Editor s Perspective Article: Using Developmental Psychology in the Classroom for Alternative Certification Teachers

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1 Editor s Perspective Article: Using Developmental Psychology in the Classroom for Alternative Certification Teachers Brian R. Evans Pace University Abstract Applications of developmental psychology theory can assist alternative certification teachers in their classrooms. In particular, this article focuses on the theories of Jean Piaget, Erik Erikson, and Lev Vygotsky. These three developmental psychologists are particularly important for informing new teachers classroom practice in that their theories provide teachers with an understanding of how children go through their cognitive development and how children can best learn with this consideration. The focus of this article will be using the cognitive development theories of Piaget, Erikson, and Vygotsky for new teachers in the classroom with focus on teachers enrolled in alternative certification programs. Keywords: alternative certification, developmental psychology, Piaget, Erikson, Vygotsky The views expressed in this article are the editor s views and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Association for Alternative Certification. Please contact the author for all correspondence regarding the content of this article. JNAAC, Vol. 11, Number 2, Fall

2 Applications of developmental psychology theory can assist alternative certification teachers in their classrooms. In particular, this article focuses on the theories of Jean Piaget, Erik Erikson, and Lev Vygotsky. These three developmental psychologists are particularly important for informing new teachers classroom practice in that their theories provide teachers with an understanding of how children go through their cognitive development and how children can best learn with this consideration. The focus of this article will be using the cognitive development theories of Piaget, Erikson, and Vygotsky for new teachers in the classroom with focus on teachers enrolled in alternative certification programs. The first section will give a background on each of the developmental psychologists, and the following section will present how the author s alternative certification candidates indicated how they integrate the theories into their own practice. Finally, a concluding section will explicate how the theories affect teaching. Piaget, Erikson, and Vygotsky Jean Piaget. Jean Piaget was a developmental psychologist who was born in 1896 in Neuchatel, Switzerland and died in 1980 (Mooney, 2000). Piaget went to work at the Alfred Binet Laboratory School in 1919 to standardize the French version of the British intelligence test. Piaget founded the International Center for Genetic Epistemology in 1955 in Geneva, Switzerland. For new teachers Piaget is best known for being an early constructivist. Constructivism is the theory that people learn best when they are able to construct their own knowledge. In other words, people make it their own when they are able to understand for themselves. Piaget is also well known for his Stages of Cognitive Development. While Piaget s research methods were based upon case studies of his own and friends children, his theory has been confirmed by later research. The Stages of Cognitive Development are (Child Development Institute, 2016; Mooney, 2000; Nakkula & Toshalis, 2006): 1. Sensorimotor (birth to 18 months): Children learn through their senses and reflexes, and object permanence develops. 2. Preoperational (18 months to 6 years): Children learn though perceptions, use language and have improved memory, focus is on one variable, and children have egotistic thinking. 3. Concrete Operational (6 years to 12 years): Children form ideas based upon their reasoning, have understanding of conservation (e.g., weight, mass, and volume), but do not yet possess abstract reasoning. 4. Formal Operational (12 years and older): People can think abstractly and have the ability to conceptualize and think hypothetically. Ojose (2008) said, teachers could benefit from understanding the levels at which their students are functioning and should try to ascertain their students cognitive levels to adjust their teaching accordingly (p. 29). Knowledge of the Piagetian stages, and how to use this knowledge in teaching practice, can greatly benefit teacher and student. JNAAC, Vol. 11, Number 2, Fall

3 Erik Erikson. Erik Erikson was also a developmental psychologist who was born in 1902 in Frankfort, Germany and died in Erikson went to the United States to work at the Harvard Medical School in 1933, and later moved to Yale University and the University of California, Berkeley (Mooney, 2000). Erikson is known for his Stages of Psychosocial Development, which are the following (Mooney, 2000; Nakkula & Toshalis, 2006): 1. Trust vs. Mistrust (Infancy): The task is to develop basic trust in primary caregivers. 2. Autonomy vs. Shame and Doubt (Toddler Childhood): The task is to develop selfsufficiency and competence. 3. Initiative vs. Guilt (Early Childhood): The task is to extend the previous stage and be more independence and adult-like. 4. Industry vs. Inferiority (Middle to Late Childhood): The task is to develop a sense of efficacy and accomplishment. 5. Identity vs. Role Confusion (Adolescence): The task is to develop a core sense of self. 6. Intimacy vs. Isolation (Young Adulthood): The task is to develop intimate relationships with others. 7. Generativity vs. Stagnation (Middle Age): The task is to realize contributions through one s work and family. 8. Ego Integrity vs. Despair (Old Age): The task is to accept one s contributions and have a sense of integrity near the end of life. Lev Vygotsky. Lev Vygotsky was also a developmental psychologist who was born in 1896 in Belarus in the Russian Empire and died in 1934 (Mooney, 2000). Vygotsky graduated from Moscow State University in 1917, which was the year of the Russian Revolution and birth of the Soviet Union. Vygotsky is most famous for his theory of development through social interactions. He is also known for his idea of scaffolding, which refers to the specific strategies or structures that help people move along in their development (Nakkula & Toshalis, 2006, p. 10). Scaffolds have been referred to as intellectual supports needed to reach new levels of understanding (Nakkula & Toshalis, 2006, p. 10). Vygotsky is remembered for his emphasis on learning within collaborative groups. He emphasized the learning process through social interactions and said that learning through social interaction is how people learn best. Alternative Certification Teachers Integrate Theories into Practice The author s alternative certification students responded to questions regarding their implementation of the theories of Piaget, Erikson, and Vygotsky into practice in a human development class as part of their master s degree program. The teachers were New York City Teaching Fellows, which is an alternative certification program designed to fill teacher shortages in high-need areas, such as special education, science, and mathematics, in New York City (New York City Teaching Fellows, 2016). Teachers in this sample were special educators in their second year of teaching at the elementary and secondary levels. Jean Piaget. The teachers were asked how they would incorporate Piaget s developmental theory into their own practice. Teachers responded that their students were at the Concrete Operational stage of JNAAC, Vol. 11, Number 2, Fall

