Piaget Psychology in the Nursery School Movement in the 1920s

Published on January 2017 | Categories: Documents | Downloads: 18 | Comments: 0 | Views: 626
of 24
Download PDF   Embed   Report



Transitory Connections: The Reception and Rejection of Jean Piaget’s Psychology in the Nursery School Movement in the 1920s and 1930s
Barbara Beatty
In 1927, nursery school educator Lucy Sprague Mitchell heralded Jean Piaget’s psychology as of ‘‘outstanding interest’’ and wrote in Progressive Education that it should be of ‘‘immense service’’ to psychologists, teachers, and parents. In 1929, psychologist Lois Meek praised Piaget’s research in the National Society for the Study of Education’s yearbook on preschool and parental education. In 1931, the National Association for Nursery Education bibliography on nursery schoolbased research, for which Meek was on the editorial board, included no mention of Piaget at all.1 The appearance and disappearance of Piaget in the nursery school movement in the 1920s and 1930s was as if a window briefly opened then closed. Quick introductions and rapid fading of psychological theories are almost a truism in American education. A few theories become dominant and remain so for years; fleeting interest followed by evanescence seems more common. Patterns of reception and rejection vary enormously, of course, with much depending on timing, context, competition, and myriad conditions in schools. What might be learned from examination of transitory connections between psychology and education such as that between Jean Piaget’s psychology and the nursery school movement in the 1920s and 1930s?2

A Professor in the Education Department at Wellesley College, Barbara Beatty is writing a book on the rise and fall of Piaget’s ideas in American education. She would like to thank Emily Cahan, Julia Grant, and anonymous reviewers at the Quarterly for their helpful comments and suggestions.
1 Lucy Sprague Mitchell, ‘‘The Language and Thought of the Child,’’ Progressive Education IV (April-May-June 1927): 136, 139; Lois Meek in National Society for the Study of Education, Twenty-Eighth Yearbook, Preschool and Parental Education (Bloomington, IL: Public School Publishing Company, 1929), 459; Dorothy Bradbury, Esther Skeels, and Wand Sweida, eds., Nursery School Education: A Classified and Annotated Bibliography (Washington, DC: National Association for Nursery Education, 1935). 2 For some classics on transience in education, see, among many others, Larry Cuban, How Teachers Taught: Constancy and Change in American Classrooms, 1890–1990

History of Education Quarterly Vol. 49 No. 4 November 2009 Copyright r 2009 by the History of Education Society

Transitory Connections


Piaget’s psychology was very new when it made its first appearance in the nursery school movement. What were the origins of his psychology? What did it imply about the education of young children? How did it come to the United States and how and by whom was it received? How and why did it disappear and who were the key actors in its rejection? What might the reaction to Piaget suggest about the ideology and interaction of psychology and pedagogy in the nursery school movement in the 1920s and 1930s? What might this first transitFPiaget’s ideas reappeared in a second transit in the 1960s and 1970sFtell us about the transmission, diffusion, and interaction of psychological theories in education generally? I am calling Piaget’s two appearances in American education transitory connections in two senses, as transatlantic transits and as transient phenomena. Piaget’s theory of child development was one of many transatlantic transits known to preschool educators and American psychologists in the twentieth century. We know a great deal about some of the main competitors whose psychological theories connected with American elementary and secondary education for long periods of time, especially Thorndike and Dewey. What might be learned from more transient interactions in preschool education?3 Examining the transit of a lesser-known psychology in a lessresearched field illuminates the processes of introduction, advocacy, criticism, and rejection common in many interactions between psychology and education. Unlike experimental psychology, behaviorism, and psychoanalytic psychology, Piaget’s developmental psychology has been largely ignored by historians of education, perhaps because Piagetianism was largely confined to preschool education. Piagetian preschool education has been largely ignored as well. Larry Cuban argues that the success of the kindergarten, for instance, may have been due in part to its ‘‘flying under the radar’’ of grade-school education. Because of what I call ‘‘preschool exceptionalism,’’ the insulation and isolation of preschools from the norms of elementary and secondary education, much of preschool education other than the Froebelian

(New York: Longman, 1984) and ‘‘Reforming Again, Again, and Again,’’ Educational Researcher 19, no. 1 (1990): 3–13; Herbert M. Kliebard, The Struggle for the American Curriculum, 1893–1958 (Boston: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1986); and David Tyack and Larry Cuban, Tinkering Toward Utopia: A Century of Public School Reform (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1995). Political scientist John Kingdom talks about policy ‘‘windows’’ in Agendas, Alternatives, and Public Policies (Boston: Little Brown, 1984). 3 On the transmission of ideas in the Atlantic world during this period see Daniel T. Rodgers, Atlantic Crossings: Social Politics in a Progressive Age (Cambridge: Belknap Press of Harvard University, 1998). For an example of international diffusion see Roberta Wollons, ed., Kindergartens and Cultures: The Global Diffusion of an Idea (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2000).


History of Education Quarterly

kindergarten and Montessori has flown under the radar of historians of education.4 Preschool education may be one of the best, albeit atypical, fields in which to study relationships between psychology and education reform. Like reforms in private progressive schools, reforms in preschool education are easy to see because they are less obscured by encrusted didactic practices. Because preschool reforms do not threaten the status quo of elementary and secondary education, they are less subject to the dulling effects of traditional graded schooling. Because preschool educators are not expected to produce measurable academic achievement, they are freer to experiment, to use play-based pedagogies in which children are thought to create knowledge actively themselves rather than learn it passively from teachers. Given this relative freedom from traditional restraints, one might expect new ideas in preschool education to flourish and remain in use longer than in the upper grades. Some did. Froebelianism enjoyed more than half a century of relatively faithful implementation. Even further outside the mainstream, with a short interruption in the United States, forms of Montessorianism have been around for almost a century. The lack of constraint on preschool educators, however, also gave them more leeway to try out a wide variety of ideas, some of which, such as Piagetianism when it was first introduced, did not stick.5 The transience of some connections between preschool education and psychology may be related to gender and the low status of working with young children. An almost entirely female occupation, preschool education was seen as women’s work, child care, not education. When older, nineteenth-century ideologies of Republican, Romantic, civilizing motherhood which elevated kindergartning gave way, preschool educators were left with little to uplift their field. One answer to this

Larry Cuban, ‘‘Why Some Reforms Last: The Case of the Kindergarten,’’ American Journal of Education 100 (February 1992): 166–94. Piaget has been studied by a few historians of psychology. On Piaget, see especially Fernando Vidal, Piaget Before Piaget (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1994) and Yeh Hseuh, ‘‘Jean Piaget, Spontaneous Development and Constructivist Teaching’’ (PhD dissertation, Harvard Graduate School of Education, 1997); ‘‘ ‘He Sees the Development of Children’s Concepts Upon a Background of Sociology’: Jean Piaget’s Honorary Degree at Harvard University in 1936,’’ History of Psychology 7, no. 1 (2004): 20–44; and ‘‘The Hawthorne Experiments and the Introduction of Jean Piaget in American Industrial Psychology, 1929–1932,’’ History of Psychology 5, no. 2 (2002): 163–69. Interest in preschool education may be increasing. See for example the May 2009 special issue of History of Education Quarterly on international preschool education. 5 On varieties of preschool education, see among others, Barbara Beatty, Preschool Education in America (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1995); V. Celia Lascarides and Blythe F. Hinitz, History of Early Childhood Education (New York: Falmer, 2000); and Keith Whitescarver and Jacqueline Cossentino, ‘‘Montessori and the Mainstream: A Century of Reform on the Margins,’’ Teachers College Record 110, no. 12 (2008): 2571–600.

