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Jean Piaget

Jean PiagetBorn: 9-Aug-1896
Birthplace: Neuchâtel, Switzerland
Died: 17-Sep-1980
Location of death: Geneva, Switzerland
Cause of death: unspecified
Remains: Buried, Cimetière des Plainpalais, Geneva, Switzerland

Gender: Male
Race or Ethnicity: White
Sexual orientation: Straight
Occupation: Psychologist

Nationality: Switzerland
Executive summary: Elaborated the stages of childhood

Jean Piaget was a Swiss biologist, philosopher, and psychologist best known for his work in the area of developmental psychology. Like Sigmund Freud and Erik Erikson, Piaget divided cognitive growth and development into fixed stages. But Piaget's particular focus was on the intellectual or cognitive development of children and on the way in which their mind's processed and progressed in knowledge. Piaget's central thesis was that children (1) develop self-centric theories about their environment, and about objects or persons in that environment, and they grow; and (2) that children base these theories on their own personal experiences interacting with persons and objects in their environment; (3) that the child used "schemas" to master and gain information about the environment; and (4) that the sophistication of a child's cognitive structures increased as the child grew and developed, as did the child's "schemas". Schemas, which are the child's tool bag of actions and responses to make things happen, start with rudimentary interactions such as grabbing and mouthing objects and eventually progress to highly sophisticated skills such as scientific observation. Piaget divided the child's path of development into four stages which began with birth and culminated in the teen years. These stages are: Sensorimotor stage (0-2 yrs), Preoperational stage (2-7 yrs), Concrete operations (7-11 yrs), and Formal operations (from 11-15 and up). A chief tenet of Piaget's theory is that these stages do not vary in order, cannot be skipped, and should not be rushed.

Piaget's work has had considerable impact on the fields of education and of child psychology, but his influences can also be seen in a variety of other fields. Examples include the work of philosopher and social theorist Jürgen Habermas as expressed in The Theory of Communicative Action, and well as Seymour Papert's work developing the Logo programming language. In addition, computer scientist Alan Kay utilized Piaget's theories in developing the Dynabook programming system, an innovation that led to both laptop and tablet style computers.

Jean Piaget was born in Neuchâtel, Switzerland in 1896. His father was a professor of medieval literature. His mother, an intelligent and energetic woman, was said by Piaget to be a bit neurotic, and thereby responsible for his early interest in psychology. As a child he was interested in nature and enjoyed shell collecting. His interest in mollusks developed to such a degree that he wrote to the curator of a local museum to request access to its collections after hours. Permission was granted and he became a regular visitor and friends with the curator. He eventually took a part time job at the museum. Meanwhile, at age ten he wrote his first scientific paper, purportedly to get the librarian to understand that he was not merely a "child." The paper dealt with his sighting of an albino sparrow. As a young teen he was publishing papers in earnest, principally in the field of mollusks. Not only was his age not suspected, but also he was considered a great expert in the field.

As a young man he attended the University of Neuchâtel where he received a degree in zoology in 1918. He then studied psychology in Zürich under the eminent Carl Jung as well as Eugen Bleuler. He continued his studies in Paris at the Sorbonne, working with with Alfred Binet to evaluate the results of child intelligence tests which Binet had designed and administered. As Piaget worked he noted the correlation between the child's age and the type of error he or she was apt to make. He was so fascinated by the discovery that certain errors occurred predictably at certain ages, that after his return to Switzerland he devoted considerable time and energy to the further investigation of the phenomenon. He conducted countless interviews with young children, and devised questions of various sorts, testing judgment of perspective, conservation of volume, understanding of natural phenomenon, and so on. Delighted and intrigued with the children's inventive, yet often erroneous answers, he developed the practice of inviting them to explain the logic of their answers. The result shed new light into the reasoning process of children, and began to reveal certain patterns and strategies of thought.

Ultimately he concluded that children's reasoning power was in no way flawed -- on the contrary it was often as good as many adult scientists! However, children's limited life experience meant that they had not amassed and processed enough information about the natural and social world (nor imbibed the same biases) to come to the same conclusions that adults did. But Piaget did not conclude that children should, ergo, be force-fed more facts at an earlier age. In fact he believed quite the opposite: that such force-feeding would condition children to expect the answers to come from outside themselves, robbing them of creative initiative. He also believed that adults must exercise caution about correcting children's "mistaken notions." If done too harshly, or in a condescending manner, such correcting shamed them into intellectual passivity, causing them to abandon their innate urge to figure things out for themselves, and to come up with new and creative ideas.

In addition, Piaget emphasized that knowledge and understanding was not simply about ingesting a bunch of facts. That is, to mindless regurgitate facts is not real knowledge and not true intelligence -- however much it may impress certain adults. Rather, knowledge was about structures, in essence it is about understanding how the facts fit together, having mental models that allow one to accurately assimilate additional information and from it make useful predictions and conclusions. And Piaget believed that since children come into the world as essentially physical beings, their understanding of the world starts with their own physical and emotional exploration of it and only builds from there into representations of increasing complexity and abstraction. Thus he concluded that attempts to introduce highly abstract concepts at an early age would result only in rote learning (memorization), not in genuine comprehension.

Although Piaget did not focus on how to apply his theories within education, we do know that he advocated creative learning situations, or what is now referred to as "hands on, interactive." And one could infer, based on the example of his own self-education efforts that he also favored making information readily available to young, enquiring minds, allowing them to progress according to their inner drive to know and explore. But Piaget's significance stretched far beyond the fields of education. His cognitive theory was applicable not only to children, but to all intelligent life.

