Piaget’s Theory Of Human Development Research Paper

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1. Introduction

The life and work of Jean Piaget are one: his work was his life and his life inspired his work (Voneche 2001). His theory of genetic epistemology (or experimental developmental theory of knowledge and knowledge acquisition) resulted in an immense œu re of several thousand pages. All stemmed out of the encounter of his philosophical preoccupations as an adolescent about the validity of knowledge (scientific and religious essentially) when compared with his experience as a young natural historian.



As an amateur philosopher, in his teens, he had some deep religious preoccupations and wanted to reconcile science and faith into one unique form of knowledge. Religious knowledge was, in his mind, essentially subjective and emotional, whereas scientific knowledge was objective and strictly cognitive. The obvious solution for the young Piaget was double. On the one hand, ‘science cannot prescribe its premisses to value judgment … [they] are given in immediate awareness and are undemonstrable’ (Piaget 1915, p. 80). On the other hand, thinking is the essence of human existence in a very Cartesian (cogito ergo sum) way and in opposition both to, Kant’s a priorism on the one hand, and to, on the other hand, Brunschvig’s idea of a radically contingent spiritual development over time in the history of human thought. Therefore, the solution of the problem of the origin and value of knowledge lies in a sort of experimental study of its evolution and metamorphoses over that special sort of time called ontogenesis. He considered this study as a sort of embryology of knowledge yelding the same results as biological embryology for the succession of living organisms and their hierarchical order. The stages of knowledge are equivalent to the biological scale of organisms.

2. Basic Theoretical Assumptions

Thus, knowledge is biological adaptation continued by different means. Whereas biological adaptation is made possible by specific organs performing specific functions and by specific species occupying specific ecological niches—thus essentially a mechanism of differentiation and speciation—things are quite different in the case of knowledge. In intelligent adaptation there is an ever increasing separation of form and content and cognitive processes exploit the organism as a whole and no longer specific parts of it.

What remains similar in biological and cognitive adaptation is the double process of assimilation and accommodation. Biological equilibrium is assured by metabolism, cognitive equilibrium by self-regulation. Cognitive self-regulation takes three different forms: rythms, self-regulations, and mental operations. These three structures go from the simplest to the more complex and from the most external interface between organism and milieu to the most internal.

If rhythm is self-explanatory, the two forms of self-regulations: homeostasis and homeorhesis, are not. Homeostasis is the process by which any variation in one direction from the point of equilibrium is counterbalanced by a movement in the opposite direction. These movements existed in rhythm, but were successive. Now, they are simultaneous in homeostasis and form the components of a system. They limit each other by a reciprocal process of alternances. It is simply and purely a feed-back mechanism.

Homeostasis assures the stability of a given system or organism by keeping it in a stationary state in spite of perturbations. Homeorhesis is the same for evolutionary systems: instead of keeping the system stationary, it keeps the direction of evolution going, in spite of perturbations, on its path. It is a feed-forward mechanism. What is common thus to regulations and rhythms is the central role of action. Every action in one direction is compensated by an action in the opposite direction, either successively or simultaneously.

An operation, for Piaget, is nothing more than an internalized action. For instance, an arithmetic operation is the action of reuniting two units: 2 + 2 = 4. But an operation is a very remarkable action, because it is strictly reversible. Rhythmic actions are not reversible, they always take place in the oriented arrow of time. Regulations do not compensate each other totally; they always function by excess or default. They are not strictly additive and totally reversible. Operations are perfectly reversible: 4 – 2 = 2 exactly. Such a perfection is mental, never physical.

The smart thing with Piaget’s theory is that the same basic process covers the full range of adaptation from the simple metabolic assimilation of food to the most refined, abstract logico-mathematical operation. The process of transformation of rhythm into regulation and of regulation into operation is double: internalization, on the one hand, and reflexive abstraction, on the other.

But, if one thinks it over, internalization is a reflexive process and thus reflexive abstraction is enough. It is a reflection of a form on a higher level.

3. Cognitive Development

The process of knowledge is the same in the child and in the species. It goes, in both, from a state of adualism between the subject and the object to successive stages of differentiation and integration. The newborn baby does not distinguish self from world at first. Then the distinction is made by the baby only in the course of action. Piaget calls this period sensory-motor.

Its main features are the recognition that objects continue to exist when out of sight because they are part of a larger container called space, that they appear in time and present some relationship of causality, as far as reality is concerned, and that means and ends can be coordinated and differentiated, as far as intelligence is concerned. By reflexive abstraction, on its external immediate action, another level of equilibrium is reached by the growing child with the emergence of the semiotic function (language, symbolic play, imitation, representational drawing, dream). This new way of functioning makes present what is absent in reality. It paves the way for concepts, classes, relations, and number that will be attained in the next stage called concrete operational in which representational self-regulations become fully equilibrated into mental operations. In turn, concrete operations will be transformed into formal ones that are independent from their material support by means of a progressive dissociation between form and content until it is total and forms a complete logical system. Thus the young adolescent is, by now, capable of hypothetico-deductive reasoning, of examining all the possibilities as well as the internal necessity and coherence of every single thought.

