Educational Science

Upgrading Piaget’s Model of learning stages – PhD Project



And here a more detailed short version of my proposal – I’ll be thankful for feedback and further inspirations!

1.     Introduction

Learning, Knowledge and Competence are key-words that can be found by some means or other in discourses on education all over the world and of all times and cultures. They are often described using images like stages or levels, to depict differences, changes and enhancement. But the understanding of underlying definitions constantly changes, and differs, depending on scientific, political, individual and social-cultural contexts, experiences and objectives. Due to a raising digitalization and globalization, especially in academic online-courses, heterogeneity in learning-scenarios also raises and changes which implies changed learning-processes and changed learning cultures. Being able to cope with different understandings/definitions of what learning and knowledge is, will become one of the most crucial issues educational practice and theory will have to face.

2.     Theoretical frame

Jean Piaget described four development stages, his book »Equilibration of Cognitive Structures« was published in 1975; Gregory Bateson published his theory of learning as an essay in 1968, the first paper dealt with the learning levels zero to II, the section on Learning III was added in 1971 (Bateson, 1972, p. 279). Both scientists are known for their broad and multifaceted interdisciplinary research. Both did research on human development and learning processes during almost the same time, and gave important distinctions to recent educational discourses, but up to now they have not been brought together to discuss or develop new ideas or changes towards recent learning-processes. Even though their research took place long before innovations in the context of digitalization and technology started to influence educational theories, discourses and institutions, they nevertheless are suitable and worthwhile being »re-thought«, and fused, and used to enhance and elaborate new theories or approaches like Connectivism and MOOCs.  The embedding and fusion of already existing approaches, tools, theories, and methods enables to take use of the advantages, to compensate weaknesses, and to counteract criticisms to individual theories by incorporating arguments and other aspects of balance, and thus to arrive at an emergence.

While Piaget concluded the fourth stage (formal operations) to be the final stage of cognitive development, reasoning that further intellectual development in adults would be restricted to an accumulation of knowledge (which remains a mere quantitative difference and therefore would not fulfil his claim that between stages there has to be a qualitative difference), this thesis aims to find and describe a next – fifth – stage of digital networked operations as well for individual learning as for social cultural learning. It therefore will find and describe qualitative differences in learning processes in regard to Piaget’s fourth stage of formal operation.

The focus therefor will not be on Piaget’s research on the cognitive development of children but on the more holistic level of his research on Structuralism and Genetic Epistemology to describe the fifth stage as well for individual learning as for social cultural learning. The latter will be approached through an analysis of academic institutions of different nations/cultures and their different adaption of the described new learning culture through network, online-learning, the use of OER, and changed roles and altered definitions of learning, knowledge and objectives in academic courses (see section 6 method).

A theoretical frame for such an approach has to be interdisciplinary and to go beyond mere educational theories and models. This needs and implies an elaborated reading, review and critical consideration of the state of art, especially regarding discourses and reception of Jean Piaget’s theories and findings and Gregory Bateson’s  Learning levels over the years up to today, but also regarding interdisciplinary and systemic discourses and findings on learning and development  and processes of communication and of change (disruptive/sustaining innovations); as well as on the influence, potential and barriers in the context of digitalization and technology (eLearning, learning online, Connectivism, MOOCs …), and – crucial – a changed view on and understanding of heterogeneity (which means learning groups being heterogeneous in much more aspects than measurable and consciously evident criteria like for instance gender, age or social ranks).

3.     Background and praxis-context

A rising amount of universities tries to meet the challenges that digitalization and technology bring about. Approaches to deal with these challenges differ and range between a mere inclusion of elements of eLearning into traditional concepts of teaching, and to open up for new innovative concepts and models of approaching learning and teaching. Universities all over the world start to open their courses in regard to an internationalization of content and participants/students. This leads to a rising and changed heterogeneity of learning-communities and therefore to a rise of contexts in regard to understandings, definitions, and expectations about learning and knowledge due to highly different experiences and social-cultural patterns.

Recent discourses on MOOCs, becoming a disruptive or sustaining concept for universities, and on Connectivism, bringing about a change of paradigm or being a new learning theory, are proofs for an increasing consciousness of the need for new concepts in the context of a new learning culture. But up to now most of them focus predominantly on »inputs« (knowledge) and »outputs« (competences) and tend to neglect or ignore the importance of »throughputs« (processes: interactions, interrelations, communication).

