History Teaching and John Piaget

Jean Piaget created a cognitive model for how young people develop their mind. Educational researchers and psychologists have improved on this cognition model and have made it less strict than what Piaget intended; he had created four levels that children move through, and he believed that students could not be positively influenced to progress through the levels faster. John Dewey influenced Piaget, especially in how children are at the center of learning and how education should be an experience. In my post History Teaching and John Dewey, I covered how history teaching connects to child centered learning and allowing for students to influence the curriculum; in this post, I will focus on Piaget’s theory on the nature of thought and how it develops. I will connect Piaget’s theory to historical thinking and how we can measure it.

“As a genetic epistemologist, Piaget was interested in human knowledge, most specifically the nature of thought and how it develops: ‘while others asked what children know or when they know it, Piaget asked how children arrive at what they know'” (4).

Jean Piaget

Measuring what students know and when they know it is fairly simple. For decades, educators have created measuring tools that collect data on the information that students know. These come in the form of multiple choice and matching tests, written reflections, and the Document-Based Question popularized in the Advanced Placement history assessment. These tests capture what students know at the moment, but they fail at measuring how students develop their knowledge, or how environmental factors can change what students know.

For instance, exams that assess a student’s ability to recall information does not explore what students can do with that information. Imagine asking students the following question; 

  • What river did George Washington cross to attack Hessian soldiers? 
  • What day was it that George Washington and his troops attacked the Hessian soldiers?

Students may know that George Washington crossed the Delaware River to attack the Hessians on Christmas Day, but what if you asked students the following question; 

  • “How has George Washington’s attack on Hessian soldiers been romanticized in American history? Provide examples.

For both questions, the students would need to be able to recall similar factual information, but the last question would take much more historical thinking. The second question is framed in a more open fashion, and is asking students to recall examples in which they will need to draw evidence. Also, the last question provides students an opportunity to develop their thinking as they answer the question, showing the assessor a more complete view of the students’ ideas. This question could be pushed even further; for instance, 

  • George Washington’s Crossing the Delaware is an example of romanticism in American history. Why do you believe this historical event has become a part of American mythos? What other historical events are similar? Explain with examples.

“Indeed, Piaget was particularly interested in the development of intelligence and believed that this was an important factor in explaining how children adapted to their environment” (5)

Jean Piaget

Developing intelligence, or inquiry, is becoming more popular among researchers who study history teaching. Sam Wineburg, Peter Seixas, Peter Doolittle, David Hicks, and John Lee have all studied the development of historical thinking. The work of these researchers can be found in websites that are meant to help teachers practically apply cognitive development theory. These websites can be found at Stanford’s Beyond the Bubble, Virginia Tech’s SCIM-C, The Historical Thinking Project, and even my own website History Forge. I have measured the acquisition of intelligence for the last three years and I have developed an assessment system that can be seen in the following webpages:

  1. Definition of Grading for Mastery and and Skills Based Grading
  2. Methods of Inquiry and The Skills that Unite the Social Studies
  3. Questions and Prompts for Social Studies Skills
  4. Teaching with Primary Sources and Skills Based Assessment
  5. Grading, Assessments, and Common Assessments

Remaining Questions

Although I have been practically applying cognitive development theory to my grading for three years, I still stumble in a few areas. Questions that I still have are:

  1. What activities do teachers have that help students progress up to mastery?
  2. What does mastering a skill mean?
  3. How does grading allow students to continue growing?
  4. How do we show students their grades?
  5. How do we keep assessment constrained in the classroom? (I do not think teachers should be grading from home).
  6. How do we adapt assessments for different types of students?

Jean Piaget

“The acknowledgement of each child as a unique being, with their own needs and interests, certainly reflects Piaget’s notion that the child should be the main driver of their own learning and encourages a curriculum which allows practitioners the flexibility to plan according to the needs of the child rather than according to a prescribed set of objectives” (15)

An idea that I have been developing is perspective can be another way to scaffold skill attainment. For instance, I believe there is a difference when a student demonstrates a skill using sources and evidence that a teacher found, compared to what a student could find. I somewhat explored this idea with the large scale Project Based Learning (PBL) assignment National History Day (NHD). Students choose their own historical topics based on their interests; we explore their interests with activities in the beginning of the year. Since students have explored the topic themselves, and found the secondary and primary sources, their analysis came more from their perspectives. In addition, the way in which students showed mastery was varied. NHD projects can be five different presentation types (documentary, essay, exhibit, performance, and website). This flexibility gives students a chance to present information in a way most comfortable to them, because they are the most competent in that presentation style, or they had months to practice it.

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