Transitory Connections


dilemma of professionalization was to overtly embrace psychology, to attempt to provide preschool education the respect it lacked. Still new to the academy, psychology was also in need of status. Until they became better established, many psychologists welcomed nursery school educators and collaborated with them in building a body of nursery school-based research. Developmental or ‘‘genetic psychology’’ as it was initially called was especially dependent on the nursery school movement.6 Developmental psychology was not the only option for nursery school educators, however. With various types of psychology clamoring for academic approval in the 1920s and 1930s and vying for control of fiefdoms within education, the allegiance of nursery school educators was up for grabs. With which brand of psychology would they place their bets, experimental psychology, Watson’s behaviorism, Thorndike’s educational psychology, Freud’s psychoanalytic psychology, or developmental psychology, to name the main contenders? The initial reception and rejection of Jean Piaget’s developmental psychology in the nursery school movement exemplifies how transient connections can be when both psychology and education are filled with different models jockeying for prominence. In the 1920s and 1930s, the heyday of the nursery school movement, many variants of new ideas in education and psychology were in competition. The larger historical context within which these competitions occurred, to which I cannot do justice in this short piece, was also very important. The economic boom and bust cycle of the 1920s and 1930s and the rise of fascism and war decreased funding for some new ideas and changed the flow of transatlantic transits of psychological and educational ideas as some psychologists and educators emigrated to the United States, while others, such as Piaget, stayed in Europe.7

6 Barbara Finkelstein, ‘‘The Revolt Against Selfishness: Women and the Dilemmas of Professionalism in Early Childhood Education,’’ in Professionalism and the Early Childhood Practitioner, eds. Bernard Spodek, Olivia N. Saracho, and D. L. Peters (New York: Teachers College Press, 1988), 10–28; Marian Bloch, ‘‘Becoming Scientific and Professional: An Historical Perspective on the Aims and Effects of Early Education,’’ in The Formation of School Subjects, ed. Thomas Popkewitz (New York: Falmer Press, 1987), 41–49; Barbara Beatty, ‘‘The Rise of the American Nursery School: Laboratory for a Science of Child Development,’’ in Developmental Psychology and Social Change, eds. David Pillemer and Sheldon H. White (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005), 264– 87; Emily D. Cahan, ‘‘Toward a Socially Relevant Science: Notes on the History of Child Development Research,’’ in When Science Encounters the Child: Education, Parenting, and Child Welfare in 20th-Century America, eds. Barbara Beatty, Emily D. Cahan, and Julia Grant (New York: Teachers College Press, 2006), 16–34. 7 On the crowded terrain of psychology and education, see among others, Ellen Condliffe Lagemann, An Elusive Science: The Troubling History of Education Research (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2000).


History of Education Quarterly

Origins of Piaget’s Developmental Psychology Grounded in the philosophies of continental European rationalism, evolutionary biology, and the New Education, as progressive education was called in Europe, Jean Piaget’s psychology exemplifies the nestedness of child psychology and nursery education in the early 1920s. Piaget did his early research with young children at the Maison des Petits, the laboratory school at the Institute Jean-Jacques Rousseau in Geneva. His early books were filled with verbatim transcripts of conversations with young children. He observed children playing, listened to them talking, asked them about how the physical world works, studied their games, probed them about right and wrong, and from these samples of child life, developed a theory of the evolution of children’s thought.8 Heavily dependent on language and largely descriptive, Piaget’s first five books in the 1920s and early 1930s were based mainly on children’s answers to psychologists’ questions during what Piaget called ‘‘clinical interviews.’’ Later, in the 1930s and 1940s, when he began working with his colleague Barbel Inhelder, Piaget developed a ‘‘revised ¨ clinical method,’’ in which he gave children problems to solve with physical objects, such as different sized beakers, which when young children pour the same amount of water back and forth they say that there is more water in the tall, thin beaker and older children say the amounts are identical, and can explain why. Nor had Piaget yet developed his full theory of ‘‘disequilibrium’’ and ‘‘equilibration,’’ the mechanisms through which he argued children passed through four stages of developmentFsensorimotor, primary operations, concrete operations, and formal operationsFin which they successively constructed their own knowledge of the world through interactions with the environment. These differences in Piaget’s early and more mature work matter because the theory that appeared in the United
8 Jean Piaget, The Language and Thought of the Child, trans. Marjorie Gabain (New York: World Publishing, 16th edition, 1971, 1st French edition, Paris: Delachaux et Niestle, 1923, 1st English editions, London: K. Paul, Trench, Trubner & Co, 1926, New York: Harcourt Brace, 1926); Jean Piaget, Judgment and Reasoning in the Child, trans. Marjorie Warden (Paterson, NJ: Littlefield, Adams, 1959, 1st French edition, Paris: Delachaux et Niestle, Neuchatel, 1924, 1st English editions, London, Kegan Paul, Trench, & Trubner, 1928, New York, Harcourt Brace, 1928); Jean Piaget, The Child’s Conception of the World, trans. Joan and Andrew Tomlinson (Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 1951, 1st French edition, Paris: Alcan, 1926, 1st English editions, Routledge & Kegan Paul, London, 1929, Harcourt & Brace, New York, 1929); Jean Piaget, The Child’s Conception of Physical Causality (New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction, 2001, 1st French edition, Paris: Alcan, 1927, 1st English edition: London, Kegan Paul, Trench, &Trubner, 1930); Jean Piaget, The Moral Judgment of the Child, trans. Marjorie Gabain (New York: Free Press, 1997, 1st French edition, Paris: Alcan, 1932, 1st English edition, London: K. Paul, Trench & Trubner, 1932).

Transitory Connections


States in the 1920s and early 1930s, unlike his work from the late l930s onward, contained fewer examples of children demonstrating their intellectual abilities and was less developed and convincing. The interaction and mixing of different philosophies and psychologies is evident in Piaget’s life and education. Born in 1896 in Neuchatel, Switzerland, to a professor of medieval literature and a socialist, religious mother, Piaget was a precocious child and budding naturalist. At the age of ten, he wrote a paper on an albino sparrow, which was published in the magazine of a local natural history club, which Piaget soon joined. In 1907 he began working with the president of the club, classifying land and freshwater mollusks. As an adolescent, Piaget read voraciously in philosophy, sociology, and psychology, especially Kant, Henri Bergson, Herbert Spencer, and William James. After finishing his doctorate in 1918 at the age of twenty-one in the Division of Science at the University of Neuchatel, with a dissertation on mollusks, Piaget went to Zurich, where he attended psychology laboratories, worked in a psychiatric clinic, listened to Carl Jung’s lectures, and read Freud. Between 1919 and 1921, Piaget studied in Paris at the Sorbonne and in Alfred Binet’s laboratory school, where, under the supervision of Theodore Simon, he worked on standardizing Cyril Burt’s English intelligence tests on Parisian children. Fascinated by the children’s wrong answers, which Piaget sensed revealed more about the growth of thought than their correct answers, he drew upon psychiatry and his own work with children, to develop his trademark ‘‘clinical interview method,’’ and became interested in the ‘‘embryology of intelligence,’’ which he called ‘‘genetic epistemology.’’9 Piaget spent the rest of his long professional career in Geneva, a hub of experimentation and reform in psychology and education. Associated with the Institute Jean-Jacques Rousseau, the University of

