The Legacy of Jean Piaget

Jean Piaget (1896-1980) had a remarkable career that spanned 75 years; he worked up to the time of his death. Born in Switzerland in the French region to a father who was a professor of medieval studies and a mother who was a Calvinist, he received his doctorate in Zoology in 1918 from the University of Neuchatel, Switzerland. He followed that with post doctorate studies at the University of Zurich.

Jean Piaget wrote and published his first paper at the age of 10. In his lifetime, his work was instrumental in developing psychology, cognitive theory and epistemology. His contributions led to his enormous role in the educational reform, although he was not formally involved in the educational system.

Epistemology is a branch of philosophy whose purpose is to distinguish true knowledge from false knowledge. Effectively, this translates to using models in constructing theory much as scientific methodology uses. Piaget referred to his work as genetic epistemology.

Piaget spent a great amount of time talking to, taking notes and observing children as he constructed his theory. His objective “was to explore the ways in which children grow and learn about the world around them and then to interact with others in it.”

He came to believe that by observing the way a child’s mind works might hold the key to discovery of the learning process of humans. His cognitive theory came about as a result of his study and observation of children.

Cognitive theory

Piaget won the Erasmus Prize for his Theory of Cognitive Development. This theory is based on four stages of development where each stage depicts the child’s theoretical stage of cognitive development.

1. Sensorimotor, ages 0 to 2 years
2. Preoperational stage, 2 to 7 years
3. Concrete operational, 7 to 11 years
4. Formal operational, 11 to adulthood.

Piaget’s theory was different than empiricist theory that stated that knowledge comes from experience through the senses and that innate knowledge exists. Piaget’s theory built upon the child’s ability to learn and process knowledge from birth to the age of 11, citing spatial, sensory and repetitive motions that build upon each other to form the base of cognition.

It would be difficult to pick one element that defines Jean Piaget’s legacy. He built upon his knowledge of epistemology to lay a foundation for Cognitive Theory and that, in turn, helped to develop and further the science of psychology.

Named as one of the Time 100: The lives and ideas of the world’s most influential people, by Time Magazine, his contributions are enormous and expansive. Psychologists still build upon his work, today.