An Educational Theorist Profile of Jean Piaget

Susan Chan-Peter, Jamey Corradetti,
David T. Marshall, Katie Morgans, Meggan Rodrique

La Salle University

Written by Dr. Gary Clabaugh

edited 1/23/18


IntroductionThis is a featured page

Jean Piaget was born in Neuchatel, Switzerland on August 9, 1896. His father, a historian, exemplified serious scholarship. His example appears to have influenced the young Jean who was first published at the age of 10 when he wrote a short piece on an albino sparrow. (29)

At an early age the young Jean also showed intellectual independence. At the insistence of his mother, Piaget took religious instruction; but he found religious arguments to be foolish and rejected them. [2, 3)

Ultimately Piaget attended the University of Neuchatel and earned a Ph.D. in natural sciences. Later, though, he was introduced to psychoanalysis while working in psychological laboratories in Zurich, Switzerland. Then, at the University of Paris, he studied abnormal psychology, logic and epistemology (the theory of knowledge.) (29)

In 1920 he began working on standardized reasoning tests with Theodore Simon in the Binet Laboratory. As he did so he was struck by the fact that there were marked differences in the “mistakes” made by younger students as opposed to those made by older students and adults. [1] His curiosity about this pattern he discovered provided the underlying foundation of what would eventually become his life’s work, a grand theory of cognitive development. (29)

Over the course of his career, Piaget published over sixty books and hundreds of articles on topics ranging from biology and science, to sociology, psychology, education, and genetic epistemology. He died at the age of 84 on September 16, 1980. [1]

Although Piaget described himself as an epistemologist and never had formal training in education, he still is credited as the man, “… that championed a way of thinking about children that provided the foundations for today’s education.” [1, 4]

Perhaps a quote out of Time Magazine attributed to Albert Einstein best sums up Piaget work: “His work was so simple that only a genius could have thought of it.” [5]

Theory of Value

What is Worth Knowing?This is a featured page

For Piaget, knowledge is not just pre-constructed information that is dispensed from one individual to another. Knowledge, he maintains, is necessarily self-constructed. (8] Everyone constructs their own schemata, bits of knowledge, explanations, or pictures of reality, according to their individual goals, previously existing concepts, and new perceptions. [4]

For Piaget, then, knowledge exists differently for each of us because it is situated in this highly individualistic learning experience that is subject to variations of prior knowledge, genetics, and perceptions. [8]
It follows that what is worth knowing varies from individual to individual.

More generally, what gives knowledge value is, in part, its ability to help us think and learn even more. Plus there is a social side to knowledge. Piaget stresses that education plays the vital role of adapting the child to the social environment of the adult. [10] It changes the “… psychobiological constitution of the child to function in a society that stresses certain social, intellectual, and moral values.” (10)

This stress on fitting in seems pretty conservative. However, Piaget also writes, “the principle goal of education is to create men who are capable of doing new things, not simply repeating what other generations have done.” Education “is to form minds which can be critical, can verify, and do not accept everything they are offered.” [11]

For Piaget, then, what is worth knowing is not only present knowledge and values, but the new knowledge and values that one arrives at by thinking independently. In addition, for Piaget, much that is of value, and much that is worth knowing, has yet to be discovered. Nevertheless, it is the existing social environment that provides us with the firm footing we need to reach out for it.


Theory of Knowledge

What is knowledge?This is a featured page How is it different from belief? What is a mistake? What is a lie?

Piaget spent his life trying to understand the nature of knowledge and how we come to know. [12] And Piaget realized that better understanding of how a childs mind develops could be a pathway to a well-formulated understanding not only of how humans of all ages acquire knowledge, but the very nature of knowledge itself. [13]

Piaget began conducting his research on knowledge acquisition in children by posing ingeniously simple questions to them?” [Piagetʼs famous experimental dialogue of “what makes the wind” showcases this point:

Piaget: What makes the wind?
Julia: The trees.
Piaget: How do you know?
Julia: I saw them waving their arms.
Piaget: How does that make the wind?
Julia: (Waving her hand in from of her face): Like this. Only they are bigger. And there are lots of trees.
Piaget: What makes the wind on the ocean?
Julia: It blows from the land. No, it’s the waves. (4]

From an adult point of view Julia is incorrect; but her theory, that trees make the wind, given her prior knowledge and ability to reason, is sound. [14] Julia has structured the information she has acquired to date, and formulated a theory.  And this exactly how Julia tests and builds her knowledge as she encounters the world around her.