My understanding of Piaget’s early life is based largely on Vidal, Piaget before Piaget, Piaget’s autobiography, ‘‘Jean Piaget,’’ in A History of Psychology in Autobiography, Vol. 4, eds. Edwin G. Boring et al. (Worcester, MA: Clark University Press, 1952), 237– 56, and Yeh, ‘‘Jean Piaget, Spontaneous Development and Constructivist Teaching.’’ Other biographical sources include Margaret A. Boden, Jean Piaget (New York: Viking Press, 1979); Michael Chapman, Constructive Evolution: Origins and Development of Piaget’s Thought (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1988); Richard I. Evans, Jean Piaget: The Man and His Ideas (New York: E.P. Dutton, 1973); John H. Flavell, ‘‘Historiographical and Bibliographical Note,’’ Monographs of the Society for Research in Child Development 27, no. 2; ‘‘Thought in the Young Child: Report of a Conference on Intellective Development with Particular Attention to the Work of Jean Piaget’’ (1962): 5–18. For discussion of the development of Piaget’s thought see especially John H. Flavell, The Developmental Psychology of Jean Piaget (Princeton, NJ: D. Van Nostrand, 1963); Herbert Ginsburg and Sylvia Opper, Piaget’s Theory of Intellectual Development (Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall, 1969); Howard E. Gruber and J. Jacques Voneche, eds., The Essential Piaget (Northvale, NJ: Jason Aronson, Inc., 1977); and Brian Rotman, Jean Piaget: Psychologist of the Real (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1977).


History of Education Quarterly

Geneva, and what became his Center for Genetic Epistemology, Piaget was connected to the growing international network of research centers where psychologists and educators worked together on psychoeducational problems. In 1921, at the age of twenty-five and without a degree in psychology, which he never obtained, Piaget was appointed Director of Studies at the Institute Jean-Jacques Rousseau, by Edouard ` Claparede, a psychologist with broad interests in pedagogy, physiology, psychotherapy, neurology, and experimental psychology. Begun in 1912 and imbued with the scientific spirit of Protestant Geneva, the Institute was a center for teacher training and research in the New Education. ` Claparede and the international group of psychologists and educators at the Institute were well acquainted with the work of William James, John Dewey, and other American progressives and pragmatists, and with European educators such as Ovide Decroly, who designed methods for Belgian children with special needs, and Georg Kerschensteiner, a leader of the work-school movement in Germany. By 1928, there were seventy graduate students at the Institute. No matter the topic of their research, they were required to observe children in the Institute’s Maison des Petits and in other schools in Geneva.10 In many ways, Piaget’s educational psychology mirrored that of the educational philosophy of teachers at the Maison des Petits, whose practice combined different forms of psychology and preschool education. Founded in 1913, the Maison des Petits opened its doors in 1914 with an enrollment of twenty children between the ages of three and seven. By 1915, there were thirty children; by 1926, fifty. In 1919, it became a public school, with funding from the commune of Geneva, as the city government was called, but still associated with the Institute Jean-Jacques Rousseau. The teachers, Mina Audemars and Louise Lafendel, had kindergarten training and were influenced by Froebel’s ideas of natural development, play, and manual activities, as well as by the philosophy and methods of Maria Montessori, whose graduated cylinders and other sensorial materials were used at the school. The school’s name was a French rendition of Montessori’s Casa dei Bambini or Children’s House, and two Montessori teachers had given classes at the Institute. Claparede’s Deweyan theory of ‘‘functional education,’’ in which children’s ‘‘wants’’ or ‘‘needs’’ were satisfied by their play was

10 ` ` Hseuh, ‘‘Jean Piaget,’’ 67–72, 78–82. On Claparede see ‘‘Edouard Claparede,’’ in A History of Psychology in Autobiography, ed. Carl Murchison (Worcester, MA: Clark University Press, 1930). On the New Education, see among many others, Carleton Washburne, New Schools in the Old World (New York: The John Day Co., 1926) and Marc Depaepe, Frank Simon, and Angelo Van Gorp, ‘‘The Canonization of Ovide Decroly as the ‘Saint’ of the New Education,’’ History of Education Quarterly 43 ( June 2003): 224–48.

Transitory Connections


probably the most direct influence on Audemars and Lafendel, and on Piaget, as well.11 Piaget’s first five books, translated into English soon after their publication, were a continuous piece of research on the development of children’s thought. For his 1923 The Language and Thought of the Child, Piaget followed two boys at the Maison des Petits, Lev and Pie, both six and a half, recording their ‘‘ego-centric speech,’’ when they spoke to themselves without taking hearers into account, and their ‘‘socialized speech,’’ when they talked to other children, which Piaget calculated increased with age. In his 1924 book, Judgment and Reasoning in the Child, he examined children’s concepts of causality, arguing that a child constructed his own sense of reality through play and saw ‘‘the external world as though he had previously constructed it with his own mind.’’ In his 1926 The Child’s Conception of the World, Piaget studied children’s ideas of how the external world works and hit upon his famous line of questioning about children’s ‘‘magical causality’’ when they said that the sun and moon and other inanimate objects acted as if they were alive and followed them around, another form of egocentrism. In his 1927 book, The Child’s Conception of Physical Causality, he described seventeen types of causal relations, from ‘‘animism’’ through ‘‘logical deduction,’’ and explored children’s explanations of the movement of air, wind, water, and other natural phenomena.12 In his 1932 The Moral Judgment of the Child, Piaget extended his theory to social development, and analyzed the social implications of children’s play. Using a now classic example of boys playing with marbles, he described the stages of rules through which he argued moral and legal thought emerged. When Piaget looked at girls’ games such as hopscotch, however, he said that he did not find as many rules, and asserted that ‘‘the legal sense’’ was ‘‘far less developed in little girls,’’ for reasons about which he did not speculate, but which may reveal a gender bias in his research that led to criticism later in his career.13 Eclectic influences on Piaget’s thought were especially apparent in this last of his first five books that appeared in America in the 1920s and 1930s. In The Moral Judgment of the Child, Piaget cited Adolphe

11 Daniel Hameline, ‘‘Aux Origines de la Maison des Petits,’’ in ‘‘Une Ecole Ou Les Enfants Veulent Ce Qu’ils Font: La Maison des Petits hier et aujourd’hui,’’ Collection Institut J.-J. Rousseau, eds. Christiane Perregaux, Laurence Rieben, and Charles Magnin (Lausanne: Loisirs et Pedagogie), 19–20, 24–26. Mina Audemars and Louise Lafendel, ` ` Compte-rendu d’expe´riences faites a la Maison des Petits Durant notre conge´ de 1914 a 1920, in Perregaux et al., ‘‘Une Ecole,’’ 191–92. 12 Jean Piaget, The Language and Thought of the Child; Judgment and Reasoning in the Child, 255; The Child’s Conception of the World; The Child’s Conception of Physical Causality; The Moral Judgment of the Child. 13 Piaget, The Moral Judgment of the Child, 77–83, 122–23, 137–48.


