The Psychology of Communication


6.2 The Method

Piaget, like Freud, used the clinical method. That is, he sought to understand people by listening to them. However, unlike Freud, he did not listen to adults talking about themselves as children. He had no faith in such retrospective accounts of childhood. Adults do not really know how it was to be a child - partly because their memory is too bad (it was so long ago and they have forgotten) and partly because their memory is too good (they "remember" things which never happened). Piaget himself "remembered" being kidnapped as a kid but later discovered that his "kidnapping" was merely a story invented by his nursemaid to explain some scratches on his face.

The main basis for his lack of faith is his own theory. As children develop into adults, they go through qualitative changes which make it impossible for them to think as they thought as children. Development is more like going up a set of stairs than going up a ramp - you can't see the previous stairs clearly by looking back. Unlike our physical growth, our mental growth involves qualitative rather than merely quantitative changes. We go through transformations. Our mental growth is like the physical growth of the tadpole into the frog or the caterpillar into the butterfly. Perhaps we are as unaware of our previous selves as the butterfly is of its career as a caterpillar.

Piaget listens to children talk about themselves as children. Here, for example, is a child of 5 years, 9 months talking, with some prompting from Piaget, about dreaming [PIAGET 1929]:

Where does the dream come from?
I think you sleep so well that you dream.
Does it come from us or outside?
From outside.
What do we dream with?
I don't know.
With the hands? With nothing?
Yes, with nothing.
When you are in bed and you dream, where is the dream?
In my bed, under the blanket. I don't really know.
If it was in my stomach (!) the bones would be in the way and I shouldn't see it.
Is the dream there when you sleep?
Yes, it is in the bed beside me.
Piaget tried suggestion:
Is the dream in your head?
It is I that am in the dream: it isn't in my head
When you dream, you don't know you are in the bed. You know you are walking. You are in the dream. You are in bed but you don't know you are.

Can two people have the same dream?
There are never two dreams (alike).
Where do dreams come from?
I don't know. They happen.
In the room and then afterward they come up to the children. They come by themselves.
You see the dream when you are in the room, but if I were in the room, too, should I see it?
No, grownups (les Messieurs) don't ever dream.
Can two people ever have the same dream?
No, never.
When the dream is in the room, is it near you?
Yes, there!
(pointing to 30 centimeters in front of his eyes).
Sometimes Piaget would create a concrete situation as a basis for his conversation with a child. In the following example, he deflates a punctured rubber ball, directing the jet of air toward the child's cheek, and asks the child where the air comes from and where it goes. The child in this sample conversation is 8 years, 6 months old [PIAGET 1930].
What is happening?
There is air. Because there is a hole, then it comes out.
Where does the air come from?
They put it in.
The man. The man took the ball and put air into it.
The ball is deflated and allowed to fill itself again:
It is coming back.
By the hole.
But where from?
It is going in.
Is it the air of the room that is going in, or the air that I took away?
The air that you took away.
Piaget may invite the child to act as well as to talk. In the following example, he puts six counters in a straight line with equal spaces between them and asks the child to pick out of a box the same number of counters. The child in this sample conversation is 4 years, 5 months old [PIAGET 1952].
Take the same number as there are there (6 counters).
(He put 7 counters close together, and then made the correct correspondence)
Are they the same?
(His row was then spread out)
Are they the same.
Has one of us got more.
Make it so that you have the same number as I have.
(He closes his up)
Are they the same?
Because I pushed mine together.
In the case of very young children who can't talk, Piaget can, of course, only invite them to act. Here is a description of one of Piaget's interactions with his daughter Jacqueline, when she was 1 year, 6 months old [PIAGET 1954]: Jacqueline is sitting on a green rug and playing with a potato which interests her very much (it is a new object for her). She says "po-terre" and amuses herself by putting it into an empty box and taking it out again. --- I then take the potato and put it in the box while Jacqueline watches. Then I place the box under the rug and turn it upside down thus leaving the object hidden by the rug without letting the child see my maneuver, and I bring out the empty box. I say to Jacqueline, who has not stopped looking at the rug and who has realized that I was doing something under it: "Give Papa the potato". She searches for the object in the box, looks at me, again looks at the box minutely, looks at the rug, etc., but it does not occur to her to raise the rug in order to find the potato underneath.

