Jean Piaget was born in 1896 in Neuchâtel, Switzerland, and died in Geneva in 1980. He graduated from the University of Neuchâtel in 1918 as a Doctor of Natural Sciences with a dissertation on mollusks, but he had always been deeply interested in philosophy. Subsequently, he studied psychology, logic, and philosophy of sciences in Zurich and at the Sorbonne in Paris. He held various professorships in sociology, philosophy of sciences, history of scientific thought, experimental psychology, and developmental psychology at the Universities of Neuchâtel, Geneva, and Lausanne, and the Sorbonne, but his research interest starting in the 1920s was in epistemology. He is often viewed as a psychologist, but child psychology for him was a means for answering epistemological questions such as: How do we know what we think we know, and how did humanity build knowledge since its prehistoric beginnings? As a scientist, he insisted that such questions had to be answered scientifically, but historical evidence was no longer available. He studied children's construction of knowledge because children furnished empirical data that seemed most relevant to humanity's construction of knowledge.



Piaget made many contributions to the psychology of classroom learning. Two will be highlighted here. One is his constructivism, the theory that states that human beings acquire knowledge and moral values by constructing them from the inside in interaction with the environment, rather than by internalizing them directly from the environment. Young children's construction of language illustrates the constructive process. Because most American children learn English, and most French children learn French, it is easy to think that children learn language by internalization from their environment. When one looks more carefully, however, one finds that babies begin by uttering one word such as “Ball!” and go on to say two words, such as “Ball gone.” By the time they go to school, children utter sentences like “I thinked it in my head.” These examples cannot be said to have been acquired by internalization because no one in the environment talks in these ways.

In the moral realm, too, most adults in the early 21st century believe that moral values and rules are acquired by direct internalization from the environment. However, Piaget showed that moral values, too, are constructed by each child from the inside in interaction with the environment. For example, he asked 6-to-14-year-olds why it was bad to tell lies. Young, heterono-mous children replied, “Because you get punished when you lie.” By contrast, older, more autonomous children tended to say that lies are bad even when one is not punished for them because lies destroy the bond of trust. The importance of mutual trust is an example of a moral value that has been constructed from the inside. For older, more autonomous children, lies are bad independently of reward and punishment.

Many psychologists think that Piaget's major contribution was the stages of development he found, but the stages are important only because they furnish the evidence that supports constructivism. Many bits of knowledge and morality can be learned by internalization, but this learning is often superficial and/or temporary.

An important part of Piaget's constructivism is his epistemological position against empiricism.

For centuries, philosophers had been arguing about the truth of two major epistemological traditions— empiricism and rationalism. Piaget's sympathy was with the rationalist side of the fence as can be seen in the conservation-of-number task. In this task, if the child uses one-to-one correspondence to put out as many chips as the interviewer has aligned, the interviewer says, “Watch what I am going to do,” and moves the chips to make one of the rows look longer than the other. The crucial question then put to the child is: Are there as many chips in my row as in your row, or are there more in yours, or more in mine? Nonconservers usually say that the longer row has more because it looks like more. Nonconservers thus base their judgments on the empirical knowledge of what they can see. When their logico-mathematical knowledge later becomes stronger, they begin to deduce logically that the two rows have to have the same number.

Piaget's method of data collection must be noted here. At a time when only standardized questions were considered to be “objective” and “scientific,” he invented the “clinical method,” arguing that researchers must probe into each child's reasoning to get valid data. For example, if a child gave the correct answer in the conservation-of-number task, Piaget believed that the interviewer should ask, “How do you know (that the two rows have the same number)?” If the child's response was “I just knew it,” he further probed into the child's reasoning to ascertain the strength of his or her logic.

A second major contribution Piaget made to the psychology of classroom learning is his conceptualization of autonomy as the aim of education. In his theory, autonomy does not mean the right to make decisions. It means the ability to make decisions by taking relevant factors into account, independently of reward and punishment. These decisions are about right and wrong in the moral realm, and about truth and untruth in the intellectual realm. Autonomy is the opposite of heteronomy, which means being unable to make decisions for oneself and therefore being governed by others. For an autonomous person like Copernicus, the heliocentric theory had to be promulgated even though it was rejected by his fellow scientists.

Schools are now generally run with ready-made rules and curricula supported by reward and punishment, as if heteronomy (obedience) were the aim of education. Pia-get's theory has changed some classroom practices in the early grades, but its influence is yet to take roots. When educators adopt moral and intellectual autonomy as the aim of education, schools will be run very differently and produce graduates with a strong sense of responsibility about themselves as well as the welfare of others. Schools will also endeavor to produce thinkers capable of creating new knowledge rather than merely repeating what others have said.



Inhelder, B., & Piaget, J. (1958). The growth of logical thinking from childhood to adolescence. New York: Basic Books.

Inhelder, B., & Piaget, J. (1964). The early growth of logic in the child. New York: Harper & Row.

Piaget, J. (1954). The construction of reality in the child. New York: Basic Books.

Piaget, J. (1965). The moral judgment of the child. New York: Free Press.

Piaget, J., & Szeminska, A. (1965). The child's conception of number. New York: Norton.


Kohler, R. (2008). Jean Piaget. New York, NY: Continuum International.

Perret-Clermont, A.-N. & Barrelet, J. M. (Eds.). (2007). Jean Piaget and Neuchâtel: the learner and the scholar. New York: Psychology Press.