History of Education Quarterly

` Ferriere’s ‘‘Activity School,’’ in which education was based on ‘‘individual interests and free initiative,’’ as a model. The first profes` sor of education at the Institute Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Ferriere based his philosophy on Rousseau, Pestalozzi, Froebel, Bergson, G. Stanley Hall, and Dewey, and developed pedagogy in which children learned through manual activities such as gardening, cooking, weaving, candlemaking, and carpentry, meant as experiential, not vocational education. Piaget also mentioned Dewey and wrote that teachers in progressive ` schools in Europe such as Ferriere’s and in America saw how well children behaved when they were genuinely interested in what they were doing.14 As the number of international researchers associated with the Institute Jean- Jacques Rousseau grew, Piaget’s ideas drew international attention, much to his purported surprise. His first five books were translated into English and published in both London and New York, by Kegan Paul, Trench & Trubner and Harcourt & Brace, within two or three years of their French editions. French and English editions of The Moral Judgment of the Child came out simultaneously. In 1929, Piaget took on the post of Director of the Bureau of International Education, later associated with UNESCO, which brought his research into even larger circulation internationally.15

Reception of Piaget’s Psychology in the Nursery School Movement Piaget’s psychology was attractive to British and American nursery school educators in the 1920s and 1930s in part because it evolved in a similar environment. The early nursery school movement, progressive education for young children, was a large psychological and educational experiment. Associated with colleges, universities, and training institutes, many American nursery schools were begun for the express purpose of producing psychological research and were laboratories for the new science of child development. Crusading socialist Margaret McMillan, who with her sister Rachel founded the first nursery school in a London slum in 1913, was especially influenced by the sensory psychology of Edouard Seguin. Future American nursery school leaders such as Abigail Eliot visited and studied with McMillan and British nursery school educator Grace Owen, sister-in-law of Teachers
14 `re, Piaget, Moral Judgment, 364, 365, 405, 406. Adolphe Ferrie The Activity School, trans. F. D. Moore and F. C. Wooten (New York: John Day Co., 1928), 133–46. On Piaget’s early views on pedagogy see among others, Silvia Parrat-Dayan, ‘‘Piaget, La Psychologie et ses Applications,’’ Archives de Psychologie 65 (1997): 247–63. 15 Piaget, ‘‘Jean Piaget,’’ 251.

Transitory Connections


College psychologist James McKeen Cattell, and imbibed this psychological spirit.16 Private philanthropy played an important role in supporting nursery schools and disseminating Piaget’s research. In 1923, University of Chicago-trained psychologist Beardsley Ruml and University of Chicago-trained economist Lawrence K. Frank began distributing large sums of Laura Spelman Rockefeller Memorial funds to projects designed to advance child development and parent education through scientific methods. By 1925, Ruml and Frank had awarded more than a million dollars to nursery school-related research, and gave out another $10 or $11 million before they left the fund in 1930. Much of this money went to child development institutes at Teachers College, Yale, and at the Universities of Minnesota, Iowa, California, and Toronto, and elsewhere, all of which operated laboratory nursery schools. The Laura Spelman Rockefeller Memorial also provided an initial $15,000 grant with more to follow to fund Piaget’s position and research at the Institute Jean-Jacques Rousseau.17 Piaget’s initial reception by nursery school educators was mixed. Nursery educators who read Piaget’s first five books hoped that his naturalistic methods would influence academic psychology, and saw parallels with their own research. Lucy Sprague Mitchell, who collaborated with Caroline Pratt and Harriet Johnson in founding the Bureau of Educational Experiments, in New York City in 1916, was one

Beatty, ‘‘The Rise of the American Nursery School.’’ On McMillan and British nursery schools see, among others, Lascarides and Hinitz, History of Early Childhood Education; Beatty, Preschool Education in America; Carolyn Steedman, Childhood, Culture, and Class in Britain: Margaret McMillan, 1860–1931 (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1990); Ilse Forest, Preschool Education: A Historical and Critical Study (New York: Macmillan, 1927); and Nanette Whitbread, The Evolution of the NurseryInfant School: A History of Infant and Nursery Education in Britain (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1972). 17 On Rockefeller funding and support for Piaget and child development research, see Steven L. Schlossman, ‘‘Philanthropy and the Gospel of Child Development,’’ History of Education Quarterly 21 (1981): 297; Julia Grant, ‘‘Constructing the Normal Child: the Rockefeller Charities and the Science of Child Development,’’ in Studying Philanthropic Foundations: New Scholarship, New Possibilities, ed. Ellen Lagemann (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1998), 131–51; Yeh Hseuh, ‘‘ ‘He Sees the Development of Children’s Concepts upon a Background of Sociology’ ’’; and Barbel Inhelder, ‘‘Barbel Inhelder,’’ in ¨ ¨ A History of Psychology in Autobiography, Vol. VII, ed. Gardner Lindzey (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1989), 209–44. On the child development institutes, see, among others, Alice Boardman Smuts, Science in the Service of Children, 1893–1935 (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2006); Emily D. Cahan, ‘‘Toward a Socially Relevant Science’’; Beatty, ‘‘The Rise of the American Nursery School’’; Julia Grant, Raising Baby by the Book: The Education of American Mothers (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1998); Milton Senn, ‘‘Insights on the Child Development Movement in the United States,’’ Monographs for the Society of Research in Child Development 40 (Serial no. 161); and Robert R. Sears, Your Ancients Revisited: A History of Child Development (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1975).


History of Education Quarterly

of the first to spread word of Piaget in the United States. Begun in 1919 in Greenwich Village, the Bureau’s nursery school was a center for research much like that conducted at the Maison des Petits. Filled with lengthy, verbatim transcripts of children’s conversations and sample copies of children’s daily records, Harriet Johnson’s books A Nursery School Experiment and Children in the Nursery School, document how psychologists and nursery educators worked together at the Bureau of Educational Experiments as they did in Geneva.18 Both appreciative and critical, Mitchell’s review of Piaget’s first book, The Language and Thought of the Child, published in Progressive Education in 1927, shows much about what nursery school educators initially liked about Piaget, and some of what they did not. The journal, begun in 1924 in by the Association for the Advancement of Progressive Education that became the Progressive Education Association, published articles by many well-known nursery school educators, including Caroline Pratt and Margaret Naumberg. Mitchell praised Piaget for studying children in the relatively naturalistic environment of a school, rather than a laboratory. Piaget’s work, which ‘‘seems to have startled professional psychologists,’’ was ‘‘a relief to the layman,’’ Mitchell said. By studying children ‘‘in their spontaneous activities instead of the artificially controlled set-up of a laboratory,’’ Piaget could be very useful to schools, because he saw ‘‘the application of his findings to school procedure’’ and addressed those interested in ‘‘the art of teaching’’ as much as he did ‘‘specialists in child psychology.’’ If only he could ‘‘interest his professional brethren in this kind of observation’’ he would perform ‘‘an immense service both to them and to those teachers and parents who look to psychologists with incurable hopefulness,’’ Mitchell wrote, revealing much about the relationship between preschool education and psychology. Piaget’s methods provided ‘‘valid material to work on,’’showed the ‘‘child in action,’’ the ‘‘child we know and wish to understand,’’ and was of ‘‘outstanding interest.’’ Piaget was on ‘‘an exciting pioneer path in psychology,’’ which Mitchell hoped he would be able to induce others to follow. ‘‘I don’t see how they can resist.’’19 Confident of her own knowledge of children’s language development, Mitchell critiqued Piaget for using adult standards to judge children. Piaget’s classifications of children’s egocentric and socialized speech were based on adult language, she said, and did not take into account the context in which the children were talking. Nor did he
18 Joyce Antler, Lucy Sprague Mitchell: The Making of a Modern Woman (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1987); Harriet Johnson, A Nursery School Experiment (New York: Bureau of Educational Experiments, 1922); Harriet Johnson, Children in the Nursery School (New York: John Day Company, 1928). 19 Lucy Sprague Mitchell, ‘‘The Language and Thought of the Child,’’ 136, 139.

