Letter 10 From “Piaget for Teachers”

Dear Teacher:

I am glad that you are enjoying my letters. You had no difficulty in seeing the connection between the examples given and the more theoretical part of our previous letters even though I did not spell out in detail the rationale for each exercise. However, you are wondering why I did not mention new curriculum developments designed expressly for elementary schools, such as the modern approaches to math and science or inquiry training. Assuredly, some of our picture logic is not different from notions of set theory employed in modern math teaching. Similarly, the method of thinking games described the last letter closely resembles the most effective ways in scientific notions about the physical. world are transmitted in early grade schools.

As you know, -I do not intend to give you anything more than a few practical suggestions of suitable school activities. In the last two letters I purposely chose examples that will be relatively unfamiliar to a teacher and that do not fit the usual curriculum. I will continue to do this for two related reasons. First I would like to see less stress during the early grades on specific subject matter and more emphasis on the general development of the inquiring mind. That an activity is intellectually challenging should be enough for it to be welcomed in education; it need not constantly he justified on account of its being part of a certain curriculum to be learned.

But, more important, focusing on a certain curriculum in quantitative terms of cumulative information puts the classroom teacher into a dilemma; the result usually is that figurative content, unfortu­nately, wins over operative thinking. Thus, from what I have seen, modern math and science have been admirably planned to deemphasize rote memorization and to encourage mathematical and scientific thinking. In some of these endeavors Piaget’s ideas have been used to good purpose. Yet, I think, the full benefit of these thinking curricula will only be realized if they form part of an educa­tional structure that consistently favors thinking over content. In the meantime, we realize that many so-called modern math courses stress the rote learning of rules and content, just as the “old” math did.

[1]The activity I am about to describe not only does not fit into the usual subject matter but is not even directly concerned with logical thinking. I observed it on a visit to a third-grade classroom where a drama teacher held a class of 26 girls and boys spellbound for two hours. He asked the children to form groups of four or five. Each group was to discuss among themselves and decide on playing a “real” event in which the members of the group were to act as real people. The word “real” was stressed. I was given to understand that earlier in the year the children had favored playing imaginary events and persons.

The teacher pointed to one group, which quickly disappeared behind a screen. There the children found a variety of costumes, wigs, play telephones, sticks, and so on. They could help themselves. The only other materials specially made for the occasion were six wooden boxes of various sizes. The sides of some of the boxes were open so that one could step into them. The boxes were arranged by the players before the start of the play to become part of a scene. (The teacher afterward told me that even these props are not neces­sary and that for two years he managed very well without them.)

The rest of the children and the teacher were the audience. Their job was to participate in the play. The teacher would encourage the children to pay attention and keep remarks until the end. [2]“We need your eyes and your advice. So watch and tell us at the end,” he would say to the watching children. He would also talk to the players (side coaching[3]) in order to help the acting along (“Keep telling us what you see from the bus”), to encourage (“Act your age!”), or even to suggest modifications of the entire scene.

The first group of four children called “curtain.” One boy sat down on a small box which was placed on a bigger box. This boy was obviously driving a motor vehicle. Soon it became clear that he was driving a bus. He used the gears, clutch, and brakes and hummed continuously to imitate the motor.

The bus came to a stop and three girls entered. The third one paid for the tickets and announced, The art museum, please.” The three people, who seemed to be a mother with two young girls, sat down on boxes behind the driver. The bus started off, and in a few seconds the driver announced, “Art museum.” At this point the teacher inter­jected: “Freeze! How long does it take to get from the original place to the museum? Take your time. If it takes only a few seconds, who would take the bus? Start again and keep in mind a real ride.”

The children went behind the screen for a minute and started afresh. They improved the precision of acting by having a conversation at the bus stop before entering the bus. It became clear that a mother, a daughter, and her girl friend were going to the museum. They rode along with the bus driver, who bounced in his seat to show that the ride was bumpy. An impatient child in the audience reminded the passengers that if the driver’s seat bounces, the passengers’ seats usually bounce all the more.

This time the drive lasted considerably longer. The girls talked to each other about the museum. The mother, noting that it was hot in the bus, opened the window. When the bus stopped and the driver announced, “Museum,” the passengers asked, “Which one?” The driver replied, “This is the technical museum.” So the passengers continued to the next stop and then got off the bus, leaving by a side door.

The bus drove on. The teacher suggested a one-minute intermis­sion to allow the players to rearrange the scene for the museum. He also urged the bus driver of the first scene to join the three persons in visiting the gallery.