Piaget maintains that we should not trivialize Julia’s reasoning as “childish.” The testing and building of knowledge that children so naively engage in represents the very foundations of knowledge itself.

So far as mistakes are concerned, they are central to Piaget’s view of human learning. Julia’s reasoning, for instance, could be classified as a simple mistake. But Piaget emphasizes that the way we structure prior knowledge and test our theories often leads to mistakes. But these mistakes are transformative in that this is the way we ultimately learn to modify and adapt our thinking to external realities. In sum, for Piaget, knowledge is a consequence of actions and reactions experienced in the world. (12 How our thinking is organized and structured are of key importance in Piaget’s theory of “genetic epistemology.” Epistemology is the study or theory of the nature, sources, and limits of knowledge. [15]

Significantly, Piaget also maintains that learning is a social process and that children often best develop their understandings of the world in cooperative activity. [6]] Piaget saw knowledge as developing in genetically defined stages.

From Piaget’s perspective, then, differences of opinion are manifestations of the way different people interpret and adapt information based on the internal cognitive structures that they have erected over the years. This suggests that changing minds is an arduous task.

From a Piagetian perspective what counts as a lie depends on one’s stage of development. (These stages are detailed in the next section;)  When Piaget asked younger children what a lie is they replied that a lie was “naughty words.” And when he asked them why they shouldn’t lie they rarely said more than “because they are naughty words.” But when older children were asked why they shouldn’t lie, they said “because it isn’t right,” or “it isn’t true.” Still more mature children indicated that lying was wrong because it involves deliberately deception. 28)

Observations such as these led Piaget to conclude that children begin their moral understanding by adhering to rules because they are rules. But if development proceeds normally, they eventually come to understand that morality is rooted in empathy and adherence to something akin to the golden rule.

So far as beliefs are concerned, we have already recounted how, even as a child, Piaget rejected religious instruction. He was a man of science and provable facts were his realm.

How, then, would he explain beliefs? They are mental constructs, like any other. Like differences of opinion, they are manifestations of the way people interpret and adapt information based on the internal cognitive structures that they have erected over the years. Of course, beliefs typically reflect strong social influence.


Theory of Human Nature

What is a human being?This is a featured page

For Piaget human beings are distinctive because of our innate ability to extract and organize more information from our environment than any other animal. Human growth and development also is a more continuous and complex process than with other species. Plus the stages of development are not as discreet as say, the life cycle of an insect or plant. [16]

Nevertheless, developmental stages are central to Piaget’s conception of what it means to be human. Through observation he arrived at a four stage model:

In the sensorimotor stage (0-2 yrs) knowledge takes the form of sensory perceptions and motor actions — learning to look, grasp and listen, for example.

In the pre-operational stage (3-7 yrs) knowledge becomes somewhat intuitive, but not yet logical. Symbols assume major importance. But the child is utterly unable to put itself in another’s place.

In the concrete operational stage (8-11 yrs) knowledge can be logical but only concerning concrete events. Individuals at this stage can also engage in inductive reasoning, going from a discrete event to a generalization about such events. They also understand reversability. That is, they can reverse the order of relationships in mental constructs. For example, my pet Puffy is a Persian, Persians are cats, and a cat is an animal.

Finally, in the formal operations stage (12-15 yrs) one is able to think abstractly. At this stage one can imagine possible consequence of hypothetical actions. This facilitates planning and organizing to solve problems. (27)

  How does an individual move from one stage to the next? Piaget saw this as a process of physical development and “reflective abstraction.” That is, coming to know the nature of one’s own actions and the way that they harmonize one with the other and with the external world.