Transitory Connections


understand infant speech Mitchell argued, a topic which Piaget would take up in more depth later. Piaget said that repetition, for instance, was ‘‘a remnant of baby prattle.’’ ‘‘As if that explained it!’’ Mitchell exclaimed. She objected that Piaget viewed words solely as a progression from egocentric to socialized speech and missed their inherent value as play and art. Play with words was a ‘‘permanent and precious part of the human language,’’she said. Repetition led to literature, and was ‘‘in part enjoyment of the sound quality and the muscle quality of words and phrases.’’ By viewing language teleologically as ‘‘a tool for the expression of logical thought,’’ Piaget missed the artistic side of expression, Mitchell said, which she and many others in the nursery school movement valued highly. Mitchell’s critique was prescient; in the 1940s Piaget came to believe that actions, not language, best revealed the development of logical thought.20 Author of the Here and Now storybooks, Mitchell focused especially on the relevance of Piaget’s ideas for children’s literature. She noted that Piaget’s concept of egocentric speech supported her view that young children needed literature based on things that they had experienced themselves. If young children were pre-logical, as Piaget argued, then it was ‘‘inappropriate to present them with facts’’ unrelated to things they knew. Writers of books for young children should present materials as she did in her storybooks, which were filled with pictures of everyday objects, things presented in ‘‘sense and motor terms and not in generalized or abstract observations’’ or artificial ‘‘plots’’ which young children could not understand. Mitchell worried, however, that Piaget did not understand the potential pedagogical value of ‘‘Rhythm or pattern’’ to make understanding a story ‘‘clearer’’ and more ‘‘accurate.’’21 Mitchell especially objected to the implication that Piaget knew more about the development of preschool children than American nursery educators did. Piaget’s findings were not new to nursery school teachers, Mitchell said. He confirmed what good teachers already knew: that the ‘‘old-type pedagogy’’ was absurd. His theories about the egocentric nature of young children’s thinking and the prelogical stage of their development were already recognized by ‘‘schools that work to give children first-hand experiences rather than information; that emphasize relationships and avoid isolated facts.’’ Harriet Johnson, Mitchell said, had already noted the ‘‘pre-social stage’’ Piaget described, in the drawings and block buildings of children under three at the Bureau of Educational Experiments nursery school, understood the connection between speech and action, and had taken this into account

20 21

Ibid., 136–37; Emily Cahan, personal communication with author, August 2007. Ibid., 136–39.


History of Education Quarterly

in the ‘‘language pedagogy’’ she had worked out in the Bureau’s nursery school.22 Critical reviews of Piaget’s first books also appeared in the journal The Pedagogical Seminary and Journal of Genetic Psychology, a bellwether of changing psychological trends. First published in 1891 at Clark University where G. Stanley Hall was president, the journal was originally founded to promote Hall’s child study movement, a precursor of developmental psychology. In the 1880s, Hall, who had studied in Germany under Wilhelm Wundt and Carl Ludwig and at Harvard under William James, had collected data on young children in Boston kindergartens. Like Piaget, who knew Hall’s work, Hall had asked children questions, relied upon information gathered from teachers, and used naturalistic rather than laboratory methods to develop a ‘‘genetic psychology,’’ based on the metaphor of organic development, which Piaget later concretized in his research. By 1929, however, when reviews of Piaget’s work began coming out, Hall had died, and the journal had changed hands. Although the journal published everything from studies of relearning T-mazes by albino rats to analyses of the daily behavior of infants and memory span in preschool children, the editorial board was increasingly dominated by behaviorists, learning theorists, and psychometricians, such as Ivan Pavlov, Edward L. Thorndike, John Watson, John Anderson, and Lewis Terman.23 Susan Isaacs’s 1929 review in The Pedagogical Seminary and Journal of Genetic Psychology of Piaget’s first three books was particularly cogent and revealing. An English progressive educator with degrees in infant education and philosophy who had studied psychology at Cambridge University, Isaacs was doing her own research on children’s mental development. She based her critique of Piaget on extensive observations of children aged two to ten at her radically progressive Malting House School in Cambridge, which she directed from 1924 to 1927. Isaacs had seen Piaget’s methods first-hand when she visited the Maison des Petits. Piaget in turn had visited Isaacs’school when he came to give a lecture at Cambridge in 1927. Like Mitchell, Isaacs praised Piaget for studying children in a naturalistic context and for trying to get at the ‘‘living thought of the child himself, embedded in the matrix of feeling and doing.’’ There was ‘‘probably no single contributor to genetic psychology
Ibid., 138. On Hall and the child study movement, see among others, Dorothy Ross, G. Stanley Hall: The Psychologist as Prophet (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1985); Beatty, Preschool Education in America; Leila Zenderland, ‘‘Education, Evangelism, and the Origins of Clinical Psychology,’’ Journal of the History of the Behavioral Sciences 24 (April 1988): 152–65; and Sheldon H. White, ‘‘The Child Study Movement: Early Growth and Development of the Symbolized Child,’’ Advances in Child Behavior and Development 17 (1982): 233–85.
23 22

Transitory Connections


within recent years whose work is of greater importance and interest than that of Jean Piaget,’’ she wrote. But Isaacs’s extensive recording of children’s speech, transcribed in her 1929 book Intellectual Growth in Young Children, had convinced her that many children’s questions were simply an ‘‘automatic verbal habit.’’ When the children at her school dissecting the gall bladder of a rabbit asked ‘‘What is that?’’ it was often out of habit, she said. Piaget had no ‘‘notion of chance.’’ He assumed that there were ‘‘explanations for everything.’’ Sometimes children’s reasoning was ‘‘pre-causal,’’ Isaacs thought, but sometimes they were just asking or responding to implications in the psychologist’s questions.24 Isaacs found three main ‘‘sources of error’’ in Piaget’s ideas. Like Mitchell, she worried that Piaget saw children through the lens of a philosopher and focused too much on how they came to ‘‘feel logical necessity and to syllogize correctly.’’ Even adults were not always as logical as Piaget assumed, she opined. Based on Piaget’s ‘‘philosopher’s measuring stick,’’ Isaacs said, the daily thoughts and behavior of most adults would display the ‘‘syncretism and tolerance of contradiction’’ of children, especially when discussing unfamiliar subjects or fields which lacked clear and rigid objectivity, such as ‘‘politics, sociology, and religion,’’ and when ‘‘passion and prejudice’’ prevailed. Piaget ‘‘enormously’’ exaggerated the differences between the ‘‘mental ways’’ of children and adults, Isaacs wrote, and attributed too much uniformity to the stages of children’s thought. Everyone’s thoughts varied, in context, daily, she said.25 Isaacs’s second criticism was of Piaget’s ‘‘pseudo-biological’’ way of looking at mental development. He treated the mind as a biological organism going through a ‘‘series of metamorphoses occurring at definite ages’’ rather than ‘‘as a continuous curve, with peaks and troughs, of development of ways of functioning,’’ she wrote. There were stages of developmental maturation, Isaacs said, but Piaget viewed them too rigidly, not seeing that we kept much from each stage with us as we matured, a critique that would haunt Piaget’s work.26 Isaacs’s third criticism was that Piaget exaggerated children’s egocentrism and lack of knowledge. Piaget did not give enough

24 Susan Isaacs, Review, ‘‘The Language and Thought of the Child, Judgment and Reasoning in the Child, and The Child’s Conception of the World,’’ The Pedagogical Seminary and Journal of Genetic Psychology XXXVI (1929): 597. Susan Isaacs, Intellectual Development in Young Children (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1930), 326, 192, 327, 333. On Isaacs see Jody Hall, ‘‘From Susan Isaacs to Lillian Weber and Deborah Meier: A Progressive Legacy in England and the United States,’’ in Founding Mothers and Others: Women Progressive Leaders During the Progressive Era, eds. Alan Sadovnik and Susan Semel (New York: Palgrave, 2002), 237–52. 25 Isaacs, Review of Piaget, 604–5. 26 Ibid., 605–6.


