Learning Theory and Developmental Characteristics from
Infant - Adult

Play is the highest form of research. Albert Einstein

Learning Theory


Infants begin learning by storing perceptual memories of their sensory experiences while interacting with their environment through play, which begins at birth. Memories stored in different areas of their brains relative to how they are being sensed and how they are being acted on by the brain. A process which structures information as determined by the types of sensory input, previous memories, the brain's anatomy, and genetically programmed development. Development that enables our brains to make associations and construct better structures, actions and operations for thinking, understanding, and reasoning as it adapts to its environment. Research to support playful learning.

This article describes the learning process, how people learn, develop, and use their intelligences, knowledge, and reasoning. It describes how reasoning can mislead children and adults. How over time it can develop to become more rational and logical; resulting in increased knowledge and intelligences for better understanding.

Children begin their construction of reasoning with direct observation and comparison of one observation to another. The consequences of reasoning with and about their perceptual senses creates a belief that what is being observed is reality, rather than a construction from the perceptual senses of external objects which are represented as thoughts in our brains. The result, is not being aware that sensory information can be inaccurate. Over time children will learn how certain inacccurate sensory information can be corrected by operating on it with reason and logic.

Therefore, children are unaware which of their sensory perceptions are accurate or not and infer their are real. Acting on this information as facts and using reason to create concepts and generalizations from them. Operating on them with actions and structures that can lead to misunderstandings and misconceptions. Reasoning which can be conscious and unconscious, as our working memory loves peace and clarity and will seek to maintain harmony with understanding. However, as more information becomes available, conflicts arise which can result in changes with additional actions that can create new operations to use in logical ways for more accurate explanations and deeper understanding. Operations such as: transformations, reversibility, conservation, perspective, classification, order, count, seriate, scale, proportion, relative position, motion, and other actions or operations of reasoning and understanding.

Examples of using visual perceptions as reality:

See activities to explore reasoning.

To be able to reason accurately, children must construct mental actions and operations such as those needed to conserve.

  1. Decenter (center focus on one feature and ignore others),
  2. Use reversibility (able to do and undo actions),
  3. See transformations (able to see change as an infinite series),
  4. Stop the use of egocentric thinking, (recognize another point of view, activity in the world is external and perceptions are constructed internally) and
  5. Stop the use of transductive reasoning (replace faulty reasoning with logical reasoning).

For more information see preoperational and concrete operational reasoning.

These actions and operations are used to explore the world and create structures and systems. Structures and systems that can be connected, enlarged, reduced, or altered in whatever way the learner believes will provide benefit, adaptability. What is learned may be logical and accurate, but it doesn't have to be. The learner just needs to believe it is.

Learning causes development through a process that can be called the learning cycle. It is repeated over and over again as a person matures and gains intellgences or adaptability. The next section looks at this process and its variables.

Procedure or cycle of learning

Let's take a close look at the learning process or cycle of learning.

It starts with a person playing or cruising through life, in equilibrium.

Remember a working memory loves consistency, clarity, and harmony.

When wow! An event happens that gives working memory a double take, cognitive dissonance. Something seems different or doesn't make sense and the person becomes, disequilibrated.

The person has two choices: they can ignore it, no learning, or focus on it and figure out what the heck is going on, learning.

Reflecting on the situation, accessing conscious and unconscious information the situation can be explored and acted on in different ways with different actions and operations. If none makes sense, or any makes more sense, than what they already know, then the information is remembered and connected to their previous information, assimilated.

However, if a new action or way of operating on the disequilibrating event or information makes more sense, then a new action, operation, concept, generalization, structure, system ... is constructed, learned - accommodated.

Learned, not in isolation, but influenced by the situation of its creation. Which in turn will influence how it will be remembered by the social, emotional, and cognitive sensory inputs at the time and how the brain responds to them, both consciously and unconsciously.

An essential part of a response is how the information is organized, which can be influenced consciously and unconsciously.

Learning theory cycle

As a person repeatedly experiences the world they cycle through learning cycles.

They learn, develop knowledge, and attain greater levels of intelligences or wisdom. The process doesn't change, but what they learn and how they know it does change. It is these differences that cause people to claim, all people learn differently.

Which is true, with respects to what is attended to, what is learned, the time frame in which it is learned, and how information is connected or structured. However, the fundamental learning process does not change. The chart below lists variables that effect growth and intelligence and categorizes processes that change and do not change.

