Piaget's Sociological Studies


The main theme of my project for EMT 805 is to understand Piaget and his sociological studies considering a well-known fact that he worked on the aspects of learning of an individual child. I thought this was going to be meaningful, in particular, when I considered the current criticism about Piaget's work on an individual child's learning compared to so-called Vygotsky's explanation about a child's learning in a sociocultural framework. The criticism that I described before intrigued me to find out what Piaget might have thought about the sociocultural influences in children's learning environment. The starting question was that "did he never concern the sociocultural sides of children's learning? " In addition to that, at the beginning of the quarter, von Glasersfeld's recommendation to a book, "Sociological Studies" (1995) by Piaget helped me lead into shaping this project. My interpretation is that this social criticism of Piaget's position has not been based on a correct analysis about his work. I was able to see that what people criticize about Piaget's studies does not give sufficient attention to Piaget's account to the social aspects of children's experience. Piaget's many thoughts about sociocultural influences in children's learning will be explained in this paper.

This paper consists of introduction, two major parts, discussion, and Appendix 1 and 2; Piaget's sociological studies, and question and Piaget's contribution to the individual aspects of children's learning. In the first part of this paper, I will elaborate on Piaget's understanding about sociological aspects in children's learning. The book, "Sociological Studies"(1995) which is translated by Brown et all is the main source of information. In the second part of this paper, I will revisit to his contribution to the individual aspects of children's learning which can never be separated from his understanding about sociological aspects of children's learning. Then, I will continue to explain my understanding of the importance of individual aspects in children's learning. In addition to that, the issues of "egocentrism" will be discussed in order to support the rationality of Piaget's studies. In the Appendix, I will excerpt two dialogues from Chapter 7 of "Sociological Studies", The development in the child of the idea of homeland and of foreign relationships for readers' useful information. It will be good to start reading the dialogues first before you get into the second part of this paper.


Part 1: Piaget's Sociological Studies

Differently from general understanding, to Piaget, the social aspects of children's experience was one of the most important assumptions in their learning processes just as the individual aspects of children's experience were. Piaget did have a clear understanding about how social practices occur in children's acquisition of available knowledge and the creation of novel knowledge. Leslie Smith, the editor of the "Sociological Studies", says that Piaget claimed that 'the social need to share the thought of others and to communicate our own and to convince is at the basis of our need for verification. Proof is born through discussion' (p. 5). I think it is important to highlight that Piaget's explicit claim is that the individual and society per se are severally and jointly insufficient in the formation of rationality. But, Piaget's aim is not to ignore the social basis of knowledge but rather to focus on the acquisition of knowledge with due attention to its rational legitimization. Let me take a specific question here in order to understand Piaget's intention in a more practical way in mathematics education: "Who are the actor in a learning situation of a mathematics class?" "Who actually opens the door under the influx of social need from outside of the mathematics classroom?" If I assume a mathematics classroom in a school, then "what would the children in the classroom be doing when the teacher introduces a new mathematical concept?" I think Piaget will probably answer that it is the each individual child who shows the different levels of understanding by his(or her) own operational activities in learning. I believe that this is what Piaget's work makes distinct from that of others.

I said in the introduction that I would present the two dialogues from Piaget's empirical study concerning children's ideas about the homeland and foreign relationships later in the Appendix 1 & 2. Now I want to ask the following question. "What do this kind of empirical studies by Piaget tell us? " Smith says the following: Science is an integral part of culture and tracking the course of 'intellectual mutations' as they occur in children's re-discovery of logic and scientific method is a legitimate form of social investigation. Thus it could be said that all of the phenomena investigated in Piaget's empirical studies are social phenomena, even if the converse is not true (p. 8). Related to Smith's saying, I want to say that Piaget's own position stated that social elements are indeed essential to the formation of knowledge. I think it is because Piaget thought more about what is the contribution of individual experiences to the initial origins of knowledge when he considered children's learning, specially at the early stages of intellectual development of the children. To him, the concept of psychology of children must have been equivalent to that of sociology of the children.

Let me approach the issue at a little bit different angle by thinking of what "equilibration" might have meant to Piaget: Does it only happen in the internal side of an individual child?

