The idea of educational theories and
programs based on Piagets theory: some contributions from a
José Sérgio Carvalho -
University of São Paulo,Faculty of Education.
Sao Paulo, Brazil.
(This paper was presented at the "Growing
Mind Congress", Geneve, September 96)
The diffusion of Piagets theory in
Brazil has largely been a consequence of a series of attempts to apply it to the field of
education. As in any other domain, the transference of concepts, hypothesis,
methodologies, results, in short, the transference of the body of a theory to another
theoretical or practical field brings about a series of new problems, whose critical exam
asks not, at first instance, for further empirical research - as if they were problems
related to different hypothesis or theories of the same field of research- , but demands
some prior conceptual analysis based on the characteristics and problems of the
The first and so far the majority of -
attempts to apply Piagets theory of cognitive development to educational theory or
even to educational policies and practices have taken a methodological point of view. In
other words, researchers and teachers have tried to deduce didactic procedures,
that is, teaching and class guiding strategies, from the description and
explanation of the cognitive development of the child, that is, from the cognitive
structures of development which make learning possible. The growing repercussion of these
ideas and methodologies of work has led a great number of teachers, researchers and
educational policy-makers to postulate the idea of a constructivist education,
i.e., an educational theory and even an educational program based on Piagets theory.
This postulate, of course, would mean more than a set of methodological or didactic
procedures, since one cannot talk of an educational theory or program without reference to
values and objectives.
The aim of this paper is, on one hand, to
briefly point out some problems concerning the transference and usage of scientific
concepts to educational theories and programs. On the other hand, to point out one
possible way of overcoming at least one of these problems: the lack of internal criteria
for one to choose general conceptions and selective principles of a subject
or ability to be taught. For this we shall resort not exactly to Piagets
writings on psycogenetical development, but rather to his works on philosophy of
One important source of problems related
to the passage from any scientific theory to educational theories and programs lies in the
different nature of definitions and concepts used in each field and, as a consequence, in
the different criteria to be used in judging and evaluating them. In this respect,
Scheffler warns us that scientific definitions, in particular, are continuous
with contemporeneous statements in their environing networks, and cannot well be evaluated
in abstraction from these networks. ...definitions in science are all, in an important
sense, technical in purport and call for special knowledge and the use of special
theoretical criteria in their evaluation... by professional members of the scientific
community....When such definitions are taken out of the context of professional research
activity, however, and embodied in statements addressed to the public or to teachers or
professionals of another sort, often in an institutional setting, they must be judged in
this rôle.(1968, p.13).
Thus, one important difference in
evaluating concepts and definitions transferred from Piaget´s psycogenetic theory to
educational programs is that, while in the first case our evaluating criteria are related
to theoretical adequacy, truth and intelligibility, in the latter one our evaluating
criteria should also take into account the principles of actions such definitions
or concepts convey or propose. The possible theoretical
accuracy, truth or intelligibility of a scientific definition, concept or theory which may
have inspired an educational program is not a measure of the worth of that program
Firstly because one single theory may
lead to and be compatible with quite different programs of action(1).
On the other hand, one single program of action may be compatible with two or more
different theories(2).In fact, the jump from theoretical definitions
and concepts to a program of action is a long and hazardous one. This considered, any
educational program claiming to be based in Piagets theory should be judged and
evaluated not according to the adequacy of its inspiring theory in terms of comprehension
and description of a childs cognitive development(3),
but in terms of its accomplishments regarding the problems of students, teachers
and educational institutions. In sum, the arguments in favor of the adoption of an
educational program should not rest exclusively nor mainly upon its theoretical basis, but
must evaluate its efficiency, moral adequacy and responsiveness to social
Moreover, the idea that teaching
strategies could be deduced from the description and explanation of the childs
structures of cognitive development and learning capacities is not a very clear one.
Obviously any teaching aims at learning. Nevertheless, getting acquainted with theories of
cognitive development and learning does not directly guide our methodology of working when
teaching. Piagets theory, as any other one, is a propositional knowledge,
while teaching, as any practical-art, is a procedural knowledge. As Ryle pointed
out on his work The Concept of Mind, the relationships between knowing how
(procedural knowledge) and knowing that (propositional knowledge) are not
simple or mechanical.
Piaget himself, in his studies on Réussir
et Comprendre, demonstrated that a successful act is not always accompanied by a
correct explanation or theory of the performed act. On the other
hand, our own everyday experience shows that having an interesting theory (of bicycle
riding, for example) does not necessarily lead us to successful practice (of riding a
bicycle). Of course one may suppose that, even if not necessary, propositional knowledge certainly
implies a better chance of having a successful performance. Of course it might be
true, but in fact this is a matter for empirical research and not for personal certainty.
