Science in Christian Perspective
Some Developmental Ideas of Jean Piaget
Department of Educational Psychology
Indiana State University
Terre Haute, Indiana 47809
From: JASA 23 (September 1971): 104-108
Although Jean Piaget could be called a biologist, a psychologist, a logician, and a philosopher, he is best known as a genetic epistemolo gist. As such, he is one who is concerned with the origins of knowledge and has spent a lifetime discovering by observation and inquiry the psychological structures that underlie the intellectual development of the child. Growth is viewed as a continual balancing of the social and physical environment with the organism's need to conserve its own structures. The major periods of cognition, as viewed by Piaget, are descriptions of the child's development from birth to adolescence, from a being equipped only with reflexes to a young adult capable of complex forms of reasoning. The Scriptures present a number of comparisons between the growth of the child and the growth of the Christian. This article outlines the stages of intellectual development as given by Piaget and shows similarities in the pattern of spiritual development of the believer. As a child may remain indefinitely at a less advanced stage, the Christian may also be arrested in his development. The problems associated with this phenomena and the importance of safeguarding the believer from this state is emphasized.
Educational Psychologists are fascinated by the work of Jean Piaget. As he now
approaches his mid 70's his influence appears to be growing and there
are indications that this trend will continue. A flood of books and
appeared recently that attempt to explain and apply his developmental
Who is this man and what does he have to say that is so important? Is it relevant only to educators and psychologists or may it he of interest to others as well? Do the findings of Piaget correspond in some way to what we read in the Scriptures? Let us pursue these questions.
Piaget was horn at Neuchâtel in Switzerland on August 9, 1896, He remembers his father as one devoted to medieval literature and his mother as intelligent, energetic but somewhat neurotic. As a young child, Piaget was interested in mechanics, birds, sea shells and fossils. At the age of ten he went to Latin School and after school hours helped the director of the Natural History Museum put labels on collections in trade for rare species which he added to his own collection. By the age of fifteen he was writing a series of articles in the Swiss Review of Zoology and was receiving letters from foreign scholars who expressed a desire to meet him. They did not, of course, realize how young he was.
In his autobiography, Piaget says that he probably would have pursued his career as a naturalist had it not been for a series of events which occurred when he was between fifteen and twenty years of age. His mother insisted that he take religious instruction and through this study he became interested in philosophy. His godfather, a philosopher, feeling that Piaget's education needed to be broadened, invited him to spend some time with him. While Pia get looked for mollusks along a lake, his godfather talked with him about the teachings of Bergson. It was through this experience that Piaget decided to devote his life to a biological explanation of knowledge. Even though he received the doctor's degree in his early twenties in the natural sciences with a thesis on mollusks, Piaget was more interested in the relationship of biology and philosophy. He decided that if he obtained work in a psychological laboratory he could better relate to this epistemological problem.
His first experience in a laboratory in Zurich was a disappointment, but in 1919 he went to live in Paris and secured a position at the Binet laboratory with an assignment to standardize Burt's reasoning tests. While pursuing this work he became fascinated with the question of why children up to the age of eleven or twelve have great difficulty with certain intellectual tasks which adults naturally think children should be able to do. In his attempt to find an explanation for this problem he would confront children with various situations and listen to the verbal reasoning of these children. He noticed that the error seemed to be in the child's inability to adequately relate the parts of the problem to the whole. Logic apparently was not inborn but develops little by little with time and experience. Here was the embryology of intelligence fitting in with his biological training.
But Piaget was not satisfied to remain with this discovery. He felt that one finds in the action of younger children all the characteristics observed in the verbal behavior of older children. If he were to find the genesis of intellectual thought he must study the actions of infants. The opportunity presented itself when he became the father of three children. He and his wife, a girl he met at the J. J. Rousseau Institute, spent considerable time observing the actions of their
Pia get is best known as a philosopher, a genetic epistemolo gist who has spent a lifetime relating the biological and the cognitive as exemplified in the developing child.
babies and subjecting them to various tests. Three volumes were published dealing with the genesis of intellectual conduct based on these experiments. Other hooks written either prior or during this time are entitled The Language and Thought of the Child (1923), Judgment and Reasoning in the Child (1924), The Child's Conception of the World (1926), The Child's Conception of Physical Casuality (1927), and The Moral Judgment of the Child (1932). Twenty-two volumes and numerous articles have been written and the central theme running through all this work is that in every area of life-organic, mental, or socialthere exists totalities qualitatively distinct from their parts and imposing on them an organization. Growth or development, with roots in biological morphogenesis, is a striving for the equilibrium of these structures of the whole.
