Constructivism Montessori, Piaget, Vygotsky, Dewey, and others

Bird Droppings June 27, 2022

Constructivism Montessori, Piaget, Vygotsky, Dewey, and others

Friday, a year ago, I had a heart pacemaker installed. It is suitable for eight to ten years, and I feel considerably better. My heart rate had been going as low as thirty-six and fluctuating throughout the day. I was fatigued all the time and out of breath. Now I am at a constant no lower than sixty; things that tired me out just a few days ago are nothing. Sitting here for the first time in a few days, I am thinking about education of all things. Do let me jump into some thoughts on education and constructivism.

With the bulk of education in the early 1900s following closely with the Industrial Revolution and mass production, a few great thinkers took the individual child in psychology and education in new directions as to its relationship to children. How children were viewed became the basis for several educators to develop their theories and ideas. Child psychology and child-centered educational ideas flowed from these thinkers. John Dewey reminded us that the goal of education is more education. To be well educated then is to have the desire and the means to make sure the learning never ends. Alfie Kohn, educator and author, refers to Dewey and his idea of providing for a lifetime of learning. In his book What does it Mean to be well educated? Kohn points out, “many classroom teachers asked to specify their long-term goals for students, instantly responded with the phrase life-long learners.”

Dewey was not alone in his thinking which was in direct contrast to the traditional educational practices of his day. Dewey was frustrated with the rationale of educators when he wrote

“Why is it, in spite of the fact that teaching by pouring in, learning by a passive absorption, are universally condemned, that they are still so in trenched in practice. That education is not an affair of “telling” and being told, but an active and constructive process.” John Dewey

The traditional philosophy of education focused away from children and their interests and did not trying to understand children, simply seeing them as miniature adults. Traditional education was about efficiency and production, which were carryovers from the Industrial revolution. It was time for progressive thought to get away from the assembly line processes of traditional education. One of these new educators, a thinker, author, scholar, and advocate for children, Alfie Kohn, throughout his writing, illustrates this point.

“Looking at the long-term impact of traditional teaching and the push for Tougher Standards, then we are finally left with Dewey’s timeless and troubling question: “What avail is it to win ability to win prescribed amounts of information about geography and history, to win ability to read and write, if in the process the individual loses his own soul.” Alfie Kohn

In a burst of educational energy just before the turn of the century, numerous educators and scholars were developing ideas that often parallel John Dewey as they sought to develop a better way to teach children. In his book The Unschooled Mind, Howard Garner discusses some of the basic history of progressivism.

“Progressivism is most frequently and most appropriately associated with the name of John Dewey. In fact, however the practices of progressive education had already begun to be implemented in the period before 1896…Leaders like Francis Parker, first superintendent of the Quincy Massachusetts Public Schools, later principal of the Cook County Normal School in Chicago, and finally a founding member of the Chicago Institute, which ultimately gave rise to Dewey’s educational facility at the University of Chicago.” Howard Garner

While Dewey was establishing himself in educational history in the United States across the Atlantic Ocean in Europe, Dr. Jean Piaget was developing child-centered education, which would lead Dewey and Vygotsky to the concept of constructivism. Piaget believed each aspect of child development followed clearly defined stages, and this did not change from child to child but could occur at differing speeds. Dewey saw the past experiences of children so often not even being recognized and yet at that point is the basis for their ability to learn.

Similarly, a medical doctor working with mentally disabled children in a European residential setting looked at the child-centered aspect of education as she developed a methodology with a developmental learning process in mind. In her book The Advanced Montessori Method, Dr. Maria Montessori describes her philosophy and understanding of educating children.

“Scientific observation has established that education is not what the teacher gives; education is a natural process spontaneously carried out by the human individual and is acquired not by listening to words but by experiences upon the environment.” Dr. Maria Montessori

Another psychologist looking at children in a developmental approach was the Russian psychologist Lev Vygotsky whose work was not discovered by western educators till the later part of the twentieth century. Vygotsky also saw experience as a significant factor in children’s development. Retention of previous experiences facilitates adaptation to the world around them and can give rise to habits when those experiences are repeated. Vygotsky differed from Piaget in that he said learning could precede developmental stages. We can acquire the use of a given tool to attain a particular stage of development. Vygotsky’s concept of the zone of proximal development is “the distance between actual development determined through independent problem solving and the level of potential development through problem-solving under adult guidance or in collaboration with more capable peers.”

There are some similarities to Dewey with Vygotsky; much like Dewey, he also felt a significant element of group interaction needed for education to be meaningful. The ideal school for Dewey was an “embryonic social community,” in which students were encouraged to cooperate and work together and learn from each other and their teachers.

