Unit 9 – Teaching Young Learners

A background

Before you can look at how to effectively teach young learners it is important to understand how children develop, especially with regards to learning.

Most of what we consider to be true is based on theories developed by Jean Piaget. After running various experiments looking at how children at different ages try to solve problems, Piaget came up with some assumptions:

  • Children build knowledge from their experiences;
  • Children try to make sense of the world through actions;
  • Children are central to their own learning;
  • Children have need for ‘thinking time’.

With further study Piaget developed a theory that children learn through specific stages. Although every child is unique to the speed and effectiveness of their learning, Piaget was also able to label each stage to an age range. The stages are:

Sensori – Motor Stage (0 – 18 months) – Children use their senses to interact with the world around them. At this stage it is important to note that children are extremely egocentric. In learning terms, this means that they can only think about things that they can sense and interact with and have not learnt to mimic others. They rely on their own senses to paint a very black and white picture of the world around them. For example if the child can see or hear mum, then she is there; if the child cannot hear or see her, then she has disappeared and the child can immediately start to show signs of agitation.

Pre-Operational Stage (18 months – 7 years) – Children actually start to use some of the more simple aspects of the world around them. They can still only deal with concrete concepts, but they start to become explorers and scientists. Whereas in the sensori – motor stage children would learn from the result of something happening, during this stage children start to become hypothesizers; they actually start to try and work out how things work.

At this stage children have become hypothesisers or ‘scientists’. A child would see a pattern and make a hypothesis. They would then look for evidence to support the hypothesis, in some basic way they would test it out and, from the feedback, they would draw their own conclusions. If feedback confirms their little hypothesis, then they would remember it as a rule.

For example, a 3-year-old is watching mummy open the door. The child makes the hypothesis that the handle must be turned. So, after watching other people turn the handle and open the door, the child then goes and tests the theory for themselves. Success, they turned the handle and the door opened. That information then gets stored and the child will remember how to open that door. Next, the child will discover the theory that most doors operate in the same way: that’s when the parents will really need to have eyes in the back of their head!

Concrete Operational Stage (7 – 11 years) – During this stage children really learn to master their concrete environment. By concrete, we mean things that can be discovered through the senses, ie touch, smell, sight, hearing, taste. They feel they have the world worked out and they become confident interacting with the world around them.

Formal Operational Stage (11 years – adulthood) – Children start to develop the ability to think about and understand abstract concepts. This is the last stage of development and coincides with puberty and then, a little later, the progression into adulthood.