Piaget is Professor of Child Psychology and History of Scientific Thought at the University of Geneva, a post he has held since 1929. He has also been director of the International Bureau of Education since 1929 and co-director of the J. J. Rousseau Institute since 1933. With the help of the Rockefeller Foundation he established the International Center of Genetic Epistemology in Geneva. He has received numerous honorary doctorates including one from Harvard in 1936 during ceremonies celebrating the tricentenary of that university. Piaget is best known as a philosopher, a genetic epistemologist who has spent a lifetime relating the biological and cognitive as exemplified in the developing child. To try to place Piaget in the mold of either an educator or a psychologist is to do him a disservice, but because his writings contribute to an understanding of the intellectual development of the child, they are useful to teachers and parents as well as to philosophers and psychologists.
Periods of Cognitive Development
Piaget's writings indicate that there are three major periods of cognitive development. The first is a period of sensory-motor intelligence and takes place in the typical child from birth to approximately two years of age. At birth the infant is provided with such reflexes as sucking, swallowing, crying, and these are the basis for adaptation tasks later, the building blocks of the sensory-motor edifice. By the age of four months these reflex activities have undergone modification and intereoordination and a repetition of certain behaviors which center on or around the child's own body is seen. By the age of one year these circular reactions or repetitious behaviors include an interest in the environmental consequences of the act and a pursuit of the novel. Behavior is now unquestionably intentional and this intentionality is a hallmark of intelligence. By the age of two the child begins to invent solutions by implicit rather than explicit trial-and-error behavior. Internal mental combinations are taking over for external actions. For lack of a better term, we may say that the child is beginning to think.
The second major period occurs in most children between the ages of two and eleven and is called the period of preparation for, and organization of, concrete thinking operations. From two to four years of age the child becomes capable of verbal expression and this development of language makes for profound modification both affectively and intellectually. The word serves as a symbol for the object and it is now possible to include past, present, and future into one's thinking. Reasoning is transductive in that neither a true deduction nor true induction is possible but thought proceeds by direct analogy from particular to particular. If A is like B in one salient feature, A should be like B in every way. By contrast, the child from four to seven can see relationships, think in terms of classes, and extract concepts, but he knows these only as he has experienced them. He is unable to take the viewpoint of others in his reasoning. Error is perceptual in nature in that his thinking is influenced by what is seen at the moment. If a sausage shaped piece of clay looks like more when it is elongated or broken into small pieces, then to the child it is more. If water poured from a tall thin beaker into a shorter wider beaker looks like less than it did before the transition, then to the child's way of thinking it is less. The child cannot reverse his thinking and picture the parts put back into the original whole nor can he take into consideration both the width and height of the beaker at the same time. This faulty relation of parts to the whole disappears sometime between the ages of seven and eleven. The child now learns to compare classes and relationships, and thought no longer centers on a particular state of an object but can follow successive changes through detours and reversals. He learns that things are not always what they appear to be. However, what he knows is still tied to the concrete world, a world tied to his own actions and this serves as a limitation to cognitive thought processes.
It is not until around eleven years of age or older that the child reaches the third major period of intellectual development, a period of formal operations (as opposed to the real or concrete) in which hypothetico-deductive thinking is possible. He tries to envision all possible relations which could hold true and then by logic, find which are true. Reality becomes a subset within a totality of things which the data would admit as hypotheses. An essential attribute of formal thought is its direction towards the possible and hypothetical. The orientation is more toward problem solving than toward concrete behavior. The adolescent is full of ideation which goes beyond his present life and enables him to deal through logical deductions with possibilities and consequences. He is now capable of an integrated lattice-group structure of thought where parts are in equilibrium with the totality.
All children will not go through the three major periods with equal ease or speed. A slow or retarded child, or a potentially normal child in an impoverished environment, will remain in each period for a longer length of time and may be permanently arrested at a less advanced stage. Experiments with normal children to ascertain if the periods can he speeded up have met with limited success although the findings
are not completely negative.
The work of Jean Piaget also has profound implications for those of us who are Christians because the Scriptures present comparisons between spiritual growth and the development of the child. Examples of this are seen in describing salvation as a new birth (in. 3), in the care and discipline of children (Matt. 7:11. Heb. 12:7), in the results of obedience and the development of stability (I Pet. 1:14,15, Eph. 4:14). There is also an analogy between growth in the understanding of the Scriptures and the cognitive development of the child as portrayed by Piaget. Let us pursue this thought.
