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Jean Piaget (9 August 1896–17 September 1980) was an eminent 20th century psychologist. His multidisciplinary work pioneered advances in the study of child development. Piaget’s lifelong pursuit to develop a biological understanding of how children learn spanned almost 75 years. He explored children’s thought processes, which he used to construct a theory of cognitive development. His influence on the fields of psychology, education, and epistemology has been pervasive. The wealth of his insights into children’s reasoning was described by Albert Einstein (Furth 1969, 6) as, “The idea of a genius, such simplicity.”

Jean Piaget was born in Neuchatel, Switzerland, the oldest child of Arthur Piaget, and Rebecca Jackson. When he was 10 years old, he “launched” his academic career with a published note about spotting an albino sparrow in the Journal of Natural History of Neuchatel. This article foreshadowed a brilliant career of careful observation that led to the publication of more than 90 books and 500 articles.

Piaget was introduced to the biological sciences as an adolescent through his study of mollusks. By the time he graduated from high school, he was a well-known malacologist among European scholars, who often assumed he was an adult. His interest in natural sciences and the classification of mollusks continued at the University of Neuchatel, at which he obtained his doctorate in zoology at the age of 21.

After he moved to Zurich, Piaget developed an interest in psychoanalysis through the writings of Sigmund Freud and the lectures of Carl Jung. Piaget left Switzerland for France, where he worked at a boys’ institution, École de la rue de la Grange-aux-Belles, co-founded by Alfred Binet and Theodore Simon. Working in the Simon-Binet experimental psychology laboratory, Piaget focused on intelligence testing. Simon asked him to standardize the reasoning tests developed by British psychologist Cyril Burt. Applying intelligence testing to Parisian children, Piaget became fascinated by the patterns of answers he found among children of similar ages. Piaget (Evans 1973, 119) explained the process through which he interacted with these children, “I engaged my subjects in conversations patterned after psychiatric questioning, with the aim of discovering something about the reasoning process underlying their right, but especially their wrong answers. . . . This marked the end of my “theoretical” period and the start of an inductive and experimental era in the psychological domain which I always had wanted to enter.”

At the age of 24, Piaget found what was to be his life-long work—the thought processes that change throughout children’s development. Piaget’s finding that logic is not innate but developed over time was published in Archives de Psychologie in 1921. Sir Edouard Claparede, recognizing the power of Piaget’s article, invited Piaget to be the director of studies at the Jean-Jacques Rousseau Institute in Geneva. At the J.-J. Rousseau Institute, which was renowned for its educational research, Piaget began to study children’s language and reasoning processes.

During his career, Piaget worked at numerous universities and organizations, including his alma mater, Neuchatel University, at which he chaired psychology, sociology, and history of sciences from 1925–1929. He then moved to Geneva, where he taught the history of scientific thought at the University of Geneva (1929–39) and served as director of the International Bureau of Education from 1929–1967. In the years 1952–63, Piaget was the first non-Frenchman since Erasmus in 1530 to hold a professorial chair at the Sorbonne. In 1955, he founded the International Center for Genetic Epistemology to enable scholars from different disciplines to research problems of human knowledge collaboratively. Piaget directed the Center and remained active in its research until his death.

Piaget’s research was an expansive investigation into children’s ways of thinking, from language development and behavior to the growth of knowledge. He understood intelligence as the individual’s ability to adapt to the world around him or her. The child’s process of adaptation is accomplished through assimilation and accommodation. Piaget defined assimilation as fitting new information into one’s existing way of understanding. Accommodation is altering one’s mental mode of understanding, or schemas, to fit the new information. He understood development to be a series of assimilation and accommodation, fitting new information into one’s current schemas, or modifying one’s schemas to make room for entirely new information.

According to Piaget, children develop knowledge by their continued invention and construction of reality out of their active participation in the world. Piaget did not believe that knowledge is a static entity available to children. He held that children’s minds are no less capable than adults’—just different in thinking processes. Children’s ways of thinking reflect logic and an underlying structure related to their ongoing development.

From his background in biology, psychology, and philosophy, Piaget became fascinated with the nature of thought itself. He named this interest Genetic Epistemology, the study of how knowledge develops within the individual. As Piaget (Evans 1973, xlii) explained, “Genetic epistemology deals with the formation and meaning of knowledge and with the means by which the human mind goes from a lower level of knowledge to one that is judged to be higher.” Genetic Epistemology became the central question and passion for Piaget.

Considering the significance of Piaget’s theories for educators and the breadth of his work, he wrote very little on the specific topic of education. Piaget published The Science of Education and the Psychology of the Child in 1970 and To Understand Is to Invent: the Future of Education in 1973. He argued that most conventional schools were too restrictive and imposing for most children, perceiving children to be empty vessels to be filled with facts. He saw creative and fluid environments as playing a significant role in the development of the mind by enabling children to be the architects of their own development. According to Piaget, children learn spontaneously out of their own needs and interests (McNally 1973). As Piaget (Duckworth 1964, 5) stated, “The principal goal of education is to create men who are capable of doing new things, not simply repeating what other generations have done—men who are creative, inventive, and discoverers. The second goal of education is to form minds which can be critical, can verify, and not accept everything they are offered. . . . So we need pupils who are active, who learn early to find out by themselves, partly by their own spontaneous activity and partly through material we set up for them; who learn early to tell what is verifiable and what is simply the first idea to come to them.”

Piaget continued to research until his death. From the classifying of mollusks at an early age to outlining concepts of child development, Piaget’s life was a constant investigation into the way things grow. Called the “Einstein of psychology” (Vidal 1994, 1), Piaget developed revolutionary theories that made him one of the leading theoreticians and experimental researchers of his time.

During his lifetime, Piaget received more than 30 honorary doctorates and acknowledgements from countries around the world. He received numerous honors, including an award from the American Psychological Association for his contributions to psychology. He also was named president of the Swiss Society of Psychology and the International Union of Scientific Psychology. Piaget’s work continues to influence the fields of education, psychology, epistemology, economics, and law.

His significance as a researcher can be seen in his early efforts to learn. Part of his motivation to publish his first article about an albino sparrow was to have the librarian take him seriously and give him access to the university library. This theme persisted as he worked throughout his life to take children and their thinking seriously. As a scholar, he gained access to numerous fields, which he used to pursue his singular question: How does knowledge grow?

Contributed by Torran I. Anderson, The University of Texas at Austin

Duckworth, E. 1964. Piaget rediscovered: A report of the conference on cognitive studies and curriculum development. Paper presented at the Cognitive Studies and Curriculum Development Conference, March, Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University.

Evans, R. I. 1973. Dialogue with Jean Piaget. New York: Dutton.

Furth, H. G. 1969. Piaget and knowledge. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall.

Inhelder, B., and J. Piaget. (trans. A. Parsons and S. Milgram) 1958. The growth of logical thinking from childhood to adolescence: An essay on the construction of formal operational structures. London, England: Routledge and Kegan Paul.

Jean Piaget Archives Foundation. 1989. The Jean Piaget bibliography. Geneva, Switzerland: JPAF.

McNally, D. W. 1973. Piaget, education and teaching. Sydney, Australia: Angus and Robertson.

Vidal, F. 1994. Piaget before Piaget. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press.

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