Stacks Image 1611
Stacks Image 269
Robert with Dr. Kurt Fischer at Harvard Graduate School of Education

What Is Fischer’s Skill Theory?
Robert S. Murphy

Cognitive-developmental theories such as Piaget’s (1983) and Fischer’s (1980) overlap in areas with Vygotsky’s (1978) and Leontiev’s (1981) semiotic and psycholinguistic theories. They were designed to provide a framework to capture and perhaps more importantly, measure, the essence of human development. If they are similar, how do these theories differ?

Although similar, Fischer’s skill theory is significantly different from Piaget’s. Fischer’s theory specifies levels of development similar to Piaget’s, but indicates that those emerging levels only signify the highest possible levels of achievement for any particular age group. More to the point, our cognition is dynamic. This means that in real life situations humans show a range of cognition; it is not static. From simple observation we can easily notice that humans seldom function at their full potential for sustained periods of time. Yet perhaps due to common human conceit, through the years we have brushed this off as some sort of an anomaly. However, without doubt, to properly understand human cognition, the entire cognitive range should be observed, not only the potential peaks. Fischer’s direct incorporation of the cognitive
range (as opposed to the then common focus on the peaks) into his skill theory has established skill theory as a substantial improvement over Piaget’s. The complexity of a test subject’s response to questions dynamically changes with the provided context, be it an incidental context or a carefully designed one. Fischer’s theory embraces these dynamics and makes them centerstage, while the older theories, such as Piaget’s, could not address the dynamics with clarity.

According to Fischer, how do cognitive levels develop dynamically? If a child is cognitively capable of significantly connecting two concepts, the child will then be able to establish similarity and/or disparity between them. He/she would be able to establish similarity and/or disparity between him/herself and others (e.g. I am big/He is small). Vygostsky claimed that children cognitively process
differences before similarities; this seems reasonable — similarities don’t stand out as much as differences do. When a child reaches a higher level of cognition, he/she is able to establish a more concrete definition for attributes. For example, consider these potential four points or observation: ‘hardly ever speaks’, ‘always reading books’, ‘has no friends’ and ‘very shy’. They can be combined to define the concept introverted or perhaps, nerd or geek. The realization and understanding of these concepts within a person affects his/her self-concept (Fischer et al, 1984). But, this does not mean that all test subjects will constantly and consistently make these establishments, much less consistently make them known to the researchers, for the sake of research. This point seems to have been a significant part of the confusion over human cognitive development and seems to have provided the fuel for debates on these topics for over a century.

The Details of Skill Theory

Fischer (1980) proposed a hierarchy of thirteen developmental levels broken into four tiers similar to Piaget’s 'Four levels of development'. Piaget’s proposed levels were: 1. infancy, 2. preschool, 3. childhood, and 4. adolescence. Fischer’s tiers, from bottom to top are: 1. reflexes, 2. actions, 3. representations, and 4. abstractions. Each tier consists of four levels, however, they overlap between each tier. The top level in each tier is also the first level of the next tier. Therefore, the total number of levels is thirteen, not sixteen.

Stacks Image 988

What does each tier represent? Each tier signifies an evolutionary set of potential human skills. Each tier produces a massively more convoluted set of outcomes than the tier below it. What about within each tier? At the first level of any tier, the individual is able to manipulate only a single set within that tier. At the second level with a tier, the individual is capable of creating a mapping (connection) between two sets and is able to identify a significant relationship between the two sets, therefore creating a significant mapping between the two. At the third level, the individual can coordinate several mappings to produce what is called a system of mappings. At the fourth and final level, the individual is able to coordinate and relate systems to other systems within the tier, producing what is called a system of systems. This system of systems also represents the beginning of the next tier, where it is viewed as the first set (or nugget) within that tier, and the entire process follows the same pattern all over again, albeit producing a significantly more complex set of skills. Table one displays the possible ages of emergence of each skill level in Optimal (high support) and Functional (low support) conditions.

