Lori, who is four years old, is currently in Piaget’s preoperational stage. According to Piaget, children in this stage are unable to comprehend conservation tasks. During the preoperational stage, children are able to use mental representations, such as images, drawings, words, and gestures, to think about objects and events. Their thinking becomes faster, more flexible, efficient, and socially shared. However, their thinking is also limited by egocentrism, a focus on perceptual states, reliance on appearances rather than underlying realities, and lack of reversibility or rigidity. They do not have the ability to perform logical mental actions known as operations. Their thinking is rigid and limited to one aspect of a situation at a time, heavily influenced by the immediate appearance of things.
According to Piagetian conservation tasks for the preoperational stage (2-7 years old), children lack the knowledge of conservation. Conservation refers to understanding that certain physical characteristics of objects remain the same even when their outward appearance changes. One example of Piaget’s test for conservation of number involves two rows with an equal number of objects (e.g., coins, fruits, candies) that are spaced equally apart. Initially, young children know that these two rows have the same number of objects. However, if one row is shortened, children fail to notice that the two rows still have the same amount.According to Piaget, young children have difficulty realizing that two rows are the same number because they are confused and do not perceive what adults see, which helps them understand the task. Piaget referred to the ability to understand this task as “in the face of a perceptual change,” and noted that young children are often fooled by the misleading appearance (Flavell, Miller, 1993).
Piaget’s conservation task for length involved showing young children two pencils, pens, or sticks of equal length. Initially, children recognized that the objects were the same length. However, if one stick was moved to make it appear longer than the other, children failed to comprehend that they were still equal in length. In Piaget’s conservation task for liquid, young children were shown two identical glasses containing the same amount of water or juice. Initially, children quickly recognized that the two glasses contained equal amounts. However, if the contents of one glass were poured into a taller and thinner glass, children were unable to realize that the taller glass still held the same amount of liquid as the original two glasses.
According to Piaget’s explanation, during the preoperational stage, children’s thinking is limited by what they perceive and they struggle to focus on multiple aspects of a situation. In these conservation tasks, they were attentive only to the height difference between the glasses and failed to comprehend that the taller glass still contained equal amounts of liquid as the original two.
My subject is a four-year-old girl named Lori, born in California. I have known her since she was a baby and often babysat Lori and her little brother, Mike, at my house on weekends. At around the age of two, I taught Lori a short Chinese poem which she could recite from memory, impressing both her parents and me. Her insatiable curiosity led her to frequently ask “what and why” questions, inspiring me with her warm hugs that made me happy. Recently, her parents enrolled her in a child day care center where only English is spoken, causing Lori to feel scared and frustrated. With her parents speaking only Chinese at home, she struggled to enjoy school. To comfort her, I invited Lori to my house where I could talk to her. Knowing that she had good memory and counting skills, I decided to test Lori on Piagetian conservation tasks due to her fascinating nature. Additionally, because she loved playing with me, Lori showed great interest in these activities.
My modifications in Piaget’s conservation tasks are as follows: first, I ensured that Lori’s full attention was on me throughout each step. This is in contrast to Piaget’s approach, as he did not consider whether the child was focused on his directions and explanations of the tasks (Berk, 1999). Second, to capture Lori’s interest in the tasks, I made an effort to engage her. I believe that young children like Lori benefit from tangible rewards. Hence, I used these tasks as a form of reward that Lori could take home after completing them with me. Third, I ensured that Lori had a basic understanding of numbers so that she could comprehend the measurements involved in the tasks. Lastly, I had Lori participate in these tasks alongside me. I allowed her to touch and physically engage with the tasks. This way, young children gain hands-on experience, enabling them to think more logically as they follow the processes.
When I first conducted Piaget’s conservation of number task with Lori, I did not use any modifications. Predictably, Lori provided an incorrect answer. She paid no attention to me and instead was curious about why I showed her the task. Her thoughts were elsewhere, and I struggled to get her to focus on the task. Following Piaget’s experiment, I arranged two rows of ten buttons each so that they were visually in one-to-one correspondence. One of the rows was directly above the other, and I asked Lori if the two rows were of equal length. She agreed that they were. Next, I moved the first row to make it appear longer than the second row. However, Lori did not notice that I had made this change. She saw only that the first row was now longer than the second row and therefore concluded that it contained more buttons. According to Piaget, Lori, being in the preoperational stage, “tends to be fooled by misleading perceptual appearance and judges that the longer row now contains more buttons.” This is why Lori failed the conservation of number task (Flavell & Miller, 1993).
In the conservation of liquid experiment, I replicated Piaget’s study. Lori initially agreed that two identical glasses hold equal amounts of water. I proceeded to pour the water from one glass into a taller and narrower glass while Lori observed. Then, I asked Lori if the two glasses still contained the same amount of water or if one glass now had more water than the other. In line with Piaget’s view, children at this preoperational stage struggle to understand the concept of liquid conservation. They merely perceive that the taller and narrower glass “seems to have more” and accept appearances as reality (Flavell, Miller, 1993).
I decided to use candy to make this task more enjoyable and interesting for Lori. She has a strong fondness for M&M candies. To start, I had Lori sit near the table so she could observe me setting up two rows of M&M candies. I made sure to count out loud as I placed seven candies in each row on the table. When Lori saw this, she noticed that both rows had an equal number of candies. She demonstrated her understanding by counting each row correctly, saying “one, two, three, four, five, six, seven” while touching each candy as she counted. Then, I mixed up the candies and asked Lori to replicate what I had done previously. Remarkably, she arranged two rows with an equal amount of candies because she remembered that each row should have seven candies. Once again, I asked Lori to compare the two rows and determine if they were the same. She confidently affirmed that they were indeed the same. Following this, I set up another set of candies with the same quantity as the first set. I asked Lori if her two rows matched mine, to which she replied “yes!” In order to test her understanding further, I moved the candies in the first row farther apart and instructed her to do the same with her initial rows. Then, I asked her to count the candies in each row, and she did so accurately. Finally, I posed the same question once more, and Lori’s response remained consistent: “they are the same.”
To modify this experiment with liquid conservation, I had Lori assist me in mixing colored fruit juice and pouring it into two identical glasses. Lori was thrilled to learn how to make juice and was very interested in the change of color in the water. In an effort to maintain her interest, I used a measuring cup to have Lori identify the number two on the cup so that both glasses had the same amount of juice poured into them. I asked her if the two glasses had the same amount of colored fruit juice, to which she answered “yes, they are the same.” Then, I asked her to help me pour the juice from one glass into a taller and thinner glass after having her measure the juice, confirming it was at the number two mark. I then asked her the question again and she immediately recognized that the taller and thinner glass had the same amount of juice as the one that appeared smaller.
In conclusion, Piaget would still argue that Lori is too young to successfully accomplish his conservation tasks. However, through my modifications, I have demonstrated significant improvement in Lori’s ability to correctly complete the tasks. Lori’s attention, understanding of numbers, and hands-on experiences with the tasks have helped her realize that changes in external appearances do not necessarily indicate changes in the tasks. Contrary to Piaget’s theory of stages and his tasks, the experiments show that young children like Lori (in the preoperational stage) are able to conserve both numbers and liquids at an early age.
The text includes the following resources with their respective details:
|Flavell, J.M., Miller, P.H., & Miller, S.A. (1993). Cognitive Development. (3rd ed.). Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall|
|Laura E. Berk. (1999). Infants and Children. (3rd ed.). Needham Heights, MA: Allyn & Bacon|