The Legacy of Jean Piaget

Lord, save us from the lessons of Jean Piaget! We will be more than a generation in undoing what he, along with his cohorts, has done to some families and so many of our children.

Piaget was raised in a bubble. He was a child-prodigy, and likely a geniusin his own right, but his research was so flawed, and his life-experiences so limited, he built his theories upon sand.

It has taken some soul-searching and much discussion with my wife to arrive at this conclusion and dare to put it in print. I earned my Ph.D. in a school where the students were predominantly psychologists. My wife worked with children, in our city schools and around our state, in administering tests based upon the theories that came from this school of psychological thought concerning child-development.

First, let me say that the basic lessons from Piaget were that children developed along basically parallel lines. They do not! While he conducted some of his research by observing more than just a few children, the numbers he used for his research were way short of what would be recognized as sufficient for any doctoral thesis. In fact, the bulk of his findings were based on his own three children, two girls and a boy. The vast majority of the remainder of his subjects was from among those who were privileged and, at the least, middle-class.

I won’t bore the reader with a long litany of his findings. It is simple to do a search on Piaget and read them for yourselves. In a capsule: He deduced that children develop with certain characteristics at certain periods, age-spans, in their lives. He developed what he called “stages of cognitive development.”

I will attempt to offer a short summary:

For instance, the first stage was what he called the “sensorimotor stage.” This is the age (between four and 12 months) that a child develops the more simple of skills, like sucking on a bottle and transferring that knowledge to knowing that a basic act will elicit a predictable outcome.

That was alright, as far as it went. Then came his “preoperational stage.” Again, observations were made of his, and a few other children, and conclusions were made about how all children (normal children) should develop at this stage. Next, came his “concrete operations stage.” He was getting further and further into areas he did not fully understand as he went. The coup de grace was his “formal operations stage,” the point at which his whole body of work became irrelevant.

In truth, most adults in this world never fully attain the characteristics that he attributed to this stage. This is the stage of “hypothetical thinking.” When a family is concerned with putting bread on the table, it is unlikely that parents or children will think abstractly. This is what is lacking, most of all, in his workunderstanding of human beings.

The harm that has been done is as much, or more, the fault of an educational system in the U.S. that was hungry for a systematic way to “label” children so they could be “placed” in their proper levels for education. What a crock! (I am still a small town boy. I hope you know what a “crock” is.)

Piaget was influential into the 1960s, the period when I graduated from high school. The theories of people like him and Simon (Simon-Benet testing for children) were not implemented fully for more than another decade. The students of my own generation were not subjected to these tests, labels and placement.

The test is generally given in an auditorium, frequently by people who have never reached Piaget’s “formal operations stage” themselves. I know this because my wife traveled our own state and taught people how to administer the tests. At least she attempted to teach them. She knows, from this experience, the dangers in the testing and placement of students.

A child may have unlimited potential but come into the testing area having had limited interaction with his/her parents or other children. They could as likely be labeled “challenged” in certain areas of development as not. When you affix a label to a child, quite often that child will live up to your expectations, and do no more. I chill when I think of the numbers of perfectly normal children we have taken out of the “mainstream” of education because of these tests.

I could go on with example, following example, of how Piaget’s theories have been harmful to children, families and society. In fact, I may do so in another forum. But, as for Piaget’s legacy, I think the reader must have discerned by now that I believe he did much more harm than good.