History of Education Quarterly

credence to the accuracy of children’s sensory experiences, she said. The sun does appear to follow us when we move. Egocentrism does not cause belief in this illusion, ignorance does. Many adults, Isaacs thought, would not be able to explain ‘‘how the sun came’’ or ‘‘how the moon began,’’ either. One clinical interview could not provide enough evidence to assess the full range of a child’s practical knowledge. Parents who spent hours with their children, in the kitchen, at dinner, in the bathroom, on the street, could see that their children knew a great deal that would not necessarily come out in one interview session. This, Isaacs said, was the ‘‘most serious methodological error in Piaget’s work,’’ his tendency to disadvantage children in verbal intercourse with adults. Piaget over-emphasized and stereotyped differences between adults and children ‘‘by calling them various ‘isms.’ ’’ In her own study of children’s intellectual development, Isaacs said, she found children functioning at much higher levels than Piaget had, and suggested that this might be due to the lower ‘‘mental ratio’’ of the children at the Maison des Petits than the very bright children at her school. She said that she had asked about this when she visited Geneva, and that a more representative control group would be needed to test these differences, another concern that would dog Piaget’s research.27 Piaget’s work spread within the nursery school movement more generally and seemed poised for fuller acceptance when it appeared in a landmark volume documenting the growth of nursery-school related research. Once again, Rockefeller money played a major role. Underwritten by funding from the Laura Spelman Rockefeller Memorial, the National Society for the Study of Education’s 1929 Twenty-Eighth Yearbook, Preschool and Parental Education listed hundreds of psychological studies done in nursery schools. The imprimatur of the Society, which included leading progressive educators such as Dewey and Francis Parker, validated Piaget’s inclusion in the volume. Chaired by psychologist Lois Hayden Meek (later Stolz), head of the American Association of University Women’s child study campaign, the Yearbook’s advisory committee included Teachers College Institute of Child Welfare director Helen Thompson Woolley, Merrill-Palmer Institute director Edna Noble White, Yale Child Guidance Institute director Arnold Gesell, and mental hygiene and child guidance movement leader Douglas Thom. The volume was dedicated to recently deceased committee member Bird Baldwin, the first director of the Iowa Child Welfare Station, who had noted Piaget’s work as early as 1923. Although its coverage of Piaget’s work was brief, the Yearbook highlighted The Language and Thought of the Child, which was

Ibid., 607; Isaacs, Intellectual Development, 96.

Transitory Connections


summarized favorably in the sections on intellectual and language development. The Yearbook also mentioned the Maison des Petits. Yearbook chair Lois Meek praised Piaget’s ‘‘clinical method,’’ and recommended his ‘‘two volumes on The Development of Child Logic,’’ for ‘‘the fresh light which they cast on the mental processes, and incidentally on the personality of the young child.’’28 Rejection Some of these same psychologists and nursery educators played key roles in the rejection of Piaget’s psychology in the 1930s. In a stark example of Piaget’s rapidly waning fortunes, the National Association for Nursery Education’s bibliography Nursery School Education, published by in 1935 contained no references to Piaget. Convened in 1925 by Teachers College kindergarten and nursery school leader Patty Smith Hill, the National Association for Nursery Education included nursery school educators, parent educators, and psychologists committed to making nursery schools a permanent institution. The Association’s bibliography was an outgrowth of the epochal 1930 White House Conference on Child Health and Protection and its Committee on the Infant and Preschool Child, headed by psychologist John Anderson of the University of Minnesota Institute for Child Welfare. Following the conference, Dorothy Bradbury, who had worked on the earlier National Society for the Study of Education Yearbook, Esther Leech Skeels, and Wanda Swieda, all from the Iowa Child Welfare Research Station, volunteered to produce a survey of nursery school-based research. In 1931, a bibliography committee was appointed, headed by Anderson, Lois Meek, George Stoddard, who took over at the Iowa Station after Baldwin died, and Mary Dabney Davis of the U.S. Bureau of Education. An influential group, Anderson, Meek, and Stoddard also worked with Davis on the National Advisory Committee on Emergency Nursery Schools, the federally-funded nursery schools sponsored by the Works Progress Administration during the Depression. Funded with Laura Spelman Rockefeller support, the National Advisory Committee underwrote the bibliography’s publication, giving it the stamp of public sponsorship.29
28 National Society for the Study of Education, Twenty-Eighth Yearbook, Preschool and Parental Education, iv; Bird Baldwin, ‘‘Mental Development of Children,’’ Psychological Bulletin 20 (December 1923): 674; Bird Baldwin, ‘‘Educational Psychology,’’ Psychological Bulletin 21 (April 1924): 206; Lois Hayden Meek, in Twenty-Eighth Yearbook, 459. On Meek see Julia Grant, ‘‘Lois Meek Stolz,’’ in Women Educators in the United States, 1820– 1993, ed. Maxine Schwartz Seller (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1994). 29 Bradbury, Skeels, & Swieda, Nursery School Education. On the 1930 White House Conference see Diana Selig, ‘‘The Whole Child: Social Science and Race at the White


History of Education Quarterly

In her introduction to the National Association for Nursery Education bibliography, Mary Dabney Davis emphasized the scientific tone of the nursery school movement, saying that the more than 400 studies listed were evidence of ‘‘the scientific sponsorship which has been given the development of nursery school education’’ and showed ‘‘the care with which the activities of the program’’ were ‘‘continually being analyzed and developed.’’ Given this scientific perspective and the fact that Piaget’s work was by now quite well known among nursery educators and child psychologists in the United States, it seems surprising that his work was not included in the sections on mental or language development, especially given that Lois Meek, who had praised Piaget’s work in the National Society for the Study of Education Yearbook, was also on the committee for the National Association for Nursery Education bibliography, as was Dorothy Bradbury, who had helped compile the earlier volume.30 The omission of Piaget from the later bibliography was likely due in part to rapidly changing trends in American psychology, and to the influence of John Anderson. Experimental psychology was on the rise. Straddling the worlds of the nursery school and experimental psychology, Anderson, who was on the Committee on Child Development, which in 1933 evolved into the Society for Research in Child Development, had become deeply critical of anecdotal biography and survey methods. Like most members of the Committee on Child Development, which had been organized under the auspices of the National Research Council in 1925, he was eager to erase all traces of the informal baby biographies produced in the nineteenth century and of G. Stanley Hall’s survey-based child study approach. As Anderson and his co-author Florence Goodenough wrote in the foreword to their 1931 book Experimental Child Study, ‘‘the modern attitude’’ is ‘‘frankly experimental and observational in tone rather than philosophical.’’ Theories ‘‘unsupported by evidence command slight respect,’’ they said. Goodenough and Anderson praised John Watson’s behaviorism as the ‘‘beginning of another great epoch in child psychology,’’ and stated that ‘‘child psychology could not advance rapidly’’ without ‘‘a suitable technique.’’31

House Conference of 1930,’’ in When Science Encounters the Child, 136–56. On the Iowa Station see Hamilton Cravens, Before Head Start: The Iowa Station and America’s Children (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1993). On the National Advisory Committee, see Sonya Michel, Children’s Interests/Mothers’ Rights: The Shaping of America’s Child Care Policy (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1999). 30 Mary Dabney Davis, ‘‘Introduction,’’ in Bradbury, Skeels, and Swieda, Nursery School Education, v. 31 Florence Goodenough and John E. Anderson, Experimental Child Study (New York: The Century Company, 1931), vi, 16; Emily D. Cahan and Yeh Hseuh, ‘‘American