By really listening to what children are saying and by carefully watching what they are doing, in many interactions such as those over half a century, Piaget gained a glimpse into the mind of the child. Children tell him their secrets in words and show him their secrets in actions. As we shall see, Piaget is often surprised at what they show and tell him.

Piaget may have been surprised by the children but psychologists were shocked by Piaget. The prevailing method in psychology is not his clinical method but the experimental method. Since he had never taken a course in psychology, Piaget did not know how he was supposed to do psychological research. Even if he were to have taken a course at the height of his fame, he would probably have flunked. He breaks all the hallowed rules of the hallowed halls. He does not review the relevant experiments of his colleagues or conduct experiments of his own. He does not set up precise hypotheses and the level of significance at which they will be knocked down. He does not select a careful sample of subjects. He does not manipulate an independent variable, control extraneous variables, and observe the effect on a dependent variable. In short, he does not use the experimental method.

Let us look in turn at the various rules Piaget breaks and his rationale (or rationalization?) for breaking them.

  • Piaget makes no attempt to review the relevant literature except for occasional references to his own previous work. But --- he ties his own work together beautifully and then ties this work to other disciplines. Every aspect of development from thumb-sucking in the new-born infant to problem solving in the adolescent is included within the same coherent framework and is anchored solidly to biology on one side and to epistemology on the other. A man can afford to be an island when he is a continent.
  • Piaget does not specify dependent and independent variables nor control extraneous variables. He seems to think that all variables should be interdependent and certainly that no variable should be controlled. He conducts demonstrations rather than experiments. But --- the clinical method is more appropriate than the experimental method. In the clinical method, the behavior of the child determines the procedure of the psychologist, whereas in the experimental method, the procedure of the psychologist tends to determine the behavior of the child. The experiment often reveals more about the thinking of the experimenter than about the thinking of the subject.
  • Piaget seldom uses statistics or specifies the number of subjects in his sample or the method by which they were selected. But --- sampling and statistical techniques are required only in studying superficial variables. No one questioned the generalization of heart transplants merely because the first patient was only one individual and a South African. Piaget is dealing with such basic cognitive processes in species Homo sapiens that what is true of his daughter Jacqueline can reasonably be said to be true of all children.
  • Since he is using the clinical rather than the experimental method, Piaget can provide only mere descriptions, and not explanations, of phenomena. But --- there is nothing "mere" about description. "E equals MC squared" is a description. Descriptive studies of development have fallen into disrepute merely because, in unimaginative heads, they have produced only variations of the proposition that "kids get better at doing things as they get older". Piaget has made descriptive studies of development respectable again.
  • In summary, Piaget might argue as follows: The experimental method is indeed a powerful instrument which has contributed a great deal to our understanding of our world and of ourselves. The logic of the experiment is impeccable. If you vary the independent variable, control all the extraneous variables, and observe any significant change in the dependent variable, then you can say that your manipulation of the independent variable is cause and the change in the dependent variable is effect. Such cause-effect relationships are the basic building blocks of science. But --- what is questionable, however, is not the logic of the experiment but the assumption that this logic is appropriate for the study of all phenomena. It is not the logic used in thinking by children nor is it the most appropriate logic for the study of thinking by children. The experimental design is determined by the prejudice of the experimenter about how children think. This forces children either to think how the experimenter thinks they should think or to perversely continue to think how they do think (causing the experimenter to stomp off muttering about confounding variables and confounded children).
  • In order to preserve the spontaneous thinking of the child, it is necessary to use the clinical method, in which the behavior of the child determines the behavior of the adult. If you want to know how children think, you ask them - you don't tell them. This would seem obvious. You can't get to know by assuming that you already know. You ask them but you don't ask them directly: "Hey, kid, are you adapting to your environment through alternating assimilations and accommodations?" They don't know how they think either. Indeed, I don't know how I think and you probably don't know how you think. However, children think without knowing how they do it just as cows transform grass into milk without knowing how they do it.

    Children are, in a sense, the world's foremost authorities on thinking as children and Piaget was the world's foremost authority on thinking about children thinking as children. So they work together. Children think and Piaget thinks about their thinking. Piaget and his army of children have, together, developed a coherent and comprehensive description of cognitive development from child to adult. They have painted in bold, broad strokes the general outline of the cognitive development of our species and another army of disciples, ably led by Piaget's long-time colleague, Barbel Inhelder, are filling in the details.