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The idea of educational theories and programs based on Piaget’s theory: some contributions from a philosophical perspective.


José Sérgio Carvalho -
University of São Paulo,Faculty of Education.
Sao Paulo, Brazil.

(This paper was presented at the "Growing
Mind Congress", Geneve, September 96)


     The diffusion of Piaget’s theory in Brazil has largely been a consequence of a series of attempts to apply it to the field of education. As in any other domain, the transference of concepts, hypothesis, methodologies, results, in short, the transference of the body of a theory to another theoretical or practical field brings about a series of new problems, whose critical exam asks not, at first instance, for further empirical research - as if they were problems related to different hypothesis or theories of the same field of research- , but demands some prior conceptual analysis based on the characteristics and problems of the transferences themselves.

     The first and so far the majority of - attempts to apply Piaget’s theory of cognitive development to educational theory or even to educational policies and practices have taken a methodological point of view. In other words, researchers and teachers have tried to deduce didactic procedures, that is, teaching and class guiding strategies, from the description and explanation of the cognitive development of the child, that is, from the cognitive structures of development which make learning possible. The growing repercussion of these ideas and methodologies of work has led a great number of teachers, researchers and educational policy-makers to postulate the idea of a ‘constructivist education’, i.e., an educational theory and even an educational program based on Piaget’s theory. This postulate, of course, would mean more than a set of methodological or didactic procedures, since one cannot talk of an educational theory or program without reference to values and objectives.

     The aim of this paper is, on one hand, to briefly point out some problems concerning the transference and usage of scientific concepts to educational theories and programs. On the other hand, to point out one possible way of overcoming at least one of these problems: the lack of internal criteria for one to choose general conceptions and selective principles of a subject or ability to be taught. For this we shall resort not exactly to Piaget’s writings on psycogenetical development, but rather to his works on philosophy of sciences.


     One important source of problems related to the passage from any scientific theory to educational theories and programs lies in the different nature of definitions and concepts used in each field and, as a consequence, in the different criteria to be used in judging and evaluating them. In this respect, Scheffler warns us that ‘scientific definitions, in particular, are continuous with contemporeneous statements in their environing networks, and cannot well be evaluated in abstraction from these networks. ...definitions in science are all, in an important sense, technical in purport and call for special knowledge and the use of special theoretical criteria in their evaluation... by professional members of the scientific community....When such definitions are taken out of the context of professional research activity, however, and embodied in statements addressed to the public or to teachers or professionals of another sort, often in an institutional setting, they must be judged in this rôle’.(1968, p.13).

     Thus, one important difference in evaluating concepts and definitions transferred from Piaget´s psycogenetic theory to educational programs is that, while in the first case our evaluating criteria are related to theoretical adequacy, truth and intelligibility, in the latter one our evaluating criteria should also take into account the principles of actions such definitions or concepts convey or propose. The possible theoretical accuracy, truth or intelligibility of a scientific definition, concept or theory which may have inspired an educational program is not a measure of the worth of that program of action.

     Firstly because one single theory may lead to and be compatible with quite different programs of action(1). On the other hand, one single program of action may be compatible with two or more different theories(2).In fact, the jump from theoretical definitions and concepts to a program of action is a long and hazardous one. This considered, any educational program claiming to be based in Piaget’s theory should be judged and evaluated not according to the adequacy of its inspiring theory in terms of comprehension and description of a child’s cognitive development(3), but in terms of its accomplishments regarding the problems of students, teachers and educational institutions. In sum, the arguments in favor of the adoption of an educational program should not rest exclusively nor mainly upon its theoretical basis, but must evaluate its efficiency, moral adequacy and responsiveness to social demands.

     Moreover, the idea that teaching strategies could be deduced from the description and explanation of the child’s structures of cognitive development and learning capacities is not a very clear one. Obviously any teaching aims at learning. Nevertheless, getting acquainted with theories of cognitive development and learning does not directly guide our methodology of working when teaching. Piaget’s theory, as any other one, is a propositional knowledge, while teaching, as any practical-art, is a procedural knowledge. As Ryle pointed out on his work The Concept of Mind, the relationships between knowing how (procedural knowledge) and knowing that (propositional knowledge) are not simple or mechanical.