The next scene showed the art museum. As the three visitors wan­dered from one picture to the next, the bus driver took on the role of guide. He pointed out the particular qualities of each picture. The visitors admired the pictures and exhibited a variety of reactions. Finally the guide took them to a very precious picture protected from the light by a curtain. (The teacher reminded them to work out an ending within a minute.) The guide moved the curtain and noticed to his horror that the picture had been stolen. He ran off immediately to let the police know. The mother and her daughter followed the guide shortly. The friend stayed behind. Looking with curiosity around the place where the missing picture belonged, she discovered it lying on the ground. As she ran off with the precious picture in her hand, the teacher called “curtain” and the play was ended.

The teacher turned to all the children, audience and players. What did they like in the play and why?[4] Was there any acting that was out of character? Did the actors show us who they were? Did they make the scene seem real?

One child remarked that he liked the bus ride but it was not real because the players alone were in the bus. But other children inter­jected, “This is possible. I was once in a bus alone with Mom and Dad.” Another child expressed surprise that it should be ‘hot in the bus because the actors were wearing furs and hats. Apparently it was winter time. But then again they kept these things on in the museum, and was that not rather unusual? The group agreed that it was unusual but not implausible. A third child brought up another point. The changes of gears were not sufficiently realistic; buses had four gears, and the driver had used only two.

The teacher asked about the museum scene. Weil, stealing the picture and finding it was fun. Could this really have happened? Some. children objected to the good behavior of the two girls in the play.[5] “They did not behave like real children.” “Did anybody notice how the guide ran away from the scene?” asked the teacher. “Yes, he ran right through there.” “But was there not supposed to he a wall?” The children laughed. “He must have run through the wall. He did not make the wall real.”

This scene lasted about 15 minutes, and then another group was invited to come onstage. They acted a scene that was afterward evaluated as rather improbable: Children going for a walk and sud­denly discovering a space ship on the playground. Another group of boys acted the robbery of a jewel that was kept in a warehouse. In this scene one of the more difficult parts was “playing dead.” The teacher said to the boy lying on the floor, “You help the scene by lying still.” But it was not easy for an energetic boy to lie there and let other boys buffet him. Eventually he did get up, and he tried to compensate for the impropriety of coming back to life by playing a ghost. A fourth group acted a scene with Snoopy the dog in a rocket. When it was over, the children realized that they had not solved the problem posed; these were not real people but characters in a comic strip.

Before I tell you more about the drama technique, [Spolin Theater Games] as I learned it from conversation with the teacher, I would like to show you in what manner operative intelligence became manifest in the children’s acting. You remember how Piaget discussed the functioning of symbolic play in the young child. In play the child assimilates an external event to a scheme of knowing that is of momentary interest. A particular interest may fortuitously be triggered by the presence of some exter­nal thing. For instance, a child, seeing and grasping a block on a table, starts playing car with it. Piaget suggests therefore that in early symbolic play assimilation dominates accommodation. That is, the child in spontaneous play does not accommodate to a set task, but uses the situation symbolically in the service of his knowing of cars.

There is a difference between spontaneous play and play-acting. In the first case the child assimilates a situation without making a corre­sponding accommodation; he plays, we say, as his fancy strikes him. In the acting I observed, there was a problem to be solved. The acting becomes the means by which the child accommodates to the problem. [6]Let us take a child acting “How old am I?” He sits on a bench at a bus stop waiting for the bus. The children in the audience have to discover the age from observing the actor. The teacher softly coaches the child: “Feel your age.” “Let your knees feel your age.” “Let your hands feel your age.” Only the teacher and the acting child know how old he is to be. The teacher does not tell the child what he feels or how to act the age. He merely reminds him to let his bodily behavior express what he personally knows about that age. This knowing is not something that the young child, or perhaps anybody else, has available as a neatly packaged piece of information. It is a knowing based on experience of self and others that perhaps only a gifted writer is able to put into words. It is, moreover, a knowing that literally becomes and never simply exists statically, precisely because it deals with unique personal experiences.

It is hard for an adult to verbalize, in discursive fashion, the know­ing under discussion. Thus it is doubly appropriate to give young children an opportunity to symbolize knowing by acting. Let us watch the child, a third-grade boy. He sits rather rigidly stiff. At the teacher’s coaching (“Let your knees feel the age”), he puts one leg across the other. He keeps looking at his watch and every now and then stret­ches his neck in the direction from which he expects the bus to come.

