanence. Beginning at about 7 months infants start to understand the concept that objects continue to exist even though they cannot be seen. The end of this stage is marked by the immature use of symbols and language development that signals the progression to the second stage.

The second stage, labeled pre-operational, lasts from about two years of age until approximately seven. It is marked by the demonstration of intelligence through the use of symbols, especially the maturation of language. Children in the pre-operational stage are able to mentally represent objects and events, and at this point in development, memory and imagination are developed. An important signifier of this stage is the ability of a child to do monological, nonreversible thinking; children in this stage can deal with or determine only one aspect of a problem at a time, and they cannot think or process information in a multidimensional fashion. A child’s thinking at this stage is also highly egocentric, and even in conversation, he or she will fail to recognize any duality in the exchange of information and certainly will fail to comprehend any perspective other than their own. The end of this stage is marked by the child’s ability to conserve number (i.e., the child knows that spacing of objects does not impact their quantity).

The reaching of Piaget’s third stage, the concrete operational, is evidenced by a child’s ability to demonstrate logically integrated thought, and the typical age span for this stage is from seven to eleven. At this point in development, the child’s exposure to, and integration of, knowledge has matured such that all three types of knowledge (physical, logical-mathematical, and social) can be used by the child to interact with the environment to a relatively high degree. At this point, intelligence is based on logical and systematic manipulation of concrete objects and related symbols. The child can engage in reversible mental operations (i.e., the child can interact with the environment from more than one perspective). Subsequently, egocentric thinking declines. The major milestone yet to be reached by the concrete operational child, however, is the ability to make abstractions and hypothesize. At the concrete operational stage, his or her development is still limited to the application of knowledge to concrete objects and stimuli.

From eleven years onward, Piaget presumes that the preadolescent begins the process of attaining the formal operational stage of development. At this stage, intelligence is shown through the logical use of symbols related to abstract concepts. There is typically a return to egocentric thinking early in the period, but the abstractions that this type of thought allows eventually move the individual to a much broader perspective and thinking beyond himself or herself. Siegler (1991) suggests that an important ability of people who reach this stage is that they are able to think abstractly about such issues as truth, morality, justice, and the nature of existence and to provide alternative, competing beliefs about these. Thus, cognitive development becomes a pre-requisite for the acquisition of morality based upon abstract principles.

It is important to note that empirical evidence suggests the formal operations stage is not necessarily reached because of physical maturity (Eylon & Lynn, 1988; Renner and others, 1976). Eylon and Linn (1988) break down the percentage of high school students at Piaget’s developmental levels as shown in Table 1. As is evident most students have not attained the formal operations stage by the time they get out of high school, let alone at age 15 when Piaget states that most young people should have attained it.
Table l. Percentage of Students in Different Piagetian Stages


Age

Grade

Preoperational

Entry Concrete

Advanced Concrete

Entry Formal

Middle Formal

14

8-9

1

32

43

15

9

15

9-10

1

15

53

18

13

16

10-11

1

13

50

17

19

16-17

11-12

3

19

47

19

12

17-18

12

1

15

50

15

19

Piaget’s stages have come under significant scrutiny in the years since they were introduced, and many theories have added to the scope or particularities of his ideas. Kagan (as cited in Stanton, 1993, p.1) points out that “Piagetian theory fails to account for how and why a child passes from one stage to another, and second, it fails to provide a systematic description of the conceptual structures possessed by the child at each stage.” While the theory has often been amended or refuted, its impact is unquestionable, and many of Piaget’s ideas continue to validly describe the process of mental change. Dasen has said that “There may be some discussion about the age at which particular concepts are attained, the possibility that for some individuals this type of reasoning may, in some conceptual areas, remain a potential rather than a performance applicable to all contexts, but it remains that concrete operational reasoning has been found world-wide” (as cited in Suizzo, 2000, p. 847). Further, although new theories of cognitive development have gone beyond Piagetian thinking, they all seem to agree with at least the spirit of Piaget’s work that children are spontaneously and actively processing their interactions with the environment in a self-directing manner, using a wide variety of information processing processes to construct a view that is unique to each individual (Flavell, Miller, & Miller, 2002).

