Jean Piaget Life Theory And Methodology

Jean Piaget: Life, Theory, And Methodology Essay, Research Paper


Jean Piaget was born of August 9, 1896 in the town of Neuchatel, Switzerland. His father was a university history professor, and his mother was a staunch Calvinist housewife. Prior to 1930, many of his writings dealt with religious issues acquired from this background. From early childhood, however, Piaget was primarily interested in the fields of science. At age ten, Piaget published his first scientific paper on the subject of Zoology in Le Rameau de sapin, a Swiss magazine. The three paragraph article was based on an experience with an albino sparrow which young Jean had seen in the park. By age 16, Piaget s scientific research focused on mollusks, and had been published in both the Journal de la conchycologie, and Revue suisse de zoologie. His interests in natural science led him to the University of Neuchatel, where, in 1918, he obtained a doctorate degree.

However, Piaget s initial scientific interests were broader that strict science, encompassing philosophy, sociology, religion, and psychology. Piaget once said, “For my part, I decided to devote myself to philosophy as soon as I discovered it.” (Cohen) His initial work with juvenile reasoning led to a position with J.J. Rousseau Institute in Geneva in 1921. Piaget also interned in Eugen Bleuler s psychiatric clinic in Zurich and Alfred Binet s laboratory school in Paris. In the latter, he was engaged in standardized mental testing. In 1923, the Language of Thought of The Child, his first book, was published.

Eventually, Piaget became a professor of both psychology and the philosophy of science. He taught in a wide range of colleges and universities throughout France and Switzerland. In 1941, Piaget became the co-director of the Institute of Educational Sciences for the University of Geneva, in Switzerland. While in Geneva, he also founded the International Center of Genetic Epistemology in 1955. Piaget also held the position of the co-director of the International Bureau of Education. He retired from this post in 1975. Jean Piaget died shortly after his eighty-forth birthday on September 17, 1980, in Geneva Switzerland.


Piaget s theories developed from the basis that, “thought arises from action, “(Small) or nature is dominant over nurture. Piaget proves this in his stages of cognitive development, the first of which is the sensorimotor stage. The sensorimotor stage lasts form birth until two years of life. During this period, “the infant s movements, physical and intellectual lack precision and her activities and attention are dominated by external stimulation.” (Sigel & Cocking). Piaget viewed this as a purely physical stage in which children depend almost totally on their physical senses: sight, taste, touch, and hearing. During the sensorimotor stage some important developments do occur. Children develop two developmental milestones, object permanence and stranger anxiety. The sensorimotor stage, like Piaget s other stages, emphasizes that our instinct and personality are inborn, by de-emphasizing parental influence.

One of Piaget s most important theories occurred during the sensorimotor stage. It was during this time period when Piaget observed the childhood development of object permanence. Object permanence is the concept which states that when a give object passes behind another it still exists. Children under age eight monthes do no seem to possess this concept. Piget proved this through extensive experimentation with his second child, Laurent. Piaget would roll a ball back and forth in front of Laurent. Then he would roll it under a cushion. Laurent would not only lose interest in the game, but act as if the ball no longer existed. Piaget proved that this was the norm for most children, not just Laurent. Eventually, at about ten months, the child does start looking for the object, and begins grasp at object permanence.

Piaget s second developmental stage is the preoperational stage. This stage continues from age 2 until age 6. “It is not until the second stage, preoperations, that children have mental representations of object, independent of actions on the objects.” (Small) During this period, young children can begin to represent things with word and images. However they lack the logical reasoning possessed by an adult to analyze higher concepts. An important cause of this is Piaget s theory that, ” the child is egocentric, using herself as the standard of judgment and unable to take the viewpoints of other people.” (Sigel & Cocking) This egocentrism does not permit higher level thinking. The presence of these characteristics are born with, and therefore normal to, the human being.

