Aug 092016


Today is the birthday (1896) of Jean Piaget, a Swiss clinical psychologist best known for pioneering work in child development, based on his theories of cognitive development and epistemology. His work has had a huge impact on the theory of education down to the present day.

Piaget’s model of childhood maturation is a biological developmental stage theory somewhat akin to Freudian theory, evolving out of the same intellectual milieu. The theory deals with the nature of knowledge itself and how humans gradually come to acquire, construct, and use it. For Piaget, cognitive development was a progressive reorganization of mental processes resulting from biological maturation and environmental experience. He believed that children construct an understanding of the world around them, experience discrepancies between what they already know and what they discover in their environment, then adjust their ideas accordingly.

Piaget proposed the existence of four stages of cognitive development: the sensorimotor, preoperational, concrete operational, and formal operational.


The sensorimotor stage is the first of the four stages in cognitive development extending roughly from birth to the acquisition of language. In this stage, infants progressively construct knowledge and understanding of the world by coordinating experiences (such as vision and hearing) with physical interactions with objects (such as grasping, sucking, and stepping). Infants gain knowledge of the world from the physical actions they perform within it. They progress from reflexive, instinctual action at birth to the beginning of symbolic thought toward the end of the stage.

At this stage children learn that they are separate from their environment. They can think about aspects of the environment, even though these things may be outside the reach of the child’s senses. In this stage, according to Piaget, the development of object permanence is one of the most important accomplishments. Object permanence is a child’s understanding that objects continue to exist even though he or she cannot see or hear them. Peek-a-boo is a good test, and important game in this period. By the end of the sensorimotor period, children develop a permanent sense of self and other.

Piaget’s second stage, the pre-operational stage, starts when the child begins to learn to speak at age two and lasts up until around the age of seven. During the pre-operational stage, Piaget noted that children do not yet understand concrete logic and cannot mentally manipulate information. Children’s increase in playing and pretending takes place in this stage. However, the child still has trouble seeing things from different points of view.  Children’s play is mainly categorized by symbolic play and manipulating symbols. So, for example, a child at this stage can easily play with a box as a car or a table.

Piaget argued that children see causality in three ways at this stage: animism, artificialism, and transductive reasoning. Animism is the belief that inanimate objects are capable of lifelike activities. Artificialism refers to the belief that all environmental characteristics can be attributed to human or human-like actions or interventions. Transductive reasoning is a generally fallacious argument that if two events occur in close proximity they are causally related.

The concrete operational stage is the third stage of Piaget’s theory of cognitive development. This stage, which follows the preoperational stage, occurs roughly between the ages of 7 and 11 (preadolescence) and is characterized by the use of logic. During this stage, a child’s thought processes become more “adult like.” They start solving problems in a more logical fashion. Abstract, hypothetical thinking is not yet developed in the child, and children can only solve problems that apply to concrete events or objects. At this stage, children undergo a transition where the child learns rules such as conservation. Piaget determined that children are able to incorporate inductive reasoning. Inductive reasoning involves drawing inferences from observations in order to make a generalization. In contrast, children struggle with deductive reasoning, which involves using a generalized principle in order to try to predict the outcome of an event. Children in this stage commonly experience difficulties with figuring out logic in their heads. For example, a child will understand that “A is more than B” and “B is more than C”. However, when asked “is A more than C?”, the child might not be able to logically figure the question out mentally.

The final stage is known as the formal operational stage (adolescence and into adulthood, roughly ages 11 to approximately 15-20): Intelligence is demonstrated through the logical use of symbols related to abstract concepts. This form of thought includes “assumptions that have no necessary relation to reality.” At this point, the person is capable of hypothetical and deductive reasoning. During this time, people develop the ability to think about abstract concepts. This type of thinking involves hypothetical “what-if” situations that are not always rooted in reality, i.e. counterfactual thinking. It is often required in science and mathematics.


You don’t need to be schooled in anthropology to see that Piaget’s whole sandcastle (like Freud’s) is extremely ethnocentric. The tacit assumption is that mature, Western, logical-scientific reasoning is correct (i.e. adult), and all other ways of viewing the world are infantile. It’s not hard to see that Piaget is consigning the bulk of spiritual and religious thinking to the pre-operational phase, for example. Thus, people (or cultures) who believe in the supernatural, or angels, or gods, and the like are displaying the mental characteristics of Western toddlers – and, by definition, should grow up and grow out of such beliefs to a more “mature” mode of thought. Need I go on?


Freud’s whole psychological edifice based on universal bio-genetic stages of development collapsed under the weight of anthropological investigation in the early to mid-20th century, but Piaget’s lingers although it has its critics. It’s certainly true that different children at different ages learn in different ways, and we have Piaget to thank – in part – for that insight. But the idea that all children in all cultures follow a fixed trajectory through a series of well defined cognitive stages, (and, if they do not, they are stunted or abnormal), is both ludicrous and damaging. Still, if Piaget’s method can show at minimum that not all children learn at the same rate and in the same way, it’s a step in the right direction. One-size-fits-all education is all too common in the developed world.

Piaget was born in Neuchâtel, in the Francophone region of Switzerland and had a close association with the University of Neuchâtel much of his life. Neuchâtel is noted for its white wines and is reputedly the birthplace of absinthe. It is also well known for its special style of cheese fondue which I have already described: . The sweet bread, taillaule, is also a regional specialty, usually served as a breakfast snack with coffee.


Neuchâtel Taillaule


1 kg all-purpose flour
1 cup whole milk, warmed
40 g  fresh yeast
3 eggs
120 g  sugar
150 g  butter, softened
20 g  malt extract
15 g  salt
250 g  raisins
zest of 1 lemon

apricot glaze
flaked almonds


Pre-heat the oven to 200°C.

Place the milk in a mixing bowl and add the yeast and sugar. When the mixture starts to bubble after a few minutes, add 2 eggs, the malt extract, salt and lemon zest and mix well. Then add the flour slowly to form a smooth dough. Add the softened butter and dried fruit and knead well for at least 20 minutes..

Cover the dough and leave it to rise in a warm place for about 1 hour.

Punch the dough down and divide it into 2 equal parts.  Place each in a loaf pan and leave again in a warm place to rise for about 40 minutes.

Brush the tops of the loaves with beaten egg and make zig-zag cuts with kitchen scissors in the tops of the loaves.

Bake in the tins at 200°C for 25 minutes .

Remove from the oven and brush the loaves with an apricot glaze which you can make by diluting apricot jam with warm water. Sprinkle toasted flaked almonds on top if you wish.


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