One can observe how the child’s knowing about the age of 40 is being shaped in the process of acting. A child in the audience lifts his hand. “I think he acts the age of a teenager.” “What did he show to make you think that?” asks the teacher. “He looked at his watch because he has a date.” “Is there no other reason for looking at the watch?” The children think about that. The teacher suggests to the actor, “Continue and show your age in your face.” The child acting a 40-year-old man puts on a stern face. A child in the audience cries out, “He is a grown-up.” Another child shouts, “He is fifty years old.” Then teacher, the player, and the audience together evaluate the performance. They compare the act­ing to that in the two previous problems, where the ages portrayed were four years and 80 years.

In every way, both as actors and as audience, the children are applying their operative knowing to the symbolic acting. The teacher accepts no cheap stereotype or half-baked solution. For instance, when the child thought a teenager was waiting at the bus stop, the teacher asked for evidence. Observation is here linked with intelli­gence: the children can use their own experience for the intelligent solving of a given problem.

Once the children get accustomed to this task, it gives them opportunities for creative thinking rarely provided by the spontaneous en­vironment. We tend to think of creativity as an exception limited to specially talented children. Acting can give ordinary children a taste of controlling their bodily movements and actions according to their intuitive knowing of situations. The initial vagueness of knowing becomes articulated in a constructive, task-oriented group atmos­phere. The actors who are being evaluated are not simply performers to be judged. They, together with the audience and the teacher. are participating in the evaluation and have the satisfaction of a task well done. Moreover—and this is very important—there is never just one correct solution. It is, therefore, not a question of just doing the right thing. Even more important is that, strictly speaking, there are no wrong solutions. As long as the acting shows what it is meant to show, as long as the symbols transmit the agreed-on message, the acting is right and the solution is correct.

The main difference between symbolic play of early childhood and improvised acting is the controlled application of knowing-schemes to the set task in all parts of the body, in each movement and behavioral sequence. The children themselves are quick to appreciate the difference between whimsical play and purposeful acting. Just as in the thinking games the children did not merely play-thinking but were seriously engaged in thinking, here too they were not merely pretending but giving reality to objects. Knowing and reality are correlative terms: an object is not real to us unless it is in some way actively known by us. Knowing is thus an engaging business, and when there is engagement, there is motivation, interest, “real fun.”

[7]In one scene children acted tug-of-war. The teacher remarked to me, “If a child is not physically exhausted at the end of the scene, just as he would be in real life, you know that he was not doing the task well.” When a child on the stage looked around instead of actively participating, the teacher needed only to remind him in words like this: [8]There are actors on the stage and there is the audience in the room. If you would rather watch than act, you may do so by joining the audience. This sufficed to turn the child to the task without scolding him or making him feel in the wrong.

I was particularly impressed how the teacher handled more serious problems of discipline. During a scene one of the five boys on the stage lost a shoe. The other boys in the scene started giggling and making silly remarks. The teacher reached for a play telephone that was handy and spoke to the players on stage as if he were part of the game: “Jim, can you hear me?” The actors looked toward the teacher. “I just saw a funny boy walking down the street with only one shoe on. Ha, ha, he really does look silly. Watch out for him.” Jim, one of the actors, immediately took up the challenge and incorporated the teacher’s remarks into the scene. The result? Instead of a lecture of disapproval, the giggling became part of the play. In this connection the teacher warned me that in some classes, particularly during the early stages, one should expect rough situations that must be handled with tact and good grace. Many children are unaccustomed the experience of freedom within a task-oriented setting. For them, to be free means to hit, push, kick, and run. To be in school means to be silent and passively listening. A game situation where initiative is asked for and rewarded is a new experience for them. It takes time for the children and the teacher to learn how to handle this type of situation.

I discussed with the teacher the philosophy underlying the drama technique. He showed me a book by Viola Spolin (Improvisation for the Theater, Evanston, Ill., Northwestern University Press, 1963; ex­cerpts reprinted with permission) that provides a detailed account of the techniques as applied to adults and children. As I browsed through the book I found more psychological soundness than in many a psychology course taught at the college level. Listen to some excerpts on creativity and discipline and notice how they corroborate what we said about operative knowing in contrast to the dangers of a static, low-operative knowing, which is frequently due to a misplaced use of the linguistic medium.