Transitory Connections


To experimentalists, Piaget’s clinical interview method was unsuitable. Its reliance on a small number of subjects and narrative approach were anathema to psychologists who stressed sample size, objectivity, and quantitative analysis. Piaget’s sample size was limited to relatively few children in Geneva; Anderson had surveyed the conditions of children in 3,000 families throughout the United States. As Columbia University psychologist C. J. Warden summed it up, Piaget’s method of ‘‘pertinent illustration’’ was ‘‘outworn,’’ his ‘‘arm-chair verbal analysis’’ was unclear, and his examples were ‘‘so highly selected as to be wholly inadequate to support general conclusions concerning the evolution of the child’s reaction to the external world.’’32 The juggernaut of the standardized testing and IQ movements was another main force blocking acceptance of Piaget. By the 1930s, Thorndike’s school achievement tests were firmly entrenched, as was Terman’s IQ testing. Psychologists were busy finding new ways of measuring children’s academic performance and intelligence. Piaget used children’s own interpretations of their drawings to analyze the development their thought; Florence Goodenough, Anderson’s coauthor, became famous for her 1925 book Measurement of Intelligence by Drawings, which used children’s drawings as a means of measuring IQ.33 A few psychologists were more positive. By 1935, there had been almost forty reviews and replications of Piaget’s research reported in psychology journals such as the American Journal of Psychology, the Psychoanalytic Review, and Psychological Bulletin. Psychoanalysts were the most receptive, probably because of Piaget’s clinical interview method. Harvard’s Jungian psychologist Henry A. Murray had been

Educators and Psychologists Encounter Piaget’s Early Works’’ (paper, Annual Meeting for the Society for Research in Child Development, 2003); Emily D. Cahan, ‘‘Toward a Socially Relevant Science.’’ 32 Piaget, The Language and Thought of the Child; White House Conference on Child Health and Protection, Committee on the Infant and Preschool Child, John Anderson, chair, The Young Child in the Home; A Survey of Three Thousand American Families (New York: D. Appleton-Century, 1936); C. J. Warden, ‘‘Review of Piaget, J., The Child’s Conception of Physical Causality,’’ The Pedagogical Seminary and Journal of Genetic Psychology XXXIX, no. 2 (1931): 298. 33 Florence L. Goodenough, Measurement of Intelligence by Drawings (Yonkers-onHudson, NY: World Book Company, 1926). On Thorndike and testing, see among others, Barbara Beatty, ‘‘From Laws of Learning to a Science of Values: Efficiency and Morality in Edward L. Thorndike’s Educational Psychology,’’ The American Psychologist 53 (October 1998): 1145–152; Jo Anne Brown, The Definition of a Profession: The Authority of Metaphor in the History of Intelligence Testing, 1890–1930 (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1992); Geraldine Joncich Clifford, Edward L. Thorndike: The Sane Positivist (Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press, 1968); and Paul Davis Chapman, Schools as Sorters: Lewis M. Terman, Applied Psychology, and the Intelligence Testing Movement (New York: New York University Press, 1988).


History of Education Quarterly

impressed when he met Piaget in Geneva. Piaget’s clinical interview method was also applied in industrial psychology, where his ideas had more staying power. Harvard business school researcher Elton Mayo, who helped design the famous Hawthorne Experiments in which workers at the Western Electric plant in Chicago were questioned about their work, used techniques taken directly from Piaget. These Harvard connections came together in 1936, when Piaget was awarded an honorary degree at Harvard’s Tercentenary Celebration, evidence that Piaget was well known in some psychology and social science circles in the United States in the 1930s. In an example of the sometimes capricious politics of knowledge, however, Piaget appears to have won as a compromise candidate when Freud and Pavlov could not come and agreement could not be reached about Stanford’s controversial IQ tester Terman, so the degree may not have been as much of an endorsement as it appears. Despite this conspicuous honor, few, if any references to Piaget appeared in American education again until the 1950s.34 Transits Some of the factors that affected the transit of Piaget’s psychology in the nursery school movement in the 1920s and 1930s are common to the introduction of other new education ideas. Five stand out. Philanthropic support matters. The Laura Spelman Rockefeller Memorial supported Piaget in Geneva and underwrote the publication of the 1929 National Society for the Study of Education volume in which his work appeared, but Rockefeller support declined during the Depression and with a change in personnel. Goodness of ‘‘fit’’ with existing ideas is important. American and British nursery educators saw how Piaget confirmed their own research and ideas, but at the same time saw flaws and viewed him as competition for their own work. Methodological novelty and usefulness in classroom settings is critical. Piaget’s clinical interview method showed promise as a way of studying children and aiding teachers, but was critiqued by experimental psychologists and some teachers espousing newer, more ‘‘scientific’’ approaches. Publicity through existing dissemination networks is helpful. The Progressive Education Association and National Society for the Scientific Study of Education promoted Piaget in their publications, but the National Association for Nursery Education omitted his research from their bibliography. Invocation of and blessing by experts is very important.
34 Cahan and Hseuh, ‘‘American Educators and Psychologists Encounter Piaget’s Early Work’’; Yeh Hseuh, ‘‘ ‘He Sees the Development of Children’s Concepts Upon a Background of Sociology’ ’’; Yeh Hseuh, ‘‘The Hawthorne Experiments and the Introduction of Jean Piaget in American Industrial Psychology, 1929–1932.’’

Transitory Connections


Piaget cited Dewey’s work and American experts such as Lois Meek initially gave Piaget a stamp of approval. At the same, Patty Smith Hill brought out a behaviorist Conduct Curriculum antithetical to Piaget and some nursery school educators switched their allegiances away from developmentalism.35 Of these factors, the influence of key psychologists and nursery educators was probably the most salient in the rejection of Piaget’s ideas in the 1920s and 1930s. From the 1890s onward, psychologists played an increasingly large role in education reform, by lending or withdrawing supposedly scientific approval and status to pedagogical methods. Psychologists functioned as brokers and arbiters, and individual psychologists, such as John Anderson, could wield much power. As psychology became more splintered and wracked by internecine conflict F a ‘‘crisis’’ of which psychologists in the 1920s and 1930s were awareF the potential for condemnation by one or another of the competing, rapidly changing psychological sects grew exponentially. The power and volatility of psychology was especially felt in preschool education, in part because of the lack of consensus about what and if young children should be explicitly taught, and because of preschool education’s low status due to its identification with women and the lowly activity of caring for young children. Like the rest of psychology, though arguably more so, because it dealt with young children, child psychology was also subject to status anxiety. To raise the status of child psychology to a ‘‘real’’ science and respected profession meant purging it of subjectivity and anecdotalism. Any nursery school teacher could record children talking about the colors they were using in their drawings; many did. To elevate this kind of work to a professional science required having an ‘‘n’’ of a large number of ‘‘subjects,’’ not the names of a few individual children. It required documenting correlation coefficients between which children at what age under what conditions chose which colors, not quoting that Lev at the Maison des Petits said that a color was ‘‘brownish yellow.’’ An ‘‘ish’’ would not do. A ‘‘real’’science could not be based on ‘‘ishes.’’ By the 1930s, study of groups and aggregates had triumphed in psychology.36 Nursery school leaders could also wield much power and function as mediators and arbiters in their symbiotic relationships with

35 Patty Smith Hill, A Conduct Curriculum for the Kindergarten and First Grade (New York: Charles S. Scribner & Sons, 1923); Beatty, Preschool Education in America. On habit training in nursery schools see Julia Grant, Raising Baby by the Book (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1998). 36 Piaget, Language and Thought of the Child, 29; on the triumph of the aggregate, see Kurt Danziger, Constructing the Subject: Historical Origins of Psychological Research (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1990).


