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Sidebar: Jean Piaget

Written by George Hein

Jean Piaget (1896-1980) was one of the most significant and influential scientists of the twentieth century. Our modern conceptions of children's intellectual development are derived largely from his thorough empirical work and novel research methods. Piaget was born and raised in Neufchâtel and lived most of his life in French-speaking Switzerland. He was a precocious, academically inclined student who wrote his first scientific paper (on an albino sparrow) at age eleven and became an expert on mollusks while still in high school. He studied natural science at Swiss universities and found his life career when he became fascinated by children's wrong answers and their reasons for them during a year in France standardizing early intelligence tests by administering them to children and discussing their answers with them.

After he became director of the J. J. Rousseau Institute in Geneva in 1921, he developed a rigorous research program with his staff documenting children's intellectual development, based on clinical interviews, often using physical objects or posing challenging questions about the natural world to find out how children's thinking developed as they grew and matured. For example, if a young child, said, "the moon follows me when I walk" the interviewer would ask, "what happens if you and a friend are walking together and you go one way and your friend goes the other way?" Children under the age of five to six usually answer, "The moon will follow both of us." Somewhat older children may give complex answers, while mature adults will recognize the logical problem involved with the "childish" answer. Other famous experiments involve conservation: when shown a tall narrow glass half full of orange juice and then watching the juice being poured into a wider glass, young children will state that there is now less orange juice than before. On reaching intellectual maturity, it becomes obvious that the quantity of juice has not changed. Piaget recognized the distinct phases involved in this development from confident naïve answers to disequilibrium followed by equilibrium at a deeper intellectual level. The consistency and universality of children's mental development continues to surprise adults when they perform such simple, profound tasks with children. Piaget also carried out thorough observational studies on his own three children during the first two years of their lives (When is a child old enough to play peek-a-boo, and when is a child too old to find this sufficiently mysterious to be interesting?).

His custom was to gather data for a whole academic year using carefully trained researchers and then to write a book on the findings during the summer months. This style accounted for most of the sixty volumes he published during his lifetime. Piaget created a whole field of research he named genetic epistemology, the biological (developmental) origin of knowledge, and he argued that the mental structures we use to explain our experience go through stages of development so that the internal structure of knowledge is itself changed as we mature. For some, he is seen as the "father" of constructivism. He wrote extensively on a wide range of academic and philosophical topics (about the significance of Comenius, for example) and was a leading intellectual figure of his time.

In the United States up to the late 1950s, when behaviorist psychological views dominated educational research and laboratory protocols modeled on the physical sciences were the norm, Piaget's work was ignored and even ridiculed in American academic circles while his reputation grew in the rest of the word. His elucidation that young children's reasoning about the natural world was more likely to depend on the extent of their concrete actions and experiences rather than referring to theoretical explanations encouraged the use of materials in classrooms. This stage theory of development influenced progressive educational efforts in Europe and the United Kingdom but it was not until the 1960s that American educational psychologists and educators began to appreciate (and read!) Piaget. One of his rare trips to the United States was to a conference sponsored by two NSF-supported science education projects, the Elementary Science Study and Robert Karplus' SCIS program at U. C. Berkeley.

Current cognitive science and worldwide expansion of application of Piaget's clinical interview methods have shown that his stages are neither as universal nor as age-specific as he postulated. Culture can play a significant role in how children respond to traditional Piagetian tasks or questions. Aspects of more sophisticated thinking have been noted in children much younger than Piaget envisioned; while attaining the level of hypothetical-deductive thought that Piaget postulated happened in the teen years, is often not reached until later for many and perhaps never for most of us in some domains of thinking. But the general concept that children's thinking is different from that of adults, that experience with the natural and human world is required for developing minds, and that insight into the actual state of children's minds (and adults', for that matter) is best gained through careful observation of individual children's actions and careful listening to what they say, have become methodological mainstays of cognitive science research.

Like Darwin, Freud, or Einstein in their own fields, Piaget transformed the way we think about children's development, a topic particularly important for education. And like them, his is the most revered name associated with a major intellectual and social movement that resulted not only from his work, but also from the imaginative and industrious contributions of many less celebrated individuals.

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