Thursday, 2 September 2010

Susan Isaacs and Jean Piaget: a chance encounter

Occasionally, it seems, an encounter between two people and a chance observation can change the world. I do not think it is an exaggaration to make this claim for what happened when the psychologist Jean Paiget met Susan Isaacs in the 1920s.

At that time, Piaget was conducting highly structured investigations into how young children develop knowledge. Isaacs had set up the Malting House School and was experimenting with an approach to education which allowed children a high degree of freedom to choose, play, and decide for themselves what they wanted to learn. Piaget’s investigations had demonstrated, to his satisfaction, the fact that children under the age of eight could not grasp the idea of mechanical causality. He had come to this conclusion after undertaking large numbers of interviews with young children. But just as he was explaining his theories to Susan Isaacs in the garden of the Malting House School, the two adults came across a five year old boy on his tricycle.

Asked why his trike was not moving forwards, the boy pointed to the fact that he was back-pedalling. Isaacs records that then the boy said: “Oh well, your feet press the pedals, that turns the crank round, and the cranks turn that round (pointing to the cog-wheel) and that makes the chain go round, and the chain turns the hub round, and then the wheels go round - and there you are!”

This encounter roughly co-incides with a major shift in the focus of Piaget’s work. Around this time, he stopped invesitgating children’s thinking in laboratory conditions by questioning them. Instead, he began to build a new theory of how children learn, drawing on very close obervation of babies, toddlers and young children as they played spontaneoulsy. Pretty much all of the many experiments which are currenltly being carried out on babies’ brain acitivity as they move around, manipulate objects and watch carefully planned events are inspired by Piaget’s work, and develop his theories.

When we are with young children, we can all-too-easily find that we are just going through the motions as we follow daily routines and implement our planning. What was so remarkable about Piaget, was his open-ness to the new and exciting. He was prepared to see things afresh, after that chance encounter in the garden. How many other people would  even give a second thought to what a five-year-old said about back-pedalling his tricycle?