Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Piaget = Scientist?

Before proceeding, let me first say that I have high regard for the work of Jean Piaget, who, along with Lev Vygotsky, laid the groundwork of social constructivism. In fact, I probably cite their work to an obnoxious extent in my academic writings. However, I think it reasonable and healthy to question the extent to which their work should be regarded as scientific, in the strictest sense. If we draw a firm distinction between social science and the "harder" natural (or physical) sciences, then we can take social scientific research (such as Piaget's) for what it is truly worth. Social science does not tend to lend itself to strict application of the scientific method, as the following excerpt from a recent child study of mine anecdotally confirms.

My study focused on a second-grader, referred to in the study by the pseudonym "LD". I had the opportunity to replicate some of Piaget’s original experiments that he did in Switzerland almost a century ago. Note particularly my reflections on whether or not I was engaged in “scientific” research:

One of the most fundamental tenets of Piaget’s theory holds that a child of LD’s age should be somewhere near the end of their “preoperational stage” or the beginning of their “concrete operational” stage of development (Phillips, 1981; Woolfolk, 2008). To directly test this theory, I had the opportunity to perform some of Piaget’s original experiments with LD and some of his classmates, and I took the liberty of characterizing it all as a game called “Perspective Detective”.

[I then devote several paragraphs to describing the three Piagetian experiments that I engaged in with the students, ending the section with the following assessment.]

I honestly was not sure what insights, if any, would come out of performing these Piaget experiments, but I did gain at least a couple. The first is that these experiments, while potentially useful for anecdotal observations regarding individual children, are in no way, shape, or form scientific. Any hope of maintaining appropriate experimental control, dependent, or independent variables required by a valid scientific experiment goes flying right out the window the moment a second grader walks into the room, asking questions, poking, prodding, and usurping the proper orders and protocols prescribed by the would-be experiment. Perhaps all of Piaget’s subjects were proper little Swiss tykes who colored inside the lines, but LD and his classmates would absolutely not fall into line. Each instead made their own variation on the theme of the exercise in an interesting way…

References cited in the above child-study excerpt:

Phillips, J. (1981). Piaget’s Theory: A Primer. San Francisco: W. H. Freeman and Company.
Woolfolk, Anita (2008). Educational Psychology. Boston: Pearson Education, Inc.

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