Most lists with the names of the great thinkers of the twentieth century would include that of Jean Piaget. His ideas undoubtedly revolutionised our understanding of how children’s learning progresses. But does his vast body of work still have validity today?
Jean Piaget never saw himself as an educator. As an academic he has variously been described a psychologist, a sociologist, a philosopher, a biologist, a constructivist and a structuralist. He described himself as a ‘genetic epistemologist’ – someone who was primarily interested in how knowledge develops in human organisms. But this writer and researcher, whose work over 60 years entailed talking to children – playing with and questioning them, always trying to understand their thinking – was possibly being disingenuous. Without a doubt, his influence first and foremost has been with educators, whether or not he chose to count himself as one.
He was first published at the age of eleven with a study of the albino sparrow. By the age of twenty-one, he had published twenty papers on molluscs - a lifelong interest. Indeed, it has been said that “Piaget's work on children's intellectual development owed much to his early studies of water snails” (Satterly). At university, he studied Natural Sciences and Philosophy - for the latter, two essays he wrote are seen as embryonic to his future modes of thinking. "To consecrate my life to the biological explanation of knowledge..." this was his lofty aim and one which would spawn over sixty books and several hundred articles.
He worked for a year in a boys’ institution in Paris standardising tests to gauge the reasoning abilities of five- to eight-year-olds before returning to his native Switzerland to become director of studies at the Jean-Jacques Rousseau Institute in Geneva. This was the first of many chairs he was to occupy for the remainder of his life - sometimes more than one simultaneously - culminating in 1955 when he became director of the International Centre for Genetic Epistemology which he set up and ran until his death in 1980.
The Four Stages
A central tenet of his work maintained that children think differently from adults. According to Albert Einstein, this was “so simple, only a genius could have thought of it.” In his systematic studies of cognitive development, as someone keenly interested in the reasons why children give the wrong answers where logical thinking is needed, Piaget developed a theory that children go through four stages of development. These are:
- The Sensorimotor stage
- The Preoperational stage
- The Concrete operational stage
- The Formal operational stage
The sensorimotor stage, in which the infant’s awareness of the world comes through the sensory perceptions and motor activities, lasts from birth until the age of two. Skills they are born with like looking, sucking, grasping and listening are utilised here - sucking and looking in the first month leading to mental operations towards the end of this stage where the capacity for symbolic reasoning allows them to learn language.
This stage is characterised by extreme egocentrism. Children, initially with a perception that the world only exists according to their own current point of view, will come to understand that objects exist independently. In a game of Peek-a-Boo, a child in the early part of this stage will assume that the hidden object no longer exists. Object permanence – an understanding that it does and can be reached for – will be a factor marking the end of the sensorimotor stage.
The preoperational stage affects children from approximately the ages of two until seven. While children cannot yet understand concrete logic, mentally manipulate information or take the point of view of other people (egocentrism), this is the time of language development. Children will use symbols in their play at this stage.
The children are still egocentric, but by the end of the preoperational stage will have begun to move away from this mode of thinking. In 1956, Piaget and Inhelder devised the Three Mountains test where a doll is placed in a 3-D model of three very distinct mountains. The child is then shown several photos of the model and has to determine which one shows the doll’s point of view.
When the concrete operational stage arrives, at about the age of seven and lasting until the age of eleven, children begin to think logically and recognise rules about concrete events without necessarily understanding abstract or hypothetical concepts. The concrete operational child will understand that others will have different perspective from their own, possibly though without understanding what those perspectives are.
Children in the earlier part of this stage would have difficulties perceiving that the same quantity of liquid in two differently-shaped containers is actually the same. Calling this notion conservation, Piaget would take this one step further with tests in which children would visualise the number of counters spread out in different ways. And if you had a third eye where would you put it? Children at the concrete operational stage would probably say the forehead.
Finally, the formal operational stage from the age of about twelve and lasting into adulthood is the one which allows for abstract thinking, deductive and proportional reasoning and systematic planning. At this stage, children should be able to consider a range of possibilities, take a systematic approach to problems, make predictions and revise their thinking and hypotheses when new evidence is found.
...And children at this final stage would be more likely to want to put the third eye on the hand in order to help them see round corners!
According to Piaget, every child’s cognitive development goes through these stages in the same order – not that he saw the process as either smooth or predictable. As Patricia Miller wrote in 2002, ‘Piaget’s main claims concerned the sequence in which behaviours are acquired rather than the particular ages, which he thought would vary. Thus, showing that an ability emerged earlier than Piaget claimed is not necessarily damaging to his theory’. He sees each one of them as discrete with building blocks or schemas which enable transition from one stage to another. These schemas, we store and use when needed. They are the means of organising knowledge.
"Children,” he wrote,” 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." A child is in a state of equilibrium when the existing schemas are sufficient to explain what it perceives around it. For example, sucking or grasping would be seen as a schema in a baby in the sensorimotor stage. When the existing schema does not work, then accommodation is necessary. This occurs when the schema needs to be changed to handle a new object or situation. Piaget called this process assimilation. Initially, the child may find itself in an uncomfortable state of disequilibrium but through a force called equilibration, it is capable of adapting to this new set of schemas. Cognitive growth is a constant shift between states of equilibrium and equilibration.
The influence of Jean Piaget has been enormous. In British education, the Plowden Report of 1967, which led to a radical revision of the primary curriculum, drew heavily upon his work. Not just through discovery learning with active exploration encouraged but by setting down the age when it was considered that certain concepts and information should be taught. The Plowden Report set the seal of approval for student-centred, collaborative learning still very much in evidence today.
Given the extent to which Piaget was a multi-disciplinary thinker, it is hardly surprising that academics in many fields have adapted his ideas. Lawrence Kohlberg’s stages of moral development owe a significant debt to Piaget. His ideas have also influenced modern theories about developmental psychology, evolution, philosophy, primatology, historical studies of thought and cognition and artificial intelligence.
But Piaget has many detractors. Vygotsky and Bruner question the concept of stages, seeing development as continuous. The age ranges within the stages Piaget proposed have been criticised by others, in particular concerning four to five-year-olds who are now seen as having a much greater level of sophistication that he envisaged. Tests by McGarrigle and Donaldson (1974) showed that the concept of conservation was understood by significantly younger children than Piaget ever conceived. Indeed, his tests – in particular the Three Mountains test - have been criticised as lacking validity because they make no sense to the children.
Indeed Piaget, who only ever worked with his own children and those of colleagues after his return from Paris, is considered to have ignored social setting and culture. Furthermore, his research methods have also been criticised as too subjective, with a non-standardised question-and-answer technique tailored to the individual. He worked with small samples and usually without collaborators to validate his data and conclusions.
But, unquestionably, Piaget has been a major influence in modern education. According to Lourenço and Machado, 1996, his original model has proven to be remarkably robust. This, however, is a minority view, especially as in later years even Piaget’s own analysis of the four discrete stages was showing a much greater fluidity of approach.
It is the overall vision of an original thinker which still astounds us with its simplicity and insight. And the enormous amount of research that his work has generated across a wide range of disciplines is testament to its endurance.
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