Piaget's Wanderjahre

A. Michael Maclean
Department of Psychology
Simon Fraser University

Assessing the impact of Piaget's work upon developmental psychology is a little like assessing the impact of the automobile in American society in 2000 words or less.
David Elkind

Jean Piaget (1896-1980) has written so many books and articles on such a wide range of topics that there are probably very few people, besides his closest companions, who ever read all of them. Piaget showed great promise as a young lad and went on to fulfill these early expectations. He, beyond any other, has had a tremendous impact on the psychology of child development. Though he died in 1980, he continues to be the most well known psychologist in his field. Many educators cite his work as justification for certain curricula (Almy, 1979). Through his studies with children, he uncovered a never before seen part of the child's mind, early cognitive understanding. Although Piaget is considered one of the 'great theorists' in psychology, alongside Freud and Skinner, he was never as dogmatic as the latter two. He called himself the "chief revisionist" of his theories (Piaget, 1973, p160).

Piaget's Early Knowledge

Piaget gained early recognition in the scientific community, when, at the age of ten, he had the good fortune to have observed a rare part-albino sparrow. He immediately scrawled a description of the bird, and sent it away to a scientific journal, which, subsequently published this note, a beginning that remains unparalleled. Soon following this favorable event, he was taken on as an apprentice to the director of the Musée d'hisoire naturelle (Museum of Natural History), Paul Godet, in Neuchâtel, Piaget's home town. He would go on, under the tutelage of the curator, to collect and study mollusks; and after publishing many papers on the subject, had gained a respectable reputation in biology. So much so that he was offered the position of curator of mollusks at the museum in Geneva. Of course, Piaget, being only sixteen at the time, thought it appropriate that he finish high school first (Elkind, 1979).

During his youth, Piaget's mother frequently fell ill, both physically and mentally. His father could be described as an austere and methodical man. In a home such as this, most children would have become bitter and impotent; Piaget "became a serious and industrious child who displayed scholarly promise" (Gardner, 1972, p. 52). His mother was a believing Protestant and, conversely, his father an atheist. Being caught between these two opposing forces left Piaget with "the spirit of freethinking" that is evident in his writings (Piaget, 1973, p. 110). Nevertheless, he spent a year in the Swiss Alps attempting to reconcile his Protestant beliefs with his hunger for science. It was only after his Godfather introduced to him the idea of creative-evolution, through the writings of Henri Bergson, that he was able to come to terms with his religious beliefs.

The identification of God with life itself was an idea that stirred me almost to ecstasy because it now enabled me to see in biology the explanation of all things and of the mind itself (Piaget, 1973, p. 111).

During this time of identity crisis he wrote his first book, Recherché. When looking back upon this "exercise of his spiritual Wanderjahre (wonderful year)" many years later, he found all of the ideas that came to guide his research (Gardner, 1972, p. 52).

He would graduate from the University of Neuchâtel with a doctorate in the natural sciences. Under the guidance Arnold Reymond, whom Piaget has frequently mentioned, his studies consisted of both biology and philosophy (Gardner, 1972). Piaget had gained an enthusiasm for philosophy ever since reading La philosophie de la religion fondée sur la psychologie et l'histoire, by Auguste Sabatier, which he found in his father's library (Piaget, 1973). He also read Durkheim and shows his loyalty, in the idea that morality arose from our need for interpersonal cooperation (Gardner 1972), or what Piaget refers to as mutual respect (Piaget, 1995).

Following his graduation, he went to work with Theodore Simon, who had help Binet develop his intelligence test for school children. Piaget's task was to further refine the test. However, it was not whether the child correctly answered that he found intriguing, but what was answered incorrectly, and the reasons given why they had done so.

Piaget had an intense desire to understand the acquisition of epistemic structures in human beings, however, he lacked the subjects to study. So, he did do what "biologists do when they cannot constitute a phylogenetic series, they study ontogenesis" (Piaget, 1973, p. 48). He would study children of different ages, with respect to their understanding of the physical, biological and social worlds. He planned to spend a mere five years on his study of knowledge. However, it would take the next forty years before his genetic epistemology was mature enough that he could return to more general questions (Munari, 1985).

Clearly, there is a great deal influence from Darwinian theory on Piaget's work in epistemology. The key to genetic epistemology is the idea of equilibration or self-regulation - stimuli from the environment are assimilated into the current cognitive structures, thereby, transforming those structures to accommodate the new stimulus (Evans, 1973). The inception of this idea arose from his experiments with the mollusks. He observed how they would adapt when placed in some of the more turbulent waters surrounding Neuchâtel.

