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Canadian Psychology 34. 3 (Jul 1993): 239-245.

Amazing new discovery: Piaget was wrong!


Siegel, Linda S.

Abstract (Summary)
There has been criticism of the underlying logic of the Piagetian position (e.g., Siegel, 1978, 1982a). The Piagetian position is that cognitive operations emerge and develop independently of language. But the Piagetians rely on the child's verbal justifications and explanations to infer the existence of a particular cognitive structure. This use of language to measure thought is one of the fundamental problems with the theory because language is required to measure the cognitive operations that are supposed to exist without language. It is a paradox to rely on language to infer the existence or the nonexistence of a particular cognitive structure. In addition, there is ample evidence that preschool children, and in some cases even older children, do not understand the terminology of the questions used in Piagetian tasks or misunderstand or misinterpret the meaning of the question (e.g., Baron, Lawson, & Siegel, 1975; Lawson, Baron, & Siegel, 1974; Siegel, 1971a,b; Siegel 1977; Siegel, 1982a; Siegel & Goldstein, 1969). Therefore, "if language is necessary to the measurement of a cognitive operation, the absence of such an operation cannot logically be inferred in a child ... whose language production and comprehension is immature and inadequate for the task. For such a child, the existence of a preoperational stage becomes at best, indeterminate". (Siegel, 1978, pp. 47 - 48). The cornerstone of Piagetian theory is the idea that there are distinctive and qualitatively different stages of cognitive development. However, there have been criticisms of the concepts involved in stage theory. For example, Brainerd (1978b) has provided a critique of the Piagetian position on the stages of cognitive development. The logic of stages was examined and found to be fallacious. For example, the stage concepts of the Piagetian system are largely descriptive rather than explanatory because the conditions that explain or predict a child's behaviour in a particular stage are not known or specified. Without independent specification of the antecedent variables that lead to different stages, a general conceptualization of cognitive acquisition is not possible and stages and stage transition are reduced to description. In addition, what appears to be a universality of stages may be a consequence of the measurement procedures. In some cases, lower level skills are necessary components of higher level tasks, so that what seems to be an orderly sequence of acquisition is, in reality, an artifact of the task structure. For example, in the task that involves the measurement of conservation of number, the child must demonstrate an understanding of numerical correspondence. Therefore, an understanding of correspondence must, of necessity, precede conservation. Rather than represent qualitatively different stages, the apparent sequence is a result of the measurement techniques used rather than a fundamental characteristic of the structures themselves (Brainerd, 1978). In addition, the Piagetian concept of stages is not supported empirically. Results discrepant with the theoretical position of the Piagetian theory have been reported for sensorimotor functions (Cornell, 1978), preoperational thought (Siegel, 1978), concrete operations (Brainerd, 1978a), and formal operations (Ennis, 1978). One aspect of the criticism of Piagetian theory was based on the lack of understanding in the Piagetian system of the role of operational definitions in scientific endeavours. Supporters of the Piagetian orthodoxy have failed to appreciate the nature of operational definitions. One example is the reaction of the Piagetians to the use of alternative definitions of Piagetian concepts. Traditional Piagetian concepts have been translated into nonverbal tasks but these tasks have been considered as inappropriate by the Piagetians. The nonverbal cognitive tasks that have been used are different from the traditional Piagetian ones but correct solution of the problems requires the same abilities as those needed to solve the Piagetian problems (e.g., Siegel, 1971a,b, 1972a,b, 1973, 1974a,b, 1977, 1978; Siegel, Lees, Allan, & Bolton, 1981). These nonverbal tests are different, but not inappropriate, definitions of cognitive structures; they differ in surface features but measure the same underlying processes. As Macnamara and Austin have noted, the child in the Piagetian world does not understand the principles of logic and physics. We have shown that with tasks that use appropriate operational definitions, young children can be shown to reason logically.

