# 1.2: Theoretical Foundations

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Early Childhood Educators rely on theories to provide evidentiary support to their program goals, philosophies and methods felt throughout their programs. While there are numerous theories, a few are highlighted in this chapter in how they relate to creating programs for learning for young children.

## Cognitive Theory

Jean Piaget explained learning as proceeded by the interplay of assimilation (adjusting new experiences to fit prior concepts) and accommodation (adjusting concepts to fit new experiences). The to-and-fro of these two processes leads not only to short-term learning, as pointed out in, but also to long-term developmental change. The long-term developments are really the main focus of Piaget’s cognitive theory. After observing children closely, Piaget proposed that cognition developed through distinct stages from birth through the end of adolescence. By stages he meant a sequence of thinking patterns with four key features:

1. The stages always happen in the same order.
2. No stage is ever skipped.
3. Each stage is a significant transformation of the stage before it.
4. Each later stage incorporated the earlier stages into itself. Basically this is the “staircase” model of development mentioned at the beginning of this chapter.

Piaget proposed four major stages of cognitive development, and called them (1) sensorimotor intelligence, (2) preoperational thinking, (3) concrete operational thinking, and (4) formal operational thinking. Each stage is correlated with an age period of childhood, but only approximately. In Early Childhood Education, we primarily consider the first two stages as they are most common for children ages 0-8 years.

### The Sensorimotor Stage: Birth to Age 2

In Piaget’s theory, the sensorimotor stage is first, and is defined as the period when infants “think” by means of their senses and motor actions. As every new parent will attest, infants continually touch, manipulate, look, listen to, and even bite and chew objects. According to Piaget, these actions allow them to learn about the world and are crucial to their early cognitive development.

The infant’s actions allow the child to represent (or construct simple concepts of) objects and events. A toy animal may be just a confusing array of sensations at first, but by looking, feeling, and manipulating it repeatedly, the child gradually organizes her sensations and actions into a stable concept, toy animal. The representation acquires a permanence lacking in the individual experiences of the object, which are constantly changing. Because the representation is stable, the child “knows”, or at least believes, that toy animal exists even if the actual toy animal is temporarily out of sight. Piaget called this sense of stability object permanence, a belief that objects exist whether or not they are actually present. It is a major achievement of sensorimotor development, and marks a qualitative transformation in how older infants (24 months) think about experience compared to younger infants (6 months).

During much of infancy, a child can only barely talk, so sensorimotor development initially happens without the support of language. It might therefore seem hard to know what infants are thinking, but Piaget devised several simple, but clever experiments to get around their lack of language. Piaget’s findings suggest that infants do indeed represent objects even without being able to talk (Piaget, 1952). In one, for example, he simply hid an object (such as a toy animal) under a blanket. He found that doing so consistently prompts older infants (18-24 months) to search for the object, but fails to prompt younger infants (less than six months) to do so. (You can try this experiment yourself if you happen to have access to a young infant.) “Something” motivates the search by the older infant even without the benefit of much language, and the “something” is presumed to be a permanent concept or representation of the object.

### The Preoperational Stage: Age 2 to 7

In the preoperational stage, children use their new ability to represent objects in a wide variety of activities, but they do not yet do it in ways that are organized or fully logical. One of the most obvious examples of this kind of cognition is dramatic play, the improvised make-believe of preschool children. If you have ever had responsibility for children of this age, you have likely witnessed such play. Ashley holds a plastic banana to her ear and says: “Hello, Mom? Can you be sure to bring me my baby doll? OK!” Then she hangs up the banana and pours tea for Jeremy into an invisible cup. Jeremy giggles at the sight of all of this and exclaims: “Rinnng! Oh Ashley, the phone is ringing again! You better answer it.” And on it goes.

Children immersed in make-believe may seem to have an inaccurate understanding of the world, in that they do not think realistically. But at some level, Ashley and Jeremy always know that the banana is still a banana and not really a telephone; they are merely representing it as a telephone. They are thinking on two levels at once—one imaginative and the other realistic. This dual processing of experience makes dramatic play an early example of metacognition, or reflecting on and monitoring of thinking itself. As we explained previously, metacognition is a highly desirable skill for success in school, one that teachers often encourage (Bredekamp & Copple, 1997; Paley, 2005). Partly for this reason, teachers of young children (preschool, kindergarten, and even first or second grade) often make time and space in their classrooms for dramatic play, and sometimes even participate in it themselves to help develop the play further.[2]

Pause to Reflect

As a lab school, students often visit children’s classrooms to observe the environments and interactions to connect theory with practice. One day, I decided to take a small group of students to observe the environment in one of our preschool classrooms. As we opened the door, I heard a young child (age 3 years) say to her caregiver, “Why are all the mommies here?” The caregiver acknowledged the child’s observation, but explained that the visitors were there to learn about the classroom. The child continued to watch us as we walked through the classroom. [4]

How does this example provide evidence of Piaget’s Cognitive Theory?

