Thinking Goes to School:Piaget’s Theory in Practice

Hans G. Furth and Harry Wachs

There has always been a temptation to ignore the influence of child development. Development takes time; not everyone develops at the same rate; and all areas may not develop on the same schedule within one individual. There is an increased temptation to ignore development when there is pressure to push students to meet short-term academic goals. Technology can delude us into believing that developmental constraints can be circumvented due to the easy and interesting access to data that technology can provide, but there is no substitute for interactions with real objects, real activities, and real exchanges with other people to stimulate thinking and problem-solving and to develop visual skills, language, balance, inhibition, and social skills. Since only so much can be squeezed into the school day, an increased pressure on academics is also associated with a decreased emphasis on the areas of development reported on The Other Side of the Report Card.

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Thinking Goes to School was written in 1974. We had Dr. Harry Wachs come to Owego 35 years ago to present a seminar to teachers on child development and on vision and learning. There was more interest in the development of learning readiness at that time as many schools were using the McGuinness/Hammondsport program. In that program, children worked through a series of visual and auditory activities designed to support the development of essential perceptual processing prior to formal instruction in reading and math. With all children doing the same program, regardless of their level of development, the results were diluted and the program was gradually discontinued. The purpose of the curriculum was to free students from having their performance handicapped by the need to focus on low-level skills as explained in the excerpt below on typing. The distinction between learning facts and learning how to think and problem-solve was central to Piaget’s understanding of development. In presenting their curriculum, Furth and Wachs wrote the following.

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“Our belief that the majority of kindergarten children are not ready for formalized academics is reflected by the lack of scheduled academic activities.”

“Piaget’s theory erases the traditional distinction between activities of the mind and activities of the body. Movement and thinking are interdependent.”

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“As adults we may forget the complexity of what appear to be, on the surface, simple movements, yet the majority of us do tend to be somewhat clumsy when mastering a new physical task. Our performance may fall short of our expectations when we are beginners. For example, merely memorizing the keyboard of a typewriter will not lead to fluent typing. The typist must also learn the finger movements. Until he does this, his movements will be slow, planned, and deliberate. His attention will be divided between what he is doing and how he is doing it. After he has mastered the movement thinking control, he is free to concentrate exclusively on the material being typed. Similar problems are faced by the child when he is first given a pencil and asked to write.”

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“While we recognize the educational value of directed classroom teaching and instructional television programs, we know that all children are not equally ready to benefit from the same situation at the same time. In addition, physical participation in activities is necessary for the child’s healthy intellectual development; passive observation is not enough.”

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