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1 Running Head: THE LIFE AND WORK OF JEAN PIAGET 1 The Life and Work of Jean Piaget in Relation to Developmental Psychology Taylor C. Valnion Jacob Hespeler Secondary School

2 THE LIFE AND WORK OF JEAN PIAGET 2 Abstract This paper explores the life and work of Jean Piaget as a developmental psychologist. Piaget s early life and education led him to the field of psychology in which he is most well-known. For over seventy years, Piaget was interested in and studied the intellectual development of children to establish his theory of cognitive development. This theory explains how, as early as infants, humans go through certain stages of development that allow for the obtainment of knowledge and comprehension of their world around them. These four stages include the sensorimotor stage, the preoperational stage, the concrete operational stage, and the formal operational stage. Piaget s theory further suggests that within these four stages children acquire more complex ways of thinking and perceiving situations as they explore and experience their environment throughout their lives. Piaget identifies that humans are programmed with schemas and eventually build new ones which are considered the mental representations that humans have. Piaget identifies the processes of assimilation, accommodation, and equilibration and how each of them is necessary for healthy, beneficial cognitive development of a child. Because of Piaget s extensive research and contributions to the field of psychology, society has improved the education system and the way that children are being taught. Also, social scientists have been able to benefit from, as well as further develop Piaget s theories.

3 THE LIFE AND WORK OF JEAN PIAGET 3 The Life and Work of Jean Piaget in Relation to Developmental Psychology Background and Early Life Jean William Fritz Piaget was born in Neuchâtel, Switzerland to Arthur Piaget, a professor of medieval literature, and Rebecca Jackson on August 9, At a young age, Jean started showing an interest in natural sciences. While a pupil at Neuchâtel Latin High School, at the age of eleven, Piaget wrote his first short paper on an albino sparrow. Piaget developed an interest for mollusks during late adolescence, eventually becoming a distinguished malacologist by finishing school, around the age of 15. This field remained a lifelong interest as he published many papers of his findings. Piaget spent a semester at the University of Zürich where he received his Doctorate in Science and developed an interest in psychoanalysis, after which he left for France where he spent one year working at École de la rue de la Grange-aux-Belles, a boys institution. Here, he started his first experimental studies of development and growing. In 1921, Piaget had his first article on the psychology of intelligence published in the Journal de Psychologie and accepted the position as the director of studies at the J. J. Rousseau Institute in Geneva. In 1923, Piaget married Valentine Châtenay, one of his student coworkers. The couple s first daughter, Jacqueline was born in 1925, their second daughter, Lucienne in 1927, and their only son, Laurent, was born in Piaget s studied his children extensively for parts of his research. In 1929, Piaget started his position as the director of the International Bureau of Education. He held this position until In 1940, Piaget became the chair of Experimental Psychology, the Director of the psychology laboratory, and the president of the Swiss Society of Psychology. At the end of World War II, Piaget was named the President of the Swiss Commission of UNESCO after giving many lectures at the Collège de France during the Nazi occupation of France. During the same time period, Piaget received many honorary degrees

4 THE LIFE AND WORK OF JEAN PIAGET 4 including ones from Harvard in 1936, the Sorbonne in 1946, the University of Brussels in 1949, and the University of Brazil in 1949 as well. Also, in 1949 and 1950, he published his synthesis which is the Introduction to Genetic Epistemology. Following this, in 1952, Piaget became a professor at the Sorbonne and created the International Center for Genetic Epistemology in Piaget served as the director of this center for the remainder of his life. In 1956, Piaget created the School of Sciences at the University of Geneva. After this, Piaget continued his theoretical work and tying psychological research to biology for many years, as well as continuing his public service through UNESCO as a Swiss delegate. Piaget had written over 60 books and produced countless numbers of articles by the end of his career when he died in Geneva, on September 16, Piaget s Motivation for Research and His Discoveries Piaget started his career as a young biologist before his interest in psychology. Piaget s interest for science, in general, and more specifically mollusks developed into a deeper interest for the actual thought processes of doing science. Eventually, this interest expanded into a fascination with the development of thinking and the nature of basic thought itself. At the time, there was little research and work done in this area so Piaget was motivated to study this aspect of psychology, labelling it genetic epistemology the study of development of knowledge. Piaget was particularly intrigued by the intellectual capability and cognitive development of children. He noticed in particular that infants have certain skills in relation to their environment. The skills were simple but displayed a way that children gain knowledge by various ways of exploring their environment. This fascinated Piaget and made him curious about how exactly this development happens in a child and grows over their lifetime.