The (Mis)construction of Piaget

Piaget extended the biological concept of epigenesis to cognitive processes. This is where we truly see a Hegelian focus. Piaget understood knowledge to be in a never ending constructive and re-constructive process, whereby, with each passing experience an individual's knowledge is re-written and quite different from the moment before. Erikson later used the same principle in his psycho-social theory of development. Erikson drew a great deal of inspiration from Piaget's concepts (Paranjpe, in press). The concepts of accommodation and assimilation have received the most attention. Most introductory psychology text books contain definitions of these key terms. Accommodation takes place when the environment impinges on the mind and the schemes accommodate (or rearrange) to fit this information. Assimilation, on the other hand, manipulates stimuli to fit the already existent schemes. However, it is by "regulating the equilibrium between assimilation and accommodation" that a person avoids "becom[ing] rigid and non-adaptive" (Paranjpe, in press, p. 4). Equilibration is probably the most misunderstood part of Piaget's theory. Much of this misunderstanding is due to the fact that Piaget wrote most of his work in French. There is, after all, a lack of meaningful English words to give justice to the translation; this has resulted in an oversimplification much of the time (Emling, 1977). John Emling was not abasing the English language, only its shortcomings in translating from French to English, or from any language to another for that matter. Also, most of what was translated were his earlier works from the twenties and thirties; it took quite some time before any of his later work was translated (Sutherland, 1992). Furthermore, though he is often mistaken for one, he was not necessarily a child psychologist; his real interest lied in epistemology. He used children's development as a means of understanding the human acquisition of knowledge. Many have criticized his use of the clinical (interview) method in his experimentation of children.

In America, as recently as ten years ago, Piaget was seen as a quaint old man who sat around on the shores of Swiss lakes talking to children about the nature of the physical world (Elkind, 1973, pxxxiv).

Albert Einstein, however, thought Piaget to be a genius (Gardner, 1972). Piaget's ideas are only just reaching their full potential in North America. His earlier acceptance was probably belated by the impact that behaviorists, such as B. F. Skinner, had on the psychological community. To speak of anything other than the environment was a severe violation of behaviorism.

An Equilibrated Piaget

Piaget was dismissed by many of his contemporaries for being too philosophical; on the other hand, many philosophers saw him as too scientific. Piaget saw himself balancing between the two extremes. "His scientific work...stresses antipositivistic conclusions; in his own theoretical approach, however, he continues to ask questions that, until now, only philosophers ask" (Emling, 1977, p. 271). Yet, these questions, as such, were what Piaget viewed as his purpose - he would raise the questions that only he could, from his interdisciplinary vantage (Piaget, 1973). He had attained both an outsider's and an insider's perspective on psychology.

Piaget's theory of knowledge can be seen as taking this middle ground as well. Knowledge, according to genetic epistemology, is neither as indeterminate as Hume had thought, nor as trustworthy as Plato had claimed it to be (Emling, 1977). There are some similarities between Piaget's theory of knowledge acquisition and the Gestaltist's hypotheses. For example, Piaget believed that what we experience is not raw but arranged by our intelligence and our previous knowledge (Elkind, 1973). Between the years of 1921 and 1925, Piaget discovered Gestalt psychology and was surprised to see how close it was to his own notions. "If I had known at the time (1913-1915) the work of Wertheimer and of Köhler, I would have become a Gestaltist" (Piaget, 1973, p. 115). Piaget was seen as introducing the idea of innate knowledge structures, in the sense that, children start with innate reflexes. At this time, America and England had become strictly environmental, whereas, the rest of Europe was still very much focused on inherent theories of human behavior. Piaget was not so nativistic as his contemporaries; he asserted a more Hegelian view. As mentioned earlier, our "categories [of knowing] undergo change in the course of individual development" (Elkind, 1979, p. 6). The idea of innate reflexes does not suggest that there exists a mind pre-forma. It is only these reflexes that are built-in at birth. Indeed, Piaget has provided a superior explanation of human epistemology, than Locke, without subscribing to a pre-formed mind, as did Kant.

There is a long running debate between British Empiricists, represented by Locke, and the Contenentalists, represented by Kant. Locke postulated that all knowledge comes from the environment; the mind at birth is blank (tabula rasa). Conversely, Kant believed that all knowledge comes from inherited categories of understanding, awaiting discovery. Behaviorism follows directly from a Lockean perspective. There are no direct descendants of Kant. Piaget has given a theory that synthesizes these two philosophical poles, in the same way that human beings accommodate and assimilate to reach equilibration.

Piaget's "Dreams"

While he was attempting to topple the behaviorist movement on one continent he also attacked the psychoanalytic view on the other. Freudian psychoanalysis had reached its height at the time when Piaget was beginning to be recognized in the European circles. Piaget tried out psychoanalysis for six months, between attaining his Doctorate and working with Simon. Piaget went as far as to write a paper on dreams and present it at the 1922 Congress of Psychoanalysis in Berlin. Of this experience Piaget wrote:

They looked only at Freud, to find out whether...he was happy with what was being said. When Freud smiled, everybody in the room smiled; when Freud looked serious, every body in the room looked serious (Piaget, 1973, p. 3).

Piaget (1973) found Psychoanalysis to be of little interest. "I have always preferred the workings of the intellect to the tricks of the unconscious" (p. 249). In fact, he predicted that with further work on endocrinology most of the psychoanalytic view would be declared a myth. To a great degree this prophetic statement has been fulfilled. Piaget, like Erikson, never accepted the deterministic view that dominated Freudian Psychoanalysis. Piaget viewed the child as an autonomous being; this idea had a profound effect on education.

