Selected Moments of the 20th Century

A work in progress edited by Daniel Schugurensky
Department of Adult Education and Counselling Psychology,
The Ontario Institute for Studies in Education of the University of Toronto (OISE/UT)


Jean Piaget publishes 'La naissance de l'intelligence chez l'enfant'

This year, Jean Piaget (1896-1980) publishes 'La naissance de l'intelligence chez l'enfant', which would be later translated in English as 'The Origins of Intelligence in Children'. This book was the first of a three-part volume on the beginnings of intelligence, that is to say, in the words of Piaget (1952: ix), "to the various manifestations of sensorimotor intelligence and to the most elementary forms of expression." The other two volumes were 'La Construction du reel chez l'enfant' (published in French in 1937 and translated into English as 'The construction of reality in the child') and ' La formation du symbole chez l'enfant' (published in French in 1946 and translated as 'Play, dreams, and imitation in childhood'). This three-volume work, which was part of his comprehensive and sophisticated theory of how intelligence developed, opened new lines of research about the development of cognitive functions in children.

Jean Piaget, a psychologist and pioneer in the study of child intelligence, was born in Neuchatel, Switzerland in 1896. At age 10 he managed his first publication, a description of a partly albino sparrow he observed in a public park. At age 15, he set out to devote his life to developing a biological explanation of knowledge.

He began his career as a zoologist, studying mollusks and their adaptations to their environment. By age 21, he had already published 25 professional papers on that topic. Later, after working with Alfred Binet in Paris, he became interested in levels of logic used by children taking standardized tests on intelligence. Following Rousseau and Pestalozzi, Piaget sought to establish a body of psychology, supporting techniques for mental development. His publications were all written originally in French, and took many years to be translated into English.

In North America, Piaget is usually regarded primarily as a child psychologist and educator. However, as B. Wadsworth (1989) points out, in the strict sense he was neither. On the one hand, unlike most psychological research, his work was not directly concerned with predicting behavior. On the other hand, he was not directly concerned with how to teach children. His main research agenda was to describe and explain in a systematic way the growth and development of intellectual structures. He preferred to be labelled as a genetic epistemologist.

Piaget worked for many years (1929-1954) as a professor of psychology at Geneva University; he was a member and co-director of the Rousseau Institute, and in 155 founded the International Center of Genetic Epistemology in Geneva, which attracted scholars from all over the world. His research and writing focused on children's conceptions of morality, number, space, logic, geometry, and physical reality. Piaget is often referred to as the founding father of developmental and cognitive child psychology. Furthermore, Piaget's world-renowned research has impacted fields including psychology, sociology, law, epistemology, economics and education.

His research in developmental psychology and genetic epistemology centered around the question: how does knowledge grow? He found that children's logic and modes of thinking are initially entirely different from adults' ways of knowing since children perceive reality differently. According to Piaget, children shape their own conceptions of reality by continuous interactions with their environment. Cognitive development occurs as children adapt to that environment, thus building their sense of reality. So, he theorized that knowledge is a continual, sequential progress, consisting of logically embedded structures succeeding one another throughout one's lifetime. That is, children move from one stage to the next by maturation and exploration. Piaget found that this movement is not a merely a passage of time, but that it is a qualitative, exploratory experience that entails understanding the world in more complex ways. His four developmental stages are:

1. Sensorimotor, form eighteen months to two years
2. Preoperational, from two to seven years
3. Concrete operations, from seven to eleven years
4. Formal operations, from eleven to fifteen years

In the sensorimotor stage, Piaget found that infants are mostly governed by reflexes, but also explore their environment by use of their mouths, eyes, and hands. Through this activity, infants construct an organized view of the world through trial and error. In the preoperational stage, children continue to gather perceptions of their environment. They begin to organize and classify as adults do. This stage is especially characterized as a growth in language. In the concrete operations stage, children isolate the general characteristics of objects and begin to think more abstractly. They comprehend numbers and mathematical relationships, as well a sense of time. Finally, in formal operations, they formulate abstract conclusions. They use the scientific method and are capable of more complex mathematical, linguistic, mathematical, and scientific processes.

Though most schools do not practice Piaget's psychology of learning completely, his stages have been extrapolated for educational guidelines. According to Piaget, the teacher's function is to assist children in their learning. It can not be forced, but should be facilitated by creating situations where children can naturally develop their mental abilities. In the Piagetian school environment, three things must occur:

1. Teachers should encourage children to explore and experiment.
2. Instruction should be individualized so that children can learn in accordance with their own readiness.
3. Children should be provided with concrete materials to touch, manipulate, and use. (Ornstein et al, 1987).

Although Piaget's theories have been criticized at several levels, his work is widely respected as original, systematic, rigourous and insightful. Piaget died in Geneva in September 1980. He was 84 years old.

For more information: Jean Piaget Society Homage to Jean Piaget A Short Biography of Jean Piaget


Ornstein A.C. & Levine D.U. (1987). Foundations of education. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company.

Piaget, J. (1952). The origins of Intelligence in Children. New York: International University Press.

Pullman, J.D. (1982). History of education in America. Ohio: Charles E. Merrill Publishing Company.

Wadsworth, B. (1989). Piaget's theory of cognitive and affective development. NY: Longman.

Prepared by DS and Jenny J. Lee (UCLA), 2000

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