5 THE LIFE AND WORK OF JEAN PIAGET 5 In particular, the time that Piaget spent at École de la rue de la Grange-aux-Belles significantly triggered his interest in intellectual and cognitive development in children. While assisting the head master, Alfred Binet, with marking Binet s intelligence tests, Piaget noticed that the young children constantly answered certain questions wrong. Rather than focussing on the children answering the question wrong, Piaget was more interested with why younger children make certain mistakes that older children and adults did not which led him to his theory that the cognitive processes of young children are quite different to those of adults. From this, Piaget was motivated to examine his theory of cognitive development stages that individuals go through in which they display certain common patterns of cognition in each period of development (Jean Piaget). Ultimately, Piaget was influenced to study cognitive development of children based on his observations of the differences in a child s way of reasoning and thinking to an adult s, as well as just having a genuine interest in the process of thought and how one s ability to gain knowledge develops throughout their lifetime. Piaget s Theory of Cognitive Development In general, Piaget s theory of cognitive development explains the development of human intelligence and how children gradually acquire knowledge, construct it, and use it. Piaget s theory is a developmental stage theory that deals with the progressive reorganization of mental processes as a result of biological maturation and environmental experience (Piaget s Theory of Cognitive Development). As a child gets older, they build an understanding of their world around them and the experiences that they go through gradually shape and change the way they think, perceive and react to certain situations as they mature. Piaget s theory involves 3 basic components, including schemas, the processes that allow the transition from one stage to another

6 THE LIFE AND WORK OF JEAN PIAGET 6 adaptation, and the four stages of development. Within the second component, the processes that enable the transition from one stage to another adaptation, the three key concepts include assimilation, accommodation, and equilibrium; within the third component, the four stages of development, the four stages include the sensorimotor stage, the proeoperational stage, the concrete operational stage, and the formal operational stage. Schemas According to Piaget, schemas are the building blocks of knowledge. Schemas involve a way of organizing one s knowledge. Some people think of schemas as units of knowledge, each connected to some aspect or thing in the world objects, actions, concepts, etc. In Piaget s cognitive development theory, schemas are mental representations of the world in which an individual uses to understand and respond to certain situations. It is assumed that an individual stores these schemas and applies them to their environment when necessary. Piaget argued that newborn babies, for example, are born with few innate schemas reflexes that are genetically programmed into an individual before being able to have had the opportunity to experience and explore the world. One of these schemas that a baby is born with is a sucking reflex that is triggered by something touching the baby s lips. A baby will suck a nipple or even a person s finger when either is placed on the baby s lips; it is assumed that the baby has a sucking schema. The same concept is relatable to the grasping reflex which is triggered when something touches the palm of a baby s hand. Over time, schemas change and new ones develop as a child has greater experience with his or her environment. Processes That Enable Transition from One Stage to Another Adaptation The process in which Piaget viewed one s intellectual growth is adaptation. The process of adaptation is achieved through three sub-processes that are key concepts of Piaget s theory.

