Development, Learning and Curriculum

Development, Learning and Curriculum

I recently attended a meeting in Cambridge, Massachusetts, organized by Critical Exploration Press, that brought together educators with a shared interest in Piagetian research and introducing Piagetian ideas and principles about growth and development into formal teaching-learning settings. The majority of attendees were alumni of the course Teaching and Learning taught by Eleanor Duckworth at Harvard University. Duckworth is herself a former student, translator and colleague of Piaget. Attendees included Eleanor Duckworth; a professor of mathematics from Brazil; several teacher educators from Boston and the greater Boston area; a museum educator; a educational researcher and author who travelled from Rome, Italy; two consultants in governance and leadership and came from as far away as South Africa; and a teacher educator from south Korea, currently a visiting scholar sponsored by Yale University.

In the morning session a classroom researcher shared her work with 8th grade students. Following that session, myself and two colleagues found ourselves discussing the dilemma below presented by one of the meeting attendees:

“As a teacher, how do I ensure that the materials and curriculum I plan will truly allow for free exploration on the learners’ part? How do I prevent the goals I see in a particular subject matter from seeping into the lesson and dictating the pathway of the learning?”

One person in the group posed the question, “Can exploration be free?” This first blog posting was inspired by our ensuing discussion.

As educators who have studied Jean Piaget’s research into the origins of knowledge in children, we understand that children are active participants in constructing their knowledge and understanding of the world. We recognize that what children “know,” their conceptions of the world, originate in children’s actions on objects. For the very young child, these objects are limited to the concrete and physical objects in the child’s immediate environment. For the older child, objects include the ideas and observations expressed by other children.

In their exploration of objects, children can take in and grasp (assimilate) only those aspects of the object for which they have constructed an assimilatory scheme. Aspects of the object for which children have not yet constructed an assimilatory scheme go “unnoticed.” The good thing is that children’s ongoing efforts to grasp the object extends and modifies their existing assimilatory schemes. Modifications and adaptations allow the child to grasp and take in more of the object. In this way, learning results from what learners do as children’s internal knowledge structures (conceptions) are shaped by the child’s actions on the outside world. What children come to know and understand of the world (children’s conceptions of reality) reflect both children’s assimilatory structures and the nature of the external world.


Piaget’s observations and research findings about the origins and development of children’s knowledge of objects, and the essential role of children’s self-directed actions on what children come to know as their “reality,” speak to the primacy of experience in fostering authentic or genuine learning and development in all social settings regardless of who the learners are, adults or children.

Development, Teaching, Learning, Curriculum:

From a cognitive perspective, the terms development and learning refer to any transition or modification of an existing assimilatory scheme to accommodate a new experience. For the very young child, and the development and learning that happens in informal, natural settings, modifications of existing assimilatory schemes result from children’s self-directed exploration of objects in the environment. All learning, including children’s self-directed learning is subject to the environment and children’s interactions with that environment. The natural setting is the teacher in the sense that it presents the child with materials for exploration and transformation.

In the formal environment of the classroom setting, where there is both a teacher and certain ideas that a teacher must teach, and which learners must come to know, one role for a so-informed teacher is to create an environment that stimulates learners’ exploration of materials. This requires that the teacher is sufficiently knowledgeable of the content such that s/he can select objects that stimulate exploration and contain within them concepts to be understood.

Inviting different learners to say what they are seeing, noticing, questioning and thinking keeps learners focused on exploring different aspects of the object and by sharing what each learner is noticing provides more handles or points of access for other learners to grasp the objects. While what each learner comes to know and understand results from internal construction and coordination of actions and observations of the objects under exploration, the resulting assimilatory scheme is shaped by both the observations of the group and mediated the external reality.

The challenge for teachers who aim to teach in this way is to bring to learners objects which contain within them the concepts to be known and to choose objects that are within learners’ reach, which they can grasp and assimilate. Selecting such objects requires that teachers are deeply familiar with both the subject matter itself and the nature of learners’ assimilatory schemes for taking in the subject matter.  

As Eleanor Duckworth, former student, translator and colleague of Piaget observed when working with children in schools as a researcher with the Elementary Science Study [ESS], to the extent that she interacted with the children to understand what they were seeing, noticing, and wondering about materials presented, (rather than telling them what they should be seeing and thinking) the more she learned about the children’s understanding and the children’s understanding of the materials under their exploration developed “in the very process.” In this way, the activities of researching, teaching and learning are in dialectic relationship.

Curriculum (the activities in which learners engage and questions that learners pursue) is not pre-determined but instead emerges from the teacher’s active assessment of what students know and understand.

In another post I will consider Dewey’s concept of the child and the curriculum.


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