Does Constructivism have limits?
As many of us know by now, nearly every aspect of parenting can be a controversial subject. It seems that no topic is left unshrouded in debate. So, it may come as little surprise that the role that parents should play in child development is up for questioning. Should parents play an active role in guiding child development or should they step back and leave it up to the child to guide themselves? If left to their own devices, will children still learn? Some theorists would argue that children have an innate ability to guide themselves through development and if left to themselves, they will learn what they need to learn. However, others would also argue that parents are needed in order to guide children through development and that children can not develop in a well rounded manner without the support they provide. While there may be some truth behind the idea that children possess an intrinsic drive for learning, parents should not be so quick to hand over the reigns. Guided activities are beneficial to learning and they shouldn’t be abandoned in favor of a free for all.
When turning to the grand theories of development, it appears that the idea of children as independent learners is pitted against the need for adult support. Piaget’s theory is based upon the idea that children’s cognition develops in particular stages and there is a transformation in thinking when one moves into the next stage (p. 154). This stage theory suggests that children are confined to one unique way of thinking until they experience that shift in development. This shift in development occurs as children experience the world and acquire new information. While the strict stages of Piaget’s theory are now rejected, many of the base ideas are the foundation for current research. Piaget called children intrinsically active, meaning that they actively seek out stimulation and information from their environment (p. 155). Anyone who has spent any time with a toddler or young child, may have noticed that they ask questions about nearly everything. This curiosity is what drives children to learn, they are not happy with just what they already know and therefore they actively seek out new information and experiences. Building from the idea that children are intrinsically active, Piaget also states that children are primarily responsible for their development. He explains that the motivation to learn is something that is within the child (p.155). Meaning, they will want to learn on their own, without the forceful hand of teachers or parents because this drive to learn is already within them.
Another part of what motivates children to learn is something Piaget refers to as equilibration. Equilibration is one’s attempt at keeping their knowledge of the world in balance. If we encounter something new, we adjust to it as long as it’s not too far out from what we already know.When we encounter something we do not understand yet, it creates discomfort and children attempt to solve this discomfort by restoring equilibration. This now alters our information of the world, as we have learned something new (p. 157). Throughout Piaget’s theory, his focus falls primarily on the child. The child is who is responsible for learning, and this motivation to learn is something that the child has innately. However, the other grand theorist does not view the child as a solo learner who is equipped to learn the world on their own.
Unlike Piaget’s theory, which focused solely on the child, Vgotsky’s theory supports the idea that parents are essential to the development of their child. Vgotsyky emphasizes that culture and cognition depend on one another (p. 75) A child’s cognitive development therefore can not be separated from their cultural and familial surroundings. Vgostky believed that humans receive the tools of intellectual adaptation, such as language and numeral systems, from the culture that surrounds them (pp.70-71). Children need culture for cognition, which they experience partly through adult interactions and interactions with the world (pg.70). Vgotsky’s theory of development focuses on the foundation that child problem solving is guided by an adult (pp.68-69).
A key component of Vgotsky’s theory is the idea of the zone of proximal development. This zone of proximal development consists of what the child can do alone and what they can do with help (pg. 78). If children are left to own devices, then they aren’t getting the other half of the zone. Under Vgotsky’s theory, that guided talk is necessary for learning. This guided talk is referred to as scaffolding. Vgotsky explains scaffolding as when an expert is sensitive to the needs of the learner and responds accordingly to the learners responses. This often takes place within the zone of proximal learning and leads to an increase of understanding (p.78). This was tested in a study in which five year olds were taught by their mothers how to play a board game. It was found that the mother’s help was dependent on how well their children already were at arithmetic, and that in many cases when the child was receptive to the instructions, there was an improvement in play by the end of the game (pp. 78-79). Something that Vgotsky’s theory does that Piaget failed to, is that it allows for us to take into account culture. There are cultural variabilities in how active a role children play in society and societal expectations of how children are supposed to behave. While the roles that children inhabit may vary by culture, the structural idea of the zone of proximal development can still exist and be taken advantage of (p.80).