One modern extension of Piagetian theory may be found in Case (1985), who provides an excellent example of research that continues to develop Piaget’s original framework. He agreed with Piaget that there are developmental stages and that increasingly sophisticated structures develop at each, but he preferred to model mental structures using an information processing approach. Relying on this model, Case suggested that as automaticity increases and more structures are developed, new developmental stages could be reached. He focused on the demands on memory for task performance and suggested that at all levels a person’s capacity for gaining knowledge is divided between operating space and storage space. Although he names automaticity in particular, it is suspected that other factors, including biological ones, contribute to developmental increases. Also, he subdivided each of Piaget’s stages into four substages. He first introduced these levels in 1980, but in 1985 revised and renamed them as operational consolidation, operational coordination, bifocal coordination, and elaborated coordination (Stanton, 1993).
Lev Vykotsky
The inclusion of society and culture as impactors of cognitive development is most evident in the work of Lev Vygotsky (1978). His work uses social interaction as the framework for all learning and development. To Vygotsky, “the development of the mind is the interweaving of biological development of the human body and the appropriation of the cultural/ideal/material heritage which exists in the present to coordinate people with each other and the physical world” (Cole and Wertsch, 1996, p. 2). There are three major principles underlying Vygotsky’s social development theory (Wink & Putney, 2002). First, social interaction plays a critical role in cognitive development in relation to what is learned and when and how learning occurs. This principle asserts that “Without the learning that occurs as a result of social interaction, without self awareness or the use of signs and symbols that allow us to think in more complex ways, we would remain slaves to the situation, responding directly to the environment” (Nicholl, 1998, p. 1). The second principle associated with this theory is “the idea that the potential for cognitive development is limited to a certain time span” (Kearsley, 2001b, p. 1). Finally, Vygotsky asserted that the only way to understand how humans come to know is to study learning in an environment where the process of learning rather than the product that is the result of learning, is studied.

The impact of society and culture are central to social development theory. Vygotsky (1978) believed that all higher mental functions must first be filtered through an external stage in the form of social occurrences. They are then integrated into an individual’s thinking through the use of language. This “dialectical discovery” is a continuous process that becomes increasingly complex over time (Wink & Putney, 2002, p. 10). Therefore, all higher functions originate as actual interpersonal relationships between individuals.

Vygotsky (1978) believed that two levels of mental functions exist: elementary and higher mental functions. The first are functions that individuals are born with (i.e., no learning is required for their use). These functions require no thought and are naturally occurring such as hunger and sensing. Conversely, higher mental functions include the creation and use of self-generated stimulation such as memory, attention, thinking, and language (Galant, 1998). The transition from elementary to higher mental functions is made through the use of cultural tools. Vygotsky’s view is that human beings create cultures through the use of tools and symbols. Culture (and in turn society) then dictates what is valuable to learn and how it is learned. Society, then, is the driving force behind cognitive development. This is a departure from theories that contend that cognitive development proceeds in order to prepare a person to interact with society in a meaningful way. Instead, cognitive development is the internalization of social functions and the conversion of social functions into mental functions (Driscoll, 2000).

The concept in Vygotsky’s (1978) theory that each person has an individual range of potential for learning is called the zone of proximal development. This zone indicates that at any point in development, there are three levels of ability that are possible: that which a person can do without guidance or help, that which a person cannot do even if helped, and that which a person can do with help. The measurement of cognitive development, then, cannot be accomplished by a simple evaluation of a task completed by one person. In this theory, it is the potential for development that is important, not the snapshot that can be provided by simply asking a child to complete a task independently. The zone itself is the distance between the actual developmental level as determined by independent problem solving and the level of potential as determined through problem solving under adult guidance or in collaboration with more capable peers (Galant, 1998). This potential moves with an individual as if on a sliding scale throughout life, and, in theory, full development can never be reached. This idea, also, is radically different from stage theorists because it delineates no final destination or developmental stage.

With respect to Vygotsky’s (1978) belief that one must study the process of learning rather than the product, he was interested in how a person mediates or actively modifies the stimulus situation as a part of learning. His observations focused on how children go about the process of problem solving and what societal tools are employed in their solutions. In order to assess development, he studied the interaction of subjects with a problem-solving task, but was not necessarily concerned with whether or not a correct solution was achieved. Different developmental levels were demonstrated by the elements such as use of symbols, abstractions, and past experiences. In addition, Vygotsky would often add additional problematic circumstances to a problem-solving task such a mixed language groups in order to understand more about the process of finding solutions (Driscoll, 2000).
Jerome Bruner
Bruner’s (1987, 1990) constructivist theory incorporates many of the ideas offered in previous theories. First, he includes the Piagetian notion that cognitive development occurs in progressive stages and that each stage is incorporated and built upon by succeeding stages. Bruner also agrees with Piaget in arguing that categorization and representation are keys to an individual’s cognitive development. His ideas can also be linked to those who propose information processing models in that he suggests development occurs as mental structures become more elaborate and sophisticated through interaction and experience: “learners construct new ideas or concepts based upon their current/past knowledge. The learner selects and transforms information, constructs hypotheses, and makes decisions, relying on a cognitive structure to do so” (Kearsley, 2001a, p.1). In addition, his work is considered interactional in a manner similar to that proposed by Dewey and Vygotsky. He is concerned with the sequence of representation (the stages), but he is equally concerned with the role of culture on cognitive development.