Fact is a form of equilibrium - or disequilibrium - whilst the ideal is another equilibrium, as real in a sense as the first, but often sketches rather than realized: the ideal is a limiting case, as the mathematicians say, or even the full equilibrium towards which the false or unstable equilibria of the actual world tend.... Ideal psychological equilibrium occurs when whole and parts are in a state of harmony, of reciprocal conservation. (Piaget, 1918, pp. 46, 178)

I had to interpret what Piaget wanted to mean by "whole and parts". I think he wanted to say the social side of learning by "whole" and the individual side of learning by "parts". Smith also explains that Piaget's account of equilibration has a social component because the search for coherence requires two types of matching, both within one mind and between the minds of partners to a communicative exchange. Even though the "equilibrium" can give us some flavor of self-regulation from an individual mind he made it clear in the "Sociological Studies," that knowledge arises neither from the subject nor the object but from the inter-dependent interaction between them, so as to advance from there in the dual direction of an objectified exteriorization and a reflexive interiorization(p. 27) To Piaget, there was no series of three successive terms: biology --- psychology --- sociology, but rather a simultaneous link from biology to psychology and sociology together, these two disciplines having the same object, but treating it from distinct and complementary viewpoints. Therefore, psychology and sociology are comparable, in their interdependence(p. 33).

In the "Sociological Studies", Smith even suggests that Piaget's account is an advance over that of Vygotsky with two reasons. First, it is because Piaget's account does address the question as to when social experience is successful. Second, Piaget was able to squarely address the 'learning paradox' . Since I think the second reason is not much related to my theme of this paper I will just treat the first reason here. Piaget thought that a central feature of social experience is human communication leading to an exchange of thought. Yet not all communication is successful(p. 11). Isn't it true that the mathematical communication in a classroom is not always successful? If we even refer to Davydov's activity theory (P. Cobb, M. Perlwitz, & D. Underwood, 1996), then the ways of classroom communications would be able to be characterized by the dominance of the unilateral utterance from teacher to student. However, I think what should happen in classroom communication is mutual respect and cooperation which are aligned with what Piaget suggested. In consequence, Piaget thought that criteria are necessary to identify the minimum conditions which must be satisfied for attempted, or intended, communication actually to succeed. But, from Smith's saying, Vygotsky does not offer a criterion as to when an exchange of thought leads to successful internalization while Piaget does state conditions which have to be satisfied for an exchange of thought to occur.

Smith's explanation of the advance of Piaget over Vygotsky have triggered me into thinking of individual differences in learning of mathematics. In particular, the issue was standing out whenever I went to the Clarke High School and observe a mathematics classroom during this quarter. It was striking to me to see the different levels of understanding of the mathematical content in the classroom. Shouldn't I say that it was the same sociocultural environment for the students in the classroom? I have thought a lot about what ought to be considered in answering why-and-how of the big individual differences in students' learning mathematics. I believe what Steffe(1996) quotes from Maturana(1978) helps make my point clear;

If the state a system adopts as a result of an interaction were specified by the properties of the entity with which it interacts, then the interaction would be an instructive interaction.... all instructable systems would adopt the same state under the same perturbations and would necessarily be indistinguishable to a standard observer (p. 84)

Put it differently, if I just take the sociocultural theory of learning, then how could the theory make me understand the individual differences in the mathematics classroom in the real world? Rheta DeVries(1996) mentions that "In Piaget's view, a life dominated by the rules of others through a morality of obedience will never lead to the kind of reflection necessary for commitment to internal or autonomous principles of moral judgment (p. 5)". She also awares that Piaget warned that coercion socializes only the surface of behavior and actually reinforces the child's tendency to rely on regulation by others. I think this is a critical point for us to keep mind if we want the child to construct his(or her) own knowledge.

Apart from any judgment about the advance-related matter of Piaget and Vygotsky, I want to suggest that the social criticism to Piaget's work over Vygotskian perspective should be reconsidered in a new way. Since Piaget views education as a two-termed relation which links, on the one hand, the values (intellectual, moral, social) under the charge of an educator and, on the other hand, the individual mind of the child or learner(p. 14). Any evaluation about Piaget's work and Vygotsky's work should be able to happen in a way that the comparative scrutiny of their specific positions can be offered rather than just trying to give the global comparison of the two perspectives. Finally, let us remember that Piaget accepts as a given that human experience is, and has to be, both psychological and social (p. 3).

Part 2: Piaget's contribution to children's learning based on sociological studies

If readers take my explanations about the social criticism about Piaget as a plausible interpretation at this point, then they might be curious about what made Piaget work mainly on the individual sides of children's learning. I wondered this so much during this project. Piaget mentioned August Comte in the "Sociological Studies" (p. 215);

August Comte stated correctly that the most important phenomenon of social life was the mutual pressure each generation exerts on the others. Now, one of the principal aims of child psychology is precisely the study of this phenomenon. So, the observation of children is not such a bad method when deciding the extent to which rationality is a matter of individual development and to what extent it is something social.

