Jean Piaget, the pioneering Swiss philosopher and psychologist, spent much of his professional life listening to children, watching children and poring over reports of researchers around the world who were doing the same. He found, to put it most succinctly, that children don’t think like grownups. After thousands of interactions with young people often barely old enough to talk, Piaget began to suspect that behind their cute and seemingly illogical utterances were thought processes that had their own kind of order and their own special logic. Einstein called it a discovery “so simple that only a genius could have thought of it.” Piaget’s insight opened a new window into the inner workings of the mind. By the end of a wide-ranging and remarkably prolific research career that spanned nearly 75 years – from his first scientific publication at age 10 to work still in progress when he died at 84 – Piaget had developed several new fields of science: developmental psychology, cognitive theory and what came to be called genetic epistemology. Although not an educational reformer, he championed a way of thinking about children that provided the foundation for today’s education-reform movements. It was a shift comparable to the displacement of stories of “noble savages” and “cannibals” by modern anthropology. One might say that Piaget was the first to take children’s thinking seriously.
Others who shared this respect for children – John Dewey in the U.S., Maria Montessori in Italy and Paulo Freire in Brazil – fought harder for immediate change in the schools, but Piaget’s influence on education is deeper and more pervasive. He has been revered by generations of teachers inspired by the belief that children are not empty vessels to be filled with knowledge (as traditional pedagogical theory had it) but active builders of knowledge – little scientists who are constantly creating and testing their own theories of the world. And though he may not be as famous as Sigmund Freud or even B.F. Skinner, his contribution to psychology may be longer lasting. As computers and the Internet give children greater autonomy to explore ever larger digital worlds, the ideas he pioneered become ever more relevant.
Piaget grew up near Lake Neuchatel in a quiet region of French Switzerland known for its wines and watches. His father was a professor of medieval studies and his mother a strict Calvinist. He was a child prodigy who soon became interested in the scientific study of nature. When, at age 10, his observations led to questions that could be answered only by access to the university library, Piaget wrote and published a short note on the sighting of an albino sparrow in the hope that this would influence the librarian to stop treating him like a child. It worked. Piaget was launched on a path that would lead to his doctorate in zoology and a lifelong conviction that the way to understand anything is to understand how it evolves.
After World War I, Piaget became interested in psychoanalysis. He moved to Zurich, where he attended Carl Jung’s lectures, and then to Paris to study logic and abnormal psychology. Working with Theodore Simon in Alfred Binet’s child-psychology lab, he noticed that Parisian children of the same age made similar errors on true-false intelligence tests. Fascinated by their reasoning processes, he began to suspect that the key to human knowledge might be discovered by observing how the child’s mind develops.
Back in Switzerland, the young scientist began watching children play, scrupulously recording their words and actions as their minds raced to find reasons for why things are the way they are. In one of his most famous experiments, Piaget asked children, “What makes the wind?” A typical Piaget dialogue:
Piaget: What makes the wind?
Julia: The trees.
P: How do you know?
J: I saw them waving their arms.
P: How does that make the wind?
J (waving her hand in front of his face): Like this. Only they are bigger. And there are lots of trees.
P: What makes the wind on the ocean?
J: It blows there from the land. No. It’s the waves…
Piaget recognized that five-year-old Julia’s beliefs, while not correct by any adult criterion, are not “incorrect” either. They are entirely sensible and coherent within the framework of the child’s way of knowing. Classifying them as “true” or “false” misses the point and shows a lack of respect for the child. What Piaget was after was a theory that could find in the wind dialogue coherence, ingenuity and the practice of a kind of explanatory principle (in this case by referring to body actions) that stands young children in very good stead when they don’t know enough or have enough skill to handle the kind of explanation that grownups prefer.
Piaget was not an educator and never enunciated rules about how to intervene in such situations. But his work strongly suggests that the automatic reaction of putting the child right may well be abusive. Practicing the art of making theories may be more valuable for children than achieving meteorological orthodoxy; and if their theories are always greeted by “Nice try, but this is how it really is…” they might give up after a while on making theories. As Piaget put it, “Children have real understanding only of that which they invent themselves, and each time that we try to teach them something too quickly, we keep them from reinventing it themselves.”
Disciples of Piaget have a tolerance for – indeed a fascination with – children’s primitive laws of physics: that things disappear when they are out of sight; that the moon and the sun follow you around; that big things float and small things sink. Einstein was especially intrigued by Piaget’s finding that seven-year-olds insist that going faster can take more time – perhaps because Einstein’s own theories of relativity ran so contrary to common sense.
Although every teacher in training memorizes Piaget’s four stages of childhood development (sensorimotor, preoperational, concrete operational, formal operational), the better part of Piaget’s work is less well known, perhaps because schools of education regard it as “too deep” for teachers. Piaget never thought of himself as a child psychologist. His real interest was epistemology – the theory of knowledge – which, like physics, was considered a branch of philosophy until Piaget came along and made it a science.
Piaget explored a kind of epistemological relativism in which multiple ways of knowing are acknowledged and examined nonjudgmentally, yet with a philosopher’s analytic rigor. Since Piaget, the territory has been widely colonized by those who write about women’s ways of knowing, Afrocentric ways of knowing, even the computer’s ways of knowing. Indeed, artificial intelligence and the information-processing model of the mind owe more to Piaget than its proponents may realize.
