Saturday, October 24, 2009

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.

Poor scientist

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).


Judith Christian-Carter said...

Sorry Donald but your denouncement of Piaget's theories does nothing for me - one for and one against! Piaget's theories have been around for a long time and as theories they are extremely useful along with those of Gagne etc.


Donald Clark said...

So much for science and discussion. Come on Judith, the science is clear - I quote several devastating papers that destroy Piaget and all you can come up with is the fact that it's 'been around for a long time'. That's porecisely the problem in education and training, epople simply take for given theories because they've been around for ages.

The upsycho said...

Hmm. In a way (you'll be surprised to hear), I'm sort of with Judith here, and this is why:

It is helpful to know where the various theories come from, to trace how accepted wisdom has changed and why. So it helps to know that there was once a man called Pavlov/Gagne/Piaget/Steiner, who... but we now think that he was mistaken and this is why.

If you don't know what these people proposed, how do you know what to kick against? You must have read a fair amount about Piaget in order to have written this post, for example.

Research is discourse. If we only read stuff we're going to agree with, we'll find ourselves in echo chambers. That is unscientific. We need to read a wide range of stuff, using critical thinking skills and saying, "Now just hang on a cotton-picking minute, what about...?" as we go through it.

I don't agree with Judith that we need to give theories credence just because they've "been around for a long time", however. That smacks too much of "this is the way it's always been done" which, as we all know, is the last cry of a dying organisation.

But we need to be on the lookout for a baby in the old bathwater... just in case.

Does this qualify as 'science and discussion' enough for you? ;o)

Mario A. Núñez Molina said...


Very good points. ¿Could you provide the referencies. Thanks.

Milan Davidović said...

If it wouldn't be too much trouble, could you provide at least some titles (if not full citations) for those papers? We could hunt them up ourselves, if it is, but I thought I'd ask.


Todd I. Stark said...

Donald, first I'll agree with you that the current significance of Freud and Piaget is primarily historical rather than strictly technical. As an aside, I'll point out that such historical significance is a very real significance worthy of note, but that's not the point here.

Your point seems to be more that Piaget is "old news" and irrelevant to educational theory.

On that point, I'm split because while of course he got a lot wrong in his stages, Piaget's real intellectual significance is not in the details of Genetic Epistemology or conceptual development, but in the overall concept that he pioneered that people build knowledge upon knowledge. This is a foundation of current cognitive science, found embedded deeply in the very concept of the schema, an idea that Piaget borrowed from others but used in a fairly limited way.

If Piaget is old news is it not because he had the wrong vision but because he didn't take it far enough, he got caught up in the wrong kinds of details.

Science is more than just the details of particular theories, it is also the ideas that those theories represent and ideas are part of what drives the evolution of good theories.

Piaget and Freud are still taught in part because they had great and lasting ideas that still drive science and technology, even though they got a lot of details wrong.

Think about it, we don't teach Newton for his alchemy or the "failures" of his theories at the extremes, although these things are very real. We don't remember Galileo primarily for the mistakes he made arguing his theories, although he did make some significant ones. We remember and acknowledge the parts they got right because those are (usually) the more useful lessons.

I'll agree with you that it probably no longer makes sense to teach the details of Piaget's epistemological theory, but I'll disagree that we should forget about Piaget as obsolete in the intellectual history of education, he is still very relevant I think.

minh said...

Please get started on Vygotsky. Widespread theories need to be subjected to challenge - well the upholders need to be challenged.

Joe Wilson said...

and they grow up fine
but good theory

Tony said...

Besides a lack of lending credence to science, note also Judith's apparent adherence to the idea of "reality by democracy"--if a majority of people believe a thing, then it must be "more true".

Sad to say, I find both beliefs prevalent among people in education...

Rob said...

I'm mildly surprised she's doing any psychology at all - the BA QTS courses I'm aware of (does BEd exist anymore?) seem to be mainly about implementing the latest strategy or initiative from govt.
Agree about Piaget - came across him 30+ years ago when training as a teacher, and remember thinking then "Has this man ever actually met a child?"

Donald Clark said...

Karyn - That's more like it, some rational discussion. I don't mind Piaget being used as an introduction to developmental psychology, as long as students get a full understanding of his poor scientific methods and flawed results. The problem is that poor teaching posits Piaget as some sort of final authority on all sorts of vague concepts, flawed findings and certainties that have been exposed as wrong. Given the limited time available, filling students minds up with the history of science seems like a waste of time. Fine in a fully fledges psychology course, but not in shorter, vocational courses.