As children move through these four stages they use the processes of assimilation and accommodation. With assimilation, the individual’s new experiences are stuffed into their existing cognitive structures whether or not there is a good fit. Accommodation, on the other hand involves the more involved business of changing one’s cognitive structures to properly accommodate new knowledge. Piaget called this transformative type of knowledge “operative.”[14]

Operative knowledge represents the deepest type of learning. [12]. Assimilation is more trivial. This is not to say that operative knowledge needs be factually correct. One can readily imagine a person whose cognitive structure has been transformed by an encounter with one or another bogus cult, for example.
For Piaget, this is how knowledge is acquired, adapted, and built upon throughout one’s life. Experiences are assimilated and accommodated based on the individual’s experience [14] So, for Piaget, knowledge is about change and adaptation, cognitive structures and developmental stages. (12)

Theory of Learning

What is learning?This is a featured page

As earlier noted, from birth onward, human being’s intellectual competencies undergo continuous natural development in a four stage model.  Piaget argues that this is so because the way we think often fails to match the actual world we encounter. That sends our thoughts into disequilibrium. But, Piaget argues, it is our nature to seek equilibration (balance) in order to reduce that imbalance. This is the underlying mechanism of knowledge acquisition and organization — in other words, learning.

Human being’s ability to learn can be limited if it  is limited from developing by improper socialization, or possibly not being exposed to a sufficiently broad variety of experiences. [16]

Piaget understood learning to be an active process in which knowledge is built upon prior knowledge and experiences. [4] That means intellectual development requires opportunities to try things out, to see what happens, ask questions, formulate answers, and compare their findings with others. [10]

Of course a child’s cognitive structure gets more complex with development (age), moving from a few innate reflexes such as crying and sucking to highly complex mental activities. During all developmental stages, however, the child copes with his environment using whatever mental maps he has constructed so far. 

Sometimes the experience fits easily into the child’s cognitive structure so that he or she maintains mental balance between assimilation and accommodation, which Piaget referred to as equilibration.  This goes to the heart of learning. If the experience is novel, the child loses cognitive equilibrium, and must alter their mental structure to accommodate the new conditions. In this way the child discovers more and more adequate cognitive structures. By means of these discoveries, he or she is learning. As Piaget puts it, "To understand is to discover, or reconstruct by rediscovery, and such conditions must be complied with if in the future individuals are to be formed who are capable of production and creativity and not simply repetition." [17]

The implications for parents and teachers are clear. It is hard to overemphasize the critical role that experiences and interactions with the environment play in learning.


Theory of Transmission

How is knowledge transferred?This is a featured page

Jean Piaget dedicated himself to answering the question "How does knowledge grow?" And he eventually came to hold that intelligence is a general term for adaptation, assimilation, and accommodation.  He theorized that as children interact with their physical and social environments, they organize information into groups of interrelated ideas called "schemes". When children encounter something new, they must either assimilate it into an existing scheme or create an entirely new scheme to deal with it. [21] Knowledge is literally constructed by the individual creating connections between prior knowledge and new experiences.

This explains why Piaget did not think that knowledge could be transferred neatly from one person to the next. But he did argue that one could create conditions that would aid in the facilitation of another’s learning. [4]

Before this can occur, an instructor first has to assess the learner’s prior knowledge of a given topic as well as his or her cognitive abilities. Then the instructor can create a learning environment that “cannot be totally explained by the child’s existing system of schemes.” [4] This requires the learner to make sense of the newly presented entities through the processes of assimilation and accommodation.

Of course, different learners have different prior knowledge. So one individual’s understanding of a topic is going to inevitably be at least a little different than another individual’s understanding. Plus, each learner inevitably learns a little differently. This makes knowledge transfer complex.

One way to overcome this complexity is to provide learners with an ample supply of objects for investigation. Seymour Papert, a student of Piaget’s, would later describe these as “objects-to-think-with.” [7, 19] The central idea is that it is through action on objects that the child constructs their knowledge of the objects. [9]

Piaget’s social theory also speaks of an equilibrated social exchange based on reciprocity and mutual respect. This can be understood as a “system of co-operations.” [20] For Piaget this type of cooperation is centrally important to knowledge transfer.  Without it everyone would be Robinson Crusoe on his own desert island trying to figure out everything on our own.

