Learning Theories Proposed by Montessori Piaget and Vygotsky

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This essay discusses the theories of education proposed by Maria Montessori, Jean Piaget and Lev Vygotsky; compares them, and suggests what classrooms might be like when the theories are followed.

I Introduction

Over the years, psychologists and educators have developed various theories about the way in which children learn. Understanding the way in which children receive and process information is of great value to parents, teachers; in fact, to everyone who understands that a society cannot develop if its children do not learn how to learn.
This paper examines the learning theories of Maria Montessori, Jean Piaget and Lev Vygotsky, then compares and contrasts them, and finally suggests the ways in which these theories might be used in the classroom.

II Montessori, Piaget and Vygotsky

Dr. Maria Montessori’s system is based on the idea that “a child learns best within a social environment which supports each individual’s unique development.” (What is Montessori?, 2002, PG). The principles on which the Montessori method rests are simple, but revolutionary in the history of education: that children are individuals, different from adults and from each other and are to be respected as such; that “children create themselves through purposeful activity”; that the most important years for learning are those from birth to age six; and that children learn from their environment, which includes other people. (What is Montessori?, 2002, PG).
In Montessori schools, children are placed in groups according to age (3-6, 6-18). They stay with the same children, and with the same teacher, for three to six years. In addition, they choose the projects and subjects they are interested in working on, and proceed to study in a non-directed method. There are no grades given, but the Montessori teacher observes the class closely and makes notes, keeping a “profile” on each student. The only requirements are those set by the state, or by college entrance examinations.
The class thus becomes less formal and structured that “conventional” schools, particularly as the older children often help the younger ones with the material. There tends to be more conversation in the classroom than in other schools, as well. The idea is to create a warm, nurturing, almost familial environment in which maximum learning can take place. (Olaf, 2001, PG).
Jean Piaget was a Swiss biologist and developmental psychologist. Like Maria Montessori, he believed that children learned in fixed stages, but disagreed about the timing of such stages. While Dr. Montessori believed that the ages birth through six were critical, Piaget thought that children didn’t really begin to learn until age seven.
For Piaget, “adaptation” was the most important principle of human functioning. “Adaptation is the continuous process of using the environment to learn, and learning to adjust to changes in the environment. It is a process of adjustment consisting of two complementary processes, assimilation and accommodation.” (Dobson, n.d., PG). “Assimilation” means taking in new information and fitting it into one’s preconceived ideas of the world, while “accommodation” means revising old plans to fit new information. The two processes work together to allow the children to adapt to a new situation. When children adapt in this fashion, Piaget describes them as having formed a “schema,” or mental image or pattern of action; mechanisms which enable them to interpret what they see and hear. (Dobson, n.d., PG).
Piaget also described for distinct stages all children go through as they grow to adulthood. He believed that these stages were fixed and unchangeable, though he did allow some leeway as to the ages at which each occurred. The four stages are the “Sensory-Motor” stage, which takes place from birth through two years of age. At this stage, the infant’s behavior is completely reflexive; he doesn’t really respond to his environment as much as react to it. At this early stage of development, the infant learns by repeating actions and applying them to new situations to try to obtain the same result. At this point, the baby doesn’t realize that objects exist apart from him.
The second stage is the “Preoperational Stage,” ages two through seven. The child, according to Piaget, does not yet think logically, but instead filters everything through his own perceptions and intuition. At this stage, the child is entirely self-centered and it is at this point that his thought processes differ most from those of adults.
The third stage is the “Concrete Operations” stage, seven through eleven. At this point, the child is able to perform mental operations, and understands the concept of one object standing for another.
The fourth stage is “Formal Operation,” ages eleven through 16, and marks the beginning of abstract thought and deductive reasoning. Piaget theorized that no new mental “structures” emerge after this stage. (Dobson, n.d., PG).
Lev Vygotsky’s major theme is that “social interaction plays a fundamental role in the development of cognition.” (Kolar, 2002, PG). Vygotsky did much of his work in the field of language acquisition, and it was his theory that children learned first by being exposed to language in social situations, then internalizing it. But he went beyond language and suggested that all learning originated from actual social relationships between individuals.
Vygotsky also believed that cognitive development occurs within a certain time span, which he called the “Zone of Proximal Development” (ZPD). Children can learn more with adult help and with peer interaction than they can alone. (Kolar, 2002, PG). Vygotsky is generally considered a constructivist.
Constructivism is “a philosophy of learning founded on the premise that, by reflecting on our experiences, we construct our own understanding of the world we live in. Each of us generates our own “rules” … which we use to make sense of our experiences.” (Constructivism, 1998-2001, PG).

