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The Piaget Way

The Essential Piaget

edited by Howard E. Gruber, edited by J. Jacques Vonèche
Basic Books, 881 pp., $35.00

The Origins of Intelligence in Children

by Jean Piaget, translated by Margaret Cook
International Universities Press, 419 pp., $4.95 (paper)

The Construction of Reality in the Child

by Jean Piaget, translated by Margaret Cook
Basic Books, 386 pp., $11.95

Play, Dreams and Imitation in Childhood

by Jean Piaget, translated by C. Gattegno, by F.M. Hodgson
Norton, 296 pp., $3.95 (paper)

Behavior and Evolution

by Jean Piaget, translated by Donald Nicholson-Smith
Pantheon, 176 pp., $2.95 (paper)

Jean Piaget: The Man and His Ideas

by Richard I. Evans, translated by Eleanor Duckworth
Dutton, 214 pp., $8.95

Jean Piaget: Psychologist of the Real

by Brian Rotman
Harvester Press (London), 200 pp., £7.95

In a series of interviews with Jean Piaget carried out a few years ago, Piaget was asked about his attitude to Freud and psychoanalysis. 1 In 1922, he said, he had read a paper on children’s thought to the International Congress of Psychoanalysis (not included in The Essential Piaget, although there is a creditable summary of psychoanalytic theories that Piaget published in 1920). Freud had been present, surrounded by disciples and smoking his usual cigars, and all eyes had been on the master’s reactions to the paper rather than on the young psychologist presenting his work. It is rather a delightful picture, and spiced with more irony than Piaget has usually allowed himself in talking about psychoanalysis, toward which he is usually polite and rather uneasy. Two great system-builders of psychology were confronting each other—though it is only in the past ten years or so that it has seemed appropriate to place Piaget’s monumental oeuvre, so radically different, next to Freud’s.

Since 1924 Piaget has published some forty-five books, all of them—after the first dozen or so—of increasing complexity and aridity; the carefully selected extracts in The Essential Piaget represent a minute fraction of his output. “I could not think without writing,” he has said. Although it is possible to feel at times that in his books he is carrying out a “conservation experiment” with ideas—one of his most celebrated demonstrations has shown that children below a certain age cannot understand that liquid poured from a short fat bottle to a tall thin one remains the same in quantity, and he seems sometimes to be pouring identical theory from one thick book to another—in general Piaget has proceeded as steadily and inexorably from stage to stage in his work as the intellect itself, he believes, goes marching forward in distinct and unalterable stages from birth to adulthood.

Gruber and Vonèche admirably summarize his progress in the introductions to each group of extracts. Piaget started as a zoologist, with a good philosophical education in the background; he trained as a psychologist in both clinics and laboratories in Switzerland and France. In Paris he was asked by Simon (of the Binet-Simon intelligence test) to standardize English test material on French children. Unexpectedly, in view of the precise systematizer he was to become, Piaget at this stage found himself more interested in the thought processes that led the children to give wrong answers than in organizing the scores.

Basing his methods on his training in psychiatric clinics, he carried out innumerable informal interviews with the children; from these, and from his work at the Maison des Petits at the Institut Rousseau in Geneva, of which he was soon made director, came his first book, The Language and Thought of the Child; two further books followed in the same vein. These three are still the most enjoyable and human of his works. The children’s conversations and questions, their explanations of where their thoughts and their dreams came from, of how the sun and moon, earth and sea, came to exist, are in the tradition of earlier observational studies of childish thought, though much more detailed and inventive, and much influenced by Lévy-Bruhl’s concept of animistic thought in primitives. Two more books, on children’s ideas of causality and of moral judgment, followed in 1927 and 1932.

They are a long way from the books of thirty years later on logical thought, some of which require a knowledge of Boolean algebra to be properly understood, and Piaget came to consider them very jejune; yet he knew, as he says in an autobiographical essay, that

at last I had found my field of research…. My observations that logic is not inborn, but develops little by little, appeared to be consistent with my ideas on the formation of the equilibrium toward which the evolution of mental structures tends…. My aim of discovering a sort of embryology of intelligence fitted in with my biological training.

These first five books made Piaget’s name and have probably been more widely read than anything he subsequently wrote.

The birth of his own children marked the second period in Piaget’s work. It made him aware, he has written, of how much happened in children’s lives before they even started to talk, and one of the main themes in all his work since then has been that intelligence can only grow through actual physical as well as mental engagement with the environment; the question of language no longer interested him very much. The Origins of Intelligence in Children and The Construction of Reality in the Child appeared in 1936 and 1937; they consist of hundreds of patiently recorded observations of the babies’ spontaneous behavior and their reactions to being shown or given various objects, under various conditions.