It does not seem that Piaget had any established notions about who should teach. While he was a learning theorist, he himself had no formal training in the field of education. [15] Plus Piaget said that learning in informal settings could be as valuable as that which took place in formal settings. Indeed his own interest in the field of cognitive development first began through observing his own children. [1]

One can imagine, however, that Piaget would endorse the idea that anyone who wasn’t well versed in how learning takes place should not be leading a classroom. But if Piaget were still alive today, he would probably be amused at the fact that some schools report having a “Piagetian curriculum.” During his life, he never wrote of how his theories of cognition should translate into curriculum. [15]


Theory of Society

What is society?This is a featured page

Jean Piaget’s wanted to know how the juvenile mind works, and how children come to acquire information. He understood that children need to be socialized to learn to empathize with the needs of other children and to experience the different opinions or points of view necessary for cognitive growth. [15]

Piaget also understood that different cultures have different views of how a group of people, or society, should interact with each other. Cultures such as China, for example, are more concerned with educating children to contribute to the society as a whole. In the United States we educate children with a great deal of emphasis on their individuality. But whatever the goals of education may be for various cultures, Piaget emphasizes that a child must first be able to reason. Otherwise we cannot adapt to the society we live in. [4, 15]

Piaget also maintains that, regardless of culture, children universally accomplish certain mental tasks at approximately the same ages. Significantly, he saw this as applying to moral and social development as well. Piaget describes children as moving across two stages of morality – from heteronomous morality to autonomous morality. In other words, they move from being constrained by the rules of adults to more of a “morality of cooperation” as the influence of peers plays an ever more important role in their lives.

By continually interacting and cooperating with other children, the child’s ideas about rules and, therefore, morality change. Yjey begin to realize that rules can be amended and that they should only exist as a result of “mutual consent.” [2] This is the basis for society.

While societies vary a great deal in cultural norms, and standards cognitively speaking, we are more alike than different in terms of how we learn those norms, and this is where Piaget’s interest lies. [27]

Within this context Piaget takes a relatively non-judgmental stance concerning societies. One can surmise, however, that he would favor societies where one is free to have a wide variety of experiences and where the authorities are not trying to shape all information and experiences in accordance with the teachings of Big Brother. This type of totalitarian limits opportunities for learning and thought —things Piaget would doubtless oppose.


Theory of Opportunity

Who is to have the opportunity?This is a featured page

Piaget’s model of learning suggests that education is unavoidable. Every time any human confronts a situation that is at odds with their existing mental constructs the necessity of learning presents itself. Consequently, we all have thousands of opportunities to learn.

This applies very immediately to children. In a New Republic article Robert Cole, quotes Piaget as saying: “Children are master builders and constant activists.” Cole then comments, “Piaget never felt it necessary to distinguish between doing and learning.” [23] And that: “boys and girls dealt with the same ideas about the world that philosophers and scientists ponder every day”. [23] He goes on to emphasize that Piaget refers to children as being “active explorers” [23] and that much of what a “child learns is universal.” [23] This sort of thing clarifies why we are saying that Piaget would argue that education is unavoidable.

We are not treating schooling and education as synonymous here. We want to make a distinction in order to answer “Who is to have the opportunity?”  

As the main protagonist of Developmental Epistemology, Piaget considered teaching and “learning as highly social activities.” [15] He maintained that social interaction was a key mechanism in the process of learning and development. [15] In this context, one could assume that Piaget viewed schooling as important to the cognitive development of children.

But from a Piagetian perspective, modern factory type schools generally fail to accommodate how children learn. That’s because in this type of school students are expected to be passive rather than active and listening rather than examining and probing. Piaget maintains: “If a child is not allowed to explore and investigate the environment or is exposed to one that is impoverished, he is not likely to attain more complex levels of reasoning.” [4] Of course this applies to the home as well as the school.

Which children are entitled to that sort of opportunity? Piaget would say all of them are. So what about traditional factory type schooling? Piaget would probably say that no one deserves such an affliction.

Theory of Consensus

What is consensus?This is a featured page

Consensus means a general agreement among the members of a given group or community, each of whom have some freedom of choice in decision making. But what are the implications of Piagetian thought to consensus and its opposites — dissensus?

