Cognitive Development and Instructional Practice: Two Big Ideas

Every student’s development impacts their learning, so awareness of development needs to inform classroom practice.  I’ll focus on two big ideas I’ve encountered over the last four weeks, and the ways in which each will impact my instructional style.

The first big idea I’ll examine comes from Jean Piaget, whose insights are helping me put some useful name tags on some of the behaviors I’ve observed in middle school classrooms over the last three years.  I’ve often seen students’ frustration upon their introduction to new (or sometimes old) concepts that do not match their present way of thinking. Piaget calls this disequilibrium, which is more technically defined as “the realization that two ways of thinking about the world contradict each other, and thus both can’t be true” (Pressley & McCormick, 2007, p. 67).  A student experiencing disequilibrium, to a certain degree will be motivated to resolve this perceived conflict via accommodation, Piaget’s term for the modification of existing cognitive structures in response to environmental stimuli (Pressley & McCormick, 2007, p. 90).  When the new structure is accommodated, the student achieves a new and more sophisticated equilibrium.  This cycle of disequilibrium and equilibration is a central and repetitive aspect of every student’s progress toward their potential.

I hope to plan and execute an English Language Arts curriculum that invites students to confront the uncomfortable distance between what they thought was true and what they’re trying to understand.  By offering activities that are just beyond their present reach, I’ll aim to spark a healthy rhythm of cognitive conflict through which more and more sophisticated levels of equilibrium are attained.  This kind of planning will require me to know where my students are so that I can meet them there – what misconceptions can be pointed out in order to facilitate movement toward a new level of competence?  Knowledge of the “big ideas” in cognitive development can only get a teacher so far without considerate and astute knowledge of the students she teaches.

A second big idea I’d like to address is the distinction between declarative and procedural knowledge.  Pressley and McCormick (2007) point out that “All procedural knowledge starts as declarative knowledge” (p. 107), which will be a guiding factor in coaching students in their writing.

The writing process is definitively procedural: pre-writing, drafting, editing, revising… But each step of the process (and each feature of the essay) constitutes a concept, a piece of declarative knowledge.  As a teacher, I’ll need to strategically distinguish concept from procedure, at least in my own planning, to facilitate proceduralization, the process by which declarative knowledge becomes procedural (Pressley & McCormick, 2007, p. 107).  I’ll build units that introduce concepts, and then gradually – through explanation, modeling and guided practice – coach students toward increased procedural knowledge of writing.

Pressely, M., & McCormick, C. B. (2007). Child and adolescent development for educators. New York, NY:Guilford Press.