This is Genetic Epistemology

Recently, my man Jean Piaget has been burning up the twittersphere. Piaget is generally associated with “constructivism,” a very popular concept among teachers. Piaget’s theories are useful for teacher’s to know and keep in mind. They are not scientific widely used in the scientific literature. They are not worthwhile tools for policymakers. And they might be useful for politicians.

Confused? Don’t be. Instead, read on!

European psychology, for about a century, was divided between two campus, neither of which would fit comfortable within the bounds of ‘psychology’ as we know it today. One group approached psychology as a branch of applied physiology. Pavlos and his dogs, and French psychometricians who were measuring intelligence as a function of hand size, probably fit into this group. Another simply wrote philosophy and called it science. Freud, Adler, and Jung had all number of bizarre ideas, which would be classified under the term ‘mysticism’ today, and form the second camp. So European psychology was paralyzed between a group of mystics who took the mind seriously, and a group of scientists who did not.

Out of this morass came Jean Piaget, a man trained as a snail researcher with an early interest in Freud’s psychoanalysis. Of all the European “psychologists,” Piaget was thus one of the very few interested in the mind and familiar with science. This combination may have been as rare as the combination of art and technology that made Steve Jobs so influential in our lifetimes.

In either case, Jean Piaget soon develop a theory he called “genetic epistemology,” but which we call “constructivism.” Piaget identified learning as part of the species-nature of mankind. Small children, Piaget reasoned, learned to ‘think’ through physio-motor actions called ‘schemes.’ Grasping, shaking, and crying are examples of schemes. Gradually, interaction with the environment allow children to progress through ‘schemas’ (or schemata), which have mental characteristics. ‘All snails are smaller than dogs’ might be one schema. ‘All dogs are smaller than elephants’ are another.

Reasoning, according to Piaget, is the process of using schemes (or schemata) to manipulate the world. A toddler might ‘reason’ by shaking his fist, and be rewarded through a toy. The world has changed owing to the use of a scheme. An older child might reason through executing schemata. If ‘all snails are smaller than dogs,’ and ‘all dogs are smaller than elephants,’ these schemata can be manipulated to create a new ‘fact’ about the world: ‘All snails are smaller than elephants.’ (Piaget called this stage concrete-operational.)

I don’t want to spend too much time here, but eventually a learner could be expected to think logically with schemata about impossible states of affairs: ‘If all elephants are smaller than dogs, and all dogs are smaller than snails…’ ‘… all elephants are smaller than snails,’ an advanced thinker might say. ‘That is stupid,’ would say a child at the concrete-operational stage. *babble babble* the infant would scheme.

What makes Piaget important is not the specific predictions he made (which were often wrong), or his unifying European psychology (which, partially owing to the Nazis, was in a state of collapse anyway), but that Piaget provided an easy-to-explain description of the mind that focused on nurturing but also neatly matched scientific findings in developmental educational psychology.

Across the Atlantic, American psychologists were beginning to measure ‘working memory,’ the capacity for remembering unrelated bits of nonsense, and discovering that it increased as part of the developmental process. Small children, perhaps unsurprisingly, are low in terms of working memory capacity. Appropriate instruction for young children thus should not be taxing on working memory capacity. Instead, it should build up simple mental structures step by step, and getting exasperated at young children for being ‘dense’ would miss the point. As children get older they are capable of more advanced thinking.’ There is a genetic biological process that underpins this, regardless of what facts the children know. This is all similar to Piaget’s structural ideas, if harder to visualize.

That said, however, Piaget’s theory have an important shortcoming. Like Freud and like snail researchers, he was a big believer in the utility of focusing on the species-nature of his subjects. In modern psychology, this affection is shared by sociobiologists and evolutionary psychologists. But much of modern psychology focuses on understanding differences, whether individual or on a group level (like the epigenetic destruction of the North Korean people under the Kim Family Regime, or differences among geographically-based human populations). People are more different from each other than Piaget thought, even and these differences should be recognized.

So what is constructivism, this genetic epistemology? Is it an outdated remnant of a dead stream of psychology? Yes. Is it useful for explaining psychology. Yes. Should policy makers use it? No. Should teachers think about it? Yes. Should politicians be exposed to it? Probably.