“If the teacher-director forces set patterns of thinking and behavior (a ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ way of doing things) on his child actors, he is restricting them most severely…. Children, who are our future, are talked at so much that a great many adult formulations are either lost to them entirely or swallowed whole, undigested and unquestioned.” The author, recalling that many newcomers to the theater are heard to say, “You mustn’t turn your back to the audience,” continues, “Here, on the very threshold of learning, a door is shut and obviously by one who doesn’t have the faintest idea of what he is saying and is simply passing on something he has heard or thinks is so. In how many other areas must this go on, hour after hour, day after day, in a child’s life?” (pp. 285-86).

All I can add is that schools must not compound this general cul­tural situation of imposing ready-made formulas and “summaries of another’s findings” on the growing intellect by an early education that stresses linguistic skills unduly. A good part of language consists in ready-made formulas. You can see that the author of the book, without being directly interested in scholastic success, came in­dependently to the same conclusion about language and creative acting that we reached regarding language and intellectual development. This is, of course, more than a coincidence because creativity and intelligence are really the same thing. It is only our lopsided preoccupation with certain static facets of intelligence that has made it possible and indeed necessary to focus on creativity apart from intelligence. When the author points out that “creativity is not rearranging; it is transformation (p. 42), she is speaking exactly as Piaget would speak about operative intelligence. You recall that in his theory of knowing an operative act is the active assimilation and transformation of given data according to the structural forms available to the child. In many places Piaget criticizes the view that considers intelligence to be merely a clever rearranging or organizing of basic bits of information.

The drama technique not only brings out operative creativity within the child, but also carries with it a basic motivation that is intrinsic to the activity, as in the development of the intelligence. Any healthy child enjoys acting, for acting means showing his knowing for the joy of sharing it with others. Discipline problems that arise during schooling are frequently symptoms of a malfunctioning behavioral situation which chokes intrinsic motivation. Spolin rightly equates discipline and active involvement. Here again you can see how close her opinion is to the view that contrasts low-operative, figurative knowing to involved, high-operative knowing. Contrary to theories of learning that place motivation outside the learning process, involved operative knowing is its own reward and is the precondition for any true creative discipline. When this situation is lacking, any so-called discipline may be merely a superficial coping technique. Take the case of the proverbial good boy who “may simply be intent upon getting reward instead of punishment, approval instead of disap­proval. He seeks survival by appeasement. The so-called undisci­plined child is seeking survival also; he, however, is in rebellion against restrictions he does not understand (p. 287).

The thinking expressed in these sentences is not new. Yet teachers have never really been able to benefit from its implication as long as they have had to act within the traditional system. For far too many youngsters our educational system, with its primary reliance on extrinsic motivation, has stifled intrinsic motivation. A discipline that is emotionally healthy is a discipline based on involvement. A rational procedure for education would be to focus on involvement, that is, on an activity which by itself implies involvement, such as operative thinking in its various forms. As we saw earlier, the notion that creativity is something apart from intelligence impoverishes the full­ness of both intelligence and creativity. Similarly, the idea that moti­vation is something to be added to the functioning intelligence implies a static view of intelligence which neglects the intrinsic source of intellectual development.

One further aspect is well illustrated by dramatic improvisation, and it is as much a part of operative intelligence as are creativity and intrinsic motivation. I refer here to the group aspect of the game situation. All acting is a group activity. The scenes I described at the beginning of this letter resulted from a group consensus. In fact, even the single acting of the game[9] “How old am I?” is subject to rules and evaluations that are accepted by all. Audience, players, and teacher participate in the group and contribute their indispensable part to functioning of the group. “Any game worth playing is highly social and has a problem that needs solving within it—an objective point in which each individual must become involved … ” (p. 5). In my next letter I want to say more about this objectivity so as to forestall erroneous notions about it. Many people consider social cooperation and individual operative thinking to be somehow opposites instead of two sides of the same coin. There cannot be individual thinking without social thinking, nor can one say that one causes or comes before the other. For the time being I want you to accept that acting fosters an objective viewpoint which derives from group acceptance and concentration on the task. Without being bound by logical objective if [10]creative dramatic acting is diametrically opposed to an in­dividualistic subjectivism free of rules.

In a setting of dramatic creativity the restricting tendency to com­pete for success and to compare one’s performance with that of others can give way to a healthy collaboration. The process of solv­ing the problem together comes before the end-result, the solution. “If we are trained only for success, then to gain it we must necessarily use everyone and everything for this end; we may cheat, lie, crawl, betray, or give up all social life to achieve success. How much more certain would knowledge be if it came from and out of the excitement of learning itself. How many human values will be lost and how much will our art forms be deprived if we seek only success?” (p. 12).

