The Lessons Learned (So Far) in Learners in Context

Over the past several weeks, our Learners in Context (EDU6132) class has worked together to discuss issues of child and adolescent development and their implications for the classroom. We began our discussion by addressing the age old debate of Nature versus Nurture. As a class, we found that Michael Pressley and Christine B. McCormick in their Child and Adolescent Development for Educators (2007) confirmed what the vast majority of us already believed — mainly that both biological and environmental factors influence intelligence. Pressley and McCormick suggest that people are born with a range of capabilities, but it is our environment (from the proximate family-unit to the cultural opportunities afforded to us by the nation in which we live) that determines what range in our intellectual potential we will actually reach.

The issue of privilege featured prominently in our class discussion of Nature versus Nurture, as we discussed the implications of “high achievement” in Seattle classrooms and in our own lives. We came to the sad conclusion that socio-economic advantage and the educational opportunities it affords is instrumental in intellectual growth. So too, however, is a loving and supportive familial or other type of close-knit unit, which allows its benefactors its own set of intellectual advantages. Our class agreed that we as educators share a key role in helping our students reach their intellectual potential by providing both instructional and emotional support to each and every one of our students. The more we believe in our students’ capabilities, the better they perform.

Pressley and McCormick argue that certain motor, physical, and intellectual capabilities come in generally age-specific progressions. They explain, for example, that motor development starts quite early and improves dramatically from ages two to six (Pressley and McCormick, 42). Physical development too begins rapidly and slows until adolescence when puberty — and its concomitant physical changes and growth spurts — takes center-stage.

Pressley and McCormick rely heavily on Piaget’s four-stage theory of development to explain changes in human intellectual capacity. Together they describe Piaget’s sensorimotor stage, preoperational stage, concrete operational stage, and formal operational stage, explaining children’s’ transition from the use of unconscious motor skills to abstract thinking and problem-solving (Pressley and McCormick, 64).

By the latest stages of intellectual development, students are capable of engaging together in moral reasoning and discussion. Thomas Lickona’s techniques for stimulating socially responsible thinking and behavior were discussed at length in our class forum with classmates highlighting the fostering of cooperative learning, the discussion of moral issues affecting society, and the modeling of moral behavior at the instructional level as particularly important to moral instruction (Pressley and McCormick, 83).

It seems to me that my classmates agree that within the classroom, the teacher can certainly benefit from diagnosing his or her students in terms of Piaget’s stages. This allows teachers, many in our class argued, to better develop lesson plans that engage students’ intellectual capabilities and still push them to explore in collaborative and investigative ways that which lies beyond their capacity. This latter method can be called “cognitive conflict,” which Piaget argued as essential to cognitive development (i.e. the awareness of a lack of knowledge, and what needs to be known to accomplish a task). It is important to mention here, however, John Medina’s findings in Brain Rules (2014), as he dives into exploration of the neuro-anatomical makeup of the human brain, in that each individual brain is wired incredibly distinctly. The wiring is so distinct, in fact, that cognitive and motor functions may originate from different sections of the brain depending on the person (Medina, 96-97). Medina’s findings suggest that nothing can be so easily categorized in the neurological world, which is partially why neo-Piagetian theories that attempt to re-adapt the stages and skills explained by Piaget have sprung up anew with expanding research.

A discussion of particular interest to me has been that of constructivist approaches to education. In his chapter on Exploration, Medina discusses how by focusing too much on state standards and standardized assessments, it is all too easy to lose touch with the joy of learning and intellectual exploration (Medina, 256-257). My fellow classmates agreed with Medina and, like him, have made clear through our class discussion that student-centered, investigative learning, in which teachers introduce engaging and active activities to the classroom, is by far the most effective type of instruction. Students are more likely to remember and understand information they worked actively to explore themselves (Medina,139-140). Pressley and McCormick discuss Deweyan, Piagetian, and Kolhbergian progressive approaches to education, concluding that “such natural interactions permit the child to construct understanding of the world…resulting in much more complete understanding than would cultural transmission of the same ideas” (Pressley and McCormick, 84).

We as instructors can literally help shape our students’ brains — along with their active participation, of course — and help them reach their fullest potential. Just as Medina says, “when you learn something, the [very] wiring in your brain changes” (Medina, 86). If that is true, it is best that we as educators understand a bit about how the brain changes and develops and how deliberate instruction can influence this process at every age, in every new classroom, and with each novel piece of information.