You have to spill a little milk to grow | Elaine Kennedy

How the work of Jean Piaget applies to our method of learning at New Morning School

You have to spill a little milk to grow…

Dear Parents,

This fall, parents at New Morning have been learning about Jean Piaget, a Swiss psychologist who researched the cognitive growth of children.

Piaget writes, “The goal of intellectual education is not to know how to repeat or retain ready-made truths. (A truth that is parroted is only a half-truth.) It is learning to master the truth by oneself at the risk of losing a lot of time and going through all the roundabout ways that are inherent in real activity.”

What’s important about what Piaget said is that true discovery of knowledge is not clean, doesn’t proceed in a straight line, and is not necessarily quiet. It involves trial and error, interfacing with peers, sometimes being extremely focused, while other times not. In sum, real learning is a bit messy. When children discover something on their own by playing with the blocks, they may go through three or four iterations or even days of discovery before beginning to understand that two little blocks are the same size as a bigger block. Remember, in preoperational children (ages two through seven) conservation of volume / size is not yet in place. We could tell a four-year-old that the two blocks are the same as the big block and they could parrot back that two blocks equal a larger block, but real understanding only comes through student discovery.

Two children in the elementary room are weighing pumpkins on a balance scale, the goal being to arrange the pumpkins in order of weight. A teacher might enrich this environment by using plastic pumpkins and real pumpkins of different sizes. Then a child couldn’t just surmise that if he put them in order from smallest to largest, that they would also be in order by weight. Within the elementary classroom you would see children use a variety of approaches to this problem, based on their developmental levels. As adults we would weigh pumpkins against each other to put them in order of weight. Older elementary children might use this approach, but younger children, by trial and error, would approach it in different, sometimes incorrect ways. 

What do we do as adults? Do we observe and guide with questions or do we show a child how to do it step by step? If you show a child, you have robbed from her the joy and permanence of her own discovery.

Piaget writes, “Every time we teach a child something, we keep him from inventing it himself. On the other hand, that which we allow him to discover for himself will remain with him visible for the rest of his life.”

The process is the same at the middle school level. Our science teacher might ask students to construct an experiment. Some will easily make a hypothesis and keep all but one variable constant (formal operational thought, age 11+) while others may need much trial and error and growing time to do this. The teacher can ask questions and make suggestions, but the best thing he could do would be to let a student do her experiment where variables are not held constant. Through the course of the experiment, she might reach that “a-ha” stage where she understands how she should have done it or may do it the next time.

Does teaching her how to set up an experiment and holding her hand every step of the way result in powerful learning?

– No.

Do trial and error, false starts, and eventual success lead to real, lasting discovery?

– You know the answer.

Learning is not neat and clean and efficient as you or I might like it to be. Children need to experiment and figure it out for themselves, though it takes longer and is a bit “messy.”

Next time you’re feeling uncomfortable about a learning situation and asking yourself things like:

  • “Are the kids playing too long in the block area?”
  • “Are the kids writing the play making too little progress?”
  • “Wouldn’t it be simpler in middle school if they gave up those silly fraction pieces and just had the students learn it with paper and pencil?”

Think of Piaget. You know the answer to the questions.

Let me know what you think.

Elaine Kennedy is Head of School at New Morning School. She can be reached at elaine@newmorningschool.