Jean Piaget

(1896 - 1980)

Compiled by Faith Presnell (May 1999)

Piaget Biography
Time Line

Jean Piaget was born on August 9, 1896 in Neuchatel, Switzerland and died September 17, 1980. He was an influential experimenter and theorist in the field of developmental psychology and in the study of human intelligence. His father was devoted to his writings of medieval literature and the history of Neuchatel. Piaget learned from his father the value of systematic work, even in small matters. His mother was very intelligent, energetic, and kind, but had a rather neurotic temperament that made family life troublesome. Her mental health influenced his studies of psychology and he became interested in psychoanalysis and pathological psychology. Piaget's godfather was the Swiss scholar Samuel Cornut who nurtured in him an interest in philosophy and epistemology during his adolescence.

Piaget grew up fast and had many interests. He became interested in mechanics, birds, fossils of secondary and tertiary layers, and seashells when he was seven. And, at an early age became an active scholar. He published his first paper at age ten and by the age of 22 he had received his Ph. D. in science from the University of Neuchatel. Then in the spring of 1919, Piaget grew restless and left for le Valais where he applied Lipps' Statistical method to a biometric study of the variability of land mollusks as a function of altitude. In the autumn of 1919, he took a train to Paris where he spent two years at the Sorbonne and attended courses in pathological psychology where he learned to interview mental patients. At this time Theodore Simon asked Piaget to work at Binet's laboratory in Paris. There, he worked on refining Burt's reasoning test. This is when Piaget started to investigate the way that children reason. For about two years he analyzed the verbal reasoning of normal children by presenting them with a variety of questions and exposing them to tasks that involved simple concrete relations of cause and effect. At last, Piaget knew what he wanted to study. He wanted to work in this field of inductive and experimental psychology.

He had problems publishing some of his works due to the fact that he was so young. Throughout his life, he had many offers and advanced quickly in everything that he did. In 1921, Piaget was invited by Claparede to become the director of research at the Jean-Jacques Rousseau Institute in Geneva. Here, he could work in the field of child psychology and guide students. He planned to study the emergence of intelligence for the first two years and then return to the origins of mental health. The results of his work were published in the first five books on child psychology. It was during this time that he met Valentine Chatenay, a student of the Institute. Later he married her and she became a constant co-worker. Piaget was asked by many countries to present and discuss his ideas in front of university faculties and other teachers. However, he felt there were two short-comings of his work, which limited his work to language and expressive thought and the lack of characteristic structure-of-the-whole relative to logical operations themselves. The thing that comforted him was the fact that he found Gestalt psychology and that his theory was not a folly, but a splendid series of experiments.

In 1925, Piaget, took the chair of philosophy at the University of Neuchatel. His duties where to teach psychology, philosophy, science, a philosophy seminar, and sociology. Also at this time, his first daughter was born. His second daughter was born in 1927 and a boy followed in 1931. With the birth of his children he started to spend considerable time, with the help of his wife, observing their reactions and subjecting them to various experiments. He looked at the genesis of intelligent conduct, ideas of objective constancy, and causality. He also noted symbolic behaviors such as imitation and play. The main benefit that he derived from these studies was that Piaget learned in the most direct way how intellectual operations are prepared by sensory-motor action, long before the appearance of language. With this knowledge he changed his method of study by modifying the direction of conversation to objects that the child could manipulate by themselves. He discovered that children up to the age of twelve did not believe in the constancy of material quantity, weight, and volume of a lump of modeling clay. He had also discovered from his own children that between the age of six to ten months, they did not possess the notion of constancy and permanency of an object disappearing from view. He felt that there had to be successive stages in the development of ideas of constancy which could be studied in concrete situations rather than solely through language.

In 1929, Piaget returned to the University of Geneva where he continued his research of child psychology on a larger scale. He also studied concrete operations and finally discovered the operative structure-of-the-whole that he had been seeking for so long. To do this he analyzed children four to eight years of age in the relationship of part and whole. Piaget took on many roles during his time at Geneva and during the war, he worked faster and harder for fear that he would never finish his work. This placed him in the position to write on genetic epistemology. Although his plan had been to spend five years studying children, it ended up taking him thirty years to complete his studies.

Piaget was originally trained in the areas of biology and philosophy. He considered himself a "genetic epistimologist" with his main interest being how one comes to know things. Piaget felt that the difference between humans and animals was the fact that humans are able to do reasoning through abstract symbolism. Piaget was interested in the thought processes that underlie reasoning and felt that younger children answered differently then their older peers due to the fact that the reasoned differently. From this, he observed children of various ages and development the Process of Cognitive Development which has two major aspects: the coming to know and the stages that we move through to acquire this ability.

