Jean Piaget (1896-1980)

29 August 2007
Jean Piaget (1896-1980)

In the 1960s a white-haired, plump-cheeked gentleman could be seen riding round Geneva on his old bike puffing his pipe. This was Jean Piaget, now considered to be one of the greatest psychologists of the twentieth century. Throughout his life he opposed chauvinistic clich?s about the development of the human being and sought to find out exactly how the child constructs knowledge.
He was born on 9 August 1896 in Neuch?tel, Switzerland, where his father was a professor of mediaeval literature. Already at the age of 11 Piaget wrote a short description of an albino sparrow that he had observed in a park and this is considered the starting point for a brilliant intellectual career spanning nearly seven decades. He was introduced to observing nature by Paul Godet, director of the Natural History Museum in Neuch?tel, and before completing secondary education he was a renowned authority on fresh-water snails-and would remain so all his life.
As a young man, he obtained a doctorate in the natural sciences from the University of Neuch?tel, became interested in philosophy and theology, and even wrote a novel. However, one day, while he was looking after his infant nephew, he remarked that when a toy disappeared under a sofa, as far as the child was concerned it had ceased to exist. And yet the adult knows that it is merely out of sight. What could account for these different viewpoints?

Piaget found himself attracted by the rigor of scientific research and came to believe that science was the only legitimate road to knowledge. He began to study psychology. His primary consideration was to provide a scientific explanation for psychology that would be accepted by his colleagues working in physics and natural sciences.

He worked in Paris for one year in the laboratory of the man who invented the early intelligence tests-Binet-and this led him to focus on how human intelligence develops. How does the helpless baby grow into a self-reliant adult capable of abstract thought? By observing children during their development, he gained a totally new understanding of the stages through which all children-Asians, Africans, Papua New Guineans, Inuit and Europeans-progress.
He developed a method of asking young children questions-he called it the clinical method-that was in fact an in-depth interview carried out in a very careful manner. This was supported by an analysis of the reasons given by the child for its explanation of events and an understanding of the historical evolution of certain concepts.

In 1921 two of the leading intellectuals in Geneva-Edouard Clapar?de and Pierre Bovet-asked Piaget to take charge of the educational research institute at the University of Geneva. While his interviews in Paris had been conducted on children inside a hospital, back in Geneva he was able to examine children in their "real" environment, i.e. at school, and particularly the school attached to the research institute. These interviews and subsequent ones carried out in Genevan primary schools revealed to Piaget the sometimes enormous gulf between the untapped intellectual resources of the child and the frequently derisory teaching methods employed in public schools. In 1923 he became instantly famous for publishing a book on the way children speak and think. In the same year he married Valentine Ch?tenay. They would have three children on whom, inevitably, Piaget would try out his theories.
His long-term collaborator B?rbel Inhelder was, in fact, the leader of his team of psychologists, biologists and statisticians. They would work together on how children come to understand quantities, volumes, spaces, mental images and thinking in general.

In 1929, bowing to the insistence of his friend Pedro Rossell?, he accepted the directorship of the International Bureau of Education, based in Geneva. Although he was not particularly concerned with education at this time, he was obliged to become involved with the political pressures affecting educational policies and to place his prestige in the service of education at the international level. He remained at the head of this organization for nearly thirty years. This is remarkable in itself, but it is particularly noteworthy because of his well-known reluctance to involve himself with non-scientific matters. It was perhaps an opportunity to introduce better teaching methods throughout the world or to diminish the threat of war by promoting international understanding. Through his research on psychology, Piaget had learned a lot about the way the child learns. He said: "Coercion is the worst of teaching methods… Children learn by a process of trial and error… The child itself must act."

His research work on the mind of the child showed that intelligence was constructed progressively following its own laws and that it evolved throughout life passing through predictable stages before reaching the level of adulthood (see box). Piaget provided the scientific evidence that the way the child thinks and the adult thinks are completely different. He was fascinated by the idea of establishing "a sort of embryology of intelligence".
His scientific theory has subsequently been extended and modified, but this has only tended to confirm its universal relevance. More recent research into brain physiology and genetics has refined and modified Piaget’s original model. What is now known as the "Piaget-Vygotsky-Kohlberg model" (the PVK model) is widely accepted in academic circles and among the interested public (although there continue to be, in both North and South, many diehard proponents of old racist theories!). Piaget’s work spread throughout the world and, even today, continues to inspire further research work on psychology, sociology, education, economy and law.

Piaget was granted numerous honorary doctorates from various universities, as well being awarded Swiss and foreign prizes. He was the only Swiss professor to be invited to teach at the Sorbonne University in Paris where from 1952 to 1963 he gave courses on child psychology.

He died in Geneva in 1980.



Piaget’s model assumes that all humans follow the same four stages of development:
1. Babyhood: known as the "sensory-motor development phase";

2. Infancy: from about the age of 2 lasting until the age of 6 or 8. During this phase, there is the gradual acquisition of the (mother) language and social behaviour. Thinking, feeling and acting are still incomplete, highly charged with fantasy and little concerned with rules.

3. Childhood: lasting at least up to the age of 12, the child begins to grapple with concrete objects and relationships (e.g. to categorize things into groups and series). Thinking becomes reversible. The child begins to see things from the perspective of other persons and becomes less self-centred. The concept of time becomes more differentiated.

4. When-and if-the child reaches the final stage, adulthood (at the earliest at age 12), he or she is in a position to operate with concrete things and relationships, as well as with abstract concepts and symbols. Self-centredness has virtually disappeared. Empathy and moral reflexivity are strengthened.
Children in all societies achieve at least stages 2 and 3, even if they do not belong to social groups, do not attend school and do not learn to read and write. But to reach the fourth level, they must go to school. This means that:
(a) reaching the fourth stage is not the automatic result of biological maturing;
(b) the successful conclusion of the three earlier stages does not automatically lead to the fourth stage;
(c) reaching the fourth stage in any sphere of competence does not necessarily imply that the same level is reached in other domains.