Jean Piaget: Biography, Theory and Cognitive Development
Over the course of his remarkable career of nearly 75 years, Piaget opened the doors to new information as to how the mind works. From his first publication at age 10 to his research when he passed at 84, Piaget shed light on new ideas. He developed several new fields of science including developmental psychology, cognitive theory and genetic epistemology. Piaget’s work established the foundation for today’s education-reform movements, though he himself was not an educational reformer. His works initiated changes comparable to the displacement of stories of “noble savages” and “cannibals” in modern anthropology. Piaget was the first psychologist to take children’s thinking seriously (1). A main theorist whose ideas contradicted Piaget’s ideas was Lev Vygotsky.
The Life of Jean Piaget
Jean Piaget (1896-1980) was a pioneer in the field of child psychology. He reframed the study of intellectual development during the 20th century. Born in Neuchâtel, Switzerland, on August 9, 1896, Jean was the oldest child of Arthur Piaget and Rebecca Jackson. His father was a professor of medieval literature at the University of Neuchâtel with a keen interest in local history and a dedication to education. His mother was the daughter of a prominent French family. She was intelligent but a bit neurotic— this impression sparked Piaget’s interest in psychology.
As a child, Jean was quiet and precocious. Like his father, he had a zeal for learning. He was fascinated by nature and took an interest in collecting shells which burgeoned into a more serious study of the mollusk. At ten years old, he published his first article, a short observational study on his sighting of an albino sparrow. This was only the start of his lifelong publishing success. By age 15, he had published many articles on malacology. Piaget made a name for himself in zoological circles because of these articles. European scientists assumed he was an expert in his field and did not realize he was just a high school student with a passion for mollusks.
Piaget continued to supplement his studies with a part-time job at Nuechâtel’s Museum of Natural History, where he worked with the director, Mr. Godel, to classify their collection. His focus on the hard sciences did not allow for study in, as he put it, “the demon of philosophy.”
As an older teen, with his mother’s encouragement, he began receiving religious instruction. He found the arguments posed in this sphere to be childish. The juxtaposition of religion and science caused him to have a crisis of faith. Piaget revisited this topic throughout his life.
In his continuing study of philosophy and logic, he proposed to find a “biological explanation of knowledge.” He was unsatisfied with his philosophical research, so he centered his study on psychology.
After Piaget finished high school, he continued his education in the natural sciences at the University of Neuchâtel. He then went on to earn a doctoral degree in 1918. This intense focus on education and research caused his health to decline. Piaget spent a year in the mountains to recover from tuberculosis. When he returned to Neuchâtel, he began to organize his thoughts on biology, psychology, and philosophy. This combination of viewpoints became the foundation for his life’s work.
He explains the basis for his structuralist philosophy by stating, “In all fields of life (organic, mental, social), there exist ‘totalities’ qualitatively distinct from their parts and imposing on them an organization.” This systematic organization of development would influence the Gestaltists, Systems Theorists, and many others.
He went on to study at the University of Zürich, where he spent a year working at Bleuler’s psychiatric clinic. In 1919 Piaget finally left Switzerland to work at the Sorbonne in Paris. There he taught psychology and philosophy and was exposed to the works of Freud, Jung, and other prominent psychologists.
In 1920 he was introduced to Théodore Simon at the Binet Laboratory, where they developed the methodology to test children’s intelligence and reasoning capability. However, Piaget was not satisfied with the rigid quality of the test. He began conducting his tests at a boys’ school by implementing techniques he had learned during his time at the Sorbonne. Instead of asking the children questions that highlighted what the children had learned. He asked questions that showed how the children reasoned.
Piaget returned to Switzerland In 1921, where he held the position of research director at the J.J. Rousseau Institute in Geneva. That same year, he published an article in the Journal de Psychologie discussing the psychology of intelligence. This was his first publication on the topic he would devote the rest of his life to studying. He and a group of research students worked with school-aged children to study the psychology of reasoning in young minds. This work provided the material for Piaget’s first five books on child psychology. While the research was only in its early stages, the books received high praise from the public.
In 1923, Piaget married Valentine Châtenay, a research student, and they quickly started their family. In 1925, they welcomed their first daughter, followed by a second in 1927. Their final child, a son, was born in 1931. Jean and Valentine’s children became the focus of their study into child development. The results of this research were published in three books. In 1929 he was awarded the post of director at the International Bureau of Education. A position he held until 1967.