An Accommodating Classroom

When Eleanor Duckworth questioned Piaget as to why he was having such a dramatic effect on education, he replied, "It's a mystery to me. I don't know what happened. In Geneva no one pays any attention" (Emling, 1977, p. 249). It was during the late fifties and early sixties that Piaget was truly discovered for the genius that he was. Much of this has to do with the Zeitgeist in North America at the time. With he Russian Sputnik, alongside, the civil rights movement, came the launching of Piaget's acceptance (Elkind, 1979). The traditional theories offered very little to the educational community, in the way of visionary insights into learning. Neither the government, nor the public envisaged the current pedagogy as proficient in its role. Americans also saw a moral decline in the nineteen-sixties which had them turning to Piaget's earlier work on moral development (Evans, 1979). The late Lawrence Kohlberg (1963) is often accounted with picking up the baton, from where Piaget's moral theorizing left off. However, in many ways Kohlberg, also, misunderstood Piagetian theory (Youniss & Damon, 1992). Kohlberg did much of his theorizing from Piaget's (1932) The Moral Judgment of the Child and from Piaget's work on cognitive development. It was not until 1995 that there was published an article that properly reflected Piagetian moral theory (Piaget, 1995).

Ironically, B. F. Skinner, with his book Science and Human Behavior, helped opened the door for Piagetian theory. Skinner challenged psychology's need to fashion itself after physics (Elkind, 1979). Instead, Skinner's theories were more analogous to engineering. This may account for why Piaget, early on, was sometimes mistaken for a maturationist or a learning theorist. With Skinner's seeming nominal consent, many behaviorists began to adopt some of Piaget's theories, perhaps in an effort to validate themselves in the ensuing pedagogical climate. A book, by J. M. Hunt, Intelligence and Experience, brought to the forefront some of Piaget's ideas and subsequently influenced the federal early childhood education programs in the sixties (Almy, 1979). Piaget often presented normal, everyday children, which contributed to the belief that he had captured something essentially true (Elkind, 1979). The full impact on school curricula was not seen until the seventies when books such as Teacher's Petite Piaget (Charles, 1974) were published. These books penetrated to the deepest level of curricula planning; they were used by the teachers themselves. However, once again; Piaget was misinterpreted; both books were merely another's impressions and neither were long enough to explain the intricacies of Piagetian theory. Furthermore, although his theories held definite implications for pedagogy, teachers failed to "distinguish between school curriculum on the one hand and a developmental curriculum on the other" (Almy, 1979, p. 10). Although Piaget never saw himself as a pedagogue, he certainly new of the implications his theory could have on early childhood education. It is only now that child psychology texts are examining equilibration, even though, Piaget considered it a fundamental concept in education. Millie Almy (1979) suggests that it was due to the influx of individuals from different theoretical backgrounds into early childhood education that made them more self-conscious of their theory. Thus they ignored any of the "intuitive wisdom developed in the preceding 50 years" (Almy, 1979, p. 177). However, some teachers have intuitively grasped the concept and had put it into practice in the classroom.

The other concept that Piaget stressed was activity - a child being able to manipulate their environment. Yet, Piaget was saying nothing new; this the same sentiment that had been expressed by John Dewey (Almy, 1979). Piaget was trying to make the point that children learn best from being in direct contact with their environment. However, it was misconstrued as, children being in complete control of themselves. There is a fine line between these two statements. We can perhaps see the influence and the misnomers of this statement in the "set your own pace" classrooms of the seventies. Looking at the classroom would probably be the most appropriate way of assessing Piaget's influence on education. However, one would have to go into every classroom and examine the implicit qualities of the teaching and the administrative philosophies, obviously infeasible. Therefore, his legacy is perhaps the most evident indicator of the impression he has had.

An Honorable Legacy

He was head of the International Bureau of Education of the Institute J. J. Rousseau until his retirement in 1974. He had also been a professor at the University of Geneva, since 1929. Over the course of his life, he was awarded honorary degrees from more than eight universities, including an honorary Doctorate from Harvard, before his fortieth birthday. The Jean Piaget Society, formed in 1971, continues to meet to discuss everything from epistemology to pedagogy. It seemed unavoidable that his theories would eventually affect the pre-school and kindergarten levels as well. A true measure of the impact of his intellections is, to what extent he is being taught at the university level, in child development programs. In 1969, L' Abate's citation count showed Piaget to have the highest number of citations in child development; in 1977 he was the most quoted person in research (34%); Skinner was second (Murry, 1979).

Jean Piaget was a simple, yet highly intelligent, Swiss philosopher and psychologist who wished to understand knowledge and the acquisition of it. However, his humble interests have had a profound impact on more than just epistemology. He has affected everything from child psychology to school age care (for an example see Steve Musson, 1994). His name is spoken by both psychology professors and parents alike. Yet, it is only now, seventeen years after his death, that the zeitgeist again has people looking to Piaget for the answers. With dropping SAT scores and the despondency of Generation X, people look to Piaget, once again, to teach us how to teach. Piaget's, sometimes, ethereal conjecture into epistemology finds a most practical application in the classroom and most everywhere else that children are concerned.


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