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Jean Piaget Biography (1896-1980)


Jean Piaget

Jean Piaget

Image: Wikimedia Commons

"The principle goal of education in the schools should be creating men and women who are capable of doing new things, not simply repeating what other generations have done.
-Jean Piaget

Best Known For:

Birth and Death:

  • Born August 9, 1896
  • Died September 16, 1980

Jean Piaget's Early Life:

Jean Piaget was born in Switzerland in 1896 and began showing an interest in the natural sciences at a very early age. By age 11, he had already started his career as a researcher by writing a short paper on an albino sparrow. He continued to study the natural sciences and received his Ph.D. in Zoology from University of Neuchâtel in 1918.


Piaget later developed an interest in psychoanalysis, and spent a year working at a boys' institution created by Alfred Binet. Binet is known as the developer of the world's first intelligence test and Piaget took part in scoring these assessments.

While his early career consisted of work in the natural sciences, it was during the 1920s that he began to move toward work as a psychologist. He married Valentine Châtenay in 1923 and the couple went on to have three children. Piaget's observations of his own children served as the basis for many of his later theories.


Piaget identified himself as a genetic epistemologist. "What the genetic epistemology proposes is discovering the roots of the different varieties of knowledge, since its elementary forms, following to the next levels, including also the scientific knowledge," he explained in his book Genetic Epistemology. Epistemology is a branch of philosophy that is concerned with the origin, nature, extent, and limits of human knowledge. He was interested not only in the nature of thought, but in how it develops and understanding how genetics impact this process.

His early work with Binet's intelligence tests had led him to conclude that children think differently than adults. It was this observation that inspired his interest in understand how knowledge grows throughout childhood.

He suggested that children sort the knowledge they acquire through their experiences and interactions into groupings known as schemas. When new information is acquired, it can either be assimilated into existing schemas or accomodated through revising and existing schema or creating an entirely new category of information.

Today, he is best known for his research on children's cognitive development. Piaget studied the intellectual development of his own three children and created a theory that described the stages that children pass through in the development of intelligence and formal thought processes.

The theory identifies four stages;

(1) the sensorimotor stage,

(2) the preoperational stage,

(3) the concrete operational stage, and

(4) the formal operation stage.

Contributions to Psychology:

Piaget provided support for the idea that children think differently than adults and his research identified several important milestones in the mental development of children. His work also generated interest in cognitive and developmental psychology. Piaget's theories are widely studied today by students of both psychology and education.

Piaget held many chair positions throughout his career and conducted research in psychology and genetics. He created the International Center for Genetic Epistemology in 1955 and served as director until his death.

Influence on Psychology:

Piaget's theories continue to be studied in the areas of psychology, sociology, education, and genetics. His work contributed to our understanding of the cognitive development of children. While earlier researchers had often viewed children simply as smaller version of adults, Piaget helped demonstrate that childhood is a unique and important period of human development.

His work also influenced other notable psychologists including Howard Gardner and Robert Sternberg.

In their 2005 text The Science of False Memory, Brainerd and Reyna wrote of Piaget's influence:

"In the course of a long and hugely prolific career, he contributed important scholarly work to fields as diverse as the philosophy of science, linguistics, education, sociology, and evolutionary biology. Above all, however, he was the developmental psychologist of the 20th century. For two decades, from the early 1960s to the early 1980s, Piagetian theory and Piaget's research findings dominated developmental psychology worldwide, much as Freud's ideas had dominated abnormal psychology a generation before. Almost single-handedly, he shifted the focus of developmental research away from its traditional concerns with social and emotional development and toward cognitive development."

Biographies of Jean Piaget:

  • Bringuier, J.C. (1980). Conversations with Jean Piaget. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
  • Evans, R. (1973). Jean Piaget, the man and his ideas. New York: Dutton.
  • Piaget, J. (1952). Autobiography. In E. Boring (ed) History of psychology in autobiography. Vol. 4. Worcester, MA: Clark University Press.

Selected Publications by Jean Piaget:

  • Piaget, J. (1936) Origins of intelligence in the child. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul.
  • Piaget, J. (1945) Play, dreams and imitation in childhood. London: Heinemann.
  • Piaget, J. (1970) Main trends in psychology, London: George Allen & Unwin.
  • Piaget, J. (1970). Genetic epistemology. New York: W.W. Norton & Company.
  • Piaget, J. (1973). Memory and intelligence: New York: BasicBooks.


Brainerd, C. J., & Reyna, V. F. (2005). The science of false memory. New York: Oxford University Press.

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