Jean Piaget

Jean Piaget was one of the foremost thinkers and contributors to the fields of psychology, epistemology, philosophy and education of the 20th century. His written work spanned more than five decades, although his creativity and passion for knowledge were evident from his first until his last years.

Early Professional Years
Piaget's Life Work - the study of genetic epistemology
The Stages of Development
Reactions to Piaget's Work
Further Information on the Internet


Jean Piaget was born in Neuchatel, Switzerland on August 9, 1896, the eldest child of Arthur Piaget & Rebecca Jackson. His boyhood interests centered around nature and animals, which was reflected in his enthusiasm toward biological sciences in school. At age 10 his first paper was published in a natural history magazine and shortly thereafter he began to assist in the classification of the zoology collection at the local natural history museum. There, his interests focused on the mollusc collection and resulted in a series of papers, all published before he turned 18 years old.

The Natural History Museum In Neuchatel

Piaget's godfather, Samuel Cornut who was influential in his intellectual development, encouraged him to look beyond the biological sciences to philosophy (particularly the work of Bergson), logic and religion to supplement his education. In time Piaget developed an interest in epistemology, the study of knowledge, which he saw as necessarily interdisciplinary as it raised issues of both fact and validity. If, he reasoned a study was based only on fact then it would be reduced to the psychology of cognitive functions. A study based only on validity however would also involve logic (Piaget, 1971). The combination of fact and validity was therefore crucial. Despite this interest Piaget's primary concern remained with biology and in 1916 he completed his undergraduate studies in natural sciences in Neuchatel. Only two years later he submitted his dissertation on molluscs of the Valais region of Switzerland and received his PhD (Ginsburg & Opper, 1988).

Early Professional Years

Piaget's early professional career saw him working in psychological laboratories and Eugen Bleuler's psychiatric clinic in Zurich. In 1919 he left Zurich for Paris and spent two years studying clinical psychology, logic, epistemology and the philosophy of science at the Sorbonne. He then accepted a position with Dr. Theophile Simon in the Binet Laboratory in Paris, where one of his roles was to develop a French version of a standard English reasoning tests. In this work Piaget made three significant discoveries that greatly affected his later work:

  1. The development of a quantitative definition of intelligence was unrealistic, as he believed that real intelligence necessarily involved the investigation of different methods of thinking at different ages;
  2. Less rigid methods were needed to measure intelligence. Piaget developed modified psychiatric interview techniques to allow free response by subjects, instead of the fixed response methods previously used. Answers to questions could therefore determine the nature of the next question. This free-ranging style was referred to as 'methode clinique' (Lefrancois, 2000);
  3. He postulated that abstract logic may be relevant to children's thinking as he noted certain deficiencies in children's thinking at different ages.

This work and the results of his research with children published at that time led Piaget to believe he had found a way to combine work in biology and epistemology – by developing an area which he called genetic epistemology.

Piaget's Life Work – the study of Genetic Epistemology

Genetic epistemology allowed Piaget to study an individuals knowledge of his or her world in such a way that biological concepts such as adaptation were included and which led to focus on the process of intellectual growth (Piaget, 1972). Lefrancois (2000) refers to this work as 'an account of human cognitive development'. In 1921 Piaget accepted the post of Director of Research at the Jean-Jacques Rousseau Institute in Geneva, which allowed him to further research in this vein, and resulted in the publication of his first five books. Further information about Piaget's published works and the positions he held throughout his career can be found here, following a more detailed description of his childhood.

The nature of genetic epistemology meant that many of Piaget's experiments were carried out with children, although in the traditional sense he was not a child psychologist (Lock, 2001). The three children that he had with his wife Valentine Châtenay were a significant part of his early research and contributed to his observations that children developed according to a series of stages (or schemas), that shared several common properties.
Movement from one stage to another occurred as the result of four interrelated factors.

A number of key terms Piaget developed at this time defined concepts that occurred as part of the child's development, for example organization – the tendency to integrate structures both physical and psychological into higher order systems (Ginsburg & Opeer, 1988). Assimilation refers to the process of reaction based on prior learning and understanding,whereas accommodation involves a change in understanding.
Adaptation is the result of interplay between assimilation and accommodation. In fact Piaget claims (Lefrancois, 2000) that no activity is possible without these two processes, and he referred to the balance between them as equilibrium. Equlibration is the process that leads to this balance.
Together these concepts formed the basis of Piagets's biological theory of knowledge
which was made up of three stages, and is outlined below. It is significant to note that some researchers and theorists consider that the theory has four and not three stages, although evidence from Piaget himself and other scholars suggest this assumption is incorrect.

