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Friday, November 26, 2010

Piaget on child-centered education

The following quote is from a book I'm reading by Jean Piaget, titled "Science of Education and the Psychology of the Child," (1970):

"Is childhood a necessary evil, or have the characteristics of the childish mentality a functional significance that defines a genuine activity? According to the reply given to this fundamental question, the relation between adult society and the child to be educated will be conceived of as either unilateral or reciprocal. In the first case the child is called upon to receive from outside the already perfected products of adult knowledge and morality; the educational relationship consists of pressure on the one side and receptiveness on the other. From such a point of view even the most individual kinds of task performed by the students (writing an essay, making a translation, solving a problem) partake less of the genuine activity of spontaneous and individual research than of the imposed exercise or the act of copying an external model; the student's inmost morality remains fundamentally directed toward obedience rather than autonomy. Whereas, on the other hand, to the degree in which childhood is thought of as endowed with its own genuine form of activity, and the development of mind as being included within that activity's dynamic, the relation between the subjects to be educated and society becomes reciprocal: the child no longer tends to approach the state of adulthood by receiving reason and the rules of right action ready-made, but by achieving them with his own effort and personal experience; in return, society expects more of its new generations than mere imitation: it expects enrichment."
I couldn't agree more.

Jean Piaget
Piaget endorses the view that a child's mind should not to be viewed as an empty vessel into which well-packaged knowledge needs to be poured, but rather as an active and engaged entity, with its own respect-worthy dynamic. Education should not aim merely to train a child towards some preconceived social end, but should rather be a process whereby a child can grow, through "effort and personal experience", to be able to contribute meaningfully to society.

Another phrase in this book that caught my eye, "that authentic process of construction that is the true development of the mind," is also illustrative of Piaget's view of learning as an active, organic process.

This is something to think about not only in the context of children in schools, but also for young adults at the college level. Sadly, even at the college level, (at least in engineering, which I am most familiar with), our education system today is geared primarily towards cultivating "obedience rather than autonomy".

In a chapter called "The Genesis of the New Methods," Piaget provides a brief intellectual history of autonomy-oriented educational methods that are characterized by a) assuming "genuine activity" in the child, and b) the "reciprocal character of the relation they establish between the subjects being educated and the society of which they are destined to form a part." I found this discussion very useful in identifying further authors I myself should read, so I jot down some notes on this chapter below.

Piaget starts by mentioning that the core ideas have existed in some form or another for centuries, including in the words and writings of Socrates, Rabelais, Montaigne, Fenelon, and Locke, but dismisses their views along these lines as being no more than fragmentary.

He views Rousseau as the first to have had a "total conception" of these ideas, particularly as evidenced in Emile, and credits Pestalozzi (a disciple of Rousseau) and Froebel (a disciple of Pestalozzi) for taking the first steps to make these ideas concrete. In particular, Pestalozzi founded a school called Institut d'Yverdon in Switzerland in 1805, where children appear to have had great autonomy, and where the teachers acted more like "older companions and trainers rather than leaders".
Jean Jacques Rousseau

But, at the same time, he finds Rousseau's justifications for educational change, arrived at primarily through intuition and subjective experience, as lacking in rigor, being hardly more than a "sociological belief, or a polemical weapon". Even Pestalozzi and Froebel, he writes, suffered, from not having a solid scientific theory of developmental psychology to guide their efforts.

Piaget writes, "The notions of the functional significance of childhood, of the phases of intellectual and moral development, of true interest and activity, are already there in [Rousseau's] work, but they did not truly provide inspiration for the 'new methods' until the moment they were rediscovered, on the plane of objective observation and experiment, by authors more concerned with unfevered truth and systematic controls."

This is an interesting commentary. As a developmental psychologist himself, Piaget clearly believed that an objective experimental methodology was essential to uncovering "truths" about the learning process in a convincing and coherent fashion. Only such scientific findings could, in his view, impact practice substantially.

He qualifies and clarifies this a bit later:
"Let there be no misunderstanding, however. Modern educational science has not emerged from child psychology in the same way that advances in industrial technique have developed, step by step, from the discoveries of the exact sciences. It is rather the general spirit of psychological research, and often, too, the very methods of observation employed that have energized educational science in their passage from the field of pure science to that of scholastic experimentation."
He describes as more central and significant the contributions of psychologists and experimentally-oriented educationists, in particular, John Dewey, Maria Montessori, and Ovide Decroly, in the late nineteenth century, who all founded schools based on the new ideas.

He also mentions Kerchensteiner, whose central idea was that the "aim of the school is to develop the student's spontaneity," and Claparede, for being the first to apply the theory by the psychologist Karl Groos that "play is a preparatory exercise and therefore displays a functional significance" to the context of education.

A somewhat more controversial figure he mentions finally in this context is Alfred Binet. Binet is best known for developing the first IQ tests. Piaget himself sees these tests as problematic. He notes "though the tests have not produced all the results expected of them ... either we shall one day find good tests, or else intelligence tests will go into history as an example of a fruitful error". He notes, "Apart from these tests however, Binet also rendered many other services to the new education with his theory of the intelligence and his book Les idees modernes sur les enfants."

I'm looking forward to reading more about these figures who have played a central role in the development of humanistic, learner-centric ideas of education.

2 comments:

Sundeep said...

Excellent post, Bhaskar. I assume you've already come across work by John Holt. Wondering if Piaget lists him alongside the other pioneering educationalists.

Bhaskar Krishnamachari said...

I will definitely have a lot to say about Holt in these pages. His observations and insights about the learning process are priceless...