Jean Piaget Biography (1896-1980)

Jean Piaget recieving a science award

Verhoeff, Bert / Anefo / National Archief / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY-SA 3.0

Jean Piaget was a Swiss psychologist and genetic epistemologist. He is most famously known for his theory of cognitive development that looked at how children develop intellectually throughout the course of childhood.

Overview of Piaget's Life and Work

Prior to Piaget's theory, children were often thought of simply as mini-adults. Instead, Piaget suggested that the way children think is fundamentally different from the way that adults think.

Piaget's theory had a tremendous influence on the emergence of developmental psychology as a distinctive subfield within psychology and contributed greatly to the field of education. He is also credited as a pioneer of the constructivist theory, which suggests that people actively construct their knowledge of the world based on the interaction between their ideas and experiences.

In a 2002 survey of 1,725 American Psychological Society members, Piaget was named the second most influential psychologist of the 20th century.

Best Known For

Piaget's Early Life

Jean Piaget was born in Switzerland on August 9, 1896, and began showing an interest in the natural sciences at a very early age. By the time he was 11, he had already started his career as a researcher by writing a short paper on an albino sparrow.

Piaget continued to study the natural sciences and received his doctorate in zoology from the University of Neuchâtel in 1918. During this time, he published two essays that provided a foundation for his future thoughts and theories.

While his early career consisted of work in the natural sciences, during the 1920s he began to move toward work as a psychologist. He married Valentine Châtenay in 1923 and the couple went on to have three children. Piaget's observations of his own children served as the basis for many of his later theories.

Piaget Biographies

There have been numerous biographies written about Piaget's life, including "Conversations With Jean Piaget" by Jean-Claude Bringuier (1980) and "Jean Piaget, the Man and His Ideas" by Richard Evans (1973).

Piaget also wrote his autobiography for a chapter in "History of Psychology in Autobiography," volume 4, published in 1952.

Piaget's Career and Theories

Piaget had several ideas or theories about cognitive development throughout his career.

Intellectual Development

Piaget developed an interest in psychoanalysis and spent a year working at a boys' institution created by Alfred Binet. Binet is known as the developer of the world's first intelligence test, and Piaget took part in scoring these assessments.

Roots of Knowledge

Piaget identified himself as a genetic epistemologist. In his paper Genetic Epistemology, Piaget explained, "What the genetic epistemology proposes is discovering the roots of the different varieties of knowledge, since its elementary forms, following to the next levels, including also the scientific knowledge."

Epistemology is a branch of philosophy that is concerned with the origin, nature, extent, and limits of human knowledge. Piaget was interested not only in the nature of thought but also in how it develops and how genetics impact this process.

His early work with Binet's intelligence tests led Piaget to conclude that children think differently than adults. While this is a widely accepted notion today, it was considered revolutionary at the time. It was this observation that inspired his interest in understanding how knowledge grows throughout childhood.

Schemas

Piaget suggested that children sort the knowledge they acquire through their experiences and interactions into groupings known as schemas. When new information is acquired, it can either be assimilated into existing schemas or accommodated through revising an existing schema or creating an entirely new category of information.

Stages of Cognitive Development

Today, Piaget is best known for his research on children's cognitive development. Piaget studied the intellectual development of his own three children and created a theory that described the stages that children pass through in the development of intelligence and formal thought processes. Piaget's theory identifies four stages.

  • Sensorimotor stage: The first stage of development lasts from birth to approximately age 2. At this point in development, children know the world primarily through their senses and movements.
  • Preoperational stage: The second stage of development lasts from the ages of 2 to 7 and is characterized by the development of language and the emergence of symbolic play.
  • Concrete operational stage: The third stage of cognitive development lasts from the age of 7 to approximately age 11. At this point, logical thought emerges, but children still struggle with abstract and theoretical thinking.
  • Formal operational stage: In the fourth and final stage of cognitive development, lasting from age 12 and into adulthood, children become much more adept at abstract thought and deductive reasoning.

Additional Reading

For further exploration of Piaget's ideas, consider reading some of the source texts. The following are a few of Piaget's best-known works.

