Jean Piaget (1896-1980)

Brief ‍History


  • Piaget began his academic rigors oddly enough in the realm of malacology, or the study of mollusks and was offered a curatorship appointment at a natural history museum in Geneva, Switzerland before finishing secondary school
  • Became enthralled by philosophy while finishing his doctoral studies in the natural sciences at the University of Neuchatel in 1918 and studied psychoanalytic theory briefly before spending two years at the Sorbonne studying psychology and philosophy
  • Connected with Theodore Simon and Alfred Binet while at Sorbonne and conducted clandestine research standardizing Binet's reasoning tests with Parisian children
  • His research in child psychology was born through his standardization work when he became fascinated by the children's explanation of their incorrect responses to Binet's reasoning tests
  • His background in philosophy, biology, history, mathematics, and psychology led to the defining of a new field of study, developmental psychology

Piaget's work includes his groundbreaking idea of genetic epistemology, his biological approach, a structuralist viewpoint, and the use of his stages of development. They are discussed in further detail below and throughout the wiki.

Genetic Epistemology

Piaget did not consider himself a psychologist as he was more interested in how and why we know what we know and when we know it. His idea of genetic epistemology encompasses the basic categories of thought: time, space, causality, and quantity. He thought this to be the origins of knowledge and on what we base our preliminary structures of the world as children. These ideas were not yet identified as incomprehensible to young children. Piaget wondered how old children were when they began to understand that two objects could not ‍occupy the same space or that when an object is out of sight, it still exists. His revolutionary solution was that knowledge is a process rather than a state and children's knowledge of the world changes as their cognitive system develops.

‍Biological Approach

Piaget thought of cognitive development as "mental embryology." He saw intelligence as adaptation to the environment and felt these biological concepts could be applied to human thought development psychologically as they are applied to physical adaptation in human and non-human organisms. He used the biological framework to serve as analogies for his work and although it did not yet lead to a neuroscience of intelligence at the time, it surely paved the way for the future in many ways. No one had ever taken this approach previously and Piaget made it possible to link the biological and psychological constructs in order to explain behavior at a deeper level.


Piaget saw development as being systematically constructed to help him express how the different parts of his mental structure relate to the whole. This idea is credited as the birth of the "schema." Children actively construct these structures and Piaget emphasized the feeling of necessity that accompanies the acquisition of a cognitive structure. In other words, the feeling that cognitive adaptation MUST happen to properly develop and the child is aware of this.

Stage Approach

Piaget's developmental model is centered on progressive stages. He thought that certain tasks and encounters in the world would need to be understood at a high level for the child to advance to the next stage. The tasks and understandings of each stage build on each other and become more complex with age. Piaget thought of a stage as a structured whole in a state of equilibrium and when the child encounters new environmental challenges, that causes disequilibrium and requires learning. Each stage includes a coming-into-being and a being whereby they are unstable in the beginning and progress into stability until the next stage's instability ‍arrives‍ by way of new environmental challenge and higher cognitive understanding. Each stage derives from the previous stage then incorporates and transforms that stage as the learning takes place, preparing for the next stage. Piaget made the assumption that the stages follow an invariant sequence and that stages are UNIVERSAL meaning they happen to every child at around the same time in their life. The stages will be discussed in detail in their own page.