The great mass of Piaget’s work falls into his third period lasting from the 1940s until the late 1960s. His mighty project has been to trace, right into adulthood, the growth of all the major concepts that structure our world: time, space, causality, substance, number. Children in every age group have been tested, observed, and described by Piaget and his research team in Geneva; as the years have passed, and the more complex feats of logical and mathematical thinking in older children have been studied, the books have got more and more difficult, and more and more unread except by specialists—one distinguished professor of psychology is said to have lost his enthusiasm for Piaget when he found he could not reach the level of abstract thought ascribed to fourteen-year-olds. Piaget has eventually come to see mathematics as the truest form of reasoning—a far cry from the conversations with children about where they keep their thoughts and whether the moon is alive. Finally, in his last period, Piaget has concentrated on the philosophical and biological implications of his work and attempted a general rapprochement between psychology, epistemology, and evolution. His most recent book, Behavior and Evolution, a difficult and controversial reworking of evolutionary theory within the Piagetian frame of reference, looks back to his early biological and scientific interests and is too remote from child psychology to come within the scope of this review. Piaget attempts in it to bring the whole plant and animal world into his ambitious redefinition of the role of behavior in evolutionary change: “it is of the essence of behavior that it is forever attempting to transcend itself and that it thus supplies evolution with its principal motor.”

There is a consistent, indeed an extremely rigid structure of ideas behind the vast body of practical work; only the briefest indication of it can be suggested. Piaget’s guiding principle has always been the movement toward equilibrium, achieved through the two poles of adaptation he calls assimilation and accommodation. These are the basic terms in which he interprets all his findings; on this ground plan he has built up his theory of stages through which every type of concept-formation invariably passes. Though they are invariant, the stages can be slowed or hastened by circumstance; once attained, a new stage in children’s thinking brings a whole cluster of logical ploys into use.

Key Piagetian terms in the description of these stages are decentration (the ability to reason outside the egocentric stance), conservation (an object or a logical principle stays the same even in changed contexts), internalization (operations can be carried out mentally once they have been learned from physical experience), and reversibility (the opposite, and the complement, of a fact are intrinsic parts of it). And within the main stages of thought there is sub-stage succeeding sub-stage, like a perfectly proportioned set of Chinese boxes. The crown of the theory, as expressed in Behavior and Evolution and other late works, is that precisely as the individual’s thinking evolves from infancy, so do species themselves evolve: both are concerned in a process of constant re-equilibration, of balancing accommodation to the environment with assimilation of it.

Only a fraction of the system has filtered through to those most concerned with children’s reasoning, the teachers. Perhaps the strongest effect of what has actually been grasped of Piaget’s theory has been the realization of how little and how late logical understanding comes to the child. That children could really believe that liquid which is poured in front of their eyes from one vessel to another, or clay molded to a different shape, thereby changes in quantity, is a shock to the adult mind. Piaget’s work—the easier part of it—has figured largely in the curricula for training teachers in England and also in the US. The overall effect may have been no more than to reinforce the child-centered bias of primary education that already prevailed, reminding the teacher how archaic young children’s reasoning can be, and to add impetus to the “learning by doing” approach. In fact Piaget, who is very proud of being a “genetic epistemologist”—a discipline that he founded and organized single-handed—has written very little specifically about education. “I am not a pedagogue myself, and I don’t have any advice to give to educators,” he has said, though adding that he believes his work should be important for education. Its practical translation he leaves to others.

Having always been—since his stock soared in the 1960s—simultaneously idolized, attacked, and largely unread, his work is now under fire, however, for misleading the teachers. The grounds for attacking Piaget have changed with fashions in psychology. Earlier, and ironically in view of his devotion to mathematics, it was customary to be shocked at Piaget’s lack of scientific rigor in neglecting statistical proofs: psychological research that had not been quantified and subjected to significance tests was scarcely research. Nowadays this does not seem to bother anybody, perhaps because specialists in child development, Jerome Bruner in particular, have accustomed the profession to taking observational, natural-history-style studies for granted.

From not being hardheaded enough, Piaget is now beginning to be seen as too hardheaded, or at least hardheaded in the wrong way. In a recent book, Jean Piaget: Psychologist of the Real, Brian Rotman has criticized the conceptual basis of the experiments with children precisely because they isolate intellect from all the factors that interact with it: “individuals are immersed in…ideas, meanings, intentions, history, symbols, social influence and cooperation…. [Piaget] leaves culture, language, and social formations in a blurred penumbra.” Objectivity, never truly achieved except in mathematics, is seen by Piaget as the only goal, the child’s final victory over “the distortions of the subjective ego.” In another recent book, Children’s Minds, Margaret Donaldson has summed up a growing body of argument that Piaget’s questions are wrongly answered by children not because they are still in too early a stage of understanding but because the questions are unimaginatively put. Children, she argues, think in context rather than in a vacuum, and several experimenters have found that when the classical Piagetian tests were recast in situations more familiar to children, many more of them could give correct answers. (She does not mention the additional obvious facts that young children are accustomed to marvels happening in stories and on television, that adults tease them, straightfaced, with nonsensical statements, and so on.) A Piagetian experiment, she says, is

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    In Jean Piaget: The Man and His Ideas, by Richard I. Evans.

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