Donald Clark said...

Todd - the Newton comparison is useful here. We don't teach Newton's alchemy because it's flawed rubbish. We do teach Newton's mechanics and optics because it is still largely correct in the science of physics, as is calculus as a mathematical tool.
If you're an engineer, Newton's work is adequate in mechanics, as the special theory of relativity, as a refinement has a practical effect at other orders of magnitude. Newton was largely correct, within his theoretical and mathematical framework, Piaget was almost completely wrong within his.

Donald Clark said...

Minh - I already have!
See my post Nov 02 2006 - Vykosky - the Lysenko of learning

Donald Clark said...

Problem is - teachers are making odd judgements on what to teach and when based on a heady brew of historical, outdated science and guesswork. We had this in the UK with 'whole language' teaching in literacy - it's been a disaster for two generations of learners.

Donald Clark said...

Tony - spot on. I find these defences everywhere I go in education. Namely it must be right, as:
1. We teach it, it's in the courses
2. It's been around for ages
3. We can't all be wrong

Donald Clark said...

Rob - turns out you were right - Piaget had little contact with children other than his own, his friends and other educational professionals - this, among many other flaws, led to huge biases in his results

Donald Clark said...

Some references:

Books that take this well beyond Piaget’s simplifications:
Berger, K.S. (1988). The developing person through the life span (2nd ed.). New York: Worth Publishers Ltd.

Papalia, D.E., Olds, S.W., & Feldman, R.D. (1998). Human development (7th ed.). Boston: McGraw-Hill.
Samuel, J. & Bryant, P. (1984) Asking only one question in the conservation experiment. Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry, 25, 315-18.
Rose, S. A., & Blank, M. (1974). “The potency of context in children’s cognition: An
illustration through conservation.” Child Development, 45, 199-502.
Bower, T. G. R., & Wishart, J. G. (1972). The effects of motor skill on object permanence. Cognition, 1, 165–172.

Note that there’s literally dozens of books and papers that critique Piaget – Goggle search will do the rest.

shackletonjones said...

I have mixed feelings about this post, Donald. As you know I share your despite of the body of learning theory which a) is still taught on PGCEs etc, b) is largely unsubstantiated, c) lacks valuable application. The proof of the pudding is in the eating, and my own experience has been that people with a sound background in programme-making will often produce better learning content than people with no end of 'instructional design' expertise. This alone implies that we are going profoundly wrong with the theory.

Having said this, I think you have - or seem to have - a simplistic model of science. The basis of the hypothetico-deductive model is observation, so it is no criticism of Piaget that his model was based on observations of his children - if these 3 turned out to be representative of children as a whole. You don't have to read Kuhn to know that scientific research is often merely a way to validate quite unscientific hunches - and that all theories eventually turn out to be false. My own very practical problem is that much research around learning says nothing about learning in the real world, because precisely those variables that matter (such as the social context) are excluded from the experimental conditions. So if you look at the sound research you learn little about learning.

Over the years we seem to have been able to distill those things which have valuable application and those which do not, and Piagetian concepts such as equilibrium, assimilation etc are amongst them (and are consistent with the work of later cognitive psychologists such as Schank).

In short, what I am saying is that some predictions made by Piagetian theory seem to be validated in a real-world setting (and given the crappy quality of real-world research this is the best you're going to get). We know Newtonian mechanics to be wrong, but we still use it because at real-world scales it is a good approximation.

Donald Clark said...

Hi Nick
Not sure that my view of science is 'observational'. neither was Piaget's. He was roundly ridiculed for using interviewing techniques that corrected his child subjects towards his own conclusions. An excellent critique demolishing his 'liquid in the glass' experiment came from Rose and Blank. Using your own children, a lack of multiple observers etc is absolutely a sound criticism of Piaget, and one well covered in the literature.

As for Kuhn, he did not reject science, only opened up the proposition that its progress is complicated. Falsification still lies at the heart of the scientific method (Popper),it is not a reason for giving up on science. On the contrary it's the very strength of the scientific method.

I don't understand your comments on social context, as much of contemporary psychology uses naturalistic observation to test and quantify hypothesis. Not all psychology uses lab tests. Indeed Bandura and others see this as central to psychology itself.

