Piaget's Cognitive Development Theory asserts that children develop through four distinct stages:
- Sensorimotor stage: From birth to about two years of age, children learn through their senses. They learn object permanence and learn that their own actions have consequences and effects.
- Preoperational stage: From around age two until about age seven, children develop the ability to think symbolically. They can use words to represent objects, even if those objects are not present. They are very self-focused and can't truly see things from another's perspective.
- Concrete operational stage: From around age seven until about age eleven, children become more logical, but their thinking is still very concrete.
- Formal operational: Beginning around age twelve, children develop the capacity to think in abstract ways and begin to think about subjects such as ethics, philosophy, and politics.
One of the major lessons for teaching and learning from Piaget's theory is that children must be developmentally ready to acquire new learning. For example, there was (and still is, in places) a movement to push Algebra 1 courses down to seventh graders. Students typically start seventh grade at age twelve. This is the very beginning of the child's ability to process information in abstract ways. It should not be surprising, then, that many of these children really struggle with abstract math concepts at this age. Developmentally, this move is simply not in the best interest of children, according to the work of Piaget.
Freud's psychoanalytic theories are pretty expansive, but perhaps most significant to education would be the idea that human behavior can be motivated by subconscious conflicts or desires. If a bright student isn't performing well in class, a teacher might investigate whether he is subconsciously setting himself up for failure due to a conflicting subconscious desire. Psychoanalysis also supports the need for a nurturing environment for learning.
Kohlberg believed that moral development progresses in six stages:
- Obedience and punishment: This lasts until around age nine. Children believe that they should obey the rules simply to avoid punishment.
- Individualism and exchange: Children begin to recognize the individual needs of others.
- Developing good interpersonal relationships: Children focus on conforming to social expectations.
- Maintaining social order: People learn to respect authority and follow the rules in order to maintain society as a whole.
- Social Contract and individual rights: People begin to recognize that some people in society have differing values and beliefs.
- Universal principles: People at this stage follow internalized principles of justice even when those principles conflict with laws and rules. (Only around ten to fifteen percent of people ever reach the final two stages.)
Kohlberg's theory helps teachers as they develop classroom management practices. Not every child in a third-grade class will be able to recognize why the teacher allows Ben to stand quietly at his desk while everyone else is asked to sit. A child who vocalizes that different rules aren't "fair" may be interpreted as rude or insubordinate by a teacher who doesn't realize that this child still views the world through an "obedience and punishment" lens. This theory also helps teachers plan for the types of consequences that should be most appropriate for varying developmental levels. Very young children, for example, need clear rules with clear consequences to support their development.