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?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?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).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.
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.