Exploring children's learning
Exploring children's learning

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Exploring children's learning

4.2 The origins of Piagetian theory

Piaget started his career as a biologist, interested in the processes by which organisms adapt to their environment during development. Born in Switzerland, his interest in child development began in 1920 when he worked in Alfred Binet's laboratory, helping to translate items for one of the first intelligence tests into French. Piaget became interested in the wrong answers the children gave. These ‘errors’ seemed to be systematic rather than random, suggesting some underlying consistencies in the children's developing mental abilities.

Piaget based many of his ideas on observations of his own children; Jacqueline, Lucienne and Laurent. One of Piaget's observations is provided in Box 3.

Box 3 Piaget's observations of the infant Jacqueline

Jacqueline tries to grasp a celluloid duck on top of her quilt. She almost catches it, shakes herself, and the duck slides down beside her. It falls very close to her hand but behind a fold in the sheet. Jacqueline's eyes have followed the movement, she has even followed it with her outstretched hand. But as soon as the duck has disappeared—nothing more! It does not occur to her to search behind the fold of the sheet, which would be very easy to do (she twists it mechanically without searching at all). But, curiously, she again begins to stir about as she did when trying to get the duck and again glances at the top of the quilt.

I then take the duck from its hiding-place and place it near her hand three times. All three times she tries to grasp it, but when she is about to touch it I replace it very obviously under the sheet. Jacqueline immediately withdraws her hand and gives up. The second and third times I make her grasp the duck through the sheet and she shakes it for a brief moment but it does not occur to her to raise the cloth.

Then I recommence the initial experiment. The duck is on the quilt. In trying to get it she again causes it to slide behind the fold in the sheet; after having looked at this fold for a moment (it is near her hand) she turns over and sucks her thumb.

I then offer her her doll which is crying. Jacqueline laughs. I hide it behind the fold in the sheet; she whimpers. I make the doll cry; no search. I offer it to her again and put a handkerchief around it; no reaction. I make the doll cry in the handkerchief; nothing.

(Source: Piaget, 1955, pp. 36–7)

From such observations, Piaget reached the conclusion that infants lack an understanding of object permanence (that an object exists when it can no longer be seen). As adults, we know that objects have a continuing existence when they are not actually in our sight; when we put something down we normally expect to find it again when we go back to the same place. Piaget proposed that all of us go through a stage when we are completely without this belief. According to Piaget, the world is totally impermanent for the young infant, and exists only when actually being perceived in some way, such that when an object is out of sight it no longer exists for the child.

The fact that something as fundamental as object permanence does not appear to be innate illustrates how deeply and how early the child begins to build an understanding of the world, at least according to Piaget's theory.

Piaget proposed that an infant's intelligence is essentially practical, in that all interactions with its environment are either sensory (i.e. seeing, hearing, etc.) or motor (i.e. grasping, pulling, etc.). Thus, the first stage of development is known as the sensori-motor stage. The lack of object permanence is highly characteristic of this stage and the infant is considered to be profoundly egocentric (i.e. has no concept of other people or things having a separate, independent existence). The sensori-motor stage lasts from birth until approximately 2 years of age and is followed by other developmental stages (see Box 4). Piaget's theory is probably the most complete theory of child development. It begins from the reflex actions of the newborn child and describes how these develop as the child builds an understanding of the world. In the final stage of this development, formal operational thinking, the child is able to systematically manipulate abstract concepts.

This idea of ‘centring’ – the sense of the baby feeling herself to be the centre and the moving force of her world – runs through much of Piaget's theory, particularly the ideas of centration and egocentrism. (Centration is the tendency to focus exclusively on a single aspect of a situation.) The tendency of infants to focus or ‘centre’ on a single aspect of a situation illustrates the complete dominance of their own perceptions. For example, when an object disappears from their sight and they behave as if the object has ceased to exist, they are ‘centring’ on their own perception. Piaget called this particular sort of centring, where one's own viewpoint is dominant, ‘egocentrism’ – an absence of any awareness of the separate existence of either other people or objects. Thus, other people's views are seen to be the same as the child's own; objects only exist when they are perceived by the child.

If at first the baby sees the world only as ‘fleeting tableaux’, how is the concept of an enduring, permanent world formed? According to Piaget, through the experience of repeating actions and their effects, babies come to understand that actions have consequences. For example, in the earliest stages, looking away from an object causes it to ‘disappear’ and looking back to the same location causes it to reappear. What is happening here, according to Piaget, is that the baby is storing something in the mind about both the act (looking away and back) and its effects (disappearance and reappearance); a mental representation.

As the baby becomes able to grasp objects, the potential for this sort of learning is increased: for example, things can be moved in and out of vision. There are activities that the baby repeats again and again, taking obvious pleasure in the effects of such actions, and according to Piaget, continuing to construct mental representations. Indeed, repetitive behaviour, such as dropping objects or putting one thing in another, is a characteristic of early development. These repetitions give the child a lot of information about the properties of objects in the world. It is also as if the child has some sort of motivation to repeat continually things that she can do.

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