Does Constructivism have limits?


Early Childhood Education

Bryanne Lemieux

Preschool is a way to ease children into the school system and give them some baseline knowledge before jumping into kindergarten. Besides having the shared goal of wanting to help make the transition from their home life full of play to learning in a classroom, not all preschools are the same. There are many different popular preschooling methods, ranging from the student-led Montessori style to HighScope, which has the teachers pick hands-on activities for children based on their age and interests. While the main focus of all styles is based around allowing education through playtime, the differences are whether the student is the one primarily leading their education, or it is the educator who guides the student through learning activities. The debate is as such– which is better for educating young children: hands-off education and allowing the child to use their skills to learn and grow, or an educator assigning work or activities and being nearby to give guidance when needed to help them learn. This is a long-lived debate and due to the research constantly being done on the topic and new information being published, there is no clear answer yet. However, it is possible to pick a side and as previously stated, many parents and educators have done so just by picking a preschool style they feel is best.

Jean Piaget is one of the most well-known cognitive scientists for his grand theory about child cognitive development, and his theory plays into this debate about education methods. Piaget believed that all children are born with an innate need to explore their surroundings and figure out how and why things work. He also believed that because of this, children are not waiting for the instruction to go off and learn something new. This implies that a caretaker or educator may provide rewards or positive reinforcements to motivate a child to learn from a task; external stimulation is not a necessary part of education for a young child.

Piaget was a stage theorist, meaning he thought that children develop in distinct stages outlined by their age first and foremost. Preschool-age children would fall into the stage he called the preoperational stage, which ranges from two years to 7 years of age. In this stage, children are beginning to use language as a tool to help them not only communicate but learn as well! During this time young children play pretend a lot, and while it may seem like it is only silly play, they are often “acting” out scenarios they have seen happen in their lives. For example, many children like to play “house,” where they act out the lives of their families and specific situations they have witnessed. This has been described as causal knowledge, which can be developed based on two types of observations children make. These are their observations of patterns and correlation of events, and their observations of the effects of manipulating a specific object.

All of this evidence supports the idea that children can lead their education and do not need someone to motivate them or support them in their early learning. Piaget’s theory and emphasis on self-directed learning might point educators and parents towards taking a hands-off approach to early childhood education; it must also be kept in mind that even Piaget remarked that kids need to feel discomfort in order to change their mental structures.

A prolific cognitive scientist who focused on cognitive development in children, through a more hands-off approach, is Lev Vygotsky. His grand theory is juxtaposed with Piaget’s beliefs stemmed from the sociocultural perspective meaning, to him, the social aspect of development was incredibly important. While Piaget was more focused on what children could and could not do by themselves, Vygotsky paid more attention to how educators and caregivers affected a student’s learning in a social context. This style of education is not, however, a very structured and controlled one, it involves the teacher initiating a learning situation, seeing what the learner can do on their own, and stepping in when the learner struggles too much. In Vygotsky’s terms, this process has three steps, thesis, antithesis, and synthesis. The thesis is when the teacher uses social speech to give the lesson. The antithesis is when the student engages in private speech, repeating the instructions to themselves, and success is usually followed by positive reinforcement from the teacher. Synthesis happens when the student can complete the lesson quietly using only inner speech and needs no assistance. It is important to know this because Vygotsky explained that a child has not fully understood or internalized the concept until synthesis has been achieved. Until that point, the student is still learning and needs to be monitored for signs of struggle or needing some assistance from the teacher. This process is important for children because they are allowed to learn at their own pace and fairly independently until they fully understand which helps them feel more in control of their learning and more independent.

Another popular Vygotskian idea is the zone of proximal development, which further supports the education style that guiding early learners is beneficial. The zone of proximal development is what marks what a learner can do alone and what they can do with help, and the educator’s job is to find the middle of the zone to create discomfort within the student. The discomfort is necessary for cognitive growth, a student needs to feel like they do not understand to motivate them to understand the topic. Without the feeling of discomfort there is no reason for a student to pursue understanding! During this time, the educator is there as a mediator, to provide the appropriate scaffolding to the student. They watch what the student does, and provide instruction or advice depending on how much or how little they understand. This is a continuing cycle of the child not understanding, the teacher helping them work through it, and the student understanding. This method also allows for children and caregivers to build relationships because it involves so much communication between them.

The style of allowing a child to learn while providing structure and assistance when needed, has been shown to have more positive outcomes than some traditional, more structured styles. An example of this is the preschool style called Tools of the Mind. This method is entirely based around structured playtime for the children. One smaller difference in this style is they do not introduce the alphabet in a typical manner, instead they focus on having the children understand the symbolic nature of a language rather than memorizing the letters. The flow of the class goes from having children create shared goals through what are called “play plans,” where they engage in socio-dynamic play, and stick with their plan through the day. Instead of having them create these plans with written words, they are encouraged to draw them out and explain to the teacher! The children independently come up with the ideas for their play plans and are supported by the teacher in how to expand on their ideas, and how to create a full plan off them. The Tools of the Mind method has been shown to have significant increases in the children’s executive functions later in life.

For those who have any small children now, or will have them down the line, it can be overwhelming to try and make decisions on things that will have an impact on their futures such as education styles, especially during such a formative time. Allowing children to follow their interests in education is good, but not providing them with any structure or guidance does not help them achieve their full potential. Young children love to learn and are very capable, they just need a little direction from their educators and caregivers. Using the methods outlined earlier is a great evidence based way to teach young children. Allowing them to feel discomfort in new areas of learning, stepping in when they are truly stuck, and backing off when they are working through it, sets them up to be a good learner in future situations. The most important point is to provide children with a comfortable space for them to explore and ask questions, and give them that extra push when they get stuck during learning!


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Bjorklund, D. F., & Causey, K. B. (2018b). Social construction of mind: Sociocultural perspectives on cognitive development. In Children’s Thinking: Cognitive Development and Individual Differences (pp. 65–90). SAGE Publications.

Bjorklund, D. F., & Causey, K. B. (2018c). Thinking in symbols: Development of representation. In Children’s Thinking: Cognitive Development and Individual Differences. Sixth Edition (pp. 147–198). SAGE Publications.

Kleinknecht, E. (April 2020). Social Construct of Mind [Unpublished Manuscript]. Department of Psychology, Pacific University.

Kleinknecht, E. (March 2020). Early Childhood Educational Outcomes [Unpublished Manuscript]. Department of Psychology, Pacific University. ‌