Family Matters: Learning to make sense of the world

Beginning to understand: As children grow, they build up their schemas – adding lots of information to the concept of “dog”.
Beginning to understand: As children grow, they build up their schemas – adding lots of information to the concept of “dog”.

In my last column I wrote about Erik Erikson’s psycho-social theory of child development. This week I will introduce you to Piaget’s theory.

Jean Piaget (1896-1980) was a Swiss psychologist and a pioneer in studies of child development. He also suggested that children develop through a series of different stages but he claimed that children think about the world very differently in each stage.

Learning, he says, is a process of not only gaining new information (and figuring out where to store it so you can find it again) but using new information to change the way you think about the world so that you progress from one stage to another. 

This might become clearer if I take you through the first two stages. Piaget says that babies learn through their senses, so that to them, something only exists if it is sensed. The toy exists when you hold it, touch it, see it or hear it. When the toy is out of sight/hearing/touch then, for the baby, it ceases to exist.

Objects are understood in terms of their sensory experience: the dog is warm, furry, makes a certain sound, and looks a certain way. The stuffed dog toy feels different, is a different size, doesn’t make the same sounds, so therefore is something completely different and the fact that adults around use the same sound (the word “dog”) to talk about these two things is not something the baby understands.

When we change our schema, we are changing the way we think about the world.

However, adults insist on using the same sound, “dog”, for both of these very different sensory experiences so the child’s thinking is challenged. When the child has experienced a number of challenges there is a change to the way of thinking; the child starts to build pictures (models, or, in Piaget’s words, schemas) of the concept “dog”.

Our baby now has a schema in his head for dog which may have elements such as legs, waggy tail, woof. Now, because the baby has built a schema of “dog” in his head, he understands that “dog” can exist even when he is not seeing/hearing/feeling a dog. This is what Piaget called object permanence and learning this is the signal that baby’s thinking has changed and he is moving into the next stage of development. 

In this second stage, toddlers build up their schemas – they add lots of information to the concept of “dog” so that with repeated experiences of dogs, the child might have elements such as four legs, waggy tail, woof, licky tongue and are big.

At this stage, learning is about adding new information into the schema, information that fits in nicely.

Now imagine our child is out one day and instead of the family great dane, he sees a chihuahua and dad says “Hey, look at that dog”. Now we have a problem because a chihuahua is small, and our child’s schema of “dog” has “big” as one of the elements. “Small” does not fit into the schema. At this point our child can dismiss this piece of information on the assumption that dad does not know what he is talking about, (so no learning occurs) or the child has to change the schema to make this new information fit (learning).

When we change our schema, we are changing the way we think about the world. With enough of these changes of schema we move into the next stage of development.

Piaget’s theory tells us that it is important for babies to have many different sensory experiences, and for us to link different experiences through using language to help children build schema and attain object permanence.

It tells us that it is important we provide experiences that help children add to their existing schema, (legs + waggy tail, + woof = “dog”  becomes four legs + waggy tail + woof + licky tongue = “dog”) and it is also important to provide experiences that help children change their schema (so four legs + tail sometimes waggy sometimes not + woof or yap + licky tongue + big or little + brown or black or pale + might bite but might not + waggy tail means friendly = “dog”).