Children grow and develop through stages, and so does their play. Children’s earliest play experiences are highly sensory driven and simple exchanges with caregivers and materials within their environment. Many of the early play experiences promote a sense of discovery and lead to positive interactions among children and adult caregivers. As the child develops more complex play develops too. Infants observe and interact with materials through the use of the five senses. As the infant develops, he or she continues to observe, explore and experiment with materials within the environment, thus obtaining knowledge.

## Sociocultural Theory

Lev Vygotsky (1978), whose writing focused on how a child’s or novice’s thinking is influenced by relationships with others who are more capable, knowledgeable, or expert than the learner. Vygotsky made the reasonable proposal that when a child (or novice) is learning a new skill or solving a new problem, he or she can perform better if accompanied and helped by an expert than if performing alone—though still not as well as the expert. Someone who has played very little chess, for example, will probably compete against an opponent better if helped by an expert chess player than if competing against the opponent alone. Vygotsky called the difference between solo performance and assisted performance the zone of proximal development (or ZPD for short)—meaning, figuratively speaking, the place or area of immediate change. From this social constructivist perspective, learning is like assisted performance (Tharp & Gallimore, 1991).

During learning, knowledge or skill is found initially “in” the expert helper. If the expert is skilled and motivated to help, then the expert arranges experiences that let the novice practice crucial skills or construct new knowledge. In this regard, the expert is a bit like the coach of an athlete—offering help and suggesting ways of practicing, but never doing the actual athletic work himself or herself. Gradually, by providing continued experiences matched to the novice learner’s emerging competencies, the expert-coach makes it possible for the novice or apprentice to appropriate (or make his or her own) the skills or knowledge that originally resided only with the expert.[5]

## Psychosocial Theory

Erik Erikson suggested that our relationships and society’s expectations motivate much of our behavior. Humans are motivated, for instance, by the need to feel that the world is a trustworthy place, that we are capable individuals, that we can make a contribution to society, and that we have lived a meaningful life. Erikson divided the lifespan into eight stages. In each stage, we have a major psychosocial task to accomplish or crisis to overcome. Erikson believed that our personality continues to take shape throughout our lifespan as we face these challenges in living.[6]

In planning a developmentally appropriate curriculum, Erikson’s stages can be used as inspiration for interactions between children, children and adults (teachers/families) and for emphasizing quality environments, which promote trust, autonomy, initiative and industrious interactions.[7]

Table 1.1 - Erik Erikson’s Psychosocial Theory

Name of Stage

Description of Stage

Trust vs. mistrust (0-1)

The infant must have basic needs met in a consistent way in order to feel that the world is a trustworthy place.

Autonomy vs. shame and doubt (1-2)

Mobile toddlers have newfound freedom they like to exercise and by being allowed to do so, they learn some basic independence.

Initiative vs. Guilt (3-5)

Preschoolers like to initiate activities and emphasize doing things “all by myself.”

Industry vs. inferiority (6-11)

School aged children focus on accomplishments and begin making comparisons between themselves and their classmates

Teenagers are trying to gain a sense of identity as they experiment with various roles, beliefs, and ideas.

In our 20s and 30s we are making some of our first long-term commitments in intimate relationships.

The 40s through the early 60s we focus on being productive at work and home and are motivated by wanting to feel that we’ve made a contribution to society.

We look back on our lives and hope to like what we see-that we have lived well and have a sense of integrity because we lived according to our beliefs.

## Behavioral Theory

In classrooms, behaviorism is most useful for identifying relationships between specific actions by a student and the immediate precursors and consequences of the actions. It is less useful for understanding changes in students’ thinking; for this purpose we need theories that are more cognitive (or thinking-oriented) or social, like the ones described later in this chapter. This fact is not a criticism of behaviorism as a perspective, but just a clarification of its particular strength or usefulness, which is to highlight observable relationships among actions, precursors and consequences. Behaviorists use particular terms (or “lingo,” some might say) for these relationships. One variety of Behaviorism that has proved especially useful to educators is operant conditioning.