I think Piaget gave an answer to the question by quoting Comte. Piaget also said that it is pointless to hunt for whether the seat of the mechanism of children's learning is biological, purely psychological, or social( p. 216). But, one thing that we should understand is that to him, it must have been important to believe that one cannot deny that intellectual development, from birth, is simultaneously the work of society and of the individual.

Piaget's general characterization of heteronomous processes of understanding is that they are egocentric, when based within the individual's mind, and sociocentric, when based in social interactions. Then, why is the individual's mind more important? Piaget gives an answer. "A real exchange of thought is liberating, permitting the individual to re-cast available knowledge into valid forms of new knowledge which is manifest both in the continual adaptation to new circumstances which are never identical and in the growth of the human powers required in their coordination(p. 14)".

I think it's time for me to introduce Piaget's explanation about "individuality". He understood "individuality" in two very distinct ways. The first is the self, that is, the individual as centered on himself. The second is the personality which is exactly the opposite to the self in some sense. To me, self explains a lot about "egocentrism". The self goes without saying that, to the extent that society penetrates into the individual from the outside, he was not prepared to accept this without further ado: there is no pre-established harmony between each one's psycho-biological constitution and the set of intellectual and moral values proposed by communal life... (p. 218). He continues. Just as a child of 2 or 3 is not able to conceive of the laws of the solar system simply by looking at the stars and his immediate horizon, so this same child cannot discover the various aspects of intellectual and moral reciprocity all at once simply by being in contact with his family circle. In both cases, a mental transformation is required that consists not just in a passive recording of external facts, but in a structural elaboration of new relations. Consequently, a set of active, intellectual, but non-socialized drives will obviously exist in the individual, either because they have not yet been socialized, or because they resist this socialization(p. 218). Let us keep in mind my question raised above: "why did Piaget concentrate on the individual aspects of children's learning?" The key to another answer, I think, might be that his insight about the existence of unique ways of learning from each individual child even though they are in a very similar social setting. I think it is important to understand that society is either cooperation or constraint in a child. In my opinion, this is the place where a child's "egocentrism" starts working when society does provide specially constraint to the child.

Piaget explains that childhood represents quite different character. Childhood individuality is not only partially resistant to socialization, as is our own: it is above all prior to it, to the exact extent to which society only conquers the individual progressively and from the outside in. I think the next explanation is critical :

Consequently, childhood egocentrism is unconscious of itself: it is a sort of 'innocence ' not only 'of the eye' but of the whole mind, such that the immediate sight of people and things seems to be the only one possible and is not yet situated in relation to other points of view. This being the case, the young child is largely centered upon himself, but unknowingly, and so projects his subjectivity into things and into other people: he only perceives people and objects other than himself, but he sees them only through himself (p. 218).

iaget uses the word "egocentrism" to refer to the tendency to see things from only one's own point of view. Therefore, this use should not carry the usual negative connotation of willful "self-centeredness"(P. 55. 1978). It is natural since the child is not even aware that other viewpoints or perspectives exist. This is why I agree that children's "egocentrism" is innocent and how differently they think and learn a new knowledge from how we, adults, do. The some parts of the dialogues from two children in the next shows the typicality of children's "egocentrism" and how it is changed into a more adult-like way of thinking when they overcome the innocent "egocentrism":

(From Christian's Dialogue, pp. 268-269):

If I asked the same question to someone who is French, if I said:

Tell me, imagine that you were born without a country and that you could now choose any country you wanted', what do you think this child would choose?

He want to be Swiss.


Because he want to be Swiss.

And if I asked him who were nicer, the Swiss or the French or if they are both the same, what would he say?

He would say, the Swiss are nicer than the French.

Why would he say that?

Because... they know the Swiss are nicer.

(From Arlette R.'s Dialogue, p. 273):

If I asked a Frenchman to choose freely any nationality he wanted, which one do you think he'd choose?



Because he was born in France and it's his country..


Between the two of you, who would be right?

You can't tell. Everyone is right from her own point of view. Each person has her own opinion.


