Teaching Young Learners: the challenge

Piaget and childhood development

I don't know whether you can think of early child development and not make any reference to the work of Jean Piaget, amogst others of course. When we discuss child development we are actually looking at their physical growth, motor development, cognitive development, social-emotional development, language development and their individual differences as well. It is important for young learner teachers to be aware of the myriad of factors which influence YLE´s development as this will have significant implications in the manner in which we deal pedagogically with YLE´s students in class.

One of the things which an awareness of child development theories brings us is the need to segment different groups of YLE´s learners and not see them as a single group. I very much like the idea of segmenting YLE students into 3 broad categories: 4 year-olds to 6 year-olds (pre-schoolers); 7 year-olds to 9 (primary school age)  and 10 tear-olds to 12 (transition from primary school to predolescence). Our approaches in the classroom with these learners will differ quite dramatically. Working with pre-schoolers implies in a stonger emphasis on orality and the non-written form of communication, whereas our primary school kids have entered into the world of written language and that leads to huge cognitive jumps and changes the work possibilities in the YLE classroom. As the children reach a presdolescence stage, a more logical, consistent and approach is necessary.

The framework proposed by Jean Piaget for the stages of cognitive development are useful as a guide for our initial understanding of the process of maturation children go through.  Piaget wanted to find out how children came to understand the world around them, what logic they use and what changes did this logical reasoning undergo as children matured. Through his research, mainly based on case studies, he determined that cognitive development occurred through the interaction of maturation and experience through two principal processes: assimilation (when the child tried to incorporate aspects of their environment into their existing structure) and accommodation (when experiences did not fit in with existing concepts and so had to be modified).

Piaget´s Stage Theory consisted of the:1) Sensori - motor stage (0-18mths): Understanding the world in terms of what can be done with objects and sensory information2) Pre-operational thought stage (2-6 yrs): the child can represent objects to himself internally, s/he begins to understand the classification of objects; fantasy play appears & primitive logic;3) Concrete operational thought stage (7-12 yrs): the  child’s logic takes a leap forward with new mental operations (e.g. addition, class inclusion).  Child still tied to specific experiences but can already do mental operations. Understands reversibility. 4) Formal operational thought stage (12+): the child is able to manipulate ideas, events or objects in his/her head. They can think of things that they never saw, heard of or happened and they can organize things systematically, thinking deductively.Stage Theory is a useful general guide for us teachers in terms of understanding children's development in broader terms, as if they were guiding indicators of possibilities. Many neo-Piagetian theorists have criticised Piaget´s stages for being too culturally bound and failing to cater for individual differences. True as this may be, stage theory does help language teachers working with younger learners obtain a general indication as to why some activities fail to work (it's often nothing related to the language itself, but it may be due to children's difficulties in dealing with the cognitive demands of the task), what type of activities and tasks we can expect learners to be able to carry out and where we will need to provide greater guidance, or "scaffolding" (to use a term which is in vogue now) in order to help learners conclude the tasks and acitivities they are engaged in.

Below is a video showing children involved in conservation tasks, as implemented by Piaget and what becomes clear is that based on the children´s maturity and understanding of their world, their interpetation of he task differs.

Being aware of this, can you think of implications in terms of our language teaching (task design, cognitive demand, etc.)?