03 February, 2009
Jean Piaget was a Swiss philosopher and natural scientist, well known for his work studying children, his theory of cognitive development and for his epistemological view called "genetic epistemology."
The very great importance he attached to the education of children made him declare in 1934 in his role as Director of the International Bureau of Education that ‘only education is capable of saving our societies from possible collapse, whether violent, or gradual’.
In 1955 he created the International Centre for Genetic Epistemology in Geneva and directed it until 1980. According to Ernst von Glasersfeld, Jean Piaget is "the great pioneer of the constructivist theory of knowing."
Piaget was born in 1896 in Neuchâtel in the French-speaking part of Switzerland. His father, Arthur Piaget, was a professor of medieval literature at the University of Neuchâtel. Piaget was a precocious child who developed an interest in biology and the natural world, particularly molluscs, and even published a number of papers before he graduated from high school. In fact, his long career of scientific research began when he was just eleven, with the 1907 publication of a short paper on the albino sparrow. Over the course of his career, Piaget wrote more than sixty books and several hundred articles.
Piaget received a Ph.D. in natural science from the University of Neuchâtel, and also studied briefly at the University of Zürich. During this time, he published two philosophical papers which showed the direction of his thinking at the time, but which he later dismissed as adolescent work. His interest in psychoanalysis, a strain of psychological thought burgeoning at that time, can also be dated to this period. He then moved from Switzerland to Paris, France, where he taught at the Grange-Aux-Belles street school for boys run by Alfred Binet, the developer of the Binet intelligence test. It was while he was helping to mark some instances of these intelligence tests that Piaget noticed that young children consistently gave wrong answers to certain questions. Piaget did not focus so much on the fact of the children's answers being wrong, but that young children kept making the same pattern of mistakes that older children and adults did not. This led him to the theory that young children's thought or cognitive processes are inherently different from those of adults. (Ultimately, he was to propose a global theory of developmental stages stating that individuals exhibit certain distinctive common patterns of cognition in each period in their development.) In 1921, Piaget returned to Switzerland as director of the Rousseau Institute in Geneva.
In 1923, he married Valentine Châtenay, one of his students; together, the couple had three children, whom Piaget studied from infancy. In 1929, Jean Piaget accepted the post of Director of the International Bureau of Education and remained the head of this international organization until 1968.