Jean Piaget was born on August 9, 1896, in Neuchâtel, Switzerland, becoming an expert on the study of mollusks by his teen years. Over the course of his later career in child psychology, he identified four stages of mental development that chronicled young people's journeys from basic object identification to highly abstract thought. The recipient of an array of honors, Piaget died on September 16, 1980, in Geneva, Switzerland.
Background and Early Life
Biologist and psychologist Jean Piaget was born on August 9, 1896, in Neuchâtel, Switzerland. He was his parents’ first child. Piaget’s mother, Rebecca Jackson, attributed his intense early interest in the sciences to his own neurotic tendencies. Yet his father, a medieval literature professor named Arthur, modeled a passionate dedication to his studies—a trait that Piaget began to emulate from an early age. At just 10 years old, Piaget’s fascination with mollusks drew him to the local museum of natural history, where he stared at specimens for hours on end.
When he was 11 and attending Neuchâtel Latin High School, Piaget wrote a short scientific paper on the albino sparrow. By the time he was a teen, his papers on mollusks were being widely published. Piaget’s readers were unaware of his age and considered him an expert on the topic.
After high school, Piaget went on to study zoology at the University of Neuchâtel, receiving his Ph.D. in the natural sciences in 1918. That same year Piaget spent a semester studying psychology under Carl Jung and Paul Eugen Bleuler at the University of Zürich, where Piaget developed a deeper interest in psychoanalysis. Over the course of the next year, he studied abnormal psychology at the Sorbonne in Paris.
Groundbreaking Developmental Work
In 1920, working in collaboration with Théodore Simon at the Alfred Binet Laboratory in Paris, Piaget evaluated the results of standardized reasoning tests that Simon had designed. The tests were meant to measure child intelligence and draw connections between a child’s age and the nature of his errors. For Piaget it raised new questions about the way that children learn.
Piaget ultimately decided that the test was too rigid. In a revised version, he allowed children to explain the logic of their "incorrect" answers. In reading the children’s explanations, he realized that children’s power of reasoning was not flawed after all. In areas where children lacked life experience as a point of reference, they logically used their imagination to compensate. He additionally concluded that factual knowledge should not be equated with intelligence or understanding.
Over the course of his six-decade career in child psychology, Piaget also identified four stages of mental development. The first is called the "sensorimotor stage," which involves learning through motor actions and takes place when children are 0–2 years old. During the "preoperation stage," children aged 3–7 develop intelligence through the use of symbolic language, fantasy play and natural intuition. During the "concrete operational stage," children 8–11 develop cognitively through the use of logic that is based on concrete evidence. "Formal operations," the fourth and final stage, involves 12-to-15-year-olds forming the ability to think abstractly with more complex understandings of logic and cause and effect.
Piaget called his collective theories on child development a "genetic epistemology." He also relied on the concept of schemas, defined as the cognitive structures and frameworks through which we understand the world, to help further explain his developmental theories.
Death and Legacy
Jean Piaget died of unknown causes on September 16, 1980, in Geneva, Switzerland. He was 84 years old. His body rests at the Cimetière des Plainpalais.
Piaget is responsible for developing entirely new fields of scientific study, having a major impact on the areas of cognitive theory and developmental psychology. Nonetheless, his ideas were not beyond critique: Some scholars noted that his work didn't take into account sociocultural/geographical differences among children and that some adults are shown via studies to have not reached the fourth stage of his developmental timetable.
Piaget was the recipient of an array of honorary degrees and accolades, including the prestigious Erasmus (1972) and Balzan (1979) prizes. The author of more than 50 books and hundreds of papers, Piaget summed up his passion for the ongoing pursuit of scientific knowledge with these words: "The current state of knowledge is a moment in history, changing just as rapidly as the state of knowledge in the past has ever changed and, in many instances, more rapidly."
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