We have no reasons to believe that there is such an abstract law of nature
which may grant us that every time we develop an interesting theory this theory will
enhance our practice, no matter what sort of theory or practice we are talking about.
Finally, as far as educational programs
and teaching procedures are concerned, the very idea that there might be procedures that
are per se more efficient in teaching should be empirically investigated.
The diversity of teaching problems and of personal strategies of learning seem to suggest
that any generalization of this kind is, at least, dangerous. In sum, the criteria to
judge any methodological innovation are not adequacy of its discourse nor its
epistemological affiliation, but its results compared to the previous objectives. As for
an educational programs, once more we should resist falling in the trap of judging them
exclusively by their supposed theoretical justifications given by teachers and educational
policy-makers, leaving aside the important point in this case, which is the social and
moral pertinence of their objectives as well as the concrete results (on pupils, teacher
and institutions) of implementing those changes.
In theoretical basis we have another set
of problems related to the transference of concepts from a theory of one field to another.
To take one example, the concept of an epistemic subject, which may be a rich and
interesting concept to describe mechanisms, causation and stages of cognitive development
in a child or in history is not automatically and equally interesting if applied to a
different set of problems.
Like any other scientific concept, its
comprehensive and explanatory powers are limited to the field of a particular interest. As
pointed out by Ryle (cf. Dilemmas p.123/6.) a careful and accurate description of a
library made by an accountant is quite different from that made - equally careful and
accurate - by a professor. The books themselves are not different ones, but yet their
description in terms of expenses and sales slips are useless for an intellectual
evaluation of the faculty library, as much as their intellectual content helps little or
nothing an accountant when he is to produce economical reports on the faculty library.
Both are not exactly opposite descriptions, but different and complementary ways of giving
information about the same library.
Analogously an epistemic subject and a
pupil may be two different descriptions of the same child. The concept of a pupil, as most
educational concepts, is not a scientific one, but its usage presumes the existence and
insertion of a child into determined institutions. A pupil, therefore, is not any child
nor a learner in general, but one who learns at a school and with the
guidance of a teacher. These specific institutional characteristics - along
with its specific problems - should be taken into account in any attempt to build up an
educational theory. It does not mean that the knowledge of a childs cognitive
development is not desirable. It simply means that it is not enough, for a child is not
necessarily a pupil, learning school subjects is not developing cognitive structures and
an institution is not a simple addition of individuals.
One last problem derived from the usage
in educational contexts of a general concept like that of an epistemic subject is
its necessary omission concerning the specific and ineluctable selective options of
disciplines, perspectives, abilities etc., which always involve value judgment and
require practical decisions from teachers and institutions. Concerning this
particular problem it might be interesting to quote Scheffler when he comments the limits
of trying to apply these theories to education: ...(they) seem plausible with
respect to certain aspects of development of children, that is, the biological or
constitutional aspects. Regarding these, we can say, roughly, what sequences of stages may
be normally expected, and how these passages ....may be helped or hindered by deliberate
effort on the part of others. ...The nature and order of these stages of development, and
of the capacities of behavior they make possible are, indeed, relatively independent of
the action of other individuals, though even here cultural factors make their impact... If
we once ask, however, how these capacities are to be exercised, toward what
... the child is to be directed, what sort of conduct and what types of
sensitivity are to be fostered, we begin to see the limits (of the transference of
these theories) ...The sequence of stages is, in fact, quite compatible with any number
of conflicting answers to these questions."(1967, p.50). Of course we could also
add questions such as: once they are capable of these or that operation how should we
select subjects, perspectives, methodologies, experiments among those which are compatible
with that specific stage of intellectual capacity and possibility?
1- In fact, this happens quite often in
the attempts to deduce pedagogical consequences or methods from Piagets theory.
There is a large number of conflicting practices claiming to be based on the same
psycogenetical basis. Of course some of them could be regarded as misapplications, but how
could one possibly elect the correct deduction of practice once there is not
one logically necessary action derived from a theoretical description or
2- Take for example a very authoritarian Catholic school and an equally authoritarian
school from former Eastern Germany. Their concept of man, of schooling, etc. are founded
over quite different ontological and metaphysical basis. Nevertheless, their everyday
practice may be quite similar.
3- This is an example of the old, but persistent, fallacy which supposes that if
we have the correct or real concept of man, society, justice etc.. we shall
have the correct or real answer to practical problems related to them. This
idea goes back to Socrates and Plato, but has had various new forms since then.