Stacks Image 990

Below is a level-by-level explanation of what is cognitively possible per level, from Rp1 to Ab4/P1 (from Murphy, 2009):

Single Representations (Rp1)
The subject can conceive a characteristic of an event, object or person independent of their own immediate perceptions and/or actions.
Representational Mappings (Rp2)
The subject can coordinate two or more single representations such as, “Mommy is tall” to “Sister is short.”
Representational Systems (Rp3)
The subject can comprehend complicated concrete ideas and events by integrating several representations into a system – “My brother is two years older than me, but he is shorter and does not have as many friends as I do.” (The complexities of age difference, height and number of friends are comprehended and expressed in a single sentence.)
System of Representational Systems/Single Abstractions (Rp4/Ab1)
This is the beginning of abstractions. Intangible concepts such as unpopular can be derived from concrete instances such as “Shouts a lot”, “Not helpful at school”, and “Walks home alone” by the subject.
Abstract Mappings (Ab2)
The subject can coordinate two or more single abstractions. Example: “Being comfortable with your boyfriend is a necessary condition for your own self happiness.”
Abstract Systems (Ab3)
The subject can comprehend and coordinate groups of abstractions into complex relations with each other. Example: ‘being able to integrate the concepts of freedom, conformity and social pressure into a general concept of responsible individuality’ (Kennedy, 1994:186).
Single Principles (Ab4/P1)
The subject can provide a fully encompassing principle, similar in level to a psychologist’s analysis of a client, or a postgraduate student’s knowledge of their particular field in academia.

While it is usually only possible to cognitively function at a skill level when an individual reaches the age corresponding to that specific level of cognition, it must also be understood that these skill levels only appear when an individual is in a context that is conducive of that level of cognition
and the individual is inclined to apply him/herself at that level of cognition. It should also be understood that the usage of these levels of cognition are dynamic; the highest levels of cognition are usually not maintained for long periods of time. A person’s peak level of cognition is called their optimal level while the more energy efficient, day-to-day ‘normal’ level of cognition is referred to as their functional level.

Variability and Structural Dynamism

From research done by Fischer (2008), there seem to be significant gaps between optimal and functional performances (Fig. 2). The gap size increases with age. However, few studies actually take this variability into account. Studies that neglect to account for such dynamics cannot fully capture the reality of cognitive development.

Stacks Image 979

Skill theory strongly suggests that contextual high support contexts (contexts in which participants are given ample time to contemplate each level of a series of layered challenges of increasing difficulty that are specifically tailored to the target topic) can yield optimal performance (best possible response level according to that participant’s level of cognitive development), but the more typical interviewing styles which receive spontaneous responses (such as the tests conducted for this particular study), are deemed low support and typically only elicit functional performance. Functional performance denotes the level of response from participants that represent the typical ‘just enough to get by’ level of responses. Such responses are usually not representative of the participant’s peak level of cognitive development, however they are representative of that participant’s response level when not significantly inclined to demonstrate their peak performance levels. Since the optimal and the functional levels are both equally relevant in assessing the development of individuals, it is necessary for researchers to map the subjects’ developmental range (Cheng, 1999; Dawson et al, 2006), and assess accordingly. Additionally, Murphy & Post have found that the immediate context has a significant effect on the lexical choices of test subjects, further complicating the issue of developmental assessment (Murphy & Post, 2009). For these reasons, not only does the existence of variability need to be assumed, “these kinds of variations need to be center stage and the focus of developmental analysis” (Kennedy, 1994).

Using skill theory, Kennedy adapted work done by Harter & Monsour (1992) and designed the protocols for the Self-in-Relationships (SiR) interview. Kennedy used the SiR interview protocols to research Korean students. In Korea, he found significant variability among students due to context dependency. What does that mean? Large gaps in performance were discovered in students between low support contexts and high support contexts. In other words, students performed much better when in high support contexts. Moreover, in the high support contexts, the Korean students demonstrated stage-like cognitive improvement at the predicted ages. I have also conducted a similar study specifically on Japanese students that produced nearly identical results (Murphy, 2009), implying that the peaks are biological, but the ultimate dynamic outcomes from of our cognitive ranges are context dependent; context/culture affects cognitive output within the realm of our cognitive range while it is ultimately our biology that determines the range for any given cognitive challenge.