III Compare/contrast the Theories; What They Say about Daily Life

Montessori and Piaget are fairly close; they both agree that learning occurs in children in a definite sequence, though they disagree on when specifically those sequence occur. The greatest difference between them, of course, is that Montessori believed that children learn the most from their birth through the age of six, and Piaget said that no real learning takes place before the age of seven. Still, they both see child development in terms of definite steps that occur in a certain sequence. (Two Developmental Theories Compared, n.d., PG).
Piaget and Vygotsky are also fairly close; they are both considered constructivists. They believe that children form their own ways of looking at the world and understand what they’re seeing because of their interaction with others. However, it would seem that the constructivist approach is more traditional than the Montessori classroom. There doesn’t appear to be any of the grouping in the former that we find in the latter.

IV Applying the Theories in the Classroom

The constructivist approach espoused by Piaget and Vygotsky would tend to fit the traditional classroom model. There is nothing in either method that suggests the children be kept together for years, in age-appropriate groups, with the same teacher as in the Montessori method. Rather, I would assume that instructors using either Piaget or Vygotsky would see the children for one year, then promote them to the next grade.
I don’t mean that the experience should be cold and impersonal, for both men believed that children’s learning takes place most readily during social interactions, which interactions give them a basis for internalizing language and other concepts. However, this approach also lends itself to more teacher-center classrooms, in which lectures are given while children sit and listen. It is not necessary to conduct a class this way, though; both Piaget and Vygotsky work well with less-structured classes, more interaction, and more shared learning (children helping one another). I believe the theories could work in either setting, depending on the school’s instructions and the teacher’s preferences.
Montessori teachers, however, go through a full year of training in the Montessori method before they receive their certificates. The Montessori groups, the self-directed learning, and the concept of a closely knit group are alien to most people, and they need the training before they can effectively observe and monitor their classes. The creation of this nurturing, supportive and self-directed class, which also includes respect for the children as individuals, is still a somewhat suspect concept, even after decades of implementation. Whether or not it can be successfully used in a modified form, again, is up to the teacher.

V Conclusion

The three learning theories we’ve been considering, though they retain many of the tenets of the traditional lecture model, also open up fascinating new methods for teachers. I would suggest that the only restriction to their use is the instructor’s imagination.

VI References

Olaf, M. (2001). An Introduction to Montessori Philosophy & Practice. Arcata, CA: Michael Olaf Montessori. Retrieved February 25, 2003 from the World Wide Web: http://www.michaelolaf.net/1CW312MI.html
Constructivism. (1998-2001). Funderstanding. Retrieved February 25, 2003 from the World Wide Web: http://www.funderstanding.com/constructivism.cfm
Dobson, B. (N.D.) Jean Piaget. Minot, North Dakota: Minot State University. Retrieved February 25, 2003 from the World Wide Web: http://warp6.cs.misu.nodak.edu/psych/Burke/book/piaget.htm
Kolar, S. and D’Ambrosio, L. (2002, August 11). Social Development Theory. Vygotsky Resources. Retrieved February 25, 2003 from the World Wide Web: http://tip.psychology.org/vygotsky.html
Two Developmental Theories Compared. (N.D.) Chapter 7 – The Vital Years. The Learning Web. Retrieved February 25, 2003 from the World Wide Web: http://www.thelearningweb.net/tlrcfm/TLRPages/chapter07/page265.cfm?NZ204776727330=595.8123905
What is Montessori? (2002). Toronto: The Canadian Council of Montessori Administrators. Retrieved February 25, 2003 from the World Wide Web: http://www.ccma.ca/ccma/aboutmon.htm

Article name: Learning Theories Proposed by Montessori Piaget and Vygotsky essay, research paper, dissertation