Jean Piaget

Jean Piaget

Jean Piaget was a noted theorist in the field of developmental psychology and in the study of human intelligence. He was born in Neuchatel, Switzerland, on August 9, 1896 and died September 16, 1980 in Geneva, Switzerland.1

As a child Piaget had many interests in animal life, and having learned the value of systemic study, he demonstrated an encyclopedic knowledge of biology and taxonomy. At the age of ten he began volunteering at the Neuchatel Museum of Natural History, where he was mentored by the museum’s director, naturalist Paul Godet, who encouraged his interests and made Piaget his assistant and apprentice. Piaget published his first paper on the albino sparrow at the age of ten and had earned his PH.D. in science from the University of Neuchatel by the age of twenty-two with his doctoral thesis on the classification of mollusks.2

In 1919, Piaget turned his interests to studying psychoanalysis. He was hired by Theodore Simon, co-author of the Binet-Simon intelligence scale, to work on refining Cyril Burt’s reasoning tests. After working two years interviewing children to analyze their verbal reasoning, he discovered his main interests would be in the field of inductive and experimental psychology.3

In 1921, Piaget became the director of research at the Jean-Jaques Rousseau Institute in Geneva, where he furthered his studies in child psychology and the emergence of intelligence. In 1925, he became head of the philosophy department at the University of Neuchatel teaching philosophy, psychology, sociology, and science. By 1929 he had moved to the University of Geneva where he continued his study of child psychology on a larger scale.4 He continued to teach at the University of Geneva and several other universities steadily through the years, and in 1971, he was named Emeritus Professor at the University of Geneva. In 1955, he created the International Center for Genetic Epistemology, which he directed until his death in 1980.5

One of Piaget’s most important areas of study was epistemology, which is a branch of philosophy that investigates the origin, nature, methods, and limits of human knowledge. The central principle of Piaget’s theory on genetic epistemology was “that increasingly complex intellectual processes are built on the primitive foundations laid in earlier stages of development.” He believed that cognitive development occurred in four distinct stages and that all children went through the stages in the same order.6

Piaget broke down the stages of development by ages. Birth to 24 months is the Sensorimotor period where development is observed from simple reflex motions to more repetitive and coordinated responses. The Preoperational period (ages 2-7) starts with increased verbal skills that become more social as the child ages. The child also begins to develop intuitive logical thinking in some areas. The Period of Concrete Operations (ages 7-12) shows evidence of organized, logical thought and concrete problem solving. The Period of Formal Operations, where thought becomes more abstract incorporating formal logical thought, happens from 12 years and up.7

Play is an important element in Piaget’s theory. It is a vehicle for the child to understand the world around him as well as an indicator of the child’s cognitive development.8 Piaget determined that play is described in three stages: functional play (sensorimotor) such as an infant grasping a rattle; symbolic play (experience) which adds constructive concepts as well as pretend play activities; and games with rules which build social skills.9

Piaget’s influence was largely felt in the area of education. From 1929 to 1968, he was the Director of the International Bureau of Education (IBE), which became a part of UNESCO, United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization. The International Bureau of Education was founded to centralize research and documentation related to public and private education.10

Jean Piaget published more than 50 books and 500 papers during his lifetime as well as 37 volumes in a series of studies in genetic epistemology. His body of work is known worldwide and continues to influence the fields of psychology, sociology, education, and epistemology.11

  • 1. “A Brief Biography of Jean Piaget.” Jean Piaget Society. 3 March 2011.
  • 2. “Jean Piaget. Swiss Biologist and Child Psychologist.” Indiana University. 3 March 2011.
  • 3. Presnell, Faith. “Jean Piaget.” Muskingum University. 3 March 2011.
  • 4. Ibid.
  • 5. Op. cit., “Jean Piaget. Swiss Biologist and Child Psychologist.”
  • 6. Op. cit., “Jean Piaget. Swiss Biologist and Child Psychologist.”
  • 7. “Stages of Intellectual Development In Children and Teenagers” Child Development Institute. 23 July 2010.
  • 8. Frost, Joe L. Play and Playscapes. Albany, NY: Delmar Publishers Inc., 1992. p. 8.
  • 9. Frost, Joe L., Sue Wortham, Stuart Reifel. Play and Child Development. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice-Hall, Inc., 2001. p. 46-47.
  • 10. “History of IBE.” International Bureau of Education UNESCO. 3 March 2011.
  • 11. Op. cit., “A Brief Biography of Jean Piaget.”