Though there are a lot of mixed feelings about Jean Piaget's work, there are certain useful consistencies between it and my classroom teaching experience with children, so I publish this here.
Jean Piaget (1896-1980) continues to be one of the most important figures in the theory of intellectual development. Born in Switzerland, he did most of his important work at the Rousseau Institute in Geneva where he found that younger children before the age of seven think in a qualitatively different way. He conceptualized four general periods of development: sensori-motor (birth to two), preoperational thought (two to seven), concrete operations (seven to eleven) and formal operations (eleven to adult).
The question of how one would design a music curriculum that conceptualized teaching and learning through a Piagetian framework is an important one for a music educator. I want to explore it by connecting the theoretical work of Jean Piaget to my practical work in the classroom and the choir rehearsal. In addition to instructing my students through their music class in school, many of my students sing in one of the two children's choirs (grades pre-kindergarten through 6) in church which gives me the opportunity to see them more than once a week in two different contexts. A smaller number of them also take private piano class with me. This affords the chance for repeated reinforcement of the aims of my music education program which includes music appreciation, applied vocal performance (focusing of Kodaly rhythms), music history and applied instrumental performance (piano, recorder, handbells, Orff instruments and choir chimes).
My investigation involves students in Piaget's period two, "preoperational thought," ages two to seven in which the child's mind is rapidly advancing to a new plane leading to the understanding of symbols (including images and words) and requiring a reorganization of thought from the previous sensori-motor period. This cannot be done all at once, and for some time during this period the child's thinking is unsystematic and illogical. The symbolic activity involving nonlinguistic symbols in children's play (representation) and the increasing ability of language to widen the child's horizons are important here.
I want to start with some of Piaget's language. One of his key phrases "pedagogical mania" captures the essence of the need to students for have enriched sensory-motor experiences to "interiorize" them. He is referring to a method of teaching which involves teachers doing a lot of talking and showing rather than allowing students to explore and learn concepts for themselves; a fault of much teaching which cheats students out of engagement in the discovery process. For example, Mary Ann Spencer Pulaski writes:
"A child with many physical experiences with a concrete object such as a ball can then form a mental image of that object and act upon it in thought as he has in actual experiences in the past. He can picture the act of throwing the ball, and his thought is "interiorized action." But the child who has never handled of thrown a ball is handicapped in his intellectual development."
As music educators, we each need to establish for ourselves the appropriate balance between letting the students learn for themselves and teaching concepts to them. Time is one element involved-- it simple takes longer to let students learn for themselves than it does to lecture or read to them. If we do decide to take that time, then I would suggest the role of the teacher becomes more of a guide providing a structure within which the student can learn. But how much are the students permitted to "go off course" to investigate questions they begin to formulate. Is it possible that by asking a question the student is demonstrating a readiness to pursue that question? Or must we reserve that determination for the teacher? In other words, does a question from a student more complex than the material at hand indicate he or she has mastered the lesson, is now bored with it, and wants more in depth material? Or perhaps the student is demonstrating boredom based on immaturity and lack of development.
One of Jean Piaget's most controversial claims is that cognitive development is a spontaneous process; children develop cognitive structures on their own through many processes including adaption, a process engaging accommodation and assimilation. For example, an infant may bring a rattle to his mouth and assimilate the object to his cognitive structure (take in the object), but when it does not fit his existing cognitive structure, he must make accommodations or changes in the structure by changing the shape of his mouth thereby removing an obstacle for the new structure. The child has learned something valuable and lasting, by learning it for him or herself, rather than having a teacher talk about it or instruct by lecturing or reading. Many American psychologists in the learning theory tradition, however, believe that adult teaching is more important than Piaget thought. And further, many believe that adult teaching can increase the speed of the learning process which might otherwise be slow when waiting for students to achieve learning through spontaneous development. Within music education, the ways can we strike a balance between letting the student learn for him or herself on the one hand, and providing the student with essential information on the other which might speed up learning and allow more material to be covered in a set time frame are important for us each to discern as we enter the classroom or rehearsal. In an ideal world, time would be a nonessential element in learning and could we take as much of it as necessary to produce students who possess more than just knowledge, but the ability to think for themselves.
The question then becomes what does Piaget's theory concerning adaption (assimilation and accommodation) and representation mean for a classroom or a choir rehearsal full of 3, 4, or 5 year olds? How can their music teacher or choir director assemble a curriculum that conceptualizes teaching, learning, and assessment through a Piagetian framework?
Applied Piagetian Concepts
To explore the question, I have designed a classroom activity for a beginning piano class made up of first through fifth graders with little or no experience with the keyboard. The main objective was to spark and maintain their interest by getting their fingers moving without introducing the complexities of notation. I used a method book which detailed in a visual diagram of the piano keyboard on the page with the required fingers 2, 3 and 4 marked on the group of three black keys, f-sharp, g-sharp, and a-sharp. The rhythm was a simple quarter note pattern in common time.
My approach to this lesson was very Piagetian. I guided their eyes to the diagram, explaining simply that it told them where to place their hands, and then stepped back, allowing as much time as necessary for them to make the connection between the page and the piano keyboard. I was encouraging students to think for themselves rather than feel the I, the teacher, was the source of all knowledge and they would have to turn to me in each instance of confusion. The result was a class full of students who left that first session not only able to play a first piano piece, but now also able to go on alone at home without their teacher, to teach themselves subsequent pieces in their book by going through the same process they just did in piano class. If I had taken their hands and placed them on the piano, or even worse yet, pushed the correct notes under their fingers for them, it would have seemed to them when I was later absent, there was no longer a teacher and no longer any direction to follow; their work practicing at home would likely cease.
The process of spontaneous development is an exciting and challenging one to explore for both the music teacher and music student. We can probably all relate the feeling of gratification and fulfillment that accompanies breakthroughs in our own development as musicians; times when we have pushed ourselves to new plateaus as performers, teachers, writers, composers or thinkers. Our students achieve this same joy of self-discovery, if only we can let them discover for themselves. Jerome Bruner writes: "How do I know what I am until I feel what I do?"
 Crain, William. Theories of Development: Concepts and Applications. Upper Saddle River, New Jersey: Prentice Hall, 2000. p. 120
 Spencer Pulaski, Mary Ann. An Introduction to Children's Cognitive Development. New York: Harper and Row, 1980. "Representation is the process for which an image, a sign, or a symbol comes to represent an external reality. In symbolic play, a child may use acorns to represent nonexistent dishes. Memories are interiorized images, whereas words are verbal signs that represent complexes of socially shared meanings."
 Spencer Pulaski, Mary Ann. An Introduction to Children's Cognitive Development. New York: Harper and Row, 1980. p. 13
 Spencer Pulaski, p. 231. "Assimilation is the process of taking in from the environment all forms of stimulation and information which are then organized and integrated into the organism's existing forms of structures, thus creating new structures."
 Spencer Pulaski, p. 231. "Accommodation is the process of reaching out and adjusting to new and changing conditions in the environment, so that preexisting patterns of behavior are modified to cope with new information or feedback from external situations."
 Bruner, Jerome. On Knowing: Essays for the Left Hand. Cambridge: The Belknap Press, 1979. (p. 43).