Logical thinking begins to take place during the third stage of Piaget s theory of cognitive development, the concrete operational stage. ” the stage of concrete operations is defined by the ability to operate on and systematically manipulate these mental representation.” (Small) The logic gained during ages 7 to 11 makes it possible to perform new and more advance mental complexities, such as mathematics and analytical statements. “Classes, relations, number, conservation of quantitative in variants, logical inference, and probability, in addition to the related infralogical concepts dealing with space, geometry, time, velocity and movement, and distance,” (Klausmeier) also become comprehensible to children in the concrete operational stage. It is important to note that Piaget believed that this were natural abilities for people in this age group.

The concrete operational stage is also the birthplace of an important Piagetian theory. During this period, Piaget deduced that children gained the principle of conservation. Conservation is the principle that quantity stays the same despite changes in the shape of the objects container. Piaget would show children a liquid in a small, squat container. Then, in front of their faces, he would pour it into a tall, thin container. Piaget would then pose a question to the children. Which container possessed more liquid. It was not until about age seven, the beginning of the concrete operational stage, that children could perceive that the amount in the flasks were equal.

Piaget s final stage in cognitive development is the formal operational stage. At this time, about age 12, abstract reasoning is added to logical thinking. Abstract thinking encompasses imagined realities and symbolism. Piaget also named this as the stage when children, “become capable of solving hypothetical propositions and deducing consequences: If this, Then that. This provided a major criticism of Piaget s work. Authors have cited children as young as age seven capable of such basic, deductive reasoning.


Piaget s methodology is relatively simple. He emphasized what a person did over what they said. He also based much of his research on logic. This logic manifested itself in the hypothitico-deductive method, a relic from Piaget s classic science days. Piaget believed in hypothesizing, and the elimination of hypothesis to deduce a conclusion. However, much of Piaget s work has been criticized for his failure to follow his own principles. Some of his work on schemas has been found to be directly contradictory to earlier work on child development. Yet, he did not resolve the issue by eliminating the first hypothesis.

Much of Piaget s methodology was developed in late 1925, upon the birth of his first daughter, Jacqueline. Piaget charted much of his research with Jacqueline in The Origins of Intelligence in Children. His first observation form this work is as follows:

Observation 1: From birth, one observes an attempt to such even when there is nothing to suck. Impulsive movements of the lips accompany movements of the tongue while the arms carry out irregular gestures that are more or less, rhythmic and the head moves laterally. When the hands accidentally brush the lips, the sucking reflex is also triggered. (Cohen)

Piaget s initial observation of the sucking reflex illustrates some of his fundamental methodological techniques. First, Piaget utilized a playfully casual atmosphere with his research subject. This can better by seen in his proof of permanence with his son, Laurent. In this case, as with Laurent s, his experimentation was done at home. He also tended to construct simple experiments ,such as this one on the sucking reflex. Later experiments with Jacqueline and other children rarely proved more advanced. In one experiment, a wristwatch was placed in Jacqueline s hand while her hand was hidden from her. The watch could not be identified as bent in her had when revealed to her. Thus Piaget deduced that his daughter s hand, “is still not felt as belonging to her.” (Piaget)

Because of Piaget s firm belief in the nature principle, his work ignored some key elements of modern psychology. The children he researched were not examined according to their social class for one. Therefore, much of his work could have been tainted in the eyes of modern psychologists. The nurture side of the nature-nurture debate emphasizes childhood social environments. However, Piaget did not take this into account. His research grouped children as a whole, individualistic category, while ignoring many of the distinct differences acquired via social class.


Cocking, Rodney R.; Sigel, Irving E. Cognitive Development from Childhood to Adolescence: A

Constructivist Perspective. New York: Holt, Rinehart, and Winston, 1977.

Cohen, David. Piaget: Critique and Reassessment. New York: St. Martin s Press, 1983.

Corsini, Raymond J. Encyclopedia of Psychology. New York: John Wiley & Sons, Inc., 1994.

Klausmeier, Herbert J. Cognitive Learning and Development: Information-Processing and the Piagetian Perspectives. Cambridge, MA: Ballinger Publishing Company, 1979

Myers, David G. Psychology. New York: Worth Publishers, 1995.

Small, Melinda Y. Cognitive Development. San Diego: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, Publishers, 1990.


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