Term Paper: Interview of Testing a Child's Ability

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Child Development

Piaget's Conservation and Childhood Justification

Piaget's theories of Child Development have been generalized and widely accepted across the domains of psychology, child development, and education. It would not be inappropriate to label him as one of the most significant thinkers in the modern practice of these fields. Yet his work is not unassailable. He based the majority of his observations on the study of his own children, and some critics have complained that he insufficiently explores the impact of cultural differences and the issue of giftedness among children. Intellectually gifted children may move through the stages differently, or perhaps with more self-awareness. (Cohen & Kim, 1999) Piaget's theories have remained under scrutiny, for these and other reasons, since their inception. To this day there is little agreement as to the precise accuracy of his stages or the way in which they may be measured and determined. Piaget himself measured the shift between stages by a child's ability to succeed in specific theory tasks which demonstrate certain cognitive skills, such as the ability to comprehend different points-of-view or the ability to conserve numbers, area, volume and so forth in relation to objects.

On the one hand, many developmental studies have utilized Piaget's theories and found them to be reliable. For example Uri Fidelman (1995) performed one study in which kindergarten children were tested for performance on the Piaget-designed stage task, asked to conserve numbers over varying spatial arrangements. At the same time they were tested for the development of right-brain or left-brain capability. Over the next year, the children were tested again, and many of them were seen to shift stages and begin to conserve numbers. Those that underwent such a shift also experienced changes in the development of their brain hemispheres, with males and females becoming more alike at that point. This study, in addition to having interesting contributions to make to gender/sex research also seems to indicate a real, biological core to Piaget's theories. Of course, it could be argued that these changes in cognition and hemisphere capability were coincidental, both due to the child's maturing rather than directly linked in any way.

Arguments against a strict reliance on Piaget's stages, meanwhile, have amassed in the years since his introduction of the theory. The best of these arguments point out that though his stages may have some legitimacy as a general outline of childhood development, they vastly under-rate the actual capabilities of the majority of children by attempting to determine their developmental stage using tests which are inherently skewed against socially sensitive children. These studies argue that children do indeed think differently than adults, but that this difference has major factors which Piaget has not taken into consideration. The most commonly mentioned of these is the social factor. Children are socially dependent on adults for information and, perhaps more importantly, for what one might call permission. Adults consistently assert their power over children, with answers such as "because I said so" being considered legitimate logic to many parents and teachers. Children are expected to surrender their own opinions, even if they may be correct, in obeisance to adult opinion. Those that refuse to surrender their own opinions may be physically punished, socially humiliated or otherwise penalized, or even be treated with psychoactive drugs (defiance of authority is considered a primary symptom of "oppositional disorder"). Of course, children also depend entirely on adults for food, lodgings, and all the basic necessities of life -- as any feminist can point out, dependent groups tend to be discouraged from forcefully asserting their own views of the world.

Though most studies do not bring up the extremely serious issue of the way in which children are expected to surrender their opinions, they do point out that the young a child is the more hyper-sensitive they are to social atmosphere and subtle adult pressure. In the most basic structure of a Piaget test, adults ask children an obviously foolish question (such as "are these lines the same length?") and then after the child answers, they make some actually inconsequential change (such as relocating the line or spacing the elements differently) and then reiterate the question. As those of us who have ever been interrogated by an authority will recall, repetition of a question is socially understood even by adults to generally mean that the first answer was not good enough. Many studies have suggested that children may be subtly attempting to placate the adult by changing their first answer which the adult apparently thought was wrong. Even adults have been shown to change their reports of known facts in response to social pressure. Solomon Asch's infamous study (1955) showed that when adult male college students were asked to judge which lines out a selection of four lines were the same length (an easier task than the Piaget conservation of numbers of objects), they made 33% wrong identifications if all their comrades in the study gave the wrong answer. This isolation made them question their own perceptions. If marginal social pressure effects adult men, certainly one can expect more immediate social pressure -- that of having an adult question a child's perception -- would be enough to make a child give a wrong answer.

Of course, if children are just responding to subtle cues given by the interviewer, then one would expect studies to bear this out -- and they do. McGarrigle and Donaldson (1974) found that if Piaget stage tasks were performed in a way that minimalized the appearance that the first answer was wrong, the success rate of an average group of four-year-old children jumped from 22.5% to 80% -- a total reversal of the trend towards failure for that age. In this study, the researchers pretended that a "Naughty Teddy" toy escaped his cage and messed up the lines of objects. They researcher then asked for the child's help in making sure the lines were still had the same number of objects. Not only could 80% of the children succeed at this task, they could do so despite the fact that they could not be entirely sure that Naughty Teddy had not absconded with objects, placed new ones, or otherwise scrambled the contents of the two lines. Light (et al., 1979) critiqued Naughty Teddy for being a significant distraction from the task at hand, and suggested even higher numbers would have succeeded if the dancing bear hadn't distracted them. Light (et al., 1979) additionally showed that the famous liquid conservation study would show significantly higher rates of conservation if the researcher justified pouring the liquid from one vial to another by pointing out that the former beaker was chipped and had to be removed.

Judith Samuel and Peter Bryant (1984) found that a similar result could be achieved by asking only one question per task. They arranged a conservation test in which children were divided into three groups and presented with doh orbs that were subsequently squished into cylinders. (a traditional Piaget test). One group was presented with two questions in the traditional task format. The second group wasn't asked if the first set was equal, but were shown the balls being squashed and then asked if they were equal. The final group didn't even see the two balls, only one ball and one cylinder. The first group and the third had significantly poorer results than the second group, showing that children actually could carry over knowledge from seeing the ball, and that adult intervention would change their representation of that knowledge.

Another factor may be the issue of complex language being used for children whose language development has not developed as fully. (Children, like adults, take some time to learn language). Light (et al.) speaks of the importance of a child's lack of complex language (due to the fact that they have only had a few years to learn their native languages), and the way in which Piaget's complex wording could intentionally lead them astray. Markman and Seibert (1976), for example, that collection terms have a significant impact on how well children can process class information. For example, a traditional Piaget task would ask: "Who would have more to eat, someone who ate the green grapes or someone who ate the grapes?" And consider the right answer to be that the green grapes were included in the last category. Children, however, appeared to frequently assume that if the green grapes had been eaten, then only the other grapes would remain to be eaten, or that the researcher was somehow excluding the green grapes from the "grape" category. However, if the researcher asked "Who would have more to eat, someone who ate the green grapes or someone who ate the bunch?" then five and six-year-old were significantly more likely to have the right answer.

This former research calls into question Piaget's entire formula, suggesting that children may indeed think differently, but even more importantly they seem to approach adults, language, and situations differently. The research question which needs to be… [END OF PREVIEW]

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