Because of his previous work in biology, testing and observing the way mollusks adapt to various environments, Piaget's work with children made him realize that all sentient living things engage in what we might call a feedback loop when interacting with their environment. The individual performs an action and observes a response. If the response was interesting or otherwise positive, the individual will repeat the behavior. Organisms which are capable of higher intelligence will generate cognitive structures, a kind of mental map, of actions and responses that grow in complexity as the individual has more and varied experiences.

Furthermore, the individual will create more varied and complicated ways of interacting with the environment, and then assimilate the results of those actions into its cognitive structures. In this way, the individual's knowledge of its environment, and of itself, progresses over time. Piaget's assertion in this area was a tremendous challenge to the field of philosophy, which had hitherto asserted that knowledge simply "was", that it existed independently of the observer's mental ability. Piaget showed how the developing structures of the mind acquired, even constructed knowledge, and that knowledge was therefore not of only one flavor. Rather it varied from one observer to another, according to the individual's life experiences and stage of development.

I think that all structures are constructed and that the fundamental feature is the course of this construction: Nothing is given at the start, except some limiting points on which all the rest is based. The structures are neither given in advance in the human mind nor in the external world, as we perceive or organize it. (Piaget, 1977b, p.63).

Nonetheless, he did also show that a level of homogeneity of perception, and perceptual development, also existed, in that human children moved through certain set stages in their cognitive development. These stages he generalized as:

  1. Sensorimotor stage (birth - 2 years old) -- Child interacts with environment through physical actions (sucking, pushing, grabbing, shaking, etc.) These interactions build the child's cognitive structures about the world and how it functions or responds. Object permanence is discovered (things still exist while out of view).
  2. Preoperational stage (ages 2-7) -- Child is not yet able to form abstract conceptions, must have hands-on experiences and visual representations in order to form basic conclusions. Typically, experiences must occur repeatedly before the child grasps the cause and effect connection.
  3. Concrete operations (ages 7-11) -- Child is developing considerable knowledge base from physical experiences. Child begins to draw on this knowledge base to make more sophisticated explanations and predictions. Begins to do some abstract problem solving such as mental math, etc. Still understands best when educational material refers to real life situations.
  4. Formal operations (beginning at ages 11-15) -- Child's knowledge base and cognitive structures are much more similar to those of an adult. Ability for abstract thought increases markedly.

Piaget's extensive work with children revealed many insights about what happens as children move through these phases of development. One of the most significant was the concept of equilibrium/disequilibrium. Essentially, whenever the child's experience/interaction with the environment yielded results that confirmed her mental model, she could easily assimilate the experience. But when the experience resulted in something new and unexpected, the result was disequilibrium. The child may experience this as confusion or frustration. Eventually the child changes her cognitive structures to accommodate, account for, the new experience, and moves back into equilibrium.

In very young children this process is complicated by the fact that much of their interaction with the world involves the component of motor skill development and language skills development. And oftentimes "disequilibrium" can show up in very obvious and concrete ways: a child acting out of sorts, throwing tantrums, even requiring extra sleep. As a major skill is accomplished and/or integrated, the child moves back into equilibrium and interacts more smoothly with those around her.

Other features of Piaget's stages of development include:

  1. They have an invariant sequence – Children may vary somewhat as to how long they are in each phase, but they progress through them in the same order and do not skip a phase.
  2. Stages are universal and do not vary from one culture to the next.
  3. They are related to cognitive development.
  4. They are generalizable to other functions.
  5. Each stage is a logically organized whole.
  6. The sequence of stages is hierarchical, with each successive stage incorporating elements of those prior.
  7. Each stage represents qualitative differences in modes of thinking, not merely quantitative differences.

As influential as Piaget's work has been, science is still uncovering new results that show our understanding of human cognition is far from fully mapped out. Recent work has shown for example that infants are already born knowing some of the things that Piaget claimed they would not have incorporated until a much later stage. Nonetheless, countless educators all over the world put his principles into daily practice, greatly improving the performance of children in the areas of math, science, and even language acquisition and social studies. Overall, his work in child cognition revolutionized our way of thinking about children, and about learning, intelligence, and the nature of knowledge. At the time of his death in 1980, at the age of 84, Piaget's career had spanned some 70+ years and given birth to whole new fields in science. Among these are the studies of genetic epistemology, cognitive theory, and developmental psychology. The author of numerous books and scientific papers, he is especially remembered for The Child's Conception of the World (1926), The Origin of Intelligence in Children (1936), and The Early Growth of Logic in the Child (1958).

Father: Arthur Piaget (Professor of Medieval Literature, University of Neuchâtel)
Mother: Rebecca Jackson
Wife: Valentine Châtenay
Daughter: Jacqueline
Daughter: Lucienne
Son: Laurent

    University: PhD Zoology, University of Neuchâtel (1918)
    University: University of Zürich
    University: Sorbonne (studied 1919-20)
    Professor: Philosophy, University of Neuchâtel (1926-29)
    Professor: University of Geneva (1929-71, emeritus 1971-80)

    Erasmus Prize 1972
    Balzan Prize 1979

Author of books:
Le Langage et la Pensée Chez l'Enfant (1923)
Le Jugement et la Raisonnement Chez l'Enfant (1924)
La Naissance de l'Intelligence Chez l'Enfant (1948)



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