A Piagetian biais

By Pierre Moessinger

To put my approach in its educational context, I must return briefly to Jean Piaget, of whom I was a student. We know that Piaget emphasized the activity of the child and the importance of the child’s own questioning in learning. He did not deny the role of transmission, imitation, or environmental pressure, but he emphasized cognitive development, which he saw as the result of autoregulation (equilibration). Obviously Piaget did not think of children as autonomous in their social life; he only emphasized the progressive autonomy of their cognitive systems. He argued that the fact that there are “stages” of development could not be explained without some cognitive autonomy.

I do not want to return to the controversies his theory has raised, which are largely outmoded, but I keep a sort of “Piagetian” interest in spontaneous learning. (Again, Piaget is not talking about learning but about cognitive development; now, however, these two notions tend to increasingly overlap.) Learning is “spontaneous” when it is the children who correct themselves when they meet what they perceive to be a contradiction. Of course, the teacher or psychologist can lead to this grasping of consciousness, but the cognitive “work” – the work of superseding their older conceptions – is done by children themselves.

I also remember what I learned in the practicals, as we, the students, were under the direction of Piaget’s assistants. We interacted with children, asking open-ended questions, repeating their responses and trying to deepen them, following the “clinical” method of Piaget. It was then that I really saw and heard the children’s interest in matters considered to be difficult, such as physical problems relating to time and space, logical ones regarding including and sorting out, moral questions like fairness and reciprocity, and many others.

Of course, we had to put these issues within the reach of children. Sometimes we would, once the cognitive level of the children was determined, disturb their conceptual system in order to get an improvement (i.e., a “cognitive reorganization”). For learning to be as autonomous as possible, it must also not be imposed, and it must not appear as such to children themselves. Because of this, we sometimes intentionally made gross errors of reasoning, allowing the child to correct us. I remembered the fun the kids had in correcting adults; amazingly, this trick gave them quite a bit of motivation to learn (however, in order to appear plausible, it must be adapted to the age of the child). Hence my idea to feature people of antiquity in my stories. These characters indeed make what, to contemporary children, are clearly mistakes. And, of course, they don’t do them on purpose, which is quite challenging for children. There is another, more important reason, for the choice of antiquity: according to Piaget, there is a parallel between the history of ideas and cognitive development. It is the famous phylogenesis-ontogenesis parallel hypothesis. This tends to make the mistakes of ancient scientists understandable by contemporary children.

The “philosophical tales” presented here are also educational stories : they are meant to foster cognitive development, to help children to pull themselves up in reasoning. These stories are children-friendly, that is to say, they are accessible to children without being childish. Because they stage adults, children’s identification may not always be straightforward, but if there is less identification than in traditional tales, it is replaced by a kind of proximity to adult characters, who, because they do not know, share this disability with the readers.

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