Long before the technology existed to allow us a real-time view inside the developing brain, a Swiss psychologist by the name of Jean Piaget explored the developmental patterns behind language and cognition in childhood. As one of the most influential developmental psychologists of the 20th century, he was a prolific writer and a pioneer in giving a developmental context to the human tasks of thinking and learning.
Keen observation was one of Piaget’s gifts, so it’s not surprising that he quickly noticed a trend among the Americans he spoke to. It was a question that took on many forms, but always focused in from the same viewpoint. The query became so common that he referred to it simply as “the American question”. After presenting his work, a detailed framework displaying how perception and cognition evolve as a child matures, Piaget could count on an American raising the question, “Yes, but how can we get them to do it faster?”
The question must have been exasperating to a man who seemed to relish the slow percolation of thought. This was a man who regularly wore hobnailed hiking boots – even to work – because the walks he took in the foothills of the Alps to mentally untangle new concepts were so common. Child psychologist Dr. David Elkind recalled once “playing hooky” from a conference in California, leaving the planned events to enjoy the beauty of the nearby beach instead. Upon his arrival, he found Piaget had slipped out of the conference as well, explaining to his friend that he had retreated to the beach “on the track of an idea.”
This meandering process of understanding was reflected in the Piagetian theory that the mistakes children made in intelligence tests did not actually indicate an inferior intellect; the errors simply indicated they were at a different point on the path of thought. Asking Piaget if there was anything Americans could do to help their children move along more quickly must have landed about the same as asking if there was any way he could shorten his daily walks.
Piaget ultimately responded to “the American question” with an earnest counter-question: “Is it a good thing to accelerate…?” Piaget conceded that perhaps children were capable of performing tasks earlier, but questioned whether that was the most desirable end goal. He was reintroducing the eternal question of whether education’s value is simply in its product alone or also in its process — or perhaps more pointedly, whether we can truly have a product at all without that messy, time-sucking process.
It’s fitting that Piaget’s work itself demonstrates the need for that long and winding road. His early research methods wouldn’t pass scrutiny by today’s standards and the work he spent decades of his life producing certainly cannot stand alone as a final product in the twenty-first century. His errors were not a sign of lesser intelligence, simply that the science was at a different point on its journey. Piaget’s work shattered preconceptions and started the rough-hewn phase of a sculpture that scientists have spent decades refining with more precise tools. The process he gave his life to – the twists and turns, errors and discoveries – continues to serve as a critical buttress to the work of developmental psychology today. His name dots the literature and his fingerprints are all over current studies. Yes, but could we arrive where we are in cognitive science faster? No. Even with his work’s shortcomings, we couldn’t get where we are now without Piaget. The process continues to lead us to the product.
Jean Piaget died in 1980, but the American question endured, as did the Piagetian response from many who doubted whether speeding up necessarily equated getting ahead. For the four decades that have followed, it seems that the American question has become the American experiment.
“How can we get them to do it faster?”
This experiment has been most widely documented in kindergarten. Some teachers and parents have observed that in pushing content down, many staples of early childhood were simply being pushed out. They reported the disappearance of dress-up areas, sand tables, and blocks (some literally thrown out with the trash). Recesses and free play were reduced or eliminated altogether. The buzzwords of “exploration” and “curiosity” seemed to be replaced by “standardization” and “rigor“.
Whether the pressure was coming from the schools to the parents or the other way around, by the early 2000s it was widely acknowledged that kindergarten had simply become the new first grade. It wasn’t until 2016 that researchers put the claim to an empirical test.
University of Virginia researchers, Daphna Bassok, Scott Latham, and Anna Rorem took existing data about kindergarten teachers’ beliefs and practices and compared the answers from 1998 with those from 2010. The scientists expected to find a shift but remarked that even they were shocked to see how pronounced it really was. Among other markers, they found a dramatic migration towards increased reading, writing, and math expectations, increased worksheet and flashcard use, and a decrease in play and exploration, illustrated by the significant drop in the use of sensory tables, dress-up areas, science activities, and art activities.
Clearly, learning and play do not have to live a mutually exclusive existence. As Dr. Bassok commented in reflecting on her team’s study, “It certainly doesn’t have to be an ‘either/or’ scenario, where academics crowd out everything else, but I worry that in practice, this is what is happening in many classrooms.”
Piaget’s question comes ringing back. “Is it a good thing to accelerate? Perhaps what has been observed in this American experiment is exactly what he was warning against when he answered the American question. If accelerating means throwing out the foundation, who does it actually benefit?
Bassok, Daphna, et al. “Is Kindergarten the New First Grade?” AERA Open, Jan. 2016, doi:10.1177/2332858415616358.
Bliss, Joan. “Looking Back: Recollections of Jean Piaget.” Looking Back: Recollections of Jean Piaget | The Psychologist, The British Psychological Society, May 2010.
Breen, Audrey. “U.Va. Researchers Find That Kindergarten Is the New First Grade.” UVA Today, University of Virginia, 29 Jan. 2014, news.virginia.edu/content/uva-researchers-find-kindergarten-new-first-grade.
Curwood, Jen Scott. “What Happened to Kindergarten?” Instructor, vol. 117, no. 1, Aug. 2007, pp. 28–32.
Elkind, David. Giants in the Nursery: a Biographical History of Developmentally Appropriate Practice. Redleaf Press, 2015.
Hall, Elizabeth. “A Conversation with Jean Piaget and Barbel Inhelder.” Psychology Today, 3, 25-32, 54-56, 1970.
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