Piaget – why teach this stuff?
Asked my niece, who’s doing teacher training (B Ed), what she’s getting in psychology and the first name that comes up is ‘Piaget’. My heart sinks as there’s almost nothing left of his theories that is remotely useful to a new teacher. His four-stage theory of child development has been so completely wiped out by subsequent studies, that there’s nothing left. It’s merely an exercise in the history of science. What’s shocking is the way he’s still revered and taught in such courses. It’s like teaching Lamarck, not Darwin.
Famous four-stages demolished
His famous four stage developmental model (Sensorimotor, Pre-operational, Concrete and Formal) has been fairly well trashed.
First, the Sensimotor Stage with the infamous ‘hide a toy under a cloth and the child thinks it’s no longer there’ study, which turned out to be an exercise in distraction, and when repeated by Bower and Wishart in the absence of an adult, with a teddy, most children had no difficulty in understanding that the toy is still under the cloth. In general, Piaget simply focussed too much on motor actions when the real development is perceptual. Kagan also attributes object permanence to a simple increase in memory capacity.
Second, the Pre-operational Stage study, where a child fails to recognise a doll’s point of view from photographs of three mountains, was shown to be too complex for the children to understand. A simpler experiment by Hughes, using dolls of two policeman, showed that many children can understand non-egocentric perspectives.
Third, the Concrete Operation Stage was demolished by Rose and Blank, when it was found that Piaget had been verbally correcting the children towards his wanted conclusions, invalidating the data. The ‘naughty teddy’ experiment also wiped out his famous three rows of sweets trial supposedly showing that kids couldn’t get constancy in number. Overall he ignored hereditary, educational and cultural effects, thereby standardising theory, when, in fact, there are large differences in the speed and nature of development due to these and other factors
Fourthly, the Formal Operative Stage focused to much on formal logic, ignoring many other mature cognitive skills. It’s as if we were all little mathematicians, not ‘little scientists’. In fact kids develop, not in a predictable, linear fashion, but in fits and starts, and in many different ways.
All in all, the four stages were pretty much demolished and subsequent research has shown that development takes place much earlier than he had posited, is more of a continuum, with more variation in ages and more plasticity than was previously thought.
How did he get it so wrong? Well, like Freud, he was no scientist. First, he used his own three children (or others from wealthy, professional families) and not objective or multiple observers to eliminate observational bias. Secondly, he often repeated a statement if the child’s answer did not conform to his experimental expectation.. Thirdly, the data and analysis lacked rigour, making most of his supposed studies next to useless. So, he led children towards the answers he wanted, didn’t isolate the tested variables, used his own children, and was extremely vague on his concepts.
I wasn’t kidding when I compared him to Lamark, as his theories are mostly wrong and he offers nothing but descriptions of development without any real underlying explanations. This was his biggest weakness, failing to understand the mechanisms behind development. For him, kids just ‘do thing’ stripped of motivation, language development, memory development and so on.
The good news is that his mistakes led to more rigorous studies that really did unravel child development, although one wonders why he is taught at all. The bad news is that the hole was filled by an even less rigorous and more flawed theorist, Lev Vygotsky. Don’t get me started on him!
What's worrying is the fact that teachers are coming out with a fixed view of child development based on 'ages and stages' that are quite wrong. This leads to amateurish teaching methods and a lack of understanding of when and how to teach numeracy and literacy. The 'whole-language' teaching fiasco in primary schools was the perfect storm of this amateurish approach.
The sad fact is that education and training is still soaked in this dated theory, as they suffer badly from 'groupthink'. The community literally thinks that theories are sound if a) they've been around for a long time (sorry, but in science, especially psychology, the opposite is true) b) everyone does it (that's precisely the problem).