Neither do I agree that real-world research is crappy (let's scrap Darwin, Newton, Einstein?). It's astoundingly good, and getting better.

If teachers focused on real contemporary research, rather than old, outdated, faddish theory and personal hunches, we'd get somewhere fast.

Mark Berthelemy said...

Hi Donald,

"If teachers focused on real contemporary research, rather than old, outdated, faddish theory and personal hunches, we'd get somewhere fast."

Do you mean real contemporary research, like the Cambridge Review?

Is there any point, when it's ignored by the government...? (No reference I'm afraid as it doesn't seem to be talked about on the DCSF website!)

Donald Clark said...

Mark - can't really comment as I haven't read its 608 pages or forked out the £35. The press releases from the NUT etc. seem to suggest that all primary education is perfect, we simply need to hire more teachers and pay them more.....

shackletonjones said...

Thanks Donald. Interestingly, the example you give of a good piece of learning research in a social context (Bandura) is actually an excellent example of the type of 'crappy' research that I am talking about: you show a child a video of the experimenter beating up an inflatable, then put him in a room with the inflatable and a hammer and sit back and watch. Tick, tock. What follows is less a demonstration of observational learning, more conclusive proof that you haven't got an incredibly stupid child in the room. Talk about expectation bias...

Donald Clark said...

Agree on Bandura himself, with his lab experiments, but it led to naturalistic observation studies on groupthink, aggression, personal space, territoriality, stress and lots of other psychological phenomena, where observing real people in real social situations led to real progress in understanding these issues, and attempts to apply that knowledge in the real world.

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BunchberryFern said...

Late-ish to this great post.

Naive question: why just Piaget?

Most of the conversation in the comments is around Piaget and Vygotsky and whether they're right/wrong/interestingly wrong/wrong-but-historical-context-important - and who or what might replace them, given their wrongness.

I literally don't see the sense in this.

Let's take your earlier post, "10 facts about learning that are scientifically proven and interesting for teachers".

Why doesn't teacher training focus purely on those? Why don't teachers focus on the skills they'll need to help people learn and plan their programmes - and return to look at the big picture stuff when they're ready to do a Masters degree?

Teaching (and, even more so, training) is not an academic subject. Is it crucially important that nurses remember whose theories they are using when they treat patients? Are mathematicians accredited for their ability to recall details of the thought processes that went into coming up with earlier proofs?

Even if Piaget had been right, what use would he have been to people in the classroom? Psychologists are as susceptible to cognitive bias as the rest of us. The GTD people are just as bad at remembering birthdays and wedding anniversaries.

Hmmm. I'm probably violently agreeing with you.

Donald Clark said...

Bunchberry - couldn't agree more. A focus on the workings of memory would be far more useful. I suspect it's an attempt to 'intellectualise' teaching, when it's really a bunch of skills delivered by someone with the disposition and personality to pull it off. I'd take it out of Universities altogether.

Kathryn said...


Despite the fact I agree with you, I found this post becasue in my MAED I have to do a huge paper on cognitive theory or Piaget. I begged to do neo piagetian but was told no! I will not use this rubbish in my class room so why am I wasting so much time on it?

Donald Clark said...

Sadly, thousands of trainee teachers find themselves in the same position every year through the laziness of the academics running the courses.

Magento Themes said...

Well Donald i am also sad to say that these theories of Paiget's you mentioned arent good for person like me nor the many else.
What i would like to suggest is to target only the people who have interest to these theories else the feed back you going to get isn't going to be positive.

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Jhon Davis said...

@ Donald Clark, nice points, you can have your own post about this comment.

nice post thank for sharing.

Magento themes said...

the teachers are just to give the lacture deliver there knowlage to us and then its on us that we follow him or not so if we positively don owe work so its help us to take the best opertunity in further life

Anonymous said...

Interesting post. I Saw some references earlier. Where would one go for a solid book on learning theory? Thanks


Andrew said...

I agree totally with you, Donald! After teaching 3 year olds for two years and watching my two nieces grow up I came to the conclusion that Piaget's theories were the biggest load of bollocks I have ever read. He severely underestimated the cognitive ability of young children, and their ability to make sense of their environment. I am glad to hear the research agrees with this! Thanks a lot for your blog post.