You must have noticed that the atmosphere underlying group act­ing is most conducive to healthy social development and could be advocated for this reason alone. Indeed, drama technique is used in some schools as a means of training children in sensitivity to others and increased self-expression. These benefits are so obvious that I would like to put a greater emphasis on the close relation between creative acting and operative intelligence. People who are used to evaluating things in terms of the end-product ask me what is the purpose of training in symbol logic if it is not knowledge of symbol logic. I reply to this that I am interested not in teaching logic directly but in the process of thinking that is operative when the child grap­ples with given problems. Similarly, people are inclined to say that drama is good because it teaches poise and self-expression. But I want you to understand clearly that I am suggesting drama tech­niques to you primarily as thinking activities that in themselves are challenging and conducive to a healthy development.

The teacher whose activity I observed also mentioned to me that drama techniques have been successfully employed to achieve certain required curriculum results. I repeat this to you with some hesita­tion, not because there is anything wrong in using the game “What’ am I doing?”[11] in connection with teaching spelling but for reasons mentioned at the beginning of the letter. This game is an excellent thinking exercise by itself and does not need the justification of perhaps providing motivation for learning to spell. Whereas there is no danger in the fact that a good individual teacher will play the game well and at the same time get some spelling across, I am skeptical of a system that accepts drama techniques or any of the illustrative thinking activities primarily in order to help the traditional curriculum. In due course, thinking becomes a luxury that is dispensable and the desired result remains a drill to be imposed regardless of the psychological condition of the individual children.

You ask me how this spelling game is played. One child is chosen and decides on a certain activity—washing dishes, mowing the lawn, teaching school. He tells the teacher his choice. The teacher coaches the child in acting this activity so that it can be distinguished from other activities that look superficially like it. As soon as a child in the audience thinks he knows the name of the activity, he writes the appropriate words on the board. If his guess is correct, he joins the first child in a related activity. For instance, if the original player washes dishes, other children might act drying dishes, cleaning the stove, defrosting the refrigerator, and so on.

[12]A more highly developed version of the game would require that players new to the scene interact with those already on stage. For example, the first player is a teacher, the second is a child taking instructions from the teacher, the third is a parent inquiring about a child, the fourth is a supervising teacher, and so forth.

You can see that this game lends itself to helping children realize characteristic features of certain activities and things. Spelling these things on the blackboard need not necessarily spoil the sense of the game. But all along the teacher must remember that this is not a spelling lesson and that a misspelled word must be corrected without squelching the excitement of the group.

This is, of course, the secret of all good teaching. If the intrinsic motivation of thinking (= excitement) can be kept alive in a particular learning process, success is practically ensured. In this sense the drama technique, as practiced by an experienced teacher, appears to me an outstanding example of a good learning situation. If you should be interested in reading the book by Spolin, keep in mind that it was not concerned with traditional educational goals. Neverthe­less, it is a veritable mine of fruitful psychological applications if it can be viewed within the framework of the development of operative intelligence. If you can share this viewpoint with me, you will have gone once and for all beyond the confines of a narrowly conceived logical intelligence, understanding that intelligence is not a cold, static function by which we reason in abstract isolation. The insight that intelligence implies involvement, development, and creativity is perhaps the most important discovery you can make from our continuing correspondence.

                              All best wishes.

Yours sincerely,

Hans Furth

Works Cited

 Improvisation for the Theater by Viola Spolin Northwestern University Press, 1963.

Theater Game File by Viola Spolin CEMREL, Inc., 1975

[1] “Costume Piece”, Spolin pg. 266 “Box Full of Hats”, File Box B-12

[2] Audience” Spolin pg. 12

Theater Game File Handbook pg. 13

[2] “Side Coaching” Spolin pg. 266  Theater Game File Handbook pg. 13


[4] “Evaluation”, Spolin pg. 295

[5] “Evaluation”, Spolin pg. 27

[6] “How Old Am I?” Spolin pg. 68

[7] “Tug of War”, Spolin pg. 61

[8] “Becoming an Audience” Spolin pg. 294

[9] “How Old Am I?” Spolin pg. 68

[10]  “Creative Dramatics and/or Role Playing,” not to be confused with Spolin Theater Games

[11]  Orientation Game #1  Spolin pg. 62
“Orientation Game #1”, Spolin pg. 62 “Part of a Whole #2”, File Box A-26

[12]  Orientation Game #2″, Spolin pg. 66 “Part of a Whole #3”, File Box A-67

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