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Child Development Essay

Compared to other sciences, developmental psychology has not progressed far during the course of history, but without the contributions of Jean Piaget and Burrhus Skinner the lack of knowledge in this area would be much more significant. Piaget and Skinner have contributed important theories to the field of developmental psychology during the past century, particularly about the processes of learning. Piaget’s most extensive theory investigates developmental stages children pass through. Skinner has written numerous books on behaviourism and produced theories on behaviour modification and operant conditioning. Both Piaget and Skinner give a greater understanding of how humans develop from childhood through to adulthood. Although parts of their work may be discredited over time, aspects of both their theories are utilised readily in modern teaching, emphasising the importance and effectiveness of their research.

Jean Piaget (1896-1980) was a Swiss psychologist and constructivist, specialising in the area of children’s learning. He studied and wrote about child development for over 50 years. After extensive research and field studies Piaget devised his theory involving the four sequential stages in the development of children, this theory is known as the Piagetian Theory. (J.E.Brophy, 1977, p.34)

The Piagetian Theory consists of four stages. These are the Sensorimotor Stage, Pre-operational Stage, the Stage of Concrete Operations and the Stage of Formal Operations. Children go through the Sensorimotor Stage from birth to the age of two. During this stage children are learning about physical objects and gaining motor control. The Pre-operational stage occurs between the ages of two to seven. At this stage children are developing verbal skills and they can name objects and reason intuitively. From ages seven onto twelve children start to understand abstract concepts such as relationships between numbers. This is known as the Concrete operational stage. The last stage of child development is the stage of Formal operations in which children begin to reason logically and systematically. This occurs from the age of twelve onwards to about fifteen. (N.L.Gage, 1975 p.360)
Piaget also contributed the concepts of assimilation, accommodation, and their equilibrium to the field of developmental psychology. His idea was that assimilation was the act of incorporating new information into an existing area of knowledge, which he referred to as a schema, and that accommodation is what occurs when a schema is modified to accommodate this new knowledge. Equilibrium is the balance between assimilation and accommodation. When new information is presented to a child the equilibrium between assimilation and accommodation becomes unstable and shifts. The child has to accommodate this information into a schema to balance the equilibrium again, resulting in cognitive development. Piaget’s work gives an understanding of child development through a constructivist perspective, however for a wider view on human development a behaviouristic perspective must be examined.

Burrhus Frederic Skinner (1904-1990) was a respected American psychologist and behaviourist specialising also in the area of learning. Skinner believes people learn through a constant occurrence of positive and negative reinforcements of their actions, or operants. He calls this Operant conditioning. He believed that behaviour is repeated if it is reinforced in a positive manner. He carried out laboratory tests with an apparatus he invented which he named the ‘Skinner box’ to test this theory. A Skinner box is a cage to contain an animal with a bar or pedal on one wall that produces a food reward when pressed. Skinner realised that if the animals were positively reinforced for pressing the bar with a food reward, they repeated the behaviour. Skinner also realised that even if the reinforcer were not given systematically, the behaviour would still continue as long as the rewards were still possible. He linked this behaviour to gambling in humans. People keep trying for a reward if they feel it will come next time they ‘press the bar’. Skinner also proposed the idea of shaping. Shaping involves reinforcing an action that only slightly resembles the desired behaviour, and rewarding actions closer and closer to the desired one until it is achieved. From this research we can see how positive and negative reinforcements which occur in everyday life work the same way. For example if we behave a certain way around our peers and they reinforce it positively, we are much more likely to behave in a similar way again, and are hence shaped to behave a certain way.

Although Piaget and Skinner propose different ideas of how people attain knowledge, both of their theories acknowledge that humans learn through interactions with their environment. Piaget shows that when people are developing as children, their mental capabilities have to be built upon through the gradual gathering of information from around them to form the general knowledge that is found obvious as adults. Skinner demonstrates how humans and animals are reinforced to behave in certain ways by the responses from their environment. These two views present the same idea – that people are moulded by what is around them.

Both Piaget and Skinner’s concepts are used regularly in teacher training, and in the classroom. It has been realised that positive reinforcements work very well with young children to give them incentives to behave appropriately and strive to achieve highly. In the past, negative reinforcements have been used in teaching but positive reinforcing is found to be far more effective with the majority of students. Piaget’s theory has been used to better understand how children learn at different stages of childhood, and what they are capable of comprehending. This is useful in structuring curriculums for early childhood teaching, and for parents to better understand their children’s development. (D.C.Berliner, 1975, p.375)

As with any advances in an area such as psychology, people have begun to oppose some of the ideas Piaget and Skinner present. New research has produced more modern theories, which claim to discredit parts of either Piaget or Skinner’s works. Nevertheless, theories by such distinguished psychologists as Piaget and Skinner will have much value in the future study of learning for years to come.

Jean Piaget and Burrhus Frederic Skinner have investigated an important aspect of human behaviour – how people learn. Piaget’s theory of the different stages of development and Skinner’s vital reinforcement and shaping theories help people understand the complex ways through which they learn. Although some aspects of these theories may be discredited over time, they are still very important and valuable resources in their field and in aiding teaching. Without Piaget and Skinner’s research on learning, there would not be the knowledge that gives insight into the way in which people learn and are shaped by their environment.


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