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Jean Piaget Jean Piaget

Jean Piaget

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  • Jean Piaget was a Swiss development psychologist and philosopher known for his developmental studies with children.  His early interests and education focused on biology.  Later, Piaget occupied several chairs including those at the International Bureau of Education (1929-1967) and the chair of genetic and experimental psychology at Geneva (1940-1971).  In 1955, he created and directed the International Center for Genetic Epistemology (study of origins and knowledge).  He is best known for his Theory of Cognitive Development.  Piaget died in Geneva, Switzerland in 1980; he was 84.

  • He was educated at the University of Neuchâtel, and studied briefly at the University of Zürich. During this time, he published two philosophical papers that showed the direction of his thinking at the time, but which he later dismissed as adolescent thought.

    • The early growth of logic in the child (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1964) [La genese des structures logiques elementaires (1959)].
    • With Inhelder, B., The Child’s Conception of Space (New York: W.W. Norton, 1967).
    • “Piaget’s theory” in P. Mussen (ed.), Handbook of Child Psychology, Vol. 1. (4th ed., New York: Wiley, 1983).
    • The Child’s Conception of Number (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1952) [La genese du nombre chez l’enfant (1941)].


Piaget proposed children progress through a sequence of four stages.  These stages reflect qualitative changes in the cognitive ability of children.  The four stages are:


  • Sensorimotor

    Characteristics: Infant knows the world through their movements and sensations

    Developmental Changes:

    • Actions cause things to happen
    • Object permanence
    • Separate beings from people and objects
    • Learning occurs through assimilation and accommodation
    • Goal-directed behavior

  • Preoperational

    Characteristics: Children think symbolically and learn to use words and pictures to represent objects.  See things only from their point of view

    Developmental Changes:

    • Single perceptual dimension
    • Concrete thinking, although better at language and thinking
    • Symbolic play

  • Concrete Operational

    Characteristics: Logical thought about concrete events

    Developmental Changes:

    • More logical and organized thinking, but still concrete
    • Reasoning is inductive, from specific information to general principle

  • Formal Operational

    Characteristics: Abstract thought and reason about hypothetical problems

    Developmental Changes:

    • Abstract problem solving
    • Hypothetical reasoning
    • Social concerns
    • Reasoning is deductive, from general principle to specific information

Influential Theories

He was influenced by Alfred Binet, the inventor of the first usable intelligence (IQ) test, and Carl Jung, considered to be the first modern psychiatrist to study the human psyche; best known for research in the field of dream analysis and symbolization.


Similar or Related Theories

There are three similar/related theories:

  • Lawrence Kohlberg – developed a theory of states of moral development; holds that moral reasoning has six identifiable stages with corresponding moral dilemmas
  • Seymour Papert – pioneer of artificial intelligence and developed a theory of learning called constructionism: learning is a reconstruction and is most effective when a meaningful activity constructs a meaningful product
  • Howard Gardner – best known for his theory of multiple intelligences; differentiates intelligence into specific (sensory) modalities


Theory or Research? 

His work is both:  he initially conceptualized a theory, subsequently supported by research.



Piaget’s theory of cognitive development shaped the way modern educators understand how knowledge is developed.


Relevant Points

  • Nature and nuture are inexorably linked
  • He is the “father of the construction of knowing”
  • Key to intellectual development is not what we get wrong, it’s how we get it wrong
  • Learning occurs when we experience cognitive conflict and construct or alter internal structures
  • Intelligence is a form of adaptation, wherein knowledge is constructed two ways:  assimilation or accommodation.  You either assimilate new information into an existing scheme, or create a new scheme to deal with the new information.


Personal Thoughts

Piaget once said “scientific thought, then, is not momentary; it is not a static instance; it’s a process.”  What better way to describe constructivism?


Video of Piaget

This overview was created by Dr. Karen E. Gardner. Download a printable version: Piaget Overview

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