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How Children Learn

Stages of Learning

Kids doing science

As you plan your classroom visit, it can be helpful to understand how children of different ages learn, so that you challenge your audience, but don’t turn them off by using overly sophisticated language or introducing science concepts that are beyond their abilities to understand.

Studying how children learn has gone on for over a century. One of the most respected researchers in this area was Jean Piaget (1896 – 1980), a child psychologist from Switzerland. Over many years, he observed and questioned children (including his own three) as they manipulated objects, made drawings, listened to and told stories, and made judgments. He was able to get children to describe their thought processes, and he related these processes to the children’s behavior and language. From his observations and analyses, he identified four sequential stages of intellectual development in children. These are defined as:

  • Sensorimotor stage (birth to approximately age 2). During this stage, children, starting with their innate motor reflex actions, progressively learn to cope with their world through sensory stimuli. At this stage, their intelligence is not linked to language.
  • Preoperational stage (approximately age 2 to age 7; nursery school and pre-Kindergarten to grade 2). Children in this stage respond to and use language as part of their thinking, but are unable to use logical thinking or operations. They are highly egocentric and they think in the "here and now". They learn best by direct experiences, such as handling and manipulating objects. They can begin to classify objects and events, and begin to think of things that are beyond their direct observations.
  • Concrete operational (approximately age 7 to age 11; end of grade 2 to early grade 6). In this stage, children start to use logic as they reason. They also understand conservation, which means that elements such as area, weight, and substance do not change if their positions change. They also understand the inverse of actions they may take (reversibility). They are able to see something from another's point of view. However, they are largely restricted in their thinking to "concrete" objects and events. They cannot think in terms of overall principles, theories, or abstractions. They are limited by the "what is" and cannot focus on the "what could be."
  • Formal operational (after approximately age 11; late grade 6 and beyond). At the formal operational stage, children can begin to reflect on their own thinking processes. They can now reason in abstract terms, and generalize about principles. For example, where, in earlier developmental stages a child might think "that person's behavior is bad and he should be punished", they can now think more abstractly and say "all bad behavior is wrong, but sometimes it can be justified for other reasons."

The key point of Piaget's theories is that the four stages of development are sequential. Children cannot reach a new stage until they have gone through and have come to terms with the experiences of the preceding stage. At the same time, it is important to note that some children reach stages at an earlier or a later age than those indicated. Children act upon new objects, events, experiences, and ideas using the prior experience they already have in a process that Piaget calls assimilation. In acting upon the results of these new stimuli, Piaget says they are accommodating these results by learning and incorporating new ideas and behaviors. The relationship between assimilation and accommodation, which has its origins in biology, is at the heart of Piaget's theories of intellectual development. Years later, it remains at the heart of what is today termed constructivism. Although subsequent researchers have added to and refined Piaget’s stages, they have still held up over time.

Here’s what these developmental stages mean to you as you plan and carry out classroom visits with different ages of children: In the earlier grades (K - 2), most children are still preoperational. This means that the science experiences they have must take into account that the children see the world as "me-focused". They need a great many hands-on experiences using simple, everyday objects and materials such as magnifiers, containers of various volumes, non-standard measuring tools, building blocks, rocks and minerals, fossils, water, and sand. It is important that you choose or create science experiences for preoperational children so that they have ample time to explore items, as well as to talk about their discoveries. In this way, you can help them to understand such ideas as: liquids are conserved no matter what the size of their container; or that it is possible to group objects in many different ways.

Older children, those at the concrete operational level, are able to investigate a number of simple science questions, but should do these using as many direct experiences as possible. Such experiences should involve measuring tools, simple laboratory equipment, plants and animals in the classroom, everyday objects, field experiences, videos, and many more. Having children work in collaborative groups as they investigate gives them the opportunity to talk about what they are investigating and what they have found out. In this way, they begin to recognize patterns and relationships in data - an important step along the path to the formal operational level.

While most older elementary children are in the concrete operational stage, you may encounter some who have some formal operational abilities. Children at this level are ready to learn about hypothesis-testing as a way of investigating science questions. They may be able to understand that scientific theories are based upon the results of many experiments, and can be used as the starting points for further experiments.

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Instructional Approaches

A number of instructional approaches have built upon the work of Piaget and other researchers. One of the most widely used of these approaches is called the Learning Cycle. There are variations to the steps of the Learning Cycle, but one version consists of these steps:

  • Engaging with a concept: This is the “grabber” step of the Learning Cycle where you can capture children’s interest about a topic. This can happen with a demonstration, video, interesting samples, cartoon, story, going outdoors, or many other methods. It is important in this step to link the concept to the children’s experiences and knowledge base.
  • Exploring a concept: One of the best ways of having children explore ideas is by hands-on experiences. If you are teaching about Earth history during your visit, for example, get samples of fossils into the children’s hands as soon as you can. Get them started on asking questions about the fossil samples and looking for patterns and relationships between them.
  • Explaining a concept: After the children have time to explore, your explanation can help them to focus on the key concepts you want them to understand. This is a good time to let the children ask questions of you and each other, and seek for explanations together.
  • Applying a concept to a new situation: So that you feel confident that the children you are working with “get it”, give them an opportunity to apply their knowledge to a new situation. For example, if you are having them learn to identify a set of minerals, give them a couple of new samples to try identifying later in the lesson.
  • Expanding a concept: This is a “what next” stage. Children think about other questions on the concept they could investigate. This helps them to expand their understanding of the concept. Classroom teachers often use free-standing Learning Centers to enable interested children to explore these “what next” questions.

During a relatively brief classroom visit (45 minutes or so), you may only get to the Explanation Stage of the Learning Cycle. The classroom teacher can then follow up with the later stages. If possible, provide him or her with activities that help children make those “next steps” after your visit. It is important to remember that the steps of the Learning Cycle put into clear and simple language what are really a series of complex intellectual processes for both children and their teachers.

The Learning Cycle is just one research-based approach used in science teaching. The lessons in the activities section use a modified Learning Cycle approach to help students learn science through inquiry. The inquiry aspect of the lessons is based upon the body of research which supports the definition of inquiry in the National Science Education Standards and in the Benchmarks for Science Literacy. Students who learn science through inquiry may begin with their own question to investigate, or someone else's question, but, eventually they need to find answers that:

  • Fit with their existing understanding and developmental level
  • Make sense
  • Are scientifically correct (even if only at a very simple level)
  • Help them to understand their world
  • Lead to new questions

Note that inquiry is more than just hands-on; good inquiry is “hands-on, minds-on”.  As a visiting instructional leader, you can both promote and guide the discovery and inquiry process.  Rather than answer student questions directly, you can help them find their own answers, which again helps them experience the scientific process.

While hands-on, minds-on experiences are a vital part of the inquiry method, children also need to draw upon the information they can find in books, videos, the Internet, CD-ROMs, magazines, field trips, experts (including you and their teacher), and each other. You can work with the classroom teacher to craft or select experiences for children that allow them to investigate science questions in a rich and supportive atmosphere. This includes giving children time to explore science; as well as giving them access to information technology; interesting items to investigate; opportunities to discuss and share; and the chance to investigate their own questions.

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