The legacy of Jean Piaget to the world of early childhood education is that he fundamentally altered the view of how a child learns. And a teacher, he believed, was more than a transmitter of knowledge--she was also an essential observer and guide to helping children build their own knowledge.
As a university graduate, Swiss-born Piaget got a routine job in Paris standardizing Binet-Simon IQ tests, where the emphasis was on children getting the right answers. Piaget observed that many children of the same ages gave the same kinds of incorrect answers. What could be learned from this?
Now, for ''Sebastian'' read ''Jean Piaget,'' the Swiss psychologist and student of child development who, at age 84, died last week. His novel, ''Recherche,'' (Exploration) is a personal journal thinly disguised as fiction. It is, perhaps uniquely, Piaget on Piaget: a man who, as a teenager, was a precocious biologist known for his work on mollusks; a man whose natural inclination was to synthesize and who, in his roman-a-clef, explored for the first time a biological explanation of mental processes.
In hundreds of articles and books, Piaget showed that there is almost nothing absolute or static in a child's mental life. Even seemingly fundamental notions such as space, time, relation and causality are constructed through trial and error in the course of the child's early years. Moreover, the whole edifice of the adult personality-its rationality, its morality, its very perceptual stability-is founded on the physical processes of the child's early years.
Born Aug. 9, 1896, in Neuchatel, Switzerland, he displayed a unique interest in zoology and published an article on an albino sparrow at age 10. By the time he was 15, he had gained an international reputation as an expert on mollusks. He received a doctorate in zoology from the University of Neuchatel in 1918 before turning his attention to psychology and education.
For Piaget, all systems (organic, psychological, and social) could be analyzed as totalities whose elements are in equilibrium or disequilibrium among themselves and with the whole itself. As Piaget [ 1952] hinted in his autobiography, child logic was the first empirical domain onto which he transferred the partswholes problem formulated in Recherche.
From 1919 to 1921, Piaget studied in Paris. When he arrived there, his intellectual interests included biology, psychoanalysis, logic and the philosophy of science but he had done no empirical research with children. The opportunity to work in Binet's former laboratory gave a direction to his thinking and research that endured a lifetime.
Piaget did not invent, but he reinforced, the discovery way of teaching, letting children find out for themselves what wonders the world holds and how to deal with them. This makes the teaching adult, whether parent or teacher, a guide rather than a mere transmitter of facts. The child is not a container into which knowledge is poured.
As is well known, Piaget took as a methodological requirement to describe, as carefully as possible, the state of knowledge of his time in a given scientific domain as a starting point to formulate pertinent questions about development. His aim was not to project already made answers, but to understand the obstacles that need to be overcome in order to arrive at what is socially considered, at a given historical period, `valid knowledge'.
Piaget received a PhD in Natural Sciences from the University of Neuchâtel in 1918. He worked for a year in Zurich, and he was introduced during this period to the works of Freud and Jung. In 1919 he moved to France, where he started to research intelligence-testing. He worked at a boys' institution that had been founded by Alfred Binet and then directed by De Simon, who had developed with Binet a test for measuring intelligence.
Dr. Piaget's early discoveries with children gained him worldwide acclaim in the 20 and 30's, but after that his works were considered too remote from the dominant trends in American behavioral science. Then in the late 50's and early 60's he was rediscovered. In the last few years most of his basic works have been translated and several explications for the general reader have been published.