Activity 7

Criticisms of Piaget

Despite the fact that Piaget's ideas are no longer as fashionable as they once were, it could be argued that he offered many valuable insights into the distinctive ways in which children understand the world.

Piaget often found greater significance in children's errors than their successes. It was Piaget who originated the method of looking at the significance of error, using mistakes as a basis for diagnosis, commonplace nowadays in education but unheard of before him.

Yet, despite these achievements, his theory has been subjected to great criticism in recent decades. His methods have been criticised by modern psychologists who want to be more stringent and scientific. He is criticised for leading children in his use of questions - for treating their responses selectively in order to illustrate theories that are preconceived.

Recent research also suggests that Piaget often underestimated the abilities of younger children and overestimated the abilities of adolescents. Margaret Donaldson wrote a very readable critique of Piaget's tests entitled Children's Minds in 1978 in which she said that his belief that children under the age of seven are still extremely egocentric, can't see both sides of a situation, are incapable of classifying, and so on, arises out of tests which are too abstract and clinical for young children to understand.

Many modern researchers have shown that even very young children can decentre to a greater extent than Piaget thought if tests and questions are framed in terms of a familiar narrative that includes teddy bears and dolls, for example, and makes ‘human sense' to the child.

Other researchers have shown that Piaget's stages of development are not inevitable and do not follow the same pattern in all children. Motivation, culture and personality vary. So does the form of the development of cognition.

Another major criticism is that Piaget neglects the importance of language and of social relationships in the development of children's thinking.

Although he does have some concept of collaborative learning, (for example, he says that children can develop their ideas through cognitive conflict with their peers), Piaget's central image is that of the child as a lone scientist, exploring the world as a solitary individual, and many feel that this doesn't quite ring true.

READ: Read the following chapter from Margaret Donaldson's book, Children's Minds. She was a pupil of Piaget's who challenged Piaget's theories.

WRITE: In the final paragraph of this chapter, Donaldson says that "pre-school children are not nearly so limited in their ability to ‘decentre', or appreciate someone else's point of view, as Piaget has for many years maintained". Explain the evidence which she gives to support this statement. What do you think of it?

(Allow 45 minutes)