Piaget’s clinical method

Miller (1993) contends that Piaget altered the course of psychology with his unique observation and questioning techniques, so that once “psychologists looked at development through Piaget’s eyes, they never saw children in quite the same way.” It is from this unique Piagetian mode of observing subjects in a “father/experimenter” role in a semistructured interviewing approach that Piaget pioneered the méthode clinique. This significant contribution is still in use today, with most clinicians in this field utilizing variations of the method in their research. For Piaget, it was important to probe the underlying understanding and knowledge bases in children’s cognition, with repeated questionings and a focus on the reasoning behind their answers. Such novel insight was in contradiction to all previous understandings of this field. Flavell (1996:202) states that Piaget believed he could learn far more about child cognition “by noting and querying their incorrect answers than just by tallying their correct ones.” It is such a “clinical” approach that provided the vast wealth of research data upon which Piaget based his cognition theory, much of which largely endures to the present day in some form.

Piaget’s aim was “to follow the twists and turns of the child’s thought,” which would not have been possible with a more controlled type of method. In turn, a free discussion would have been submerged in children’s verbiage. One of the difficulties when trying to capture spontaneous thought of children (and not thoughts they are just repeating) is to avoid the “authoritative” position of the adult. This is done, for example, by making intentional mistakes, as we have seen, or by introducing counter-examples that are supposed to come from other children. Piaget claims that by “following the child in each of her responses, and, always guided by the child, making her speak more and more freely, one ends up obtaining an examination process analogous to the one psychiatrists are using as a mean of diagnosis.” One can also see this method as a kind of Socratic dialogue where the experimenter not only records the answers of children but tries to capture their reasoning, and the way it is organized.

Piaget was surprised to find that it took years for his students to master the method. Indeed, it requires good psychological knowledge, a rigorous mind, and an ability to create relevant hypotheses during the questioning of the child.

Flavell, J.H. (1996) The Developmental Psychology of Jean Piaget. New York: D. Van Nostrand Company, Inc.

Miller, P.H. (1993) Theories of developmental psychology. New York: Freeman.


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