    The Stages of Development

    1. Sensorimotor stage (birth to 18mths/2years)

      Children's responses are limited to innate reflexes at birth e.g. sucking but develop to become more sophisticated as time progresses. 'Thinking' at this stage is achieved with the body's sensorimotor equipment, i.e. eyes, hands & ears. Learning is initially confined to reflexive actions but by the end of the stage the child is actively trying to produce new behaviours and novel events. The concept of object permanence also develops over this period. This stage of development is made up of six substages, which are elaborated here.

    2. Concrete Operations
      This stage has two sub-stages: Preoperational thought, (2 to 7 years).

      Acquisition of representational skills in mental imagery and language. Symbols can be used to represent absent objects. Child displays egocentric behaviour i.e. the inability to think from another persons point of view. This is indicated by a number of experiments oulined in an extensive on-line article by Boeree. Thinking moves from being transductive to more logical at this point, although it is influenced by perception. Concepts relating to the classification of objects are not fully developed.

      Concrete Operations,(7 - 11/12 years)

      Children begin to understand another persons point of view. They can now manipulate the symbols learned in the pre-operational stage logically. They develop skills of conservation,
      classification, seriation and spatial reasoning. In the course of interactions with objects the child discovers that relationships are based in logic.

    3. Formal Operations, (11/12 - 14/15 years)

      This stage is characterized by the child's ability to apply logic to real and abstract concepts. They can also reason theoretically. More concern is shown for the future, hypothetical and ideological problems. Children can operate on the operations they have learned which encompass concepts of identity, negation, reciprocity and correlativity. It is significant to note that not every child is thought to reach this level of development.

    Piaget's work has direct implications for teachers and suggestions as to how they might apply his theories in the classroom can be found here.

    Reactions to Piaget's Work

    Piaget received a largely positive reception to his work over many years of publication. Initially the response was very favourable, although for a short period his methods and findings were disputed. However the English translations of his later works, which became available in the United States in the 1950's restored his prominence and resulted in him receiving honorary degrees from all over the world (Ginsburg & Opper, 1988).

    The main criticisms of Piaget's work fell into three general areas. The lack of structure in the 'methode clinique' made replication of some results difficult. Others felt that the sensorimotor classification underestimated the child's ability, whilst the formal operations classification overestimated abilities. However the notion of a sequence of development has been confirmed by research again and again.

    The works of Piaget, Lev Vygotsky, John Dewey, Jerome Bruner and Ulric Neisser are considered as the basis of the constructivist theory
    of learning and education. Vygotsky analysed Piaget's work, agreeing with many of his assumptions although identifying a number of flaws. In particular Vygotsky's own work stressed the importance of cultural factors on learning. A brief summary of his work and a comparison of his theories to Piaget's work is available here.

    Much of Jerome Bruner's Constructivist Theory
    like Piagets was centered around child research, although Bruner's work in this area represented only one perspective of a very wide framework which incorporates philosophical and scientific principles. Bruner's work compared the development of a child to the evolution of the human race. He strongly advocated discovery based traching methods - a view he shared with Piaget. Further information on other constructivist frameworks can be found at a variety of websites including McGill University in Canada.

    Further Information

    A great deal of information about Jean Piaget and his work is available on the Internet. The following links are suggested:

    The Official website of the Jean Piaget Society
    Information & further links to constructivist theorists
    Educational Psychology Interactive
    A comprehensive outline of Piagets life & work
    Definitions of terms, details of experiments at all stages


    Ginsburg, H.P. & Opper, S. (1988) Piaget's theory of intellectual development (3rd ed.) New Jersey: Prentice Hall

    Isaacs, N. (1972) A brief introduction to Piaget. New York: Agathon Press.

    Lefrancois, G. (2000) Theories of Human Learning (4th ed). London: Brooks Cole

    Lock, A. (2001) Notes for Lecture 13, 175.202. Palmerston North, New Zealand, Massey University.

    Piaget, J. (1971) Psychology & Epistemology – Towards a theory of knowledge. Grossman Publishers: New York.

    Piaget, J. (1972) The Principles of Genetic Epistemology. London: Routledge & Keegan Paul Ltd.

    Prepared by Andrea Williams - 94077974
    175.202 Human Nature, Learning & Mind, 2001.