Earlier we noted that as individuals move into the formal operational stage of development, they are able to engage in abstract thought, reason logically, and apply these processes to hypothetical situations. At the same chronological age, children are shifting into the Piaget’s autonomous morality. Once a child reaches this stage he or she is able to be respectful of others’ opinions and to understand how their own opinions might affect others. They have gained empathy, the ability to civilly disagree and to understand the necessity of providing logical reasoning for their arguments. [6] 

At this point consensus becomes relevant.  At this stage, an individual has the ability to view things from another’s perspective and are capable of reciprocity. Now the individual can understand that rules are amendable, through discussion, and justice becomes more important than obedience. [25]

And for Piaget, because individuals constructs their own knowledge, the schemas and connections that individuals make differ from person to person.  So different people elaborate on a given topic in different ways. [4] That is why it is so unlikely that everyone will have the same understanding of a given topic. This, in turn, means that achieving deep consensus, that is, detailed agreement, concerning all but the most trivial matters is problematic.

Nevertheless, Piaget’s social theory speaks pf an equilibrated social exchange based on reciprocity and mutual respect.  A “system of co-operations,” if you will. [20] Now, mutual respect is the source of reciprocity; and this reciprocity is, in turn, the source of autonomy.  At the final stage of development the individual begins to experience an active desire to treat others as he would wish to be treated.  This awareness of the “golden rule” can, optimally, expand beyond consensus into a universal morality of love. [26]








[1]  The Jean Piaget Society, A Brief Biography of Jean Piaget, (Accessed on March 10, 2010.)

[2]  Evans, Richard I. Jean Piaget: The Man and His Ideas. Translated by Eleanor Duckworth. New York: Dutton, 1973. (9.) New World Encyclopedia (updated August 2008)

[3]  New World Encyclopedia (updated August 2008)

[4]  Hamilton, R. J., & Ghatala, E. (1994). Learning and instruction. New York: McGraw Hill.

[5]  Papert, Seymour. (1999) Time Magazine: The Most Important People of the Century. (2009)

[6] No Nonsense Psychology, Morality — Piaget. (Accessed March 11, 2010).

[7]   Kafai, Y. B. (2006). Constructionism. In R. K. Sawyer (Ed.), The Cambridge handbook of the learning sciences. Cambridge, MA: Cambridge University Press, 35-36.

[8] Solomon, Pearl Gold, The Curriculum Bridge: From Standards to Actual Classroom Practice. (Thousand Oaks: Corwin Press, 2009) 62.

[9]   Ginn, Wanda Y, “Jean Piaget-Intellectual Development.” (accessed on October 14, 2009).    

[10] Schwebel, Milton and Jane Raph, Piaget in the Classroom (Surrey: The Gershaw Press, 1978), 204.

[11] Silverman, Hugh J., Piaget, Philosophy, and the Human Sciences (Evanston: Northwest University Press, 1980) 110.

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[16] End, Piaget, Jean – Introduction. (Accessed on March 11, 2010).

[17] GInn, Wanda. Jean Piaget – Intellectual Development,, (Accessed March 11, 2010).

[19] Ackerman, Edith.
Piaget’s Constructivism, Papert’s Constructivism: what’s the difference?. (Accessed March 11, 2010).

[20] DeVries, Rheta. (2006).  Piaget’s Social Theory, The Constructivist, Vol. 17, No. 1,, pp.12-14 (Accessed on March 11, 2010).

[21] Bhattacharya, Kakali and Han, Seingyeon. Piaget and Cognitive Development,, (Accessed March 11, 2010).

[22] The New World Dictionary of American English, 3rd Ed.

[23] Cole, Robert. Reconsideration. New Republic Vol 178, Issue 11, March 18, 1978, pp. 35-38..

[25] Piaget Concrete Operations. (Feb. 2007). (accessed November 21, 2009).

[26] Piaget, Jean. The Moral Judgment of the Child, (Abingdon, Oxon, U.K., Routlidge, The International Library of Psychology, reprinted 2002), pp. 134-35.

[27} Cherry, Kendra. Background and Key Concepts in Piaget’s Theory, Psychology,, *accessed March 14, 2010).

(28) Studies in Social and Moral Development and Education. Piaget’s Theory,, (accessed March 14, 2010).

(29) Jean Piaget, Encyclopedia of World Biography,, (accessed October 16, 2010).