4. Piaget’s Constructivism

The data collected by Piaget and the School of Geneva are world-famous. They have been criticized on many grounds, but always from a reductionist epistemological point of view, either nativism or environmentalism, whereas Piaget was constructivist. This constructivistic perspective has been constantly misunderstood. It should be clear that such a structure as an operation with its internal logical necessity does not correspond either to a physiological apparatus or to a societal given. No mother, no teacher teaches a baby object permanence. Nevertheless all toddlers attain this concept-in-action. Conservation of matter, weight or volume is not taught in any school or home and nobody remembers having discovered it one morning. Nevertheless, it is reached without critical period. Nor drill.

Constructivism does not deny reality, contingency or stability of scientific knowledge as it is occasionally assumed. This assumption stems out of the confusion of Piagetian constructivism with a fairly recent trend in sociology of knowledge called the social construction of science.

Unlike sociological constructivism, Piaget recognizes the remarkable stability of scientific knowledge over time. He never denied, for instance, that the successive physical theories that have appeared since Newton or even Galileo were so stable that they encompassed superseded theories as special cases of their own theory. Piaget specifically showed the striking case for theory inclusion that Galileo’s system formed for Newton’s and Newton’s for Einstein’s. He made the same remark about modern theories of force interactions in contemporary physics.

As far as contingency is concerned, he accepted without any doubt that the advance of molecular biology was made possible by the concommittant and congruent development of computer technology allowing for long and complex computations required by molecular biological methods. Brunschvig’s influence had been strong enough in that sense on the young Piaget as to remain with the old man.

Reality represents a greater difficulty, because there are different ways of approaching this concept. One can consider reality as the information given by the external world to which the human mind has to conform willy-nilly by registering it or dying. Or one can consider reality as what resists the modus operandi of the mind, in which case an object is what objects to the mind’s demands and not a mere thing, outside there, imposing upon the mind.

Reality, for a constructivist, is a constant negotiation between the subject and the object in the course of their interaction. But, once again, the term interaction has a precise meaning for Piaget. Basically, interaction can be understood in three different ways. The first meaning is a mere relationship between two separate elements. For instance, in the case of a heated iron bar that is longer than a cold one, there is an interaction between length and temperature. The second meaning implies circularity in the relationship. For instance, the circularity between the scarcity of public transportation in the countryside which is due to the excess of private cars which, in turn, is caused by the lack of public transportation. The third and last meaning is Piagetian: it supposes the unseparability between reality and mental ‘schemes.’ This means that a scientific fact does not exist independently from a scientific theory.

This is true for naive theories too. Before object permanence, it is pointless for a child to search for a disappeared object, since, in the infant’s naive theory, the object has been reabsorbed by the environment until it comes back by magic and not by means of a complex logico-mathematical structure called the practical group of displacements.

Thus, Piagetian constructivism should not be confused with the social construction of reality. It is a theory that drives a middle course between the extremes of empiricism and rationalism in philosophy, Darwinism and creationism in biology, Durkheim and Tarde in sociology, behaviorism and Gestalt in psychology. In addition, Piaget thought he had empirically tested the validity of his position in the course of his studies of cognitive developmental as we shall see now.

5. Cognitive Development And Education

Essentially what Piaget observed is that intelligence evolves from states of lesser knowledge to higher ones and that cognition goes from simple to complex. But, if knowledge were learned, it would go at random from some patches of learning to others according to chancy encounters with the environment. On the other hand, if knowledge were the mere unfolding of innate potentialities, why should it go from simple to complex? There is no evolutionary nor social need for such a contrived process. Thus knowledge must be constructed step by step from direct action to internalized mental operations.

At every level of this construction corresponds a mode of equilibrium between self and reality that forms the structure of a stage that Piaget defines in logico-mathematical terms. The very existence of stages is, for Piaget, the evidence that knowledge is neither the mere unfolding of innate potentialities as in nativism nor simple registration of the features of the world as in environmentalistic and social learning theories, since the notion of stage implies a total reorganization on a higher plane of what has been attained earlier at a lower level. This is mental construction.

Such a position involves also a choice of explanatory models that has been often misunderstood. Instead of choosing a physiological model of explanation for cognitive development such as maturation or brain states and transformation as do most psychologists, Piaget selected abstract models such as mathematical groups or equilibration theory to account for psychobiological processes such as adaptation. By so doing he conformed his explanation to his observation that intelligence is biological adaptation pursued by new and more potent means.

This carries an educational lesson. Teaching and learning which are essential to human development should be adjusted to the child’s level of understanding so that any pedagogical incentive speaks to the child’s condition at any given moment but also appeals to the next higher structure by calling attention on the contradictions and lacunae of the existing developmental level. This is no spontaneism. This is no drill learning nor socialization. This is cooperation (in the strong sense of a Piagetian operation) with the growing mind from the part of educators whose noble task is to co-construct knowledge with every new baby who comes to this world.


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