Understanding the mind of a child is a difficult if not impossible task and yet an elementary school teacher has the unenviable responsibility of doing just that in a classroom full of children. Historically, as far back as Aristotle, the human mind was thought to be an empty vessel just waiting to be filled with knowledge. Aristotle described the human intellect as a blank writing tablet waiting to receive knowledge as easily as pressing a stylus onto its surface. In 1655, Henry More expounded on this idea in An Antidote Against Atheism questioning “whether the soul of man is a tabula rasa – a book in which nothing is written – or if there are some innate notions and ideas.” John Locke in his Essay on Human Understanding strongly defended this notion of “emptiness” of the human mind without innate ideas. These persistent ideas historically permeated Western society and formed the basis of early traditional pedagogical educational theory.
Jean Piaget spent over 40 years trying to understand how children come to know. His research strongly contradicted the idea of “tabula rasa” or blank slate within children. Piaget concluded that children could be considered “little scientists” exploring the surrounding world. He considered a child as an “active builder of knowledge” who can and will construct their own theories about how the world works. To do this, to explain what they experience, children may have their own special logic which may be very different than that used by adults. This personal construction led to mental representations for the child which he labeled as “schemas”. Internal equilibration of these schemas dictated how a child would interpret and interact with the surrounding world.
The extensive work of Piaget within the development of constructivism has changed the course of education and has helped shed light on how children learn math and science. Children are not empty vessels but are active learners, continually processing information from their surroundings both in and out of the classroom. The question stands, how do we see our students in the classroom? Do we listen to their ideas? Do we take the time to understand their schemes? Are we continuing to use the textbook as a conduit to “fill up” our students with knowledge? Believing Piagetian theory is one thing, wholesale change in the classroom seems to be a tad more difficult.