Throughout the 30s and 40s, he worked with A. Szeminska, E Meyer, and Bäbel Inhelder. They created large-scale research studies on child psychology. This association was groundbreaking because collaboration with women in scientific research in experimental psychology was rare.
Over his life, Piaget worked at many educational institutions and sat on the board of multiple organizations. In 1940 he worked as chair of Experimental Psychology, director of the psychology laboratory, and the Swiss Society of Psychology president.
During the Nazi occupation of France in 1942, Piaget was invited to give a series of lectures at the Collège de France. He later published the information covered in these lectures in The Psychology of Intelligence.
The broader scientific community was unaware of his work until after the end of World War II. This was also when he was named President of the Swiss Commission of UNESCO.
Piaget was awarded several honorary degrees, starting with Harvard in 1936 and the Sorbonne in 1946. In 1949 he received honorary degrees from the University of Brazil and the University of Brussels as well as published his synthesis, Introduction to Genetic Epistemology.
He became a Professor of Genetic Psychology at the Sorbonne in 1952, and in 1955 he opened the International Center for Genetic Epistemology. He continued to expand his influence by creating the School of Sciences at the University of Geneva.
His research on the general theory of structures and using biology as a lens to view psychology continued even as he wore the hats of professor, director, chairman, and president. Additionally, his dedication to public service was evidenced by his role as the Swiss delegate to UNESCO. By the end of his prolific career, he had written over 60 books and hundreds of articles.
On September 16, 1980, Jean Piaget died in Geneva. He remains one of the most influential psychologists of the twentieth century. His scientific research spanned nearly 75 years, starting as a small boy of 10 and continuing until his death at 84. He changed how scientists view psychology by creating new fields of study, including developmental psychology, cognitive theory, and genetic epistemology.
Piaget’s research illuminated the process by which we learn and grow. This new way of understanding children was anathema to the previous philosophy. It could be compared to the change in anthropologists’ early perception of primitive cultures to their more modern view.
While Piaget’s work was not directly related to elementary education, he provided a new template for understanding the development of knowledge in children. This, in turn, provided a basis for educational reform. This thoughtful approach was revolutionary.
John Dewey in the U.S., Maria Montessori in Italy, and Paulo Freire in Brazil— used Piaget’s research to support their goals for positive change in schools worldwide. His influence was not just on large-scale reformers. Generations of teachers implemented new teaching strategies to support children’s exploration, creativity, and testing as opposed to the traditional pedagogy of filling empty vessels (4).
Sigmund Freud and B.F. Skinner may have more name recognition, but Piaget’s contribution to the world is possibly more wide-reaching. As the information superhighway increases children’s access to a broader range of knowledge, his ideas about how children learn become increasingly relevant.
See also: Merrill’s Principles Of Instruction
Jean Piaget’s Theory
Jean Piaget had a keen interest in biology. During his teen years, the scientific community highly respected his research in malacology. His passion for science and its history eventually eclipsed his interest in mollusks. While studying the natural sciences, his curiosity about the development of the mind grew, specifically the development of knowledge (5).
He found that the research in this area of psychology was lacking, which led him to create a uniquely focused branch of study that he termed genetic epistemology, which means the study of the development of knowledge.
In his observation of infants, he noted that they had simple methods for interacting with objects in their environment. These sensory-motor skills were how infants explored and grew their knowledge. With repetition, they could increase the complexity of their methods. These skills he called schemas.
An infant knows how to grasp a toy and put it in his mouth. This is an example of a successful schema. When he comes across a similar object, a new toy, he can apply this “grab and taste” schema to the new object. Piaget defined assimilation as applying a learned schema to a new object.
When the infant encounters an entirely different type of object, a dog, she will apply this current schema of “grab and taste.” The old schema will not work as well, so the schema will be adapted to the new object. “Grab and taste” becomes “grab and yank.” Applying an old schema to a new object is called accommodation.
Piaget called the process of assimilation and accommodation, adaptation, which is just another way to describe learning. Unlike Behaviorists, Piaget saw adaptation as a biological process. A child’s grip must accommodate a ball while sand is assimilated into their grip. All living things adapt, whether plant or animal.
Assimilation and accommodation work together, each affecting the other to progress the understanding of our environment and how we navigate through it. By working in tandem, these forces seek to balance the organization of the mind with the environment. Achieving a balance indicates that the individual has a firm understanding of their world. This balanced state is, Piaget called, equilibrium.