It is the general unchanging learning process and knowledge of what variables effect learning that provides continuity for educators to use as a powerful guide to facilitate learning. Outstanding educators are skilled at organizing learning environments by considering how variables which do effect learning are best manipulated during learning experiences, or tasks, to invoke a learning cycle to facilitate learning.

However helpful, knowing all this is, there still is significant variability to make learning a personal activity so group instruction and mass schooling can fail for even the best educators and learners.

Learning variables and Differences and Similarities

Learning differences and similarities

Explanations for children's thinking as naive understandings or misconceptions


Before students develop logic, they use a variety of strategies to explain their world. These strategies develop from sensory experiences with their world and are limited by their lack of experience, age or maturation, and development of logic and reasoning. A Constructivist Piagetian based learning theory is helpful in explaining this development. This section focuses on characteristics of some common errors made in reasoning and logic.

Misconception causes

Children begin thinking their sensory inputs are actual direct observations of reality. They do not know our perceptual senses construct representations of external objects or ideas to act and operate on with reason. Eventually children begin to discover inconsistencies with their reasoning. Inconsistencies adults sometimes refer to as naive understandings or misconceptions.

Understandings created by not having an adult's repertoire of actions, operations, conservation skills, classification skills, and logical reasoning to use to explain their experiences. Therefore, young children use internal sensory perceptions to directly reason with the properties they sense. Using associations to connect ideas that seem reasonable to them as explanations for understanding their experiences. Associations of comparison of one internal perception to another with an analogy to derive explanations, which can lead to illogical conclusions. Examples include:

The more experiences a person has in exploring and explaining their world, the greater the information and operations each person has to access when trying to explain their world. This is dependent on observational evidence processed with sound logical reasoning of their observations so the information can be better organized to create reasonable explanations and models for which they can feel confident.

Physical activities to develop intelligences, logic and other thinking skills

A person does not know from what one senses, observes.

A person perceives, internalizes, and constructs knowledge. Construction that requires action on objects and ideas. For young children it begins with objects. To know an object requires children to act on it. Young children act on objects with physical manipulation as they play and in the process learn about the objects and their properties with sensory observations. Additionally they learn how to think. How to construct and use actions, operations, reason, logic and other thinking skills to develop their intelligences.

Physical actions support concrete learning. Actions manipulate objects during play and provide immediate consistent feedback to reinforce learning with and about physical objects discovered by sensory observation. It is out there to discover, like native Americans discovered America. Physical properties can be discovered. Physical properties of rocks: hard, smooth, rough, hot, cold, and irregular shape which is hard to change. Physical properties of Mom: she is soft, warm, comforting, provides food, and comes when I cry.

Logic and mathematical knowledge is not discovered, it is invented. It does not exist before it is invented by the child. Numbers do not exist. They are invented, with the invention tied to the objects. Physical and logical knowledge is necessary to create the understanding of a number system. The idea that mom will come when I call. The idea that eight objects can be rearranged and still have a cardinality of eight. Both of these illustrates how the physical and logical-mathematical are tied together.

The physical knowledge of rocks can be discovered. They are separate objects that can be moved and maintain their shape, mass, color ... no matter in what position they are placed. Mathematical knowledge about them has to be invented. A number can be assigned to each object in a one-to-one correspondence and the final number assigned is eight no matter how the objects are moved (in one pocket or two) or which gets assigned which number.

Sufficient physical skill and opportunities to play provide children with the experience needed to invent all understanding: physical, emotional, social, logical, aesthetic, and any other classification of understandings. The following actions and uses of those actions in play activities are used to create a foundation for learning.

Physical skills actions, uses, and play activities for learning
Action Use Play Activity
Pushing Slide, Roll, Jump, Skip, Walk, Run, Hop, Throw, Splash, Spill, Smash, Mash, Throw, Press, Scratch, Pluck, Shout, Blow Water play, blocks, toys, sandbox
Pulling Slide, Roll, Lift, Splash, Spill, Squeeze, Smash, Mash, Suck, Water play, blocks, toys, sandbox
Balance Hold, Drop, Stop, Still Water play, stacking, toys, balance beam, swing, building activities
Balance and Push and Pull Support, Carry, Pour, Wet, Water, Fill, Empty, Stir, Mix, Soak, Rip, Open, Dig, Shake, Water play, balance beam, swing, sand box
Smell Sniff, waft, Food, flowers, perfume, spices
Listen Hear Music, stories, talk, video, plays
Taste Lick, Eating
See Observe Pictures, video, real life, drawings
Talk Shout, Cry, Giggle, Whine, Whisper, Hiccup Stories, information giving

Information that follows describes characteristics of children as they develop from birth to adult.