The core of Piaget is his belief that looking carefully at how knowledge develops in children will elucidate the nature of knowledge in general. Whether this has in fact led to deeper understanding remains, like everything about Piaget, controversial. In the past decade Piaget has been vigorously challenged by the current fashion of viewing knowledge as an intrinsic property of the brain. Ingenious experiments have demonstrated that newborn infants already have some of the knowledge that Piaget believed children constructed. But for those, like me, who still see Piaget as the giant in the field of cognitive theory, the difference between what the baby brings and what the adult has is so immense that the new discoveries do not significantly reduce the gap but only increase the mystery.
Jean Piaget(August 9,1896 – September 16,1980) was a Swiss developmental psychologist.
He was born in NeuchÃ¢tel in the French-speaking part of Switzerland. His father,Arthur,was a professor of medieval literature at the University of NeuchÃ¢tel. He was a precocious child and developed an interest in biology,particularly of mollusks,to the point of publishing a number of papers before he graduated from high school.
He received a Ph.D. in natural science from the University of NeuchÃ¢tel and studied briefly at the University of ZÃ¼rich. During this time,he published two philosophical papers which showed the direction of his thinking at the time,but which he later dismissed as adolescent work. His interest in psychoanalysis can also be dated to this period.
He then moved from Switzerland to France,where he taught at the school for boys run by Alfred Binet,the developer of the Binet intelligence test,in Grange-aux-Belles. In 1921,he returned to Switzerland as director of the Rousseau Institute in Geneva.
In 1923,he married Valentine ChÃ¢tenay,and they had three children,whom he studied from infancy.
He was a professor of psychology at the University of Geneva from 1929 to 1975 and is best known for organizing cognitive development into a series of stages- the levels of development corresponding to infancy,childhood,and adolesence. These four stages are labeled the Sensorimotor stage,which occurs from birth to age two,(children experience through their senses),the Preoperational stage,which occurs from ages two to seven (motor skills are acquired),the Concrete operational stage,which occurs from ages seven to eleven (children think logically about concrete events),and the Formal Operational stage,which occurs after age eleven (abstract reasoning is developed here). Advance through these levels was explained through biology and culture along with a “third factor” called equilibration,working inter-dependently with the other two.
Piaget’s theory of cognitive development has proved influential,notably on the work of Lev Vygotsky and of Lawrence Kohlberg. Among others,the philosopher and social theorist JÃ¼rgen Habermas has incorporated it into his work,most notably in The Theory of Communicative Action. Piaget also had a considerable impact in the field of computer science and artificial intelligence. Seymour Papert used Piaget’s work while developing the Logo programming language. Alan Kay used Piaget’s theories as the basis for the Dynabook programming system concept,which was first discussed within the confines of the Xerox Palo Alto Research Center,or Xerox PARC. These discussions led to the development of the Alto prototype,which explored for the first time all the elements of the graphical user interface (GUI),and influenced the creation of user interfaces in the 1980′s and beyond.
His long scientific career began in 1907 at the age of eleven with the publication of a short paper on the albino sparrow. Over the next seven decades he wrote more than sixty books and several hundred articles.
Piaget viewed children as little philosophers and scientists building their own individual theories of knowledge. Some people have used his ideas to focus on what children can not do. Piaget however used their problem areas to help understand their cognitive growth and development. For example children may not be able to conserve five checkers spread out and report that there are more checkers. If you reduce the number to three they could conserve numbers. By focusing on the fact they can not conserve numbers for five items you would be slow to pick up that they can do it for less numbers. Another surprise is if you tell them a magic bunny moved the objects they would conserve higher numbers. Most people miss that children are theoretical. But many children have imaginary play mates and love to play the game of lets pretend.
“Intelligence is reality coming to know itself”- Jean Piaget,1897-1980.
1 Major works and achievements
1.1 Single “best read”
1.2 Major works
2 External links
Major works and achievements
Single “best read”
Bringuier,J-C. (1980). Conversations with Jean Piaget. Chicago: University of Chicago Press
Inhelder,B. and J. Piaget (1958). The Growth of Logical Thinking from Childhood to Adolescence. New York: Basic Books.
Piaget,J. (1962). Play,Dreams and Imitation in Childhood. New York: Norton.
Piaget,J. (1970). Structuralism. New York: Harper & Row.
Piaget,J. (1971). Biology and Knowledge. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Piaget,J. (1983). Piaget’s theory. In P. Mussen (ed). Handbook of Child Psychology. 4th edition. Vol. 1. New York: Wiley.
Piaget,J. (1995). Sociological Studies. London: Routledge.
Piaget,J. (2000). Commentary on Vygotsky. New Ideas in Psychology,18,241-59.
Piaget,J. (2001). Studies in Reflecting Abstraction. Hove,UK: Psychology Press.
1921-25 Research Director,Institut Jean-Jacques Rousseau,Geneva
1925-29 Professor of Psychology,Sociology and the Philosophy of Science,University of Neuchatel
1929-39 Professor of the History of Scientific Thought,University of Geneva
1929-67 Director,International Bureau of Education,Geneva
1932-71 Director,Institute of Educational Sciences,University of Geneva
1938-51 Professor of Experimental Psychology and Sociology,University of Lausanne
1939-51 Professor of Sociology,University of Geneva
1940-71 Professor of Experimental Psychology,University of Geneva
1952-64 Professor of Genetic Psychology,Sorbonne,Paris
1955-80 Director,International Centre for Genetic Epistemology,Geneva
1971-80 Emeritus Professor,University of Geneva