7 THE LIFE AND WORK OF JEAN PIAGET 7 Assimilation. This process is how an individual, more specifically a child, will use an existing schema to deal with a new object or situation. For example, a baby knows how to grab a rattle and thrust it into his mouth; the reaction to grab and thrust the rattle into his mouth is the existing schema. When a baby comes across a new object, like his father s watch or a television remote, he transfers his knowledge of grabbing and thrusting something to this new situation. The baby uses an old schema and assimilates it to a new object. This is called assimilation. Accomodation. This process relates to when an old schema does not work for a new situation and the child must change what he or she is doing in order to deal with the new object or situation. Piaget found, using the grab and thrust schema example above, that if a baby comes across a new object like a beach ball, he will try to grab and thrust it into his mouth. Of course, this action does not work like intended so he will adapt to the new object by, for example squeezing and drooling on it instead of grabbing and thrusting it into his mouth. By changing what he is doing to deal with the new object, the baby is accommodating an old schema to a new object. This is called accommodation. Equilibrium. Equilibrium is more of a state rather than a distinguished process. Humans do not like to be frustrated and will seek means to restore mental balance. This process is referred to as equilibration. This process is what drives the process of development. When new information cannot be associated with existing schemas (assimilation), it is said that the individual is in a state of disequilibrium. Assimilation and accommodation act as mental balancing forces of development. When in a state of unpleasant disequilibrium, an individual will attempt to restore the balance by mastering the new situation or challenge (accommodation). The process of assimilating and then accommodating to a new situation in order to restore

8 THE LIFE AND WORK OF JEAN PIAGET 8 balance is referred to as equilibration. The restored state of mental balance is known as equilibrium. Stages of Development The main concept of Piaget s theory of cognitive development deals with the four stages of development. As he continued his research, Piaget noticed that there were certain periods that were similar, in timing and nature, among all children when assimilation dominated, accommodation dominated, and states of equilibrium dominated. Thus, he developed the four stages of cognitive development. These stages are time periods in a child s development in which he or she is capable of understanding some things but not others. As the child matures, they go through different stages allowing them to grasp more complex concepts and respond accordingly. The Sensorimotor Stage. This stage occurs from birth to the age of two. During this stage, babies experience the world through sight, smell, taste, touch, and hearing. At this point, children are not able to understand the world from others viewpoints and perceive situations from their point of view and knowledge capability. This stage can be broken down into six substages. Simple Reflexes. From birth to one month old, this basic stage involves infants being able to use simply their reflexes of following moving or interesting objects with eyes, sucking, and grasping to interpret the world around them and react to given situations (Piaget s Theory of Cognitive Development). First Habits and Primary Circular Reactions. From one month to four months old, infants start to learn the idea of coordination and develops two types of schema habit and circular reactions. For example, a baby might brush his hand by his face (this reflex is the habit)

9 THE LIFE AND WORK OF JEAN PIAGET 9 and end up sucking his thumb; the primary circular reaction is when the baby tries to reproduce that action that happened by accident, in this case, sucking his thumb. Secondary Circular Reactions. From four to eight months, babies are more objectoriented; they are aware of things that are beyond their own body. During this stage, babies will repeat actions that are pleasing to them. The act of shaking a rattle accidently may trigger them to continue shaking it for satisfaction. This is thought to be, by some, the most important stage as it displays the beginnings of a sense of logic. Coordination of Secondary Circular Reactions. From eight to 12 months, babies are capable of doing things intentionally. In this stage, infants are goal oriented and are able to use schemas to accomplish something, for example, shaking a rattle to make a noise. During this stage, infants understand that objects exist even though they are unable to see them. Tertiary Circular Reactions, Novelty, and Curiosity. From twelve to eighteen months, infants often try different things to achieve different results. They are interested in the exploration of new possibilities of objects and experimenting with new behaviour. Internalization of Schemata. From eighteen to 24 months, babies develop the ability to form mental representations and understand certain symbols. This stage shows the beginnings of creativity and transitions into the preoperational stage. The Preoperational Stage. From ages two to seven, children learn to use language as well as use images and words to represent objects. During this stage, a child s thinking is still egocentric and has a difficult time understanding through others viewpoints. The act of playing and pretending dominates this stage as, for example, a child will use a box as a table. This demonstrates that the child understands the concept of a table and that the box is symbolic of a table.