### Operant conditioning: New Behaviors Because of New Consequences

Operant conditioning focuses on how the consequences of a behavior affect the behavior over time. It begins with the idea that certain consequences tend to make certain behaviors happen more frequently. If I compliment a student for a good comment made during discussion, there is more of a chance that I will hear further comments from the student in the future (and hopefully they too will be good ones!). If a student tells a joke to classmates and they laugh at it, then the student is likely to tell more jokes in the future and so on.

The original research about this model of learning was not done with people, but with animals. One of the pioneers in the field was a Harvard professor named B. F. Skinner, who published numerous books and articles about the details of the process and who pointed out many parallels between operant conditioning in animals and operant conditioning in humans (1938, 1948, 1988). Skinner observed the behavior of rather tame laboratory rats (not the unpleasant kind that sometimes live in garbage dumps). He or his assistants would put them in a cage that contained little except a lever and a small tray just big enough to hold a small amount of food. At first the rat would sniff and “putter around” the cage at random, but sooner or later it would happen upon the lever and eventually happen to press it. Presto! The lever released a small pellet of food, which the rat would promptly eat. Gradually the rat would spend more time near the lever and press the lever more frequently, getting food more frequently. Eventually it would spend most of its time at the lever and eating its fill of food. The rat had “discovered” that the consequence of pressing the level was to receive food. Skinner called the changes in the rat’s behavior an example of operant conditioning, and gave special names to the different parts of the process. He called the food pellets the reinforcement and the lever-pressing the operant (because it “operated” on the rat’s environment).

### Operant Conditioning and Students’ Learning

Since the original research about operant conditioning used animals, it is important to ask whether operant conditioning also describes learning in human beings, and especially in students in classrooms. On this point the answer seems to be clearly “yes.” There are countless classroom examples of consequences affecting students’ behavior in ways that resemble operant conditioning, although the process certainly does not account for all forms of student learning (Alberto & Troutman, 2005). Consider the following examples. In most of them the operant behavior tends to become more frequent on repeated occasions:

• A kindergarten child raises her hand in response to the teacher’s question about a story (the operant). The teacher calls on her and she makes her comment (the reinforcement).
• Another kindergarten child blurts out her comment without being called on (the operant). The teacher frowns, ignores this behavior, but before the teacher calls on a different student, classmates are listening attentively (the reinforcement) to the student even though he did not raise his hand as he should have.
• A child who is usually very restless sits for five minutes during a group time (the operant). The teacher compliments him for working hard (the reinforcement).[8]

The Behavioral Theory is most visible in an ECE classroom through modeling of expected behavior, reinforcing pro-social behavior expected and through the daily routines and schedules. (See Environments, Chapter 5 for further review of routines).[10]

## Multiple Intelligence Theory

Howard Gardner, a researcher, has studied the mind and created a theory called, The Multiple Intelligence Theory. The theory represents the idea that children are individuals with a variety of strength in different intelligences and states that one’s intelligence is not better than another persons’. Teachers can use this theory to create a curriculum to respect the individual way in which children process information and provide experiences that allow children to engage in all the intelligences.

The intelligences include:

• Verbal-Linguistic – ability to use language well
• Logical-Mathematic – ability to reason
• Musical-Rhythmic – ability to create and understand music
• Visual-Spatial – ability to image and manipulate the arrangement of objects in the environment
• Bodily-Kinesthetic – sense of balance and coordination in use of one’s body
• Interpersonal – ability to discern others thoughts and feelings and understand and interact effectively with others
• Intrapersonal – sensitivity to one’s own thoughts and feelings
• Naturalist – sensitivity to subtle differences and patterns in the natural environment
• Existential (still under study) – sensitivity and capacity to tackle deep questions about human existence[11]

Children are unique and learn at their own pace in their own way. One-size does not fit all and learning styles and preference vary. In a group of children, a teacher can encounter children who learn best through visual, auditory, or hands-on interactions. And sometimes a child may learn best in a particular domain or area with one style, and with a different style in another domain or area.

 Learning Styles Learning Preferences Visual Pictures, real life objects to visually examine, seeing someone model a skill Auditory Listening, songs, rhymes, stories, chants Tactile/kinesthetic Gestures, body movements, hands-on manipulation, active exploration

Implications for teachers include identifying the child’s style of learning and creating a program for learning that reflects the variety of learning styles present in a classroom. It’s important to offer learning experiences in all styles, which is referred to as multimodal.[13]

## References

[1] Image by the California Department of Education is used with permission

[3] Image by the California Department of Education is used with permission