here is a great deal of validity in the position outlined by Macnamara and Austin; however, their ideas are part of an historical tradition. For the past 60 years, there have been a number of individuals who have noted major inconsistencies in Piagetian theory and/or significant problems with the methodology of the studies conducted within this framework. We welcome the addition of another voice to this chorus. We must know history in order not to be condemned to repeat it." George Santayana The only thing new in the world is the history you don't know." Harry Truman It was with a combination of surprise, delight, frustration, and anger that I read, "Physics and Plasticine" by Macnamara and Austin. As these are words that one does not typically find in a scientific journal, I shall explain why an article would engender such strong emotions. While I agree with the basic premises and conclusions of Macnamara and Austin (hence the delight), I feel that this article represents exceptionally poor scholarship (hence the surprise and the anger). In various ways, most of what Macnamara and Austin have written has been noted before and they seem to have ignored the challenges to the Piagetian system that have been made over the past 60 years and reviewed, for example, in Brainerd (1978a,b), Donovan and McIntyre (1990), Siegel (1978), and Siegel and Hodkin (1982) among others (hence the frustration). These challenges to the Piagetian ideas over the past 60 years (see Siegel & Hodkin, 1982 for a detailed review), start, as far as I have been able to determine, with the famous anthropologist, Margaret Mead (1932), who was critical of Piaget's concept of animism and what she perceived as Piaget erroneously attributing animistic thinking to the young child. Macnamara and Austin claim that "There is opposition [to Piagetian theory] but it is mainly addressed to matters of experimental design and of problems relating to the transition from one stage to the next." Macnamara and Austin are incorrect. The opposition to Piagetian approach was based both on the presence of logical fallacies within the Piagetian position and criticisms of the methodology. While it is true that we criticized the methodology used by Piaget and his supporters, we also demonstrated that there were the problems with the underlying assumptions of this theory. We showed that the some of the premises ofthe theory were fundamentally flawed and that because of logical errors in their reasoning, the conclusions reached by the Piagetians were simply wrong. I will address some of these issues in this article. Faulty Logic: Language vs Thought There has been criticism of the underlying logic of the Piagetian position (e.g., Siegel, 1978, 1982a). The Piagetian position is that cognitive operations emerge and develop independently of language. But the Piagetians rely on the child's verbal justifications and explanations to infer the existence of a particular cognitive structure. This use of language to measure thought is one of the fundamental problems with the theory because language is required to measure the cognitive operations that are supposed to exist without language. It is a paradox to rely on language to infer the existence or the nonexistence of a particular cognitive structure. In addition, there is ample evidence that preschool children, and in some cases even older children, do not understand the

terminology of the questions used in Piagetian tasks or misunderstand or misinterpret the meaning of the question (e.g., Baron, Lawson, & Siegel, 1975; Lawson, Baron, & Siegel, 1974; Siegel, 1971a,b; Siegel 1977; Siegel, 1982a; Siegel & Goldstein, 1969). Therefore, "if language is necessary to the measurement of a cognitive operation, the absence of such an operation cannot logically be inferred in a child ... whose language production and comprehension is immature and inadequate for the task. For such a child, the existence of a preoperational stage becomes at best, indeterminate". (Siegel, 1978, pp. 47 - 48). Nonverbal Measures Consequently, it has been argued than nonverbal tasks represent the most appropriate tests of the level of thinking of the young child. When nonverbal tests are used, it has been found that the young child understands many mathematical and logical concepts before he or she understands the relevant language related to these concepts (Siegel, 1971a,b; 1972a,b; 1973; 1974,a,b; 1978). Quantitative thought develops prior to quantitative language. Often these nonverbal tests reveal that the young child possesses the type of logical structures thought to be missing in the "preoperational child" of the Piagetian system. By making the language and the situation appropriate to the child there are many examples of logical thinking in the young child. An example is the traditional conservation of volume task. In this task, a ball is flattened into pancake and children do not recognize that the new mass, that is merely a different shape, has the same amount. The children illogically say the amount is different. Macnamara and Austin claim that "It is no principle of logic that matter is not freely annihilated and recreated again as one flattens a ball of plasticine to a pancake and rolls the pancake into a ball again." The point is that the children are behaving "illogically" but before we can conclude that the behaviour is illogical, tasks must be developed that measure the quality of child's thought independently of language. The Piagetians claimed that children do not understand that a change in shape does not change volume, while Macnamara and Austin claim that, in fact, it does under certain circumstances. It almost appears that Macnamara and Austin are claiming that the young child's sophisticated knowledge is the reason for the child's failure. It seems that this is highly unlikely; the reason is that the child is misled by the words. It is also the case that the child has not been instructed in the appropriate concepts. Studies of cognitive development must address this issue of the verbal nature of the task and the issue of instruction. Piaget himself was not insensitive to this problem. Here are some of his comments on this own work. "The first of these shortcomings consisted in limiting my research to language and expressed thought. I well knew that thought proceeds from action but I believed then that language directly reflects acts and that to understand to logic of the child one has only to look for it in the domain of conversation or verbal interactions. It was only later... that I learned that for a complete understand of the genesis of intellectual operations, manipulation and experience with object had first to be considered. Therefore prior to study based on verbal conversations, an examination of patterns of conduct had to carried out." (Evans, 1973, pp. 123 - 124)