The search for solutions often remains in relatively narrow frameworks of national education systems, are connected with the illusion to be able to control and measure learning through a mere didactic redesign of learning-offers and learning platforms, and lack to rethink underlying understandings and definitions of learning and knowledge and learning-objectives. Heterogeneity is regarded as something that has to (and can be) changed into homogeneous learning-groups instead of recognizing it as potential and even basis for each process of enhancement (learning).

So above all, changed learning-processes in a changed culture of learning require an awareness of the implications of such different understandings and a rethinking of terminology and communication on all levels of learning-processes. Approaches and concepts will have to imply »tools« that enable and foster meta-communication about different definitions and expectation on learning and knowledge, and to integrate these processes of meta-communication before, beside, and after dealing with whatsoever course-contents and into the whole process of conceptualizing, designing, and evaluating learning environments. Therefore, a new learning culture brings along the necessity of a changed culture of research and evaluation and a rethinking of criteria of learning objectives and goals as well.

These changes of the process of learning are recently little noticed and rarely researched and empirically substantiated. This PhD thesis aims to analyze these changed learning processes and to clearly distinguish them from former definitions. It will therefore enlarge and enhance former research[1] through a fusion of interdisciplinary theoretical findings, and through empirical justifiable criteria and their implementation in educational praxis settings (academic online courses).

4.     Research questions

  • How can changes in learning processes in higher education, caused through the impact of digitalization and network and global online learning-communities, be described in a way that justifies to enlarge the Piagetian stages so as to define a fifth stage of development –  individually (ontogenesis) as well as social-cultural (phylogenesis respectively sociogenesis)
  • To which of Piaget’s cognitive Stages of Development could recent approaches of MOOCs be assigned to? And how would a model or approach have to be conceptualized to outrun recent models or approaches of MOOCs to enable students to reach this newly defined fifth stage?

5.     Research objective

  • Developing (enlarging[2]) a model of interdisciplinary theories, approaches and findings to describe and define criteria that allow and enable to distinguish the fifth stage from the fourth in regard to individual as well as socio-cultural (here through institutional) learning

6.     Method

While the preceding research (M.A., B.A. and conference-papers) has been predominately theoretical (literature work) and conceptual work, the PhD Thesis will enlarge these through empirical data, using a mixed methods design.

Up to now there are several ideas on designs that could be realized either separately or in combination.

  • Collecting data through a review of data and studies on the recent use and integration of networking-tools, models and forms of online-learning, digitalization and role-allocations in universities of different learning cultures
  • Combining these with data from own interviews and questionnaires with universities (students and teaching staff) situated in different learning-cultures[3]
  • Receiving data from different forms of evaluation[4] of a MOOC (respectively GOAL) fostering Enhancement-Competence[5] through the adoption of a competence grid[6].

7.     Timeline

The research for this doctoral thesis is expected to take two up to three years as follows:

The first year: First Step (recently in work): Elaborated and intensive review on the state of the art regarding discourses on Piaget’s Theories as well as interdisciplinary discourses and on studies and data on the inclusion of different elements of digitalization and online-learning at universities of different nations (learning-cultures). Alongside and second step:  Enhancement and further development of a model fusing the interdisciplinary theories, approaches and findings into a model/definition/description of criteria of a fifth stage of development (networked and digital operations)

During the second and if necessary third year:

Basing on the theoretical frame developed in the first year

as a third step a conceptual design for

  • a questionnaire on the state of networking, digitalization, use of online-learning, implementation of OER, and allocation of roles (students/teachers)
  • a guideline for interviews (and participatory observation?)
  • a GOAL fostering enhancement-competence


will be worked out and as a fourth step implemented and evaluated in praxis-context (see4) to justify and finally define the stage of networked digital operation.

[1] B.A. Thesis (Structural-genetic conditions for digital literacy [in German]) and the M.A. Thesis (Globally Networked Learning Processes in Higher Education: Rethinking and Fusing Terminology and Theories in the Context of Digitalization and Technology [in English]) and three papers published in the context of the M.A. Theses and presented at the LTEC Conferences 2014 (Chile), 2015 (Slovenia) and 2016 (Germany)

[2] A first approach of such a model/table was developed in the M.A. Thesis

[3] A network with researchers from different countries/continents exists through the participation in LTEC conferences in 2014, 2015 and 2016

[4] Combining this GOAL with recent courses from the different universities (using one sample participating both and another one participating only in the traditional course) will enable formative and summative evaluation of the differences within the learning-processes.

[5] Defined as Meta-Competence in the M.A Thesis and a paper-presentation (2016)

[6] Conceptualized and presented in the M.A. Thesis and a paper-presentation (2016)

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