Let's think of the following question now; "How do you think Vygotsky understood the "innocence" of a child when he(or she) starts learning?" I am sure that this question might lead us to a great deal of discussion. There is a nice part that shows Piaget's insight about children's way of learning:

The history of scientific ideas, as Koyre says 'shows us the human mind at grips with reality; reveals its victories and its defeats; shows us what superhuman effort has been the cost of each step on the road to understanding of the real, an effect which leads, sometimes, to a veritable 'mutation' of the human intellect: a transformation which allows ideas which have been painfully 'invented' by the greatest geniuses to become, not merely accessible, but even easy and obvious, to schoolchildren'(p. 36).

  The individual child is sure dual, oscillating endlessly between the social and egocentrism. I think we need to reflect upon our way of teaching children in school. If it is as similar as what is described in the above, then we should start taking actions to the way that Piaget showed us long ago.

This second part of the paper did never intend to show any superiority of Piaget over any other sociocultural theory. The point is to understand Piaget's position better. In his book, "Sociological Studies", he is saying that there should be certainly an individual pole to the mind(p. 227) and I think this claim has been supported by the recognition of the existence of "egocentrism" . We should not dissociate children's intelligence by isolating the individual pole from its complementary social pole. The study about Children's "egocentrism" was a deep effort to epistemic issues.

Here, let me briefly explain the result of Piaget's study. I believe that for readers who are not clear about what "egocentrism" means the dialogues from the Piaget's empirical study must be a good source even though they are not mathematical dialogues. What Piaget observed from the dialogues in his study was the existence of "reciprocity" in the child. He concluded that both the discovery of one's own homeland and the understanding of other people develop in the child according to a process characterized by the passage from "egocentrism" to the establishment of reciprocal relationships (PP. 273-274). To Piaget, the main problem is not to determine what one must or must not instill into the child, but the reciprocity in thought and in real life. I think that the acquisition of "reciprocity" will finally get a child to obtaining of a knowledge in a sociocultural context than the time he was only in the egocentric stage. I may be able to say that this is the time for the child when the formal and institutionalized school learning happens effectively.




To a question that I posed in the middle of this paper: "How should I understand all the various individual differences in children's learning specially in the setting of sociocultural theories?" I think I have found an answer to this question. Needless to say, understanding about children's "egocentrism" was a key to getting to the answer. I also could start seriously thinking about the characteristics of Piaget's work, the differences from others, school learning, children's learning of mathematics, what's count?, and so on. I am also glad that I have started getting the second insight to the importance of "individuality" through the project - represented by "self" in Piaget's term. Finally, it was a surprising result to me that I started being skeptic about the ways of teaching in school learning during the project. In particular, I thought a lot about what I need to do considering the current situation in schools where mathematics instruction is unilaterally given to the children. It really lead me into a belief that there should be certainly an individual pole when we think of children's learning. So I say that this project has been meaningful to me in understanding Piaget and other sociocultural studies in many different view points and thinking of the problems that our mathematics community has to solve for our children. I believe that "Being critical constructively to our way of teaching and learning of mathematics" is an important matter to us.




If you were born without a country, which one would you choose?

I'd want to be Swiss. (The child is Swiss.)



If you could choose between France and Switzerland, would you choose Switzerland?



Because the French are nasty. The Swiss are nicer.


Because the Swiss didn't go to war.

If I asked the same question to someone who is French, if I said:

Tell me, imagine that you were born without a country and that you could now choose any country you wanted', what do you think this child would choose?

He want to be Swis


Because he want to be Swis

And if I asked him who were nicer, the Swiss or the French or if they are both the same, what would he say?

He would say, the Swiss are nicer than the Frenc

Why would he say that?

Because... they know the Swiss are nice



ARLETTE R., 12;6 (Swiss

If you didn't have a nationality and you had a free choice in nationality, which one would you choose?

Swiss nationalit


Because I was born in Switzerland and I 'm from her

Fair enough. Who do you think is nicer, the French or the Swiss, or do you think they are the same?

Oh! In general, they are the same. Some Swiss are very nice and some Frenc
h are very nice, it doesn't depend on the country.

Who is more intelligent, a Swiss person or a French person?

They all have qualities. The Swiss sing quite well, the French have grea
t composer.

If I asked a Frenchman to choose freely any nationality he wanted, which one do you think he'd choose?



Because he was born in France and it's his countr

And for a Frenchwoman, who would seem nicer, a Frenchman or a man who is Swiss?

I don't know. Maybe for her the French, but I 'm not sur

Between the two of you, who would be right?

You can't tell. Everyone is right from her own point of view. Each person ha
s her own opinion.



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