     Piaget himself, in his studies on Réussir et Comprendre, demonstrated that a successful act is not always accompanied by a ‘correct explanation’ or ‘theory’ of the performed act. On the other hand, our own everyday experience shows that having an interesting theory (of bicycle riding, for example) does not necessarily lead us to successful practice (of riding a bicycle). Of course one may suppose that, even if not necessary, propositional knowledge certainly implies a better chance of having a successful performance. Of course it might be true, but in fact this is a matter for empirical research and not for personal certainty. We have no reasons to believe that there is such an abstract ‘law of nature’ which may grant us that every time we develop an interesting theory this theory will enhance our practice, no matter what sort of theory or practice we are talking about.

     Finally, as far as educational programs and teaching procedures are concerned, the very idea that there might be procedures that are per se more efficient in teaching should be empirically investigated. The diversity of teaching problems and of personal strategies of learning seem to suggest that any generalization of this kind is, at least, dangerous. In sum, the criteria to judge any methodological innovation are not adequacy of its discourse nor its epistemological affiliation, but its results compared to the previous objectives. As for an educational programs, once more we should resist falling in the trap of judging them exclusively by their supposed theoretical justifications given by teachers and educational policy-makers, leaving aside the important point in this case, which is the social and moral pertinence of their objectives as well as the concrete results (on pupils, teacher and institutions) of implementing those changes.

     In theoretical basis we have another set of problems related to the transference of concepts from a theory of one field to another. To take one example, the concept of an epistemic subject, which may be a rich and interesting concept to describe mechanisms, causation and stages of cognitive development in a child or in history is not automatically and equally interesting if applied to a different set of problems.

     Like any other scientific concept, its comprehensive and explanatory powers are limited to the field of a particular interest. As pointed out by Ryle (cf. Dilemmas p.123/6.) a careful and accurate description of a library made by an accountant is quite different from that made - equally careful and accurate - by a professor. The books themselves are not different ones, but yet their description in terms of expenses and sales slips are useless for an intellectual evaluation of the faculty library, as much as their intellectual content helps little or nothing an accountant when he is to produce economical reports on the faculty library. Both are not exactly opposite descriptions, but different and complementary ways of giving information about the same library.

     Analogously an epistemic subject and a pupil may be two different descriptions of the same child. The concept of a pupil, as most educational concepts, is not a scientific one, but its usage presumes the existence and insertion of a child into determined institutions. A pupil, therefore, is not any child nor a learner in general, but one who learns at a school and with the guidance of a teacher. These specific institutional characteristics - along with its specific problems - should be taken into account in any attempt to build up an educational theory. It does not mean that the knowledge of a child’s cognitive development is not desirable. It simply means that it is not enough, for a child is not necessarily a pupil, learning school subjects is not developing cognitive structures and an institution is not a simple addition of individuals.

     One last problem derived from the usage in educational contexts of a general concept like that of an epistemic subject is its necessary omission concerning the specific and ineluctable selective options of disciplines, perspectives, abilities etc., which always involve value judgment and require practical decisions from teachers and institutions. Concerning this particular problem it might be interesting to quote Scheffler when he comments the limits of trying to apply these theories to education: „...(they) seem plausible with respect to certain aspects of development of children, that is, the biological or constitutional aspects. Regarding these, we can say, roughly, what sequences of stages may be normally expected, and how these passages ....may be helped or hindered by deliberate effort on the part of others. ...The nature and order of these stages of development, and of the capacities of behavior they make possible are, indeed, relatively independent of the action of other individuals, though even here cultural factors make their impact... If we once ask, however, how these capacities are to be exercised, toward what ... the child is to be directed, what sort of conduct and what types of sensitivity are to be fostered, we begin to see the limits (of the transference of these theories) ...The sequence of stages is, in fact, quite compatible with any number of conflicting answers to these questions."(1967, p.50). Of course we could also add questions such as: once they are capable of these or that operation how should we select subjects, perspectives, methodologies, experiments among those which are compatible with that specific stage of intellectual capacity and possibility?


1- In fact, this happens quite often in the attempts to deduce pedagogical consequences or methods from Piaget’s theory. There is a large number of conflicting practices claiming to be based on the same psycogenetical basis. Of course some of them could be regarded as misapplications, but how could one possibly elect the correct deduction of practice once there is not one logically necessary action derived from a theoretical description or explanation?

2- Take for example a very authoritarian Catholic school and an equally authoritarian school from former Eastern Germany. Their concept of man, of schooling, etc. are founded over quite different ontological and metaphysical basis. Nevertheless, their everyday practice may be quite similar.

3- This is an example of the old, but persistent, fallacy which supposes that if we have the correct or real concept of man, society, justice etc.. we shall have the correct or real answer to practical problems related to them. This idea goes back to Socrates and Plato, but has had various new forms since then.