Piaget was an active man throughout his life. He enjoyed great fame and had many discoveries. He started out studying mollusk and then studied his own children as they developed. He worked at several universities in the departments of philosophy, child psychology, and history. Today his theory of cognitive development is used in many of the preschool and primary grade set-ups. Children in these programs are encouraged to learn through discovery. They are supported in all the things they try and challenged to try new things that are just beyond the child's ability but not to far out of their reach

To Piaget, there were several factors in a child's cognitive development. He felt that the most critical one was the interactions with a child's peers. These interactions lead to cognitive conflicts which turned into arguing and debating with their peers. This conflict requires the child to decenter themselves and look at the other person's point of view. He found that children are more free to confront ideas when working with peers compared to when they are talking to adults. Sometimes though, children find themselves working with children at the same level of development and do not argue so they do not make gains like they would when confronted with conflict.

image After watching many children, he felt that all children went through a series of four stages in the same order. Some children advanced through a stage faster than other children. The first stage that he observed was from birth to two years of age. Piaget called this the sensorimotor period. Children in this stage have a cognitive system that is limited to the motor reflexes. Then start to build on these reflexes in order to develop more sophisticated procedures through physical interactions and experiences. By seven months, a child has learned about object permanency, the knowledge that an object still exists when not in the child's view. During this stage, the child develops simple activities to a wider range of situations and coordinates them into lengthy chains of behavior. A child in this stage is just starting to realize that they are in control of their movements and this allows them to develop new intellectual abilities. They start to learn what the appropriate actions are and they begin to work on the ability to communicate with others through sounds and words that are simple to say. Children at this stage learn from their parents and care- givers. They imitate what they see and hear and experiment with muscle movements and sounds that the mouth makes.

The next stage that Piaget developed starts at about age two and lasts until the child is about six or seven years old. This stage he called the Pre-Operational Period. During this stage, children start to use mental imagery and language. Children here are very egocentric. These children view things that are happening around them in only one point of view...their's. Piaget probably found that his own children at this age could not reason why their parents felt the way they did, but only reasoned from what the children knew. Children in this stage think in a non-logical and nonreversible pattern.

The third stage that Piaget outlined was the Concrete Operational Stage. This stage starts at age six or seven and last till the child is eleven or twelve years old. In this stage, Piaget found that children are capable of taking another person's point of view and incorporating more than one perspective simultaneously. At this stage the child can see and reason with concrete knowledge but is unable to look at the abstract side of things and develop all of the possible outcomes. Children in this stage can work out story problems that do not ask for the abstract but deal with facts alone. They also understand seven types of conservation: the conservation of number, liquid, length, mass, weight, area, and volume. Their thought pattern is now logical and systematic making it easier for them to find answers to simple problems.

The final stage is the Formal Operational Stage. This stage starts about eleven or twelve and goes all the way through adulthood. People in this stage are capable of thinking logically and abstractly as well as theoretically. They use symbols that are related to the abstract concepts to complete problems. To Piaget, this was the ultimate stage of development. He also believed that even though they were here, they still needed to revise their knowledge base. Children by this stage are self motivators. They learn from reading and trying out new ideas as well as from helping friends and adults. Piaget believed that not everyone reaches this stage of development.

Time Line
Aug. 9, 1896-- Born in Neuchatel, Switzerland
1906--- Published first scientific paper
1911--- Started publishing on own
1917--- Published a philosophic novel, Recherché
1918--- Doctor's degree with a thesis on mollusks of Valais
1919--- In Paris, started to study language development in children
1921--- Started to work in child psychology
1922--- Met and married Valentine Chatenay in Geneva
1924--- Published The Language and Thought of the Child
1925--- First daughter born
1926--- Published The Child's Conception of the World
1927--- Second daughter born
1927--- Published The Child's Conception of Causality
1928--- Published Judgment and Reasoning in the Child
1929--- Appointed professor of history of scientific thought at the University of Geneva
1931--- First son born
1932--- Published The Moral Judgment of the Child
1936--- Published The Origins of Intelligence in Children
1940--- Became Director of the Psychology Laboratory
1950--- Member of the Executive Council of UNESCO
1951--- Published Play, Dreams, and Imitation in Children
1955--- Became director of International Center for Epistemology in Geneva
1958--- Published The Growth of Logical Thinking From Childhood to Adolescence
1970--- Published Carmichael's Manual of Child Psychology
1971--- Published Biology and Knowledge
1972--- Defined the four stages of intellectual development
1974--- Published The Grasp of Consciousness
1980-- Died on September 17th

Evans, R. L. (1973). Jean Piaget: The Man and His Ideas. E.P. Dutton & Co., Inc. New York.

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