10 THE LIFE AND WORK OF JEAN PIAGET 10 The Concrete Operational Stage. From ages seven to eleven, children are able to think logically about objects and events and their egocentric behaviour decreases to some extent. Children are able to know the difference between their own thoughts and the thoughts of others and they might have a different point of view than other people around them. Also during this stage, children are now able to classify objects by number, mass, and weight as well as groups objects by several other features such as appearance or size. The Formal Operational Stage. This is the final stage from age eleven on into adolescence and adulthood. During this stage, children demonstrate the ability to think logically about complex situations and understand abstract concepts. Also, children start to think about possible outcomes and consequences of certain actions; they become more concerned with hypothetical situations and possibilities in the future (abstract thought). Also, during this stage a child s ability to methodically solve a problem through logical and systematic ways surfaces. Piaget s Contributions to Psychology and His Impact on Society From his research and theory of cognitive development, Piaget has primarily influenced child psychology and child education, more specifically school curriculums. With Piaget s theory, school curriculums have been built around the idea of judging the capabilities of what a child can and cannot understand depending on their stage of development. School curriculums and teaching methods have been shaped so that children are able to learn through experience to move their developmental processes along smoothly. Piaget argued that children must develop by building on pre-existing structures of knowledge so, for example, teachers are there to ensure that students are grasping certain concepts and to encourage the building of learning and development. Piaget s research has had a significant influence on psychology, more specifically child

11 THE LIFE AND WORK OF JEAN PIAGET 11 development. His theory has helped society s understanding of children s intellectual development. Piaget s research has influenced the way we understand how children obtain knowledge that they have their own basic theories and respond to them accordingly. Being one of the most influential developmental psychologists in the world, Piaget s research has influenced many other social scientists works, including Lev Vygotsky and Lawrence Kohlberg. Since Piaget, his theory has been improved but thanks to his basic model of development, we are able to more thoroughly understand the capabilities of children when it comes to gaining knowledge as well as how children develop their sense of knowledge and understanding over time. All over the world, people use his findings and theories in daily practice to improve children s social and academic skills. The work that Piaget conducted revolutionized society s way of thinking about children, and about learning, intelligence, and the nature of knowledge (Jean Piaget). Piaget s promotion for hands on, interactive learning has shaped the way children learn in the classroom for the better, as well as allowed them to obtain as much knowledge as they desire by exploring different information to fulfil their inner drive for education. Among his lifetime, Piaget birthed whole new fields of science including genetic epistemology, cognitive theory, and developmental psychology which has provided many new opportunities regarding sociological research. Piaget s work and theories are still frequently consulted today, including some of his best works: The Child s Conception of the World, The Origin of Intelligence in Children, and The Early Growth of Logic in the Child.

12 THE LIFE AND WORK OF JEAN PIAGET 12 References Atherton, J. (2011). Piaget. Learning and Teaching. Retrieved from Boeree, George. (2006). Biography. Personality Theories. Retrieved from Cherry, Kendra. (2007). 10 Most Influential Psychologists. About.com Psychology. Retrieved from psychologists.htm Cherry, Kendra. (N/A). Jean Piaget Biography ( ). About.com Psychology. Retrieved from Habib, A., Harmon, C., Karellas, G., & Truslow, C. (n.d.) Cognitive Development Today: How has Piaget s Theory of Development used today? Changes in Child Psychology. Retrieved from s-of-cognitive-development/formal-operational/ Hopkins, J. R. (2011). The Enduring Influence of Jean Piaget. Association for Psychological Science. Retrieved from 11/jean-piaget.html#.UMH9XoPhrF9 McLeod, Saul. (2009). Jean Piaget. SimplyPsychology. Retrieved from Piaget, Jean. (1969). The Sensorimotor Level. The Psychology of the Child: The Definitive Account of the Great Psychologist s Work. (4-27). New York: Basic Books. (Original Work published 1966).

13 THE LIFE AND WORK OF JEAN PIAGET 13 Smith, Leslie. (2000). A Brief Biography of Jean Piaget. Jean Piaget Society. Retrieved from Unknown Author. (2012). Jean Piaget. Wikipedia. Retrieved from Unknown Author. (2013). Piaget s Theory of Cognitive Development. Wikipedia. Retrieved from Unknown Author. (N/A) Jean Piaget. NNDB. Retrieved from

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