History of Education Quarterly

psychologists. Torn between child-centered pedagogy and naturalistic methods and the quantitative methodology and apparent objectivity of experimental psychology, behaviorism, and testing, some influential preschool educators, such as Patty Smith Hill, began espousing what they saw as more scientific methods, creating more divisions within the already fractured preschool movement, and deflecting attention from Piaget.37 Introduced during a period of friction and transition, Piaget’s naturalistic methods and philosophical observations were deemed out of step with professionalization projects in both child psychology and preschool education. Academic psychologists rejected Piaget’s anecdotal methods; nursery school educators rejected some of Piaget’s conclusions about children’s language and egocentrism and felt that Piaget did not capture enough of the variability and fluidity of individual children’s thought.38 Piaget was competing on shaky, shifting ground. Factionalism and the whirlwind of activities within preschool education, the ‘‘child sciences,’’ and ‘‘child saving’’ created much instability. In the 1910s, orthodox Froebelianism had officially splintered, and Montessori’s ideas had been introduced and rejected. The National Kindergarten Association was promoting public kindergartens, helped by the National Congress of Mothers and other groups. By the 1920s, different types of nursery schools had developed and parent education was being pushed. The voice of one Swiss psychologist could hardly be heard over the din of the huge, varied number of participants at the 1930 White House Conference on Child Health and Protection, which sponsored the bibliography in which Piaget was not mentioned, where social workers, pediatricians, nurses, home economists, parent educators, school psychologists, child guidance workers, child welfare workers,

37 Bloch, ‘‘Becoming Scientific and Professional’’; Finkelstein, ‘‘The Revolt against Selfishness’’; Judith Sealander, The Failed Century of the Child: Governing America’s Children in the Twentieth Century (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003); and Beatty, Cahan, and Grant, When Science Encounters the Child. On the crisis in psychology and role of psychology, see among others, Cahan, ‘‘Toward a Socially Relevant Science’’; James H. Capshew, Psychologists on the March (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press); Danziger, Constructing the Subject; Ellen Herman, The Romance of American Psychology: Political Culture in the Age of Experts (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1995); Lagemann, An Elusive Science; and Donald S. Napoli, Architects of Adjustment: The History of the Psychological Profession in the United States (Port Washington, NY: Kennikat Press, 1981). 38 Cahan, ‘‘Toward a Socially Relevant Science’’; Sheldon H. White, ‘‘Developmental Psychology in a World of Designed Institutions,’’ in Beyond the Century of the Child: Cultural History and Developmental Psychology, eds. Willem Koops and Michael Zuckerman (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press), 204–24.

Transitory Connections


psychiatrists, sociologists, and many more experts all claimed authority to ‘‘speak for the child.’’39 Piaget was never fully accepted by nursery school educators or academic psychologists in the 1920s and 1930s. Drowned out by myriad child savers and child scientists, he was caught between experimental psychologists and nursery school educators who thought his research was too child-centered and methodologically loose and other nursery school educators who thought his research was insufficiently childcentered and too rigid. Unlike Dewey’s ideas, which found a safe harbor in schools of education, if not in public schools, Piaget’s ideas did not find a home, either in academia or in nursery education.40 Back in his Genevan stronghold, Piaget continued to produce prodigious amounts of research, on infants, on the growth of logicomathematical thought, and gradually articulated a fully-developed stage theory of child development. None of his books were translated into English between 1933 and 1949 however, during the war years when Atlantic crossings declined unless psychologists themselves relocated to America, as many, unlike Piaget, did. Like the sun and the moon about which he asked children, Piaget went into eclipse. Piaget’s psychology had a much longer second transit in the second half of the twentieth century. When it was reintroduced to the United States in the late 1950s, much had changed, in the country, in education, in psychology, and in Piaget’s psychology. With Sputnik and the Cold War, new federal money was available for education projects. Again, an individual psychologist served as a powerful arbiter, when Jerome Bruner introduced Piaget’s ideas to the group of high-status scientists who convened at Woods Hole in 1959 to develop new science curricula. With behaviorism losing ground to cognitive developmental psychology, American psychologists and educators, some of whom studied with Piaget in Geneva, disseminated his ideas through a network of new, wellfunded research centers. Eleanor Duckworth experimented with Piagetian concepts in the Elementary Science Study at the Education Development Center in Newton, Massachusetts. Seymour Papert used Piagetian ideas in developing computer applications for children at the Center for Artificial Intelligence at the Massachusetts Institute of
39 William H. Kilpatrick, The Montessori System Examined (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1914). On the growth of child experts, see, among others, Hamilton Cravens, ‘‘Child Saving in an Age of Professionalism, 1915–1930,’’ in American Childhood: A Research Guide and Historical Handbook, eds. Joseph Hawes and N. Ray Hiner (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1985), 415–88; and Barbara Beatty, Emily D. Cahan, and Julia Grant, ‘‘Introduction’’ and Diana Selig, ‘‘The Whole Child,’’ in Beatty, Cahan, and Grant, When Science Encounters the Child. 40 David F. Labaree, The Trouble with Ed Schools (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2004.


History of Education Quarterly

Technology. Preschool educators David Weikart, Constance Kamii, and others, who used Piagetian methods with ‘‘educationally disadvantaged’’ children, also served as important arbiters, adapters, and disseminators. Preschool education had a somewhat higher professional status and firmer base in schools of education, where Piaget’s ideas joined Dewey’s to form the cult of constructivism.41 By the 1970s, Piaget was a god. Then the cycle began to repeat itself, for some of the same reasons. The growth of information processing models and cognitive neuropsychology, new priorities in private and federal funding, and the rise of multiculturalism in psychology, schools of education, and education changed the terrain. Bruner once again played a key role, by introducing the ideas of Russian psychologist Lev Vygotsky, which eventually overshadowed Piaget in education. Seen as rigid, biologically deterministic, and lacking in the social dimensions of learning, Piaget’s genetic epistemology fell out of style. The transitory connections between Piagetian psychology and education, the first brief, with the nursery school movement in the 1920s and 1930s, the second longer, in the second half of the twentieth century, were gone, replaced by new psychological and educational trends, some which may in turn suffer the same fate that Piaget’s ideas did.42 The window had closed again. The alignment of factors in psychology and education conducive to the establishment of a new trendF philanthropic support, fit with existing ideas, methodological novelty and classroom usefulness, dissemination through professional networks, and approval of influential expertsFhad shifted. Piaget’s direct connection with American education was at an end, though some of his ideas about development and learning had seeped into educational ideology where they remain today in important but watered-down forms.

On Piaget’s return in education, see among others, Jerome Bruner, The Process of Education (New York: Vintage, 1960); Eleanor Duckworth, ‘‘The Having of Wonderful Ideas’’ in Piaget in the Classroom, eds. Milton Schwebel and Jane Raph (New York: Basic Books, 1973); Seymour Papert, Mindstorms: Children, Computers, and Powerful Ideas (New York: Basic Books, 1980); Constance Kamii and Rheta DeVries, Piaget, Children, and Number (Washington, DC: Association for the Education of Young Children, 1976); Constance Kamii and Rheta DeVries, Group Games in Early Education: Implications of Piaget’s Theory (Washington, DC: National Association for the Education of Young Children, 1980); and David P. Weikart et al., The Cognitively Oriented Curriculum: A Framework for Preschool Teachers (Washington, DC: National Association for the Education of Young Children, 1971). 42 Jerome S. Bruner, ‘‘Preface,’’ in Thought and Language, ed. Lev S. Vygotsky (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1962).


Sponsor Documents

Or use your account on


Forgot your password?

Or register your new account on


Lost your password? Please enter your email address. You will receive a link to create a new password.

Back to log-in