The originators of constructivism, Montessori, Piaget, Vygotsky, and Dewey, all started with psychology, and the child is unique as they developed their interpretations and understandings of learning and education. Even today, the child is not the focus of education. One need only to leaf through the tables of contents in recent educational journals to discern that the individual child is not the focus of educational reform. Each of these great educators believed in the act of doing as a way to learn, and as Ted Sizer points out that there is context. “What I have learned is context is everything…. The memorable learning was that you have to be very respectful and very sensitive to the values, attitudes that youngsters bring into class, that their parents have, and the community has”. Montessori and Piaget leaned towards the developmental stages in child development, and Dewey and Vygotsky, while accepting developmentally sound stages as accurate, felt the community, peer group, and teachers elevated learning past developmental points of reference. Maybe it is time to look back to Dewey. 

“Curriculum has held our attention for generations because those who think seriously about education understand its inherent possibility. Maxine Greene’s call for a return to the search for John Dewey’s great community, her call to rise to the challenge of coming together without losing each person’s unique way of being in the world challenges our educational imagination.” Mary Aswell Doll

For Dewey, an educational experience had to be connected to the prior personal experience of students and also to a widening or deepening of future experience. Through reflection, Dewey saw the ability to go beyond where you were now. John Dewey reminded us that the value of what students do “resides in its connection with the stimulation of greater thoughtfulness, not in the greater strain it imposes.” The act of reflection is taking a given reference and moving ahead to a new possibility. Often it is the teacher who provides the window for reflection to occur.

“Good teachers possess a capacity for connectedness. They are able to weave a complex web of connectedness among themselves, their subjects, and their students so that students can learn to weave a world for themselves.” Parker Palmer

This reflective, imaginative undertaking of Dewey’s provided ideas and thoughts that led Elliot Eisner to Art Education. Eisner looks to the arts as a basis for education in his writings, and his ideas and thoughts offer a new stream from Dewey. John Dewey once commented that the aesthetic stamp needed to be on any intellectual idea for that idea to be complete. It is this imaginative and sensible feel that the so-called academic studies would foster if they were modeled after the arts. Dewey identified making things as one of four fundamental interests of children. Unhappily, because schools put so little value on making things, most of us grow up with contempt for work done with our hands. Eisner often drew from Dewey’s idea on needing context and relevance for learning to be genuine and lasting. Eisner places experience at the center of learning. 

“It is through the content of our experiences that we can perform two very important cognitive operations: we are able to remember, and we are able to imagine…. Imagination …works with the qualities we have experienced. What was not first in the hand cannot be in the head later.” Elliot Eisner

“One of the potential virtues of situated learning is that it increases the probability that students will be able to apply what they have learned. When the conditions of learning are remote from the situations or tasks in which what is learned can be applied, the likely hood of application or some would say transfer is diminished.” Elliot Eisner

The idea of imagination needing to have a basis in reality, in the context, is of significance. Imagination brings meaning, purpose, and application to what is learned.

“Imagination for Dewey explores alternative possibilities for action within a selected context of ongoing activity. Imagination enables the search for ideas that can reconstruct the situation. It takes the context and its data, including emotional sympathetic data, as intuited and determined by selective interests and transforms them into a plan of action, an idea that, if acted upon, might allow the agent to achieve the desired ideal in reality.” Jim Garrison

Eisner believes in diversity, which is the key to education and learning and provides richness for our culture as well. Continuing in that same line of thought, Maxine Greene, educator, philosopher, and pioneer, sees reality, after all, as interpreted experience. Limiting learners to a single dominant mode of interpreting their experience may be to frustrate their individual pursuits of meaning and, consequently, their desires to come to know and learn.

Much of her work is based on caring; Nel Noddings defines education “as a constellation of encounters, both planned and unplanned, that promote growth through the acquisition of knowledge, skills, understanding, and appreciation.” Eisner and Barone understand that the aesthetics of experiences is what build those in our minds and provides the means to imagine and be creative. The aesthetic Learning and Education concept involves understanding, perception, and creativity. Eisner looks at teaching as artistry, the ability to craft a performance and provide the students with the mediums and means to perceive and understand their world.

For John Dewey, aesthetic experiences are not confined to high art but arise from within the interaction of human organisms with their surroundings. Thomas Barone points to Dewey as the primary thinker who envisioned art and aesthetics as a central role in education and learning. Thomas Barone is concerned, as are many other progressive educators with the linear format of traditional education.

“If students are not given access to metaphoric learning activities if the shape of their learning is always linear and closed, how will their capacity for creativity and invention be developed?” Thomas Barone

Perhaps in my research and reading, I am getting a bit overboard with Dewey and education, but I see tie-ins to daily living, how we respond to others, and what the future holds for our grandchildren and us. If each of us took a bit more time to try and understand why so much of what is going on in society may just maybe, we could finally realize much of this does not need to be happening. So again, after nearly eleven years of daily writing, I ask, as I do every morning, please keep all in harm’s way on your mind and your hearts and to always give thanks namaste.

My family and friends, I do not say this lightly,

Mitakuye Oyasin

(We are all related)


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