Selfhood's playground

13th August 2004 at 01:00
For Piaget, active engagement with the world was vital to learning, writes Annabelle Dixon

Watching, thinking, touching - all the familiar behaviour of children as they try to get to grips with the world that surrounds them. The image comes to mind of a young boy kneeling in the grass, oblivious to distraction as he observes a slow-moving snail.

That image in particular arises because it was such a boy, Jean Piaget, whose early fascination with snails led him to become a zoologist in later life. And he never lost his capacity for close observation. From zoology, he moved on to what he called "the demon of philosophy", then to psychology, finally specialising in the then relatively new field of children's intellectual development.

Born in Switzerland in l896, he spent most of his working life in Geneva.

His lifelong study of children's thinking, feeling and imagination came to be recognised as groundbreaking. His research offered a unique insight into the way children learned about themselves and the world around them.

If what Piaget concluded about the ways young children constructed their understanding of the world was correct, then the traditional ways in which they were taught seemed not only a waste of their time but also positively counter-productive.

Piaget began to publish his work in l924, and with various colleagues continued until the l960s. The sum of his writings (22 volumes and numerous papers) is extraordinary, and the originality of his work was long recognised in academic circles before it began to filter into teacher training.

His best-known books in English tend to be earlier ones such as The Moral Judgment of the Child, The Language and Thought of the Child and The Psychology of Intelligence. Others have been translated, but English seems curiously resistant to Piaget's writing style and many readers in this country have been left more baffled than enlightened.

But many who made a determined effort to understand his work were bowled over. Here was someone who saw intelligence not as the product of a genetic predisposition but as something actively created by the individual's own interaction with the environment.

This was and remains courageous thinking in an era wedded to ability tests.

As a young postgraduate, Piaget held a post at Auguste Binet's psychological institute, which was involved in intelligence testing. But it was characteristic of Piaget that he became more interested in the mistakes children made. Their errors offered an insight into the way children perceived logical problems. For him, there was something "going on" that could not be explained by lack of ability.

The study of what was "going on" formed the core of Piaget's future career as a psychologist. For example, in one study he found that at a certain stage children who were asked to judge who was "the naughtiest" would choose a child who had accidentally dropped a whole tray of glasses rather than one who had dropped just one glass deliberately. Later, he found that the same children reversed this judgement and found it hard to believe that they had ever held their initial view. Through findings of this kind, he began to conceive of stages through which children's thinking must pass before it arrives at the stage of typical adult reasoning or "formal operations".

Piaget considered the youngest, pre-verbal children to be at the "sensori-motor" stage, during which the child's knowledge of the world is gained entirely through its own actions - and it is this that provides the roots of logic. Children then move through to the "pre-operational" stage: the child's thinking acquires more structure, yet still seems pre-logical from an adult point of view. Later, the child moves into the stage of "concrete operational" thought. For example, in maths, by manipulating a number of concrete objects, children are able to perceive that these can be arranged in various ways while the number remains constant. This is the start of understanding the patterns in mathematical and other relationships.

These stages have in common the fact that it is the child alone who can construct his own understanding through interaction with the world. New experiences are "assimilated" by children into their pre-existing mental structures, but do not become properly a part of the child's thinking until a rearrangement of the mental structure has taken place - in order to "accommodate" the new idea. This procedure provides the basis for assimilating further experiences and knowledge.

Some readers of Piaget have criticised him for equating this development with ages rather than stages, but this is a fundamental misinterpretation.

Age as such is irrelevant in his theory.

The implications of his theory for the education system were clear to Piaget. He saw that the traditional "delivery" model of teaching left the real intellectual development of children largely untouched. It denied them first-hand exploration, the creation and testing of hypotheses, and did not allow for the vital processes of assimilation and accommodation.

While his alternative might involve "tentative gropings and an apparent waste of time", it was a prerequisite to real thought for children to engage in their own "active manipulations". For Piaget it was a "fundamental error" for any method of teaching to reduce the learner's role to mere looking and listening, or to replace real objects with audio-visual representations.

Piaget also shunned separation into ability groups. For him, all children were capable of this kind of thinking. Teachers who later organised their classes on Piagetian principles often testified to the high level of pupils' engagement.

Constance Kamii, a teacher and one of Piaget's co-researchers, said: "The pedagogical implications of Piaget's theory suggest the kind of reform that makes learning truly active and encourages social interactions among pupils to cultivate a critical spirit."

The traditional, prescribed form of education, she argued, was one in which "an enormous number of 'consumers' are literally forced to accept the services that necessarily create academic failures, discipline problems and unemployable dropouts".

It is often argued that Piagetian principles were tried in British schools in the 1960s and 1970s but that such progressivism was found wanting. Yet that argument too often ignores other factors that militated against its success.

After they were commended in the 1967 Plowden Report on primary education, Piaget's theories became fashionable. But they were often misapplied and misunderstood, and in due course they were dropped. Yet they are still discernible today in the best early-years practice, in which first-hand experience, play and avoidance of over-directed activity are integral.

To Piaget, play was vital. It showed children's mastery over cognitive problems and formed the basis of their imagination. Its spontaneous nature also invited the "surprises" needed for further "accommodation". Certainly, his Play, Dreams and Imagination makes excellent reading for those trying to make sense of what children are doing when they play.

Jean Piaget may still be too far ahead for our time. Today, it could certainly be argued that a more prominent role for first-hand experience could do much to transform the maths and science curricula - considered the weakest areas in UK secondary schools - and help to make them more popular and accessible.

Annabelle Dixon is a co-author of Learning without Limits (Open University Press). Further reading: Piaget in the Classroom, edited by Milton Schwebel and Jane Beasley Raph (Routledge), is out of print but may be available from


1. Sensori-motor

The child moves from apparently unco-ordinated reflex responses to successively more complex patterns of activity and establishes a rudimentary sense of the persistence of permanent objects, inanimate and human.

2. Pre-operational thought

A transitional phase when children may perceive only one relationship at a time, actions are not reversible, judgements are often based on intuition and dominated by perception.

3. Concrete operations

A prolonged phase during which children become able to perceive stable and reversible relationships in concrete situations.

4. Formal operations

Children become capable of logical thought, based on symbolic and abstract material.


1896 Born in Neuchatel, Switzerland

1906 Publishes first paper (age 10) on albino sparrows in Neuchatel Natural History Journal

1911 Decides to "consecrate life to the biological explanation of knowledge"

1921 Publishes five books on child psychology and the development of thought

1925-1939 Appointed professor of history of scientific thought at the University of Geneva. Holds several professorial posts there until his death in 1980

1967 Piaget's theory of children's development commended in Plowden Report

Jean Piaget in his own words

'Intelligence is not created fully equipped, as if already contained in the organism, nor does it develop in a straight lineI but gradually built up stage by stage, each one beginning with the reconstruction of what has already been acquired at the previous level'

'If the aim of intellectual training is to form the intelligence rather than to stock the memory, and to produce intellectual explorers rather than mere erudition, then traditionally education is manifestly guilty of a grave deficiency'

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