Piaget felt that one finds in the action of younger children all the characteristics observed in the verbal behavior of older children.
It was mentioned that Piaget saw the first major period of development as one
of sensory-motor intelligence. The baby is equipped with reflexes which allow
him to assimilate elements of his environment and accommodate to the
him. His behavior is repetitious and he takes great delight in
observing the consequences
of his actions. In this way he develops behavior patterns or
e.g., the schema of sucking, and these patterns become the basis for
tasks later on.
There are numerous references in Scripture which show that the young Christian also needs sensory experiences but of a spiritual nature. Peter admonishes that "As newborn babes, desire the sincere milk of the word, that ye may grow thereby: If so be ye have tasted that the Lord is gracious" (I Pet. 2:2). The Psalmist gives the invitation, "0 taste and see that the Lord is good" (Ps. 34:8). Our Lord referred to Himself as the bread of life (in. 6:35), the light of the world (in. 8:12), the door (in. 10:9) and the good shepherd (in. 10A4). Assimilation and accommodation must be continuous for adequate growth. Directions for such "circular" or repetitious behaviors are given in Deuterooomy 6:6,7: "And these words, which I command thee this day, shall be in thioe heart: And thou shalt teach them diligently unto thy children, and shalt talk of them when thou sittest in thine house, and when thou walkest by the way, and when thou hest down, and when thou risest up." It is only after the Christian has had the opportunity for continuous sensory-motor experiences of this type that he will be prepared to go to the next level of Christian growth.
In the second major period of development, the child becomes adept in the use of language and he develops the capacity of verbal exchange with others. Words also become internalized and thought processes emerge. Speech may be repetitious, only the more salient features of experiences are taken into account, and error in cognition comes from reasoning from particular to particular and in thinking in simple causeeffect terms. The new Christian may have experiences similar to these. The vocabulary that accompanies the Gospel message and the fellowship with those of like precious faith is to be sought after. The im portance of this language as it is internalized into thought patterns cannot be underestimated. Christian growth thrives in an atmosphere of thinking upon the Scriptures and on that which pertains to Christ. Some errors in understanding may be seen and this is to be expected. St. Paul did not anticipate that young Christians would mature immediately, for they would grow in grace and in understanding, but he endeavored to keep them from returning to a less advanced interpretation of the Scriptures (law) after they had known a more advanced form of cognition (grace).
Even after the child can see relationships rather than thinking only in cause-effect terms and is able to classify and form concepts, he knows these only as he experiences them. As was previously mentioned, error is perceptual in nature. He is the slave rather than the master of what he sees. If something looks a certain way to him, then that is the way it is. He cannot take the viewpoint of others in his reasoning. It is to this level of development that many believers attain and it is unfortunately at this level that many believers remain. Let me explain the meaning of this last statement.
A Common Error
We all feel more comfortable in the realm of the concrete or empirical than we do in the realm of the abstract or formal. By repetitious interaction with our environment since birth we have learned that certain behaviors make for certain consequences and these consequences in turn are accompanied by observables which we either like or dislike. We then make the error of taking the observables and by generalization attaching a whole hierarchy of other events we like or dislike to them. To be effective this must take place on the unconscious level. For example, the clean well-shaven young man now becomes more honest, the lady with the longer skirt more moral, the white man more industrious. One who is conservative in his theology must also be conservative in his polities. Or the Lord will reward those who go through the concrete operations of daily Bible reading, attending church services whenever the church is open, or fasting and praying. Or the call of God for Christian service has greater meaning if accompanied by overt manifestations of His presence.
The work of Pia get also has profound implications for Christians, because the Scriptures compare spiritual growth with the development of the child.
This may or may not be the case. We cannot judge until we know more than what appears on the surface. We should be the masters rather than the slaves of what we see. The Scriptures warn us not to be taken in with this common error. Jesus told the Jews that they should "judge not according to the appearance, but judge righteous judgment" (Jn. 7:24). St. Paul warned the Corinthians not to decide who belonged to Christ by overt appearance: "Do ye look on things after the outward appearance? If any man trust to himself that he is Christ's, let him of himself think this again, that, as lie is Christ's, even so are we Christ's" (II Cor. 10:7). They were also admonished to "have somewhat to answer them which glory in appearance, and not in heart" (II Cor, 5:12).