In Practice
Adapting EFL pedagogy in light of Dynamic Skill Theory

Traditional Grammar-translation based English lessons, and close variants, have been prevalent in many classrooms in Japan. Perhaps as a reaction, task-based and student-centered learning have recently come into vogue (Willis & Willis, 2009). Especially Willis and Willis (1996, 2009) have been emphasizing, over several decades, the importance of a shift away from teacher-centered, or textbook-centered, teaching, and stress a focus on individual learner needs. Within this discourse there has also been a strong criticism of the Present-Practice-Produce (PPP) methodology found in so many ESL textbooks, even at intermediate and advanced levels (Evans, 1999). At the heart of the discussion lies the argument that ‘isolated’ analytical approaches, by their very nature, pay insufficient attention to synthesizing the language presented into real communicative ability. As Willis and Willis (1996) state:

“we cannot isolate a particular language form and ‘present’ it to learners in such a way that it becomes part of their communicative performance … We may go through a lesson with every appearance of success … but the next time the occasion arises to put the form to communicative use [the learners] fail to do so.” (Willis & Willis, 1996:46-47)

Despite this, PPP remains a popular alternative to Grammar-translation, perhaps due to its overriding convenience as a classroom protocol. Regardless of long-term outcomes, in the short-term, PPP is easy to implement, easy to assess, and easy for the students to follow. At its worst, however, PPP can easily degenerate into a short-cut methodology that allows both teachers and students to ‘go through the motions’ in seemingly effective displays of production, while, at the same time, eliminating almost entirely the need for any kind of
understanding level of language processing.

In addressing this issue, the present paper discusses the rationale behind the need to refine the PPP methodology, and presents some suggestions for improving existing PPP-based lessons to help them foster more realistic use of the target structures. In doing so, the paper integrates Perkins (1993)
Teaching for Understanding theory and Fischer’s (2008) skill theory. This latter theory is currently foreign to TEFL in Japan, yet strongly deserves attention from the EFL community. In the final section of the paper, implications from combining these two theories are incorporated with more traditional PPP thinking with the intention of providing a readily accessible improvement to this somewhat problematic methodology. Four practical examples of adapted lesson plans are further provided as illustrations.

Teaching for Understanding
Subsumed within Willis and Willis’s (1996) criticism of PPP is Perkins (1993) theory of Teaching for Understanding (TFU). This similarly focuses on learner development and learner needs, in making the critical distinction between learning and understanding. According to Perkins (1993), learning refers to a level of study where students are prepared to recall or recite what they have memorized for a test or a test-like situation. Perkins argues that learning at this level is mostly meaningless in the real world. On the other hand, understanding is the level of study where a learner is able to manipulate their acquired knowledge and practically apply it when necessary. Demonstrations of such manipulation of knowledge are termed Performance(s) of Understanding (POU). Under this conception of classroom practices, ongoing assessment of POU’s (both teacher-student and student-student) can and should replace traditional tests that only focus on shallow learning, and are not part of a plan for ongoing assessment. In contrast, the usual practice of PPP includes assessment only through mini-tests or end-of-course examinations that focus solely on how well the learners have memorized the course content presented. As will be argued below, it is necessary for the learners to manipulate the language in situations of authentic or semi-authentic communicative use, for assessment methods to be adapted to measuring understanding as defined by Perkins (1993) theory.

