With the 2014 – 2015 school year coming to a close and with warmer days increasing, the last thing on people’s mind is the classroom. That said, however, it remains important to remember that we are all lifelong learners, whether in a traditional classroom or while sitting on the beach during summer break reading a book. And while many focus on the content of what they’re learning, few focus on how they learn.
This opens the door in to several branches of psychology, most notably educational and developmental psychology. And one influential thinker in this field remains Swiss psychologist Jean Piaget.
Piaget’s ‘Thoughts of the Child’
In 1923, Piaget published, “The Language and Thought of the Child,” a work that helped launch a new branch of psychology—child psychology—and introduced to the world a different view of children and how they learn. According to Tom Butler-Bowdon, a writer of popular psychology, Piaget argued for the classification of two types of thought:
• Directed or Intelligent Thought
• Undirected or Autistic Thought
The former, according to Butler-Bowdon, “. . . has an aim, and adapts that aim to reality,” while the latter, “. . . involves aims that are not conscience and not adapted to reality.” To understand their world around them, Piaget claimed that children think in schemas—overall mental constructs that help us make sense of the world. Adults, too, use schematic thinking.
This is a central idea.
Schematic thinking, or “psychological structures,” can help us organize, accommodate, and assimilate new information. Suppose you pick up a book at the beach this summer and come across some new information that doesn’t seem to quite fit in to the way you think about the world.
This unsettling feeling, according to Piaget, is an integral part of the learning process. He called this “disequilibrium.” Piaget asserted that when we successfully assimilate new information in to our schema, we achieve “equilibrium.”
But it doesn’t end there. Piaget also proposed age-related stages of cognitive development.
Stages of Cognitive Development
According to Piaget, individuals move through age-related stages of cognitive development, which possess their own characteristics. They are:
• Sensorimotor, 0 – 2 years
• Preoperational, 2 – 7 years
• Concrete Operational, 7 – 11 years
• Formal Operational, 11 – Adult
Adults reside in the last stage, formal operational, in which they are “able to solve abstract problems in logical fashion,” become “more scientific in thinking,” and develop “concerns about social issues and identity.” Another key characteristic of this stage is hypothetical, abstract thinking. Mathematical reasoning, for example, relies heavily upon this characteristic. So, too, does literary interpretation, where learners are asked to construe texts for symbolic meaning. In sum, when we settle in to a good book, and we begin to piece together plot and subtext, we are working within Piaget’s Formal Operational Stage.
It may be, however, that not all adults reach this level of thinking. In 2005, for instance, researchers discovered that “about 50 [percent] of undergraduate students fail Piaget’s formal operational tasks.” What’s more, in the late 1970s, “. . . Piaget himself suggested that most adults may be able to use formal operational thought in only a few areas where they have the greatest experience . . . .”
If Piaget teaches us anything, it may be that thinking and learning are lifelong processes, and even though most of us no longer dwell in the classroom, his ideas still have import. As we grow, we appear to move through various cognitive stages in which our thinking changes. In short, that was the main idea behind Piaget’s early text, the abovementioned “The Language and Thought of the Child.” In summarizing Piaget, Tom Butler-Bowdon writes: “Children are not simply little adults, thinking less effectively—they think differently.”
And, for what it’s worth, individuals do indeed think and learn differently as they develop, as highlighted by Piaget’s Stages of Cognitive Development. As adults, we are applying one of Piaget’s ideas every time we learn a new fact that doesn’t seem to fit well with our view of the world (disequilibrium), or every time we use mental structures to make sense of the world (schematic thinking).
So, although the school year may be coming to a close, as committed lifelong learners, there’s always room for more learning.
Bowdon, T. (2007). 50 psychology classics who we are, how we think, what we do: Insight and inspiration from 50 key books. London: Nicholas Brealey Pub.
Woolfolk, A. (2007) Educational psychology. Boston: Allyn and Bacon.