Samuel also needed correction on this matter when he went to Bethlehem to anoint a new king. As he looked on Eliab he was certain that this was the man. "But the Lord said unto Samuel, Look not on his countenance, or on the height of his stature; because I have refused him: for the Lord seeth not as man seeth; for man looketh on the outward appearance, but the Lord looketh on the heart" (I Sam. 16:7). As it turned out, David, the annointed of God, had "a beautiful countenance, and was goodly to look at" (vs. 12) but this was not to be the criterion as to who the chosen one would be.
There is the familiar warning to Christians to "abstain from all appearance of evil" (I Thes. 5:22). It behooves one to take into account that some Christians are in this stage which is replete with perceptual errors. To offend the conscience of those who in their spiritual development feel that if something looks sinful to them, then it is sinful, is going against the Word of God. This we must not do. However, to condone and even encourage this immature state as some churches do is not the answer. This should be only a natural step to a better relation of parts to the whole as found in the Scriptures.
In the latter part of the second period of cognitive development the child has learned that things are not always as they appear, but what he knows is still tied to his own actions. Christian truths are meaningful to the believer at this stage of development only as he experiences them in his daily living. He has learned that things are not always what they may seem to be and yet he is still tied to his own organization and manipulation of spiritual reality. As this organization is only a small part of the totality presented in Scripture, he misses much of what the Word of God has to say to him. He needs to come to the third major period of development, the period of formal operations.
A child in this third or last stage of cognition is able to orient his thoughts toward the possible (as opposed to the concrete) world. He has now reached a level of intellectual equilibrium in which observation no longer directs thought as it did previously, but rather, thought directs observation. His considerations extend beyond the present and he not only is more apt to achieve a correct solution but can check out his solutions
systematically. As the writer of I Cor. 13:11 put it: "When I was a child, I spake as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child: but when I became a man. I put away childish things." The hypothetico-deductive method usd by the adolescent who checks out what really is from the whole realm of the possible is operating at a cognitive level that far exceeds what he has previously known.
The Christian, too, should reach a stage of spiritual development in which he is able to see a much larger picture than his own perceptions and experiences have given him. "While we look not at the things which are seen; for the things which are seen are temporal but the things which are not seen are eternal' (11 Cor. 4:18). For the believer, this stage surpasses even that described by Piaget, for it includes faith, "the evidence of things not seen" (Feb. 11:1); and hope, "for we are saved by hope: but hope that is seen is not hope: for what a man seeth, why doth he yet hope for?" (Born. 8:24); and love, "the love of Christ, which passeth knowledge" (Eph. 3:19). It takes in the promises of God for his children and this combined with the experiences of the believer from day to day will make for an equilibrium of parts to the whole. Previous to this, the Christian had only the parts, and without the whole the parts did not fit into a meaningful pattern. We must accept by faith the "whole" realizing that there will come a day when all perceptions will be accurate for we shall be like Him for we shall see Him as He is. "For now we see through a glass, darkly, but then face to face; now I know in part, but then shall I know even as also I am known" (I Cor. 13:12).
In the meantime, it behooves us to he a little less dogmatic about the accuracy of our perceptions based on our own limited experiences and move toward encompassing a realm of spiritual understanding as presented in the Word. It is a realm that admonishes us not to judge others who have different spiritual perceptions and experiences than we have. It is a realm in which we are no longer slaves to the way things appear for we have a revelation and completeness in Him.
All Christians will not go through these stages at the same rate of speed. Some seem to grow more quickly than others. Whether or not this growth can be speeded up is not as crucial as whether the believer is constantly developing or growing spiritually. It is imperative that he not be locked into a less mature period due to the impoverished milieu of the Christian groups he associates with. Let us encourage ourselves and others to move into the final stage of development, a stage of equilibrium and stability where the parts form a meaningful totality. As St. Paul admonished: "Brethren, be not children in understanding ... but in understanding be men" (I Cor. 14:20).
Athey, I. J., & Robadeau, D. 0. (Eds.) Educational Implica tions of Piea get's Theory, Waltham, Mass.: Ginn-Blaisdell, 1970.
Flavell, J. H. The Developmental Psychology of Jean Piaget. New York: D. Van Nostrand, 1963.
Phillips, John L., Jr. The Origins of Intellect: Piaget's Theory, San Francisco: W. H. Freeman & Co., 1969.
Piaget, J. "Autobiography." D. MacQueen (Trans.) in E. C. Boring, et. al., (Eds.), A History of Psychology in Autobiography, Vol. IV. Worcester, Mass.: Clark University Press, 1952, pp. 237-256.