Cognitive Theories: The Basis of Science Education for Young Children (page 2)
The role of active experiences in learning was identified by John Dewey and Maria Montessori in the early 20th century. While modified by later researchers, the theories of John Dewey continue to be highly regarded by a large number of early childhood professionals for their emphasis on firsthand learning in the here-and-now world, child-initiated learning, and age-appropriate learning experiences and content.
Jean Piaget (1973), through his clinical interviews, researched the position that knowledge is constructed in the mind of the learner. He believed that young children think differently, in most circumstances, than do older children and adults. Thus, young children require a special kind of curriculum because their thinking is more concrete and less logical. For example, according to Piaget (1973), children in the preoperational stage (which encompasses the age group covered by this book) focus on one variable at a time, such as length or width, and are egocentric and animistic. That is, they believe that the world revolves around them, have trouble taking the point of view of another, and impute life to inanimate things. More recently, other theorists have argued that the reason young children think differently is their very lack of experience with the world. The benchmarks and content standards do take a developmental view of science teaching, cautioning teachers, for example, not to reinforce young children’s beliefs that animals have thoughts and feelings similar to their own.
Lev Vygotsky (1986) added significantly to Piaget’s theories by postulating that the important factors in moving children to higher levels of thought are the significant and more accomplished others around them. Thus, if an adult believes that the child is very close to constructing a concept, he may act to ask a question, provide a tool, or suggest a course of action that will move the child forward. Good questions motivate children. When students are asked open-ended questions, they will pose innovative questions of their own, thus expanding their capacity for creative thinking and problem solving.
As a result of the synthesis of the previously mentioned theoretical positions and new thinking on children’s acquisition of knowledge, the dominant theory upon which science teaching today is based is constructivism, the belief that children build knowledge (concepts) internally by interacting with their world to construct meaning. “As the Standards point out, students have to construct, or build, their own knowledge in a process that is individual and social. Students have to take an active role in their own learning. This teaching/learning relationship is called constructivism” (Lowery, 1997, p. 7). Because children acquire knowledge at different paces and through different learning styles, it is also important for teachers to provide instruction that meets the individual needs of young children.
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