Biography Of Jean Piaget

Who is Jean Piaget; a Swiss child development researcher. Read more about his life.

Piaget's research revolutionized the way scientists and educators thought about how children acquired knowledge. He questioned the longstanding zeitgeist that children were born as 'blank slates' to be filled with whatever knowledge adults chose to teach them, principally showing that children do not think in the same way that adults do. This article will provide a biography of Piaget's life, his research methods, his thesis and the resulting impact his work had in the fields of Child Cognitive Development, Education and Developmental Epistemology.

Jean Piaget was born in Neuchâtel, Switzerland on August 9th, 1896, the eldest child to Arthur Piaget (a professor of medieval literature at the University) and Rebecca Jackson (who was a devout Calvinist). By all accounts he was a child protégé, publishing his first scientific paper on the albino sparrow at the tender age of ten. His motivation for publishing the paper was to show the librarian at Neuchâtel that he was mature enough to be granted access to the well-stocked library. As a teenager he carried out many hours of meticulous research on mollusks, and it was this attention to detail that would be his hallmark in the years to come.

At the age of twenty-two he was awarded his doctorate in zoology from the University of Neuchâtel, but found that he was becoming more interested in the functioning of the human mind. He headed to Zurich where he studied psychoanalysis under the tutorage of Carl Jung, and by the end of World War 1 traveled to Paris. It was while here that he began studying the cognitive development of children and worked for a time at the Ecole de la rue de la Grange-aux-Belles, a boys school which had been created by Alfred Binet. Binet and Theodore Simon had already achieved fame as the creators of the first Yes/No Intelligence Quotient or IQ test. While Piaget was there the school was under the directorship of Simon.

Piaget soon found that he was more interested in the mistakes children made on such IQ tests, rather than their correct responses. He believed that by studying the errors children made he could tap into their cognitive abilities and ultimately understand how knowledge developed. Piaget was probably the first scientist to take children's thinking seriously. The methods he used involved naturalistic observation (many hours noting meticulously how children behaved, what they said, etc. in a naturalistic as oppose to a laboratory setting) and subsequent empathic inference - drawing conclusions from what he had observed.

Due to the nature of his research he faced obvious difficulties, principally - how to convince mothers that he needed to observe their children for 24 hours a day? That problem was solved when his wife Valentine Châteney became pregnant - he researched the behaviors of his own three children: Laurent, Jacqueline and Lucienne.

Central to Piaget's theory was that far from being passive learners, children are constantly inventing and reinventing their worlds - that they do not simply mimic their teachers and/or parents behaviors. Rather, their actions, the way they manipulated objects in their environment was crucial as they developed knowledge.

Probably as a result of his training in biology, Piaget believed that intellectual development was the result of both genetic and environmental factors. Thus, a child must be 'maturationally ready' before he/she can learn new things, the same principals governed cognitive and biological growth. This did not 'sit well' with the scientific thinking of the day - a time when Behaviorist theories purported that learning was a direct result of environmental stimuli. It would not be until much later that Piagets' theories would be recognized and valued - in the early 1920s and '30s he was perceived to be a radical.

Piaget's theory stated that children moved through distinct stages in their development of knowledge and that the order of these stages were fixed - a child in an early stage could not suddenly 'jump' to a much later stage. These stages were as follows:

1. Sensorimotor Stage (birth-2 years)

It is during this stage that infants struggle to attain control of their bodies. Newborns have simple reflexes, which they gradually learn to control in order to achieve some goal. Very young children cannot understand that objects continue to exist (object permanence) even when they can't be seen or felt. In other words, if a toy is hidden from view they quickly lose interest and will not search for the toy. The development of the concept of object permanence is one of the main achievements during the sensorimotor stage - this involves the ability to form a mental representation of the object and realizing that the object is still 'there' despite the fact that it has been hidden. Also, during this stage, the children begin to understand the concept of object constancy - that it is the same object regardless of distance, light, or different viewing angle for example.

2. Preoperational Stage (2-7 years)

It is during this stage that language is rapidly acquired. Labels can now be given to objects and mental maps or 'schemas' are increasingly used. Children in this stage begin to understand that objects can be classified and grouped together (e.g. all animals, all flowers etc). They also become less egocentric - very young children cannot imagine that an object will look different from another person's point of view. Later, they realize that other people don't see the world in the same way that they do.

3. Concrete operational stage (7-11 years)

During this stage many more skills or 'operations' are acquired. These include mastering the concept of conservation - understanding that objects have fundamental qualities that don't change even if their appearance does change. For example, if two balls of clay of the same size are shown to the child and then one is rolled out into a 'sausage shape', the child at this stage can say that the amounts are still the same.

In other words they begin to understand the operations of addition and subtraction. They also learn how to order objects according to size (serial ordering), transitivity (or relations among objects), class inclusion (being able to say a new object is still a 'flower' for example) and they are able to form mental representations (e.g. they can now draw a map showing the route to school - i.e. they learn the use of symbolic representations).

4. Formal operational stage (11 years up)

It is during this stage that children become capable of 'deductive logic' or 'if-then' reasoning and are able to grasp more abstract concepts and solve complex problems.

Throughout these stages, Piaget said that three principal processes are at work - assimilation (or the incorporation of new events into pre-existing cognitions), accommodation (changing cognitive processes in order to accommodate new information) and, equilibration (where the child achieves a balance between himself and the environment and between the processes of assimilation and accommodation).

According to Piaget it is the dual processes of assimilation and accommodation that allow the child to form 'schemas' or 'cognitive mental maps'. Also, it is the process of equilibration which explains why some children are faster in achieving logical intelligence than others - i.e. there are huge individual differences in achieving equilibration).

Piaget's theory has been both applauded and criticized. It is a descriptive theory - Piaget did not fully explain how a child could progress from one stage to the next. Also, the theory relies on biological maturation, but children with physical handicaps also progress through the stages at a similar rate to able-bodied children. Later researchers also showed that newborns have much more ability than Piaget credited them with, that children can operate in several stages at once and that the answers a child gives depends entirely on how the researcher phrases the question.

Nevertheless, Piaget's theory has had a major impact - in psychology, in sociology and in education. Piaget is credited with founding the disciplines of Child Cognitive Development and Genetic Epistemology. He published over sixty books and hundreds of research papers including: 'The Language and Thought of the Child' (1926) and 'The Origin of Intelligence in Children' (1948), he won many awards and was acclaimed internationally with honory degrees, and, he held many teaching positions throughout his long career (including the Director of the International Bureau of Education). He also established the Center of Genetic Epistemology in 1955.

Despite the fact that Piaget never saw himself as an educator, his theories have had a major impact in the field of education. Instead of teaching children via rote-learning his theories support a child-centered viewpoint where the environment should be structured in such a way as to encourage active discovery. Teachers should guide and stimulate children, help them (rather than chastise them) to learn by their mistakes and encourage exploration and experimentation. The new interactive technologies - multimedia, virtual reality and the Internet owe more to Piagetian views than their developers probably realize. Working in groups on projects that manipulate and change environments is also encouraged.

Piaget died on September 17th, 1980 in Geneva. He had been active in child development research for over fifty years (he was still active in the early 1970s). His legacy has impacted the way children are perceived - not as passive sponges to soak up knowledge but as little scientists who simply think about the world in a different way than adults do. With the advent of new, interactive technologies Piagetian views look set to have far-reaching impact in the years to come. As Larry Nucci, president of the Jean Piaget Society puts it: "He completely changed the way we think about knowledge."

© High Speed Ventures 2011