October 6, 2011

“After World War I Piaget moved to Zurich to attend Carl Jung’s lectures on experimental psychology, and then to Paris to study logic and abnormal psychology. Working with Théodore Simon in Alfred Binet’s child psychology lab, he noticed that Parisian children of the same age made similar errors on true-false intelligence tests. Fascinated by their reasoning processes, he began to see how the key to human knowledge might be discovered by observing how the child’s mind develops.

Back in Switzerland, the young scientist began watching children play, scrupulously recording their words and actions as their minds raced to find reasons for why things are the way they are. In one of his most famous experiments, Piaget asked children, “What makes the wind?” What follows is a typical Piagetian dialogue:

Piaget: What makes the wind?

Julia (age 5): The trees.

Piaget: How do you know?

Julia: I saw them waving their arms.

Piaget: How does that make the wind?

Julia: Like this (waving her hand in front of Piaget’s face). Only they are bigger. And there are lots of trees.

Piaget: What makes the wind on the ocean?

Julia: It blows there from the land. No, it’s the waves.

Piaget recognized that Julia’s answers, while not correct by any adult criterion, are not “incorrect” either. They are entirely sensible and coherent within the framework of the child’s way of knowing. Classifying them as “true or false” misses the point and shows a lack of respect for the child. What Piaget was after was a theory that could find in the wind dialogue coherence, ingenuity and the practice of a kind of explanatory principle (in this case, by referring to body actions, in other cases much harder to state) that stands young children in very good stead when they don’t yet know enough or have enough skill to handle the kind of explanation grown-ups prefer.”

Papert, S. (1999) “Papert on Piaget.” Time magazine’s special issue on “The Century’s Greatest Minds,” page 105, March 29, 1999.

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