  • "Origins of Intelligence in the Child," 1936
  • "Play, Dreams and Imitation in Childhood," 1945
  • "Main Trends in Psychology." 1970
  • "Genetic Epistemology," 1970
  • "Memory and intelligence," 1973

Piaget's Contributions to Psychology

Piaget provided support for the idea that children think differently than adults and his research identified several important milestones in the mental development of children. His work also generated interest in cognitive and developmental psychology.

Piaget's theories are widely studied today by students of both psychology and education. In the case of the latter, he once said, "The principle goal of education in the schools should be creating men and women who are capable of doing new things, not simply repeating what other generations have done."

Piaget also held many chair positions throughout his career and conducted research in psychology and epistemology. He created the International Center for Genetic Epistemology in 1955 and served as its director until his death on September 16, 1980.

Piaget's Influence on Psychology

Piaget's theories continue to be studied in the areas of psychology, sociology, education, and genetics. His work contributed to our understanding of the cognitive development of children. Piaget helped demonstrate that childhood is a unique and important period of human development. His work also influenced other notable psychologists including Howard Gardner and Robert Sternberg.

In their 2005 text, "The Science of False Memory," authors C.J. Brainerd and V.F. Reyna wrote of Piaget's influence: "In the course of a long and hugely prolific career, he contributed important scholarly work to fields as diverse as the philosophy of science, linguistics, education, sociology, and evolutionary biology. Above all, however, he was the developmental psychologist of the 20th century.

For two decades, from the early 1960s to the early 1980s, Piagetian theory and Piaget's research findings dominated developmental psychology worldwide, much as Freud's ideas had dominated abnormal psychology a generation before. Almost single-handedly, he shifted the focus of developmental research away from its traditional concerns with social and emotional development and toward cognitive development."

A Word From Verywell

Jean Piaget helped shape our foundational knowledge of childhood cognitive development. His theories have influenced not just the field of developmental psychology, but also other fields, including sociology, education, and more.

Frequently Asked Questions

  • What is Piaget known for?

    Piaget is known for his theory of cognitive development that first introduced the notion that children think differently than adults, which was a new way of thinking at the time. He is also known for creating the term "genetic epistemology," which refers to the study of knowledge development.

  • According to Jean Piaget, in what stage do children begin to use language?

    Children begin to develop language during the preoperational stage, according to Piaget's theory. This is the second stage of development and begins when the child is around 2 years of age and lasts until they are roughly 7.

  • How did Jean Piaget define egocentrism?

    Piaget defined egocentrism as a mindset that "vivifies the external world and materialises the internal world." Put simply, it is having a greater focus on one's own thoughts and feelings than on the thoughts and feelings of others.

    Piaget theorized that egocentrism developed between the stages of autistic thought (thought that is undirected and symbolic) and scientific thought (thought that is more logical and socialized)—which is roughly between the ages of 3 and 7.

  • Why is Jean Piaget important?

    Piaget's cognitive development theory changed the way we look at child development—namely, that children have different thought processes than adults. His contributions greatly influenced future developmental theories within the psychology field while also impacting other fields as well, such as education, sociology, and genetics.

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8 Sources
Verywell Mind uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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  2. University of Kentucky. Study ranks the top 20th century psychologists.

  3. Piaget J. Genetic epistemology. Am Behav Sci. 1970;13(3):459-480. doi:10.1177/000276427001300320

  4. APA Dictionary of Psychology. Piagetian theory. American Psychological Association.

  5. Valsiner J, Molenaar PCM, Lyra MCDP, Chaudhary N, eds. Dynamic Process Methodology in the Social and Developmental Sciences. Springer New York.

  6. Brainerd CJ, Reyna VF. The Science of False Memory. Oxford University Press. doi:10.1093/acprof:oso/9780195154054.001.0001

  7. APA Dictionary of Psychology. Genetic epistemology. American Psychological Association.

  8. Kesselring T, Muller U. The concept of egocentrism in the context of Piaget's theory. New Ideas Psychol. 2011;29(3):327-45. doi:10.1016/j.newideapsych.2010.03.008

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