4 cognitive development. Teachers used examples of teaching with concrete real-world examples before they moved on to more complicated concepts. For example, one student used real-life problems in a mathematics class in order to help the students relate to the topic. Another example was given by a teacher who had children work on art projects that related to the children s own environment. The common theme among teacher responses was that students in the Concrete Operational stage can best be reached though relating the course material to their own understandable experiences. Erik Erikson. The teachers were also asked how the Eriksonian stages inform their teaching. Most of the teachers identified their own students in the third and fourth Eriksonian stages, which means children are working toward completing tasks for themselves. Teachers responded with giving students opportunities to explore on their own and discover concepts for themselves. They discussed how they relate their content to the students own lives and having the students do for themselves. The critical task for children, as viewed through the Eriksonian lens, is to feel the sense of accomplishment as they do for themselves. Few teachers identified their students in the fifth stage, which shifts toward a search for identity. Teachers gave responses that related to creating trusting and caring classroom communities in which students feel free to explore their own identities. Every teacher who identified their students in this stage focused on how teachers can make students feel safe to explore. Lev Vygotksy. Finally, the teachers were asked how they would scaffold in their own classroom. It is important that we consider what students can do without support, and what they can do with support (i.e., scaffolds ). Most teachers discussed the ways in which they would model good practice and procedures for their students. In mathematics, for example, teachers discussed using manipulatives and visuals to help students understand complicated concepts and computations. It has been noted that educational materials can be used in the scaffolding process (Neumann, Hood, & Neumann, 2009). Teachers were also asked how Vygotskian theory relates to special education particularly through reading an article on Vygotsky and special education by Gindis (1999). Gindis (1999) presented how students who have disabilities that separate individuals from interacting with others create more learning disadvantages than do students with disabilities that do not separate them from interacting with others. For example, in nature, the loss of one s vision may be more detrimental to survival than the loss of one s hearing. However, in society, the loss of one s hearing could be a greater disadvantage since it limits how one interacts by using language with other people. Teachers generally expressed interest in the social learning aspect needed for all children, including children in special education. Teachers also commented on the need for individualized and differentiated instruction in order to accommodate all learning needs and styles. JNAAC, Vol. 11, Number 2, Fall

5 Conclusion The common theme through the teachers responses was that if we consider our students to be primarily in Piaget s Concrete Operational stage of development, in the Autonomy/Initiative/Industry Eriksonian stages, and requiring scaffolding and social learning in the classroom, we can create concrete learning opportunities that allow students to explore academic concepts with their peers. This process encompasses all three theorists in that it places the learning in a concrete and real-world context, allows students to do for themselves, provides the needed scaffolding to go from not understanding and doing to understanding and doing, and does this in a social context in which students learn in collaborative settings. This practice incidentally aligns with constructivist teaching, also supported early on by Piaget. While all three researchers were primarily 20th century thinkers, their methods and conclusions fit very well with 21st century education. New teachers in alternative certification programs can highly benefit from having opportunities to put theory into practice. The prominent thinkers in developmental psychology offer opportunities to understand how children think and develop, which informs instruction, particularly for new teachers adjusting quickly to realities of the classroom. JNAAC, Vol. 11, Number 2, Fall

6 References Child Development Institute. (2016). Stages of intellectual development in children and teenagers. Retrieved from Gindis, B. (1999). Vygotsky s vision: Reshaping the practice of special education for the 21st century. Remedial and Special Education, 20(6), Mooney, C. G. (2000). Theories of childhood: An introduction to Dewey, Montessori, Erikson, Piaget, and Vygotsky. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson Merrill Prentice Hall. Nakkula, M. J., & Toshalis, E. (2006). Understanding youth: Adolescent development for educators. Cambridge, MA: Harvard Education Press. Neumann, M. M., Hood, M., & Neumann, D. L. (2009). The scaffolding of emergent literacy skills in the home environment: A case study. Early Childhood Education Journal, 36(4), New York City Teaching Fellows. (2016). Our impact. Retrieved from Ojose, B. (2008). Applying Piaget s theory of cognitive development to mathematics instruction. The Mathematics Educator, 18(1), JNAAC, Vol. 11, Number 2, Fall

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