In his observation of children, Piaget noticed a pattern. Sometimes assimilation was the driver, while other times, it was accommodation. There were also intervals of relative equilibrium. He recognized a similarity in when and how these assimilation, accommodation, and equilibrium intervals appeared among all his test subjects. With this information, he developed the idea of stages of cognitive development. This concept influenced the foundation of child psychology.
Piaget’s 4 Stages of Cognitive Development
Age ranges can be affected by a child’s experiences and environment. Cultural expectations of age-appropriate behaviors vary widely. Therefore these age ranges are only approximate. Four key features define the thinking pattern of these “stages” (2):
- Stages are completed in order.
- Children do not skip any of the stages. All stages are completed.
- Stages are significant transformations beyond the previous stage. In other words, each stage shows a significant transformation from the previous stage.
- Stages incorporate the previous stages into itself. In other words, each subsequent stage incorporates the earlier stages (3).
From birth to 2 years, infants begin with the awareness of their immediate surroundings. Focusing on what they see and do with no understanding of consequences.
- Perceives the world in terms of physical actions on their environment
- Move from instinctive reflexes to a planned set of actions.
2. Preoperational Reasoning
From 2 years to 7 years old, young children develop the ability to think about abstract concepts. Language continues to mature. They use memory and imagination to help them with the concepts of the past, present, and future. They engaged in make-believe play.
- Cataloging a library of permanent objects
- Using symbols to represent objects and events
- Language develops quickly through imaginative play
- Cooperative play and games with rules emerge as children gain experience navigating social groups
3. Concrete operational
From age 7 to 11 years, children show logical and concrete reasoning. Thinking becomes less egocentric, and their awareness of external events advances. Begin to Understand the concept of internal thoughts and feelings as personal and possibly not part of reality.
- Reasoning skills in children are more logical.
- Thinking becomes global, dynamic, and reversible
- Objects and people can be organized into hierarchies.
- Continuing to develop a theory of mind but may still struggle with the perspective of others
- Accounting for intentions in their moral judgments
4. Formal operational (abstract thinking)
From 11 years old and on, adolescents can apply symbols to abstract concepts like math and science. They employ systematic thinking to postulate theories and consider possibilities. They can understand abstract relationships and concepts such as justice. (4).
- Systematic thinking and reasoning about abstract concepts, with an understanding of ethics and scientific reasoning
- Can generate hypotheses
- Moral reasoning includes the understanding that rules are a result of mutual agreement
Age ranges are approximate, and these are determined by the child’s experiences and its environment. Due to culture variation, children’s abilities across cultures vary. Through his ingenious and revealing questions posed to his own children and others, Piaget developed his conclusions about child development. He devised simple problems for children to consider. He then analyzed their responses, sometimes mistaken, and formed a picture of their way of viewing the world (6).
Over the course of 60 years, Jean Piaget created a study of naturalistic research that shifted the foundational understanding of child development. With a background in Biology and Philosophy, he was able to combine concepts from both to construct new theories and research methods for studying child development. Piaget incorporated his observations of his own children along with other subjects to reach his conclusions (3).
He was interested in the process of how children attain knowledge, so Piaget named his general theoretical framework “genetic epistemology” He developed his cognitive theory by observing how children answered a question or set of questions. He devised clever and leading questions about simple problems. He allowed the questions to be flexible. This allowed him to follow a child’s reasoning and form a more complete picture of how they view the world. Piaget believed that the spontaneous comments the children interjected showed a light on their thought processes. There were no right or wrong answers, only the observation of a child’s use of logic and reasoning.
- Richmond, R. G. (2013). Introduction to Piaget. Routledge.
- Papert, S. (1999). Papert on piaget. Time magazine, pág, 105.
- Duckworth, E. (1964). Piaget rediscovered. The Arithmetic Teacher, 11(7), 496-499.
- Gruber, H. E., & Vonèche, J. J. (Eds.). (1977). The essential Piaget (pp. 435-436). London: Routledge & Kegan Paul.
- Smith, L. (2002). Jean Piaget 1896–1980. In Fifty modern thinkers on education (pp. 37-44). Routledge.
- Webb, P. K. (1980). Piaget: Implications for teaching. Theory into practice, 19(2), 93-97.
See also: Gagne’s Nine Events Of Instruction