The Inadequacies of Stage Theory The cornerstone of Piagetian theory is the idea that there are distinctive and qualitatively different stages of cognitive development. However, there have been criticisms of the concepts involved in stage theory. For example, Brainerd (1978b) has provided a critique of the Piagetian position on the stages of cognitive development. The logic of stages was examined and found to be fallacious. For example, the stage concepts of the Piagetian system are largely descriptive rather than explanatory because the conditions that explain or predict a child's behaviour in a particular stage are not known or specified. Without independent specification of the antecedent variables that lead to different stages, a general conceptualization of cognitive acquisition is not possible and stages and stage transition are reduced to description. In addition, what appears to be a universality of stages may be a consequence of the measurement procedures. In some cases, lower level skills are necessary components of higher level tasks, so that what seems to be an orderly sequence of acquisition is, in reality, an artifact of the task structure. For example, in the task that involves the measurement of conservation of number, the child must demonstrate an understanding of numerical correspondence. Therefore, an understanding of correspondence must, of necessity, precede conservation. Rather than represent qualitatively different stages, the apparent sequence is a result of the measurement techniques used rather than a fundamental characteristic of the structures themselves (Brainerd, 1978). In addition, the Piagetian concept of stages is not supported empirically. Results discrepant with the theoretical position of the Piagetian theory have been reported for sensorimotor functions (Cornell, 1978), preoperational thought (Siegel, 1978), concrete operations (Brainerd, 1978a), and formal operations (Ennis, 1978). One aspect of the criticism of Piagetian theory was based on the lack of understanding in the Piagetian system of the role of operational definitions in scientific endeavours. Supporters of the Piagetian orthodoxy have failed to appreciate the nature of operational definitions. One example is the reaction of the Piagetians to the use of alternative definitions of Piagetian concepts. Traditional Piagetian concepts have been translated into nonverbal tasks but these tasks have been considered as inappropriate by the Piagetians. The nonverbal cognitive tasks that have been used are different from the traditional Piagetian ones but correct solution of the problems requires the same abilities as those needed to solve the Piagetian problems (e.g., Siegel, 1971a,b, 1972a,b, 1973, 1974a,b, 1977, 1978; Siegel, Lees, Allan, & Bolton, 1981). These nonverbal tests are different, but not inappropriate, definitions of cognitive structures; they differ in surface features but measure the same underlying processes. As Macnamara and Austin have noted, the child in the Piagetian world does not understand the principles of logic and physics. We have shown that with tasks that use appropriate operational definitions, young children can be shown to reason logically. Learning as an Assessment Technique Macnamara and Austin raise an important issue in regard to the interpretation of children's failure on Piagetian tasks. They ask, "did not the ancient Greeks have views of matter radically different

