Jean Piaget (1896-1980)

Just as Freud changed our understanding of human sexuality, Piaget broadened our understanding of human cognition’s and intelligence’s adaptive thought and action. Within psychology, the concept of intelligence has always been associated with individual differences, mental testing, and the IQ. For Piaget, in contrast, intelligence is a species characteristic that had to be looked at from social, biological, and logical perspectives.

Like Freud, Piaget showed his talents early. As an adolescent, he was mentored by an esteemed malacologist and published his first Paper on an Albino sparrow at the age of 13. He went on to receive his doctorate in biology at the University of Neuchâtel. Not sure of his direction in life, he spent a year at Jung’s psychiatric institute in Zurich. After this, still undecided on his vocation, he moved to Paris where he worked with Theodore Simon who, with Alfred Binet, created the first intelligence test (Binet, 1906/1916). While in Paris, Piaget translated into French, and tested out, some English items added to the Binet Scale by Lewis Terman (1916) at Stanford. What fascinated Piaget about Binet’s tasks were not children’s right answers but rather their wrong ones. Just as Freud (1951) recognized the importance of errors made in everyday life, Piaget appreciated that children’s “wrong” answers gave significant insights into their unique modes of thinking.

From Paris, Piaget went on to take a professorship at the University of Geneva, where he remained for the rest of his career. Combining the interview skills he had learned in Zurich with the kinds of tasks introduced by Binet, he created the “semi-clinical interview,” which he used to explore the development of children’s thinking. In this way, he was able to combine his biological with his philosophical interests. He was most concerned with the epistemological question of “how we come to know the world” but by answers anived at by empirical investigation rather than by armchair analysis.

As did Freud, Piaget successively created several models to describe his theory of intellectual development: the social, the biological, and the logical. The models were essentially three different ways of conceptualizing development. As he elaborated each new model, he integrated the previous one within it. Unfortunately, this made his later books increasingly more difficult to follow.

Piaget's Three Models of Mental Development

The Social Model

Piaget was influenced early on by the French sociologist Henri Bergson (Bergson, 1911), and did his first investigations from a sociological perspective. These were his studies of children’s language (Piaget, 1955), as well as of their conceptions of physical causality (Piaget, 1930/ 1951), the world (Piaget, 1929/1951), of judgment and reasoning (Piaget, 1928/1951), and of their moral development (Piaget, 1950). In explaining the results of these investigations, he employed the term “egocentrism” to refer to the young child’s inability to take another person’s point of view. For example, he found that preschool children talk at one another rather than to one another. Egocentrism was used to explain his other findings as well.

Perhaps the most familiar task Piaget used to demonstrate egocentrism was the three mountains task. He employed clay models of three mountains placed at different positions on a table. The child’s task was to draw a copy of the mountains as seen from the perspective of another child sitting opposite him. Again, young children’s failure on this task was ascribed to the child’s inability to put himself in another child’s position.

The Biological Model

Piaget introduced his second model, the biological model, after his marriage and the birth of his three children. He engaged in a number of very innovative experiments with his infant daughters and son. These experiments changed his focus from the social to the biological and Piaget looked at the behavioral mechanisms by which infants progressively construct their understanding of reality (Piaget, 1954), their intelligence (Piaget, 1952a), and their dreams (Piaget, 1951). The biological concepts that Piaget employed were not those of stimulus and response, as employed by American psychologists. Rather, he used the broader concepts of adaptation: those of assimilation, accommodation, and equilibration. This is essentially a dialectic model in which the infant progressively accommodates to, and then assimilates contradictory experiences before uniting them in a higher order equilibrium. For example, the infant first accommodates his or her mouth to the nipple, then assimilates the milk as nourishment and then coordinates the two into a single higher order equilibrated ingestion activity.

Along with the biological model, Piaget also formally introduced an epistemological theory that was already implicit in his earlier work. In his view, reality is always a construction. It is neither a simple copy of external reality nor a simple projection of internal constructions. An analogy may help to concretize this view.

Traditional association theories posit that all knowledge comes from experience, with the mind operating as a camera, progressively taking photographs of the environment as the child matures. Alternatively, the Nativist theory, first introduced by Plato, assumes that all knowledge is already in the mind and can be discovered by dialectical, logical discussion. In contrast, Piaget argues that what we know always reflects both input from the outside, accommodation, and input from the inside, assimilation. The analogy here would be the creative artist in any discipline. A Picasso painting, for example, is always recognizable as a Picasso, yet each painting also reflects his experiences of the real world. It is both individual and social, in that it reflects his uniqueness but also is able to be appreciated by others. It is a construction, which cannot be reduced to nature (Picasso) or nurture (the environment). Even our perception is, in part at least, a mental construction and children literally see the world differently as they mature (Elkind et al., 1963).

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