TIME 100: Scientists & Thinkers - Jean Piaget
State Farm

Child Psychologist
Jean Piaget

He found the secrets of human learning and knowledge hidden behind the cute and seemingly illogical notions of children

Jean Piaget, the pioneering Swiss philosopher and psychologist, spent much of his professional life listening to children, watching children and poring over reports of researchers around the world who were doing the same. He found, to put it most succinctly, that children don't think like grownups. After thousands of interactions with young people often barely old enough to talk, Piaget began to suspect that behind their cute and seemingly illogical utterances were thought processes that had their own kind of order and their own special logic. Einstein called it a discovery "so simple that only a genius could have thought of it."

Piaget's insight opened a new window into the inner workings of the mind. By the end of a wide-ranging and remarkably prolific research career that spanned nearly 75 years--from his first scientific publication at age 10 to work still in progress when he died at 84--Piaget had developed several new fields of science: developmental psychology, cognitive theory and what came to be called genetic epistemology. Although not an educational reformer, he championed a way of thinking about children that provided the foundation for today's education-reform movements. It was a shift comparable to the displacement of stories of "noble savages" and "cannibals" by modern anthropology. One might say that Piaget was the first to take children's thinking seriously.

Others who shared this respect for children--John Dewey in the U.S., Maria Montessori in Italy and Paulo Freire in Brazil--fought harder for immediate change in the schools, but Piaget's influence on education is deeper and more pervasive. He has been revered by generations of teachers inspired by the belief that children are not empty vessels to be filled with knowledge (as traditional pedagogical theory had it) but active builders of knowledge--little scientists who are constantly creating and testing their own theories of the world. And though he may not be as famous as Sigmund Freud or even B.F. Skinner, his contribution to psychology may be longer lasting. As computers and the Internet give children greater autonomy to explore ever larger digital worlds, the ideas he pioneered become ever more relevant.

Piaget grew up near Lake Neuchatel in a quiet region of French Switzerland known for its wines and watches. His father was a professor of medieval studies and his mother a strict Calvinist. He was a child prodigy who soon became interested in the scientific study of nature. When, at age 10, his observations led to questions that could be answered only by access to the university library, Piaget wrote and published a short note on the sighting of an albino sparrow in the hope that this would influence the librarian to stop treating him like a child. It worked. Piaget was launched on a path that would lead to his doctorate in zoology and a lifelong conviction that the way to understand anything is to understand how it evolves.

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By the age of 15, Piaget was a noted European zoologist thanks to his writings about which sea creature?

BORN Aug. 9, 1896, in Switzerland

1907 Publishes first paper at age 10

1918 Obtains doctorate in zoology, studies psychoanalysis

1920 Studies children's intelligence in Paris

1923 First of nearly 60 scholarly books published

1929 Appointed director, International Bureau of Education

1955 Establishes Center for Genetic Epistemology

1980 Dies in Geneva

The Jean Piaget Society
The international organization dedicated to exploring human knowledge

Jean Piaget Archives
Useful bibliographic information on all of Piaget's writings
"I am a constructivist. I think that knowledge is a matter of constant, new construction, by its interaction with reality, and that it is not pre-formed. There is a continuous creativity."

Audio provided courtesy of the University of Geneva's Archives Jean Piaget. Edited for the Web.

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