from our own? Yet we commonly regard them as ignorant of physics, not as lacking in reasoning ability. Why regard children differently?" The point is that if children fail to answer a question it may be that no one has told them the answer or helped them to learn the concept. The critical test is whether the children can learn the concept after training. We have suggested previously that the real question of cognitive development is whether or not a child is capable of learning certain concepts or relations, not what the child displays in the first few minutes of interaction with the experimenter (e.g., Linder & Siegel, 1983; Siegel, 1978). The importance of studying the learning process rather than the product oriented approach of traditional measures of intelligence or cognitive development has been eloquently argued by Estes (1974) and Bruner (1975). Therefore, by emphasizing the significance of teaching the child, Macnamara and Austin have stressed an important aspect of the study of cognitive development. The use of training techniques to study cognitive development rather than to simply assume that the only appropriate measures are what the child knows when he or she starts interacting with the experimenter. If, as we believe, a child's understanding of a concept depends on specific experience with certain environmental events and materials, then the appropriate assessment of cognitive development would be to see whether a child can learn a particular concept. As we have written, "By training a concept, we can examine the specific experiences that might be relevant, and the specific non - logical factors that may impede children in demonstrating understanding of the concepts... The important point about training is that it can be used to provide investigators with a better understanding of cognitive development. We feel that training is not begging the issue of cognitive assessment, but is an attempt to ascertain whether a child can learn a concept with a minimal amount of instruction. The critical question in this kind of research is not the absolute presence or absence of the concept, but whether or not the child can benefit from experience to learn the concept." (Siegel & Hodkin, 1982 p. 64) Conclusions about the inadequacy of a child's thought are inappropriate unless there has been some attempt to teach the concept in question to the child, and MacNamara and Austin are correct in stating that "careful teaching of the basic concepts of physics, particularly by the use of experiments at an early age, could be a major contribution to the development of young children." The Social Psychology of Cognitive Development In studying cognitive development it is important to realize that the measurement of any cognitive skill is a conversational interaction between the child and the experimenter in a particular social context. The importance of the child's perception of the social context and the child's understanding (or lack of it) of the language that is used in the task is discussed in detail in Siegel and Hodkin (1982). The critical point is that if the task and the language are made more appropriate to the child, then the young child often demonstrates the capacity for logical reasoning. Failure to control factors relating to memory, language, attention, and the child's interpretation of the context can lead to erroneous conclusions about the child's lack of reasoning skills.

It is ironic that some recent work in cognitive development does not appear to have benefitted from the issues that arose in the debates about Piagetian theory. Recent research purporting to show deficiencies in children's reasoning skills that the reasoning of the young child is illogical and egocentric in relation to the contents of other minds (e.g., Astington, Harris, & Olson, 1988), has been shown by Freeman, Lewis and Doherty (1991), Freeman, Lewis, and Hagestadt (1991), and Lewis and Osborne (1990) to suffer from the same logical and methodological problems as that of the Piagetian theory and tasks. Freeman, Lewis and Doherty (1991), Freeman, Lewis, and Hagestadt (1991), and Lewis et al., (1990) have shown that linguistic difficulties, memory inadequacies, and misinterpretations of the task were responsible for children's seemingly immature theories of the mind. When they have designed tasks to control these factors, the young children were able to demonstrate more logical and sophisticated concepts. Conclusions Macnamara and Austin hint that we have been led astray by the Piagetian descriptions of the child's immature and inadequate reasoning and have changed our educational practices because of widespread acceptance of the Piagetian system. While I agree that the science curriculum in the elementary schools does not appear to challenge children sufficiently, I do not think the blame rests entirely with Piaget and the Piagetians. I am not sure why the science and mathematics curricula are inadequate but some possible reasons include lack of appropriate teacher training in science and mathematics, lack of interest, and reluctance to include scientists in the teacher training process and in direct classroom instruction. I do agree that we should take children seriously and provide them with an environment where they can experiment and learn about science. However, I go one step further. We should examine their errors and try to understand why they fail. Those of us who were critical of Piagetian theory are not claiming that the child is a genius and that he or she has a mature understanding of all concepts. There is clearly a gradual development of the concepts during the preschool and elementary school years. But our point is that the traditional Piagetian theory significantly underestimates the cognitive capacities of the young child. I have one question for Macnamara and Austin - Where were you when we needed you in the 1970s? Were you sceptical about the validity of Piagetian idea and methodology but afraid to come out of the closet? Those of us who came out in the 1970s did not meet with a warm reception. In the 1990s, it seems appropriate to recognize our contributions. Obviously, I agree with Macnamara and Austin but think that they should acknowledge in more than just a superficial manner the substantive nature of the previous criticisms of Piaget. I believe that Macnamara and Austin should receive the ultimate academic sentence as punishment - and be banished to the library, an excellent place to become acquainted withthe history of ideas. References