There is one fundamental difference between Bruner’s (1987) theory and Piaget’s (2001) theories. First, stage theories maintain that cognitive readiness is key to learning and development. According to these, age or biological state dictates what can be learned and how learning can occur. Constructivist theory says that it is the translation of the information that dictates what type of information can be processed and how learning can occur. Piaget would say that an individual cannot process certain types of information at certain ages or stages, but Bruner disagrees, stating that certain aspects of any content or principle can be taught to any child. It will likely be necessary, however, to revisit these as the individual acquires more knowledge and capacity.

The other critical piece of the equation for Bruner (1987, 1990) is the impact of culture on learning, and it is with this element of Piaget’s theory that he takes issue. According to Piagetian theory, all individuals pass through exact stages and progress in the same ways regardless of cultural or societal differences. This idea, however, is not supported in empirical research (e.g., Renner and others, 1976). It has been shown that “Members of different cultures, because of the specific and unique demands of living in their societies, make sense of their experiences in different ways” (Driscoll, 2000, p. 236), and these differences manifest themselves at variant stages of development. This would seem to indicate, then, that culture and social structure do in fact play a role in cognitive development. Bruner (as cited in Driscoll 2000, p. 236) stated that “Intelligence is to a great extent the internalization of ‘tools’ provided by a given culture”. If a society’s tools are different, their categorization structures would also be different, and their representations would be different. Different skills and types of knowledge would be necessary at different ages, and this alone calls into question stage theorists proposal that the stages of development are invariant.

Bruner (as cited in Anderson, 1998) said that “To perceive is to categorize, to conceptualize is to categorize, to learn is to form categories, to make decisions is to categorize.” It is clear from this statement that Bruner believes that the ability to compare new stimuli with existing structures is critical to learning and development. In fact, the inability to interpret information based on existing mental structures would lead to a failure to adapt higher, more sophisticated mental structures and, hence, to fail to develop cognitively. In regard to this comparison, Bruner’s theory suggests that children must develop ways to represent recurrent regularities in their environment. This representation system is developed through the building and establishment of progressively more sophisticated and specific mental schemes or structures (Driscoll, 2000).e HH

To this end, Bruner (1987) recognized three modes of representation that must be present at all stages of development. These three modes of representation (enactive, iconic, and symbolic) are not necessarily hierarchical, but some learning can only be achieved by passing through each type in a specific developmental order. Enactive representation can only demonstrate the past through appropriate motor experiences. If the enactive mode is the only one being employed, the learner could only demonstrate knowledge by using motor activity to demonstrate thinking. He or she could demonstrate how to do a particular task but could not explain or use any symbolic medium to express knowledge. Iconic representation employs the use of organizational structures, spatial signifiers, or images to represent past experiences. Someone using this type of representation could relate an experience to images or concrete symbols like maps or diagrams. The third mode of representation is symbolic. In this mode, design features that can include remoteness or arbitrariness represent the past. Language is the most common tool used for this type of representation, but the characterizing feature of this type of representation is that the symbols being used do not have to have a concrete correlation to what is being described. The representation goes beyond a concrete connection to the information. It is at this level that analogies could be used to refer to past experiences.
Impacting Classroom Practice
It is important to understand that there is no single set of recommendations as to how to incorporate a constructivistic approach to learning into the classroom. Each of the major theorists has specific recommendations and they do not always agree with each other. The common thread that runs throughout a constructivistic approach is that the development of meaning is more important that the acquisition of a large set of knowledge or skills that are easily forgotten (Black & McClintock, 1995; Moshman, 1982). Two of the most important concepts for applying these theories relate to matching learning experiences to a student’s level of readiness and providing for social interaction during the learning process.

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