Developmental Characteristics

Birth - age 3 Developmental Characteristics (sensorimotor)

Preschool - Second Grade Developmental Characteristics

The brain interprets the world on a need to know basis; only adding additional information as curiosity and desire push for more exploration to attain more information and detail. The amygdala is involved in deciding how much to process and reacts to stress by processing less information.

image dragon

These characteristics are possible largely because of object permanence and being able to construct and manipulate mental representations of objects as they are sensed. Their representations and ability to manipulate or act on their abstractions are contained or limited through the use of the following operations or lack of use of its opposite, which must be constructed for concrete operations.

Age 8 - 11, grades 3 - 5 Developmental Characteristics
(Concrete Operational)

Age 11 - adult, sixth grade and up Developmental Characteristics
(formal operational)

How does formal operational thinking fit with the way adults think?

chart image

The characteristics of formal operational thought is not just abstract reasoning. Young children (preoperational) use abstractions to connect symbols or other representations to think and reason about real objects or events in their lives.

Formal operational thinking is being able to use abstract reasoning for operations which include more than one direct relationship. It requires reasoning with multiple properties or variables simultaneously, such as propositional logic, correlation, probability, and proportion.

Formal operations implies being able to understand a mental operation or procedure so well that it can be performed on information in an efficient systematical way. Operations and procedures that can be indicative of formal operational thought include isolation and controlling of variables, hypothesis, combinations, probability, correlation, proportion, and formal logical reasoning, which becomes possible at about 11 years old or sixth grade.

Being formal operational for the adolescent means, for the first time in his or her life, they have the mental capacity to think as well as adults and the ability to solve all classes of problems.

While formal operational thinking requires time for the brain to develop; time alone is not sufficient to guarantee formal operational thinking will develop. And one should not assume all adolescents and adults have fully developed formal operations. In fact a majority of adults never advance beyond concrete operational reasoning. See chart above.

While formal operational thinking provides ways of thinking about problems and information comparable to any advanced adult's way of thinking about similar problems; it doesn't mean the number of experiences a person has engaged in during their life time doesn't make a significant difference in their ability and efficiency of solving problems with or without formal operational thinking.

Additionally one may have the ability to use formal operational thinking in one or more particular areas and still not be able to generalize or transfer that formal operational knowledge to other areas. Hence, they rely on concrete operational thinking in those areas.

What does it mean to be formal operational?

Piaget claimed that after the development of formal operations any gain in a person's reasoning abilities is with respect to a person's ability and experiences with the use of logical operations and the efficacy of the individual's mental structures constructed with logical operations and the number of meaningful experiences the individual can associate with the use of the specific logical operations or combinations of those operations. 

In other words, there is no higher level of reasoning beyond formal operational thinking. Differences in reasoning among formal operational thinkers is based on their mental power of short term memory, construction of accurate logical procedures, ability to mentally manipulate information from one form to another using an appropriate procedure, and creativity or flexibility achieved by experience to recognize what procedure fits in a particular situation.

Formal thought and concrete thought are similar in that they both use logical operations. However, there is a clear difference in the greater range of reasoning with the type of logical operations used at a higher level of understanding, described as formal operational thinking. A level of understanding, described as concrete thinking lacks systematic analysis, depth and range of comprehensive power, imagination, and flexibility of reasoning. In addition a formal operational thinker is aware logically derived conclusions have a validity different than conclusions directly derived from only facts and observations.

Formal operational thinking characteristics:

These understandings combine to enable an individual to accept an hypothesized statement or assumption as a starting point for reasoning about a situation. He or she is able to reason hypothetic-deductively. OR... Able to imagine all possible relationships between the variables, deduce the consequences of those relationships, then empirically verify which of those consequences, in fact occurs. Daniella in the transportation puzzle demonstrates this.

Sample questions to apply and discuss what you know about human development


Discuss how each problem might or might not be solved at the different levels: sensorimotor, preoperational, concrete, formal operational.

More information & examples for development

Dr. Robert Sweetland's notes
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