Astington, J.W., Harris, P.L., & Olson, D.R. (Eds.) (1988). Developing theories of mind. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press. Baron, J., Lawson, G., & Siegel, L.S. (1975). Effects of training and set size on children's judgments of number and length. Developmental Psychology, 11, 583 - 588. Bruner, J.S. (1975). The objectives of developmental psychology. Newsletter, Division of Developmental Psychology - American Psychological Association, November. Brainerd, C.J. (1978a). Learning research and Piagetian theory. In L.S. Siegel and C.J. Brainerd (Eds.), Alternatives to Piaget: Critical Essays on the theory. NY: Academic Press. Brainerd, C.J. (1978b). The stage question in cognitive - developmental theory. Behavioral and Brain Sciences, 2, 173 - 213. Cornell, E.H. (1978). Learning to find things: A reinterpretation of object permanence studies. In L.S. Siegel & C.J. Brainerd (Eds). Alternative to Piaget: Critical Essays on the Theory. NY: Academic Press. Donovan, D.M., & McIntyre, D. (1990). Healing the hurt child: A developmental - contextual approach. NY: Norton. Ennis, R.H. (1978). Conceptualization of children's logical competence: Piaget's propositional logic and an alternative proposal. In L. S. Siegel & C.J. Brainerd, Alternatives to Piaget: Critical essays on the theory. New York: Academic Press. Estes, W.K. (1974). Learning theory and intelligence. American Psychologist, 29, 393 - 405. Evans, R.I. (1973). Jean Piaget: The man and his ideas. NY:Dutton. Freeman, N.H., Lewis, C., & Doherty, M.J. (1991). Preschoolers' grasp of a desire for knowledge in false - belief prediction: Practical intelligence and verbal report. British Journal of Developmental Psychology, 1991, 9, 139 - 157. Freeman, N., Lewis, C., & Hagestadt, J. (1991). Preschooler's use of hindsight to make a false belief prediction when retelling a story. Paper presented at the International Conference on Memory, Lancaster, UK. Lawson, G. Baron, J., & Siegel, L.S. (1974). The role of number and length cues in children's quantitative judgments. Child Development, 45, 731 - 736. Lewis, C. & Osborne, A. (1990). Three - year - olds' problems with false belief: Conceptual deficit or linguistic artifact? Child Development, 61, 1514 - 1519. Linder, B.A., & Siegel, L.S. (1983). The learning paradigm as a technique for investigating cognitive development. In J. Bisanz, G. Bisanz, & R. Kail (Eds.), Learning in children. New York: Springer Verlag. Maurer, D., Siegel, L.S., Lewis, T., Kristofferson, M., Levy, B. A., & Barnes, R. (1979). Long term memory improvement? Child Development, 50, 106 - 118. Mead, M. (1932). An investigation of the thought of primitive children, with special reference to animism. Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute, 62, 173 - 190.