Adapting the theoretical base of PPP
The PPP methodology is clearly popular with both ESL textbook publishers and teachers alike, perhaps due to its intuitive feel of best-practice. Consecutively, the simplest way to avoid the pitfalls highlighted by Willis and Willis (1996) is for program administrators and teacher trainers to emphasize a PPP+P model that includes Personalization as the final step of all classroom practice. In the absence of an underlying theoretical principle, however, such an intervention risks degenerating into nothing more than one further step of purely functional production within a rather dry protocol of rote learning. Somehow it is necessary to engage individual learners in authentic expressions of their own interests or values, and thus involve both understanding and reflective levels of language processing during communicative practice (cf. McClelland & Dare, 1998; van Lier, 1996).

One possibly useful guiding principle appears to be provided by the
functional versus optimal distinction of Fischer’s (2008) skill theory. According to Fischer, humans go up and down in their cognitive level dynamically according to such factors as the current context and personal motivation. In low-support contexts (when asked questions of low personal relevance, for example) people tend to produce non-inspired answers that are far from their optimal ability. Responses in such cases are said to be functional in that they are usually minimally adequate to meet the requirements of the social situation. In high-support contexts (where both relevance and interest have been primed previously) people naturally respond in a manner that demonstrates much higher levels of cognition. At best, this higher level of cognition can be said to be at the optimal level of the individual’s cognitive development. According to Fischer (2008) the functional and the optimal level define the developmental range of an individual at any point in their overall development. Under Fischer’s account, human cognitive development is seen as a complex dynamic system which includes sudden jumps from one stage of development to the next that are generally predictable by age. From childhood, through adolescence, to young-adulthood, these stages are seen as a hierarchy of levels, moving from single abstractions, to abstract mappings, abstract systems, and finally underlying principles. While development measured at the optimal level shows all the patterns to be expected of a complex dynamic system, development measured at the functional level shows a linear progression with age. More significant is that this latter is found at steadily weaker base levels (Fischer, et al., 2003). Fischer takes this as evidence that educational contexts working at a purely functional level are a major cause of underachievement:

“Infants, children, adolescents, and young adults all move through periods when their skills are leaping forward at a fast pace, especially under conditions that support optimal performance (upper line). In more ordinary performance, where they are not pushing the limits of their capacity they commonly show either linear growth or unsystematic change (lower line).” (Fisher, 2008:129)

In relation to PPP, the consequences are clear. It is not sufficient for students to ‘just get by’ taking the path of least resistance during class periods in the hope that they will understand the target language eventually as long as they study for the tests. However, as pointed out earlier, this is often the inherent assumption behind PPP based courses that focus on learning without sufficiently ensuring understanding. At the functional level (the level humans are at most of the day) brain energy is conserved. At optimal levels, the brain rises to the occasion by engaging a higher number of neurons. The role of teachers then, is to help engage a higher number of neurons within the learners’ brains for as much of the lesson as possible. Clearly the presentation and practice stages of the PPP paradigm are necessarily fairly passive in nature, and thus not open to extensive adaptation. It is the production and, more especially, the personalization phases of the lesson that most lend themselves to improvement in line with Fischer’s thinking.

Changing PPP in practice
The concept of personalization in language teaching is not novel. The challenge for teachers using a PPP-based method or textbook is how to give the additional personalization stage a sufficient emphasis to make it clearly effective. In the first instance, this means both the allocation of significant proportions of the available class time to personalization, and the development of creative activities that will keep the students interest levels high during the entire period.

Typical lessons from PPP textbooks all too often contain fictional dialogues with two or more characters having banal and predictable conversations. It can be said, however, that these model conversations are predictable and banal precisely for the reason that they have been written to teach common language structures, rather than be interesting or entertaining. Often, the learners are expected to practice these conversations in pairs with the aim of achieving some degree of memorization. A common method of assessment is then to test how well the learners remember the target structures or perhaps the entire presented text. If all goes smoothly, both parties (students and teacher) are pleased with the results and will continue with such lesson structures throughout the study term
. For such lessons, much of the learning is not retained, and is often not usable in the absence of real emotions having been evoked (Immordino-Yang & Fischer, 2010). For usable retention, or real understanding, the learning must become personal and therefore, at least to some degree, emotional. As most people implicitly seem to know, memories created without strong emotional attachment or strong connections to personal experience fade away, sometimes almost instantly.

