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Searching for Similarities

It’s September. Teachers throughout North America stand in the midst of an assortment of strangers. During the ensuing nine months, good teachers will uncover the unique needs of each of these strangers in order to facilitate learning. They will rely on experience and training as well as fat file folders of test results, report cards, medical records, comments from parents and past teachers, and a photograph from the first grade — all toothless grin and confidence. Without such data, time, or training, how can docents be expected to create meaningful educational experiences for the same students? There is hope in the work of at least two psychologists, Jean Piaget and Abraham Maslow. Both theorists help us see that, although each child is unique, children are more alike than different.

Piaget was a Swiss psychologist whose observations of his own three infants led to investigations and experiments with the development of thought and language in children. He concluded that infants are born with only a few reflexes (such as sucking and grasping) and an innate urge to adapt to their environment. As the infant-child-adolescent grows, thinking develops through adaptation to an increasingly complex succession of environments.

Piaget believed that three main periods — and sub-stages — could be distinguished during which the development of thinking was measurably different. He called the first of these the period of sensorimotor intelligence (from birth to eighteen months). The second period he sub-divided into the pre-operational stage (18 months to age 7) and the concrete operations (age 7 to adolescence). The third period of formal operations begins at about age 12 and becomes fully developed by age 15 or 16.

For docents, the best news in Piaget’ s conclusions is the idea that development of thinking is constant — one stage may not appear before another in children. Consequently, children experience similar, predictable stages of cognitive development. While every second grader is unique, every second grader will follow certain patterns as he or she adapts to an increasingly complex environment. And, although the order of the stages cannot be changed, enriched environments can speed up the process. Children who are exposed to more stimuli move from stage to stage more quickly and with more ease.

Also implicit in Piaget’ s work is the important idea that all children learn all concepts best when they experience them first in concrete sensory form. Before formal operations (work with abstract concepts and symbols) are possible, learners must experience a concept in “reality” and develop the vocabulary to explain what they have experienced. It is in this area that museums, zoos, gardens, historic houses can excel. Docents who can provide hands-on experiences with real objects in real or simulated environments offer the best teaching available!

Although a contemporary of Piaget, the American psychologist Abraham Maslow was poles apart in his view of human development. Unlike Piaget and other behaviorists, Maslow believed that the individual is controlled by his own values and choices rather than by his environment. Nevertheless, Maslow, too, has a message of comfort for docents and teachers searching for similarities in their audiences.

In an article in the Psychological Review in July, 1943, Maslow first identified five sets of goals or basic needs in humans. He called them physiological (food, clothing, and so forth), safety, love, esteem, and self-actualization. He concluded that the goals were hierarchical. That is to say, that most basic needs must be satisfied before the next levels can be realized. More importantly, however, Maslow also concluded that “man is perpetually wanting” because the needs are in a constant state of flux and most are only partially fulfilled at best.

While it is not in the realm of possibility to expect any museum, school, or other of society’s institutions to meet all the needs of the individual, Maslow’ s theories do have significant meaning for teachers in all of those places. In both classrooms and museums, learners are striving to achieve their greatest potentialities — what Maslow termed self-actualization. Teachers and docents facilitate this struggle by attempting to provide — or at least recognizing the importance of— the other, lower-level needs. Each learner moves more easily toward self-actualization in a safe, non-threatening, supportive environment. Both teachers and docents enable self-confidence — the need Maslow termed self-esteem — by helping learners master skills and knowledge of their world.

It is impossible for docents to learn much about the individual children with whom they tour. Often the best they have to go on is .superficial — grade… “six;” name… “Robert;” hair. . . “unusual.” Consequently, it is reassuring to know that there are certain constants in our dealings with other humans. Certain behaviors, needs, and ways of thinking are to be expected and accepted. Although the work of Piaget and Maslow can be studied in great depth and offer even more insight into the learner-audience, this simple truth is a comforting place to begin.

Jackie Littleton, Associate Editor

Littleton, Jackie. “Searching for Similarities,” Docent Educator 2.1 (Autumn 1992):13.

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