What should parents do?
While Vgotsky’s theory that children development is aided by adult interactions seems much more realistic, it’s not that black and white in terms of who the winner is in this debate. It would be naive and neglectful to the extrinsic influences of life to think that children are completely self-sufficient in their development. However, there is also some truth in Piaget’s idea that children are also internally motivated. Children can not learn if they simply do not want to. When we blend together Piaget and Vgotsky’s theories, we can get the best of both worlds. Instead of thinking of learning as children on one side of the fighting ring and adults on the other, it should be seen as a partnership where both the child and the parent are contributing to the development of the child.
Parents should take an active role in their child’s learning but they should also be intuitive to their child’s needs. This can be done by implementing Vygotskian techniques such as scaffolding and other guided activities. One of Vgotsky’s techniques is the idea of guided play, which is essentially playing make believe between a more experienced player and a less experienced player. Children are more likely to engage in symbolic, make believe play with others such as parents or older siblings than when they engage in solo play. This symbolic play helps to build upon their cognition of how interactions and how the world works (pg. 85).
Another technique that parents can implement is guided participation. This refers to the interactions between adults and children during everyday activities such as chores or family hobbies. Participating in these activities can help shape cognition (p.81). Parents should include their child in things such as making dinner or picking up the house together. Another parent guided technique that can help foster cognition is the idea of interactive story reading. When parents read to their children, they should stop every so often to ask an open-ended and relevant question about the story, increasing the difficulty of the questions as the child’s understanding increases. In a study, this technique was found to improve verbal expression (pp.84-85).
These Vygotskian techniques have been shown to be beneficial in formal learning settings as well as at home. Tools of the Mind, is a Vygotskian approach on early education. It is a preschool program that focuses on scaffolding techniques that achieve gradual understanding of language, socio-dramatic play, and shared group tasks that encourage social collaboration. These techniques come together to increase executive functioning and can put children at an advantage when entering elementary school. Tools of the Mind has also been shown to produce less anxiety and more motivation for learning than traditional preschool classrooms. (Kleinknecht, 2020). Tools of the Mind shows that once again that techniques such as symbolic play and scaffolding have positive impacts on development.
By participating in these activities, parents are playing an active role in their children’s development while also keeping their children active in the activities as well. Instead of children being passive during chores, story time, or play, they are taking an active part and learning from a more knowledgeable partner. Vygotskian techniques require parents and teachers to be sensitive to the needs of the child in order to be successful, it’s important for parents to not forget that. The child needs to be receptive to their parents inputs in order to learn from them, so the parent needs to cater to their child in order to keep them engaged.
While guided activities are certainly beneficial to development, parents do not need to guide their children through every step of the way. Children should also be given some independence without parents becoming completely hands off. There are benefits to allowing your child to explore on their own.Even though children do need parental support, they do still have intrinsic motivations for learning. They may have preferences for certain topics or even dislike some topics. This is still okay, and children should still be encouraged to explore their passions. But parents should also ensure that their children aren’t becoming neglectful of other topics and should help ensure that their children are becoming well rounded. Vgotsky made distinctions between scientific and spontaneous learning. During scientific learning, the child gains scientific knowledge through adult instruction. Whereas during spontaneous learning, children gain knowledge through everyday life activities. (Kleinknecht, 2020) It is important that both of these types of learning take place.
At the end of the day, parents should remember that not every child is the same and that some children may need varying levels of structure. Some children may be more independent and are able to control their executive functions better, while others may need more guidance and struggle with maintaining attention to tasks. Whichever the case may be, it’s not a reflection of your child’s intelligence or your worth as a parent. Being a good parent is doing what’s best and what works for your child. There is no shame in having to do some trial and error to get there.
Kleinknecht, E. (2020) Lecture on Vygotskian concepts, PSY 353, on 03-11-20