The solution is to supplement the learning stage with an at least equal emphasis on learning for understanding as defined by Perkins (1993). Knowledge must be manipulated and applied to take it from the
learning level to the understanding level. Put simply, learners must be given time and opportunity to manipulate (re-write and re-think) the language structures they are given. Assessment can then be focused onto the ongoing evaluation of authentic language use during the performance of realistic short-projects and class presentations. In this way, the language and structures included in the course will become memorable because they will actually have become part of the learner’s real-life experience and memories.

Some Practical Examples of Personalization Strategies
Below are four practical examples of PPP lesson plan adaptations and their theoretical rationales. The list is by no means exhaustive, as personalization should be considered in the context of each unique lesson. This said, the ideas have been chosen to be appropriate to as wide a range of classroom settings as possible.

(1) After a typical PPP session, students create and perform their own versions of the provided dialogues by manipulating them with real facts and real events from their own lives. Students then assess each other with criteria sheets that they themselves have designed, either individually or as a class.
Rationale: The manipulation of knowledge required in designing assessment criteria, followed by the actual assessment of each other on their manipulation of the PPP activity (into a PPP+P) is a potent form of personalization. Assessment is on the students’ own manipulations of the language forms, not simply on content provided by the teacher. This is a high support context that should help students reach the understanding level. Assessment is on the students’ own manipulations of the language forms, not simply content provided by the teacher.

(2) If the target structures in the PPP lesson are not in dialogue form, the students can create their own original dialogues while manipulating the provided structures in
unique ways (manipulation must occur). Students then share their work and assess each other on the manipulated usage, using criteria sheets that they themselves designed for the particular activity.
Rationale: Similar to (1). The manipulation, designing of assessment criteria and actual assessment of each other creates a high support context that should help students reach the understanding level (Perkins, 1993).

(3) Students can be asked to use the presented target structures in a totally different genre of their own choice. For example, if the text displays a dialogue, the student could write a song or poem, or fill out a cartoon, using the target structures from the dialogue. Students assess each other with forms of assessment that they themselves have designed in conjunction with the teacher.
Rationale: Manipulation of structures to fit into a different genre of the student’s choice is a student-centered activity that gives the students a great amount of freedom to play with the structures that typical PPP classes would not allow. Consciousness-raising of genres and their manipulation allows the students to reap the numerous benefits of genre-based work in the classroom (Murphy, 2009).

(4) Rather than having the teacher do the PPP teaching, the students can be asked to do presentations
about the target structures. In other words, the students take on teaching roles and design their own lesson plans in order to teach the target structures to other class members. Teachers are expected to assist in the lesson design, but leave most of the thinking up to individual students. In this way the students can then assess each other on the effectiveness of the teaching and thus their competence with, and understanding of, the target language.
Rationale: This is a different type of personalization, but personalization, nonetheless. The combination of the teaching and assessment process in this context, once again helps students achieve the understanding level of language processing.

In Conclusion

The brain is energy conscious and prefers to conserve energy; working much of the time at what is termed the functional level of cognition. If the brain decides that the problem at hand needs heavy processing power, it spontaneously arouses itself and pumps more glucose energy to the brain organs to assist cognition at the optimal level. This is the target zone of teachers. While PPP may have been designed as a reaction against Grammar-translation, in practice it often suffers the same problems by failing to excite the brain to optimal levels of cognitive processing. Changing the equation by devoting sufficient time and effort to personalization within authentic communication opens the door to the learners’ deepest and richest memories along with optimal levels of cognitive processing. This can help students literally make the target structures part of their own lives, while shifting assessment away from rote-learning onto genuine understanding and communicative power.

Click here to see all of Kurt Fischer’s papers from his Dynamic Development Lab at the Harvard Graduate School of Education:

Click here for Murphy (2009):

Click here for Teaching for Understanding literature:

Contact Robert Murphy if you have questions or would like to discuss these topics!
Stacks Image 1607