On this day in 1896, the great developmental psychologist Jean Piaget was born. He was very interested in how especially children learn. And what makes him interesting compared to, say, Freud, is that he didn’t see humans as just a bag of dysfunction. There is a tendency in psychology generally to focus on the abnormal, or even worse, to define the normal as abnormal. I always think of him along with Abraham Maslow as having a more positive view of human psychology.
Piaget is best know for his four developmental stages: sensorimotor (0-2 years); preoperational (2-7); concrete operational (7-14); and formal operational. There are two general, but connected, developmental aspects to this, although I’m sure an expert on Piaget would find this a great oversimplification. First, there is the development of empathy. Second, there is the development of abstract thought. I’m not sure exactly how these interact, but clearly abstract thought is necessary for empathy. For example, psychopaths are capable (often even brilliant) at abstract thought but do not have much in the way of empathy. But as a child grows, it develops empathy before it has fully mastered abstract thought. I think this means that empathy is a primitive form of abstract thought and much more fundamental to who we are as a species. But it makes you wonder about the “Let him die!” crowd.
Piaget himself was an incredibly precocious child. He was very interested in zoology when he was young and published a number of papers on mollusks by the age of 15. In college, his interests turned to philosophy and psychology. He got interested in developmental psychology while working at a boys school in Paris. While grading “intelligence” tests, he noticed a pattern that younger boys tended to get certain kinds of questions wrong that longer boys did not. This led to the startling insight that younger children think in a different way from older children. Up to that time, it was generally thought that children were just less experienced adults, who were otherwise the same.
On a practical level, I think there is much good about the old way of seeing children. Today, children are too often “protected” from the adult world. I’m not suggesting that children ought to be forced to see the harsh realities of the world. But there is much good that comes from allowing children to interact with adults intellectually. In other words: children should be seen and heard. I also think that our obsession with not allowing children to know about sex and coarse language is a mistake. I always remember this great Julia Sweeney story about dealing with her daughter’s question about frog reproduction. By and large, I think it is a good overview of how one should interact with children. And how the occasional tactical lie might be useful.
Piaget had a long and distinguished career. He was also probably the greatest constructivist thinker, where he pioneered new ways of looking at education. The basic idea is very simple. We create models of the way the world work. And as we acquire new knowledge, we integrate it into those models. I like this idea very much because it completely explains the way I think and how I go about learning new things. I think everyone does this, but of course, we are usually too involved using the process to think about it.
Happy birthday Jean Piaget!