Siegel, L.S. (1971a). The sequence of development of certain number concepts in preschool children. Developmental Psychology, 5, 357 - 361. Siegel, L.S. (1971b). The development of certain number concepts. Developmental Psychology, 5, 362 - 363. Siegel, L.S. (1972a). The development of concepts of numerical magnitude. Psychonomic Science, 28, 245 - 246. Siegel, L.S. (1972b). The development of the concept of seriation. Developmental Psychology, 6, 135.137. Siegel, L.S. (1973). The role of spatial arrangement and heterogeneity in the development of concepts of numerical equivalence. Canadian Journal of Psychology, 27, 351 - 355. Siegel, L.S. (1974a). The development of number concepts: Ordering and correspondence operations and the role of length cues. Developmental Psychology, 10, 907 - 912. Siegel, L.S. (1974b). Heterogeneity and spatial factors as determinants of numeration ability. Child Development, 45, 532 - 534. Siegel, L.S. (1977). The cognitive basis of the comprehension and production of relational terminology. Journal of Experimental Child Psychology, 24, 40 - 52. Siegel, L.S. (1978). The relationship of language and thought in the preoperational child: A reconsideration of nonverbal alternatives to Piagetian tasks. In L.S. Siegel and C.J. Brainerd (Eds.), Alternatives to Piaget: Critical Essays on the theory. NY: Academic Press. Siegel, L.S. (1982a). The development of quantity concepts. Perceptual and linguistic factors. In C. J. Brainerd (Ed.), Children's logical and mathematical cognition. New York: Springer - Verlag. Siegel, L.S. (1982b). The discrepancy between cognitive and linguistic abilities in the young child. In F. Lowenthal, F. Vandamme & J. Cordier (Eds.), Language acquisition. New York: Plenum Press. Siegel, L.S., Lees, A., Allan, L., & Bolton, B. (1981). Nonverbal assessment of Piagetian concepts in preschool children with impaired language development. Educational Psychology, 1, 153 - 158. Siegel, L.S., McCabe, A.E., Brand, J., & Matthews, J. (1978). Evidence for class inclusion in the preschool child: Linguistic factors and training effects. Child Development, 49, 688 - 693. Siegel, L.S. & Goldstein, A.G. (1969). Conservation of number in young children: Recency vs. relational strategies. Developmental Psychology, 1, 128 - 130. Siegel, L.S., & Hodkin, B. (1982). The garden path to the understanding of cognitive development: Has Piaget led us into the poison ivy? In S. Modgil & C. Modgil, The taming of Piaget: Crossfires and crosscurrents. London, England: National Foundation for Research.
The research that led to the conclusions reported in this article was funded by the Medical Research Council of Canada and the Ontario Mental Health Foundation. This article was written while the author held a Senior Research Fellowship

from the Ontario Mental Health Foundation. The author wishes to thank Charles Brainerd, Denis Donovan, Barbara Hodkin, Deborah McIntyre, the late Evelyn Nelson, and Laura and Jeffrey Siegel for their contributions to the development of these ideas. The author also wishes to thank Letty Guirnela for secretarial assistance and the Max Planck Institute for Psycholinguistics, Nijmegen, The Netherlands, for hospitality during the writing of this paper. Address correspondence to the author at Department of Department of Instruction and Special Education, Ontario Institute for Studies in Education, 252 Bloor St. West, Toronto, Ontario Canada M5S 1V6.

Copyright Canadian Psychological Association Jul 1993 Number of words: 3596

Indexacin (detalles)
Materias: Child development, Child psychology, Cognition & reasoning Personas: MacNamara, John, Austin, Geoff, Piaget, Jean Clasificacin: 9172 - Canada Ttulo: Amazing new discovery: Piaget was wrong! Autores: Siegel, Linda S Ttulo de publicacin: Canadian Psychology Tomo: 34 Nmero: 3 Pginas: 239-245 Nmero de pginas: 7 Ao de publicacin: 1993 Fecha de publicacin: Jul 1993 Editorial: Canadian Psychological Association Lugar de publicacin: Ottawa Pas de publicacin: Canad Materias de la revista: Psychology ISSN: 07085591 Tipo de fuente: Scholarly Journals Idioma de la publicacin: English Tipo de documento: PERIODICAL Subarchivo: Child development, Child psychology, Cognition & reasoning ID del documentos de ProQuest: 220784983 URL del documento: http://search.proquest.com/docview/220784983?accountid=12268 Copyright: Copyright Canadian Psychological Association Jul 1993 ltima actualizacin: 2010-06-09 Base de datos: ProQuest Central