Sitting by Lake Geneva (i)

Back a while I made reference to the thought of Jean Piaget. This provoked questions from readers and I promised to address these in the future. Time to respond.

In August I will write four blogs in the form of an imaginary dialogue between Jean Piaget and myself. In this way I hope to draw out the significance of his work. The blogs draw heavily on ‘Sitting by Lake Geneva’ first published in ‘Sound Progress: exploring musical development. National Association of Music Educators. 2009.

First an introduction.

The influence of Jean Piaget (1896-1980) on the way we think about human development has been considerable. Piaget was interested in children’s thinking and the changing structure of their minds. How was it that a child’s thinking went through qualitative changes as they matured towards adulthood? How was it that the child started life as an intelligent sensory-motor-tactile being yet unable to reason in the way an adult could? How did the mind of the child grow through interaction with its environment? It was Piaget’s view that the mind was an active organism continually working on experience, continually being disturbed, continually finding new levels of equilibrium only to be disturbed again and so on. The mind was self-regulating. It was the learner who made sense.

These ideas have had a profound impact on the way we view learning and development, and which we may now take for granted or perhaps find rather disturbing.

Piaget’s critics have been many. Some reject the way his approach distorts and contains childhood, some show the limitations of his experimental method, some point out what his theory can’t explain, while some maintain that he offers merely a description of what cognitive development might look like rather than an explanation for how it is.

However, there are those who hold to Piaget’s basic tenets and operate as neo-piagetians and others who have created newer and equally powerful ways of thinking about human development. In the case of Jerome Bruner and Lev Vygotsky, for example, both language and culture have a much greater role to play. And now there are neuro-biological insights that lead to fresh perspectives, although even these frequently make reference to aspects of Piaget’s work, checking out their discoveries against his and acknowledging the visionary quality of his ideas.

Some have applied Piaget’s thinking in very specific ways to the classroom, some more generally. What is undoubtedly valuable is the way in which Piaget helps us to focus on the development of the mind, on the ways in which children think and learn rather than attending to content, context and individual differences. Instead, these matters are provided with a powerful point of reference.

While what follows is fanciful, it also is an attempt to draw out a number of powerful ideas that are likely to be of value for some time to come.

Sitting by Lake Geneva

John Finney: Sitting here near where you were born, and where you so diligently observed the lakeside molluscs growing through their adaptation to their environment, you must feel satisfied about your life’s work and the contribution made to twentieth-century thinking about human development.

Jean Piaget: I was little more than a boy when I began work on what was to be my doctoral thesis setting out to understand the relationship between nature and environmental nurture. My teachers in school were wise. I was what you now refer to as a ‘gifted’ child, and they realised that I could learn more without them than with them and that I was asking more questions than they could answer. Schools are rarely the best places to learn. My school in fact was extremely enlightened. We were encouraged to argue with our teachers and to ask them difficult questions. Now, so I understand, you have strategies teaching teachers how to ask their pupils questions. This does not seem to me to be the appropriate way to encourage curiosity. Shouldn’t pupils be asking the questions?

JF: Maybe you’re right, but we must leave such matters for now as I want you to clarify one point at the outset. Many have mistakenly thought that you were a psychologist, when in fact your area of study was biology and more specifically genetic epistemology. Can you explain what this is?

JP: Well, let us consider that mollusc there. By watching and studying change carefully, it became clear to me that a mollusc has the potential to grow and develop rather like all molluscs before it. This is a genetic reality. However, it can only grow through a process of adaptation to its environment. It has the capacity to either be very good at this or not so good, depending largely on its environment. Applying this to human growth and development seemed to me an obvious step to take. You must remember that I was beginning my experiments at a time when there were worrying beliefs emerging about the determining influence of genetic characteristics and this was leading to a belief in eugenics.

JF: So, as a genetic epistemologist you were interested in knowledge – how a human being comes to know and understand, how knowledge is created, how ways of thinking change and the part that both maturation and the environment play in this.

JP: Yes, this is true. What is more, it became clear that we all pass through a series of developmental stages, and while this will happen to some extent at different ages for each of us, these stages remain invariant. The sensory-motor way of knowing the world will always come first. This is the first way of thinking for a human being, for all human beings. It is a fascinating stage where all the senses work together to ‘make sense’.

I was concerned with a particular kind of intellectual development, the development of logical thought and yes, sensory-motor thinking was its foundation. (By the way, I do have a quiet smile when I hear of the recent interest in multi-sensory learning. It is coming back into fashion, so I hear.) Sensory-motor-tactile knowing is intelligent behaviour, a form of cognition, a form of thinking. From here the child comes to understand, through acts of intuition, to know and to operate, first in a concrete way and later in a more abstract way. The child proceeds from thinking in action to thinking through internalised actions or mental operations.

All thought is action, outer first, inner later. (I think you speak alot about the process of internalisation in music education and quite unlike other subjects. I find that interesting.) I was fascinated to discover how we come to think abstractly when clearly this was not possible in early childhood.

JF: So, your interest was in the growth of the child towards being a fully fledged logical thinker able to solve abstract problems. You will appreciate that this may not be entirely helpful to those of us who have an interest in musical development. We tend to believe that musical intelligence, if indeed there is such a thing, is quite different to the form of logical-deductive reasoning that you had in mind, although of course there could be some interesting relationships and overlaps with musical thinking.

JP: Yes, of course. It would be a wonderful life’s work to understand the nature of musical intelligence. What a challenge this would be! I hope somebody attempts to clarify this most complex idea.

JF: The sun is setting across the lake and we must stop for today. Hopefully we have made a start in understanding your ideas. When we meet next week I will begin with an important question that goes to the heart of the developmental process.

JP: I look forward to this.


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