Piaget to Steffe to AIMS Center Research Associates

As you read the various posts on this blog, you again and again hear the writers talking about how one child or another responded to a given question or a given situation. For example, a week or so ago Bev Ford in her post showed a video clip of Grace, a first grader, as she solved a problem. The problem involved Grace being presented with a situation where she knows there are seven objects under one cloth and four under a second cloth. Bev, in describing what Grace does says, “she starts by lifting a finger pattern for seven simultaneously. Then she counts while lifting a finger every time she says a number, ‘1, 2, 3, 4’.” Grace explains that the solution has to be eleven because she didn’t have enough fingers and had to imagine one more.” Our purpose is to reenact research we are reading about to better understand it. Always the purpose is to discover what the child knows and what the child is thinking.

Much of the research that the three AIMS Center teams are working to understand and to translate into practice is the work of Les Steffe and his interdisciplinary team at the University of Georgia. A member of the team was Ernst von Glasersfeld, who was a scholar/researcher in the psychology department at the University of Georgia. The foundation, theory base, and methodology for their research is based on and inspired by the work of Jean Piaget whose name I’m sure you’ve encountered more than once if you follow this blog.

Piaget is considered the founder of the entire field of developmental psychology, however, his primary interest was to understand how children come to know what they know and what it means for them to know it. His method was to construct his understanding of children’s thinking on the basis of what he and his many collaborators found through clinical interviews with thousands of children. The way in which Piaget worked with and thought about children’s words and thoughts is, in a sense, the heritage of the AIMS Center which has come to us primarily through the work of Steffe and von Glasersfeld.

Recently I was reading for the second or third time a conversation between two of Piaget’s colleagues, where they are describing Piaget’s way with children. The names of the two men are Gruber, the author of an extensive book on Piaget’s work, and Bringuier. What follows is a clip from their conversation (note that this is translated from French).

“Gruber: He has a talent for listening carefully; if you think about what he did with children, it was thanks to the great respect he has for what they say. Everybody listens to children because they say such sweet things.

Bringuier: Yes, touching and amusing things.

Gruber: Amusing. But Piaget respects the child. He genuinely wants to understand the child for what he is.

Bringuier: The child is a person.

Gruber: Exactly: the child is a person. He must be understood. To do that, there must be respect. Piaget has a great deal of respect.

Bringuier: It’s a kind of courtesy.

Gruber: It’s more than that. Far more than that! A child has to make his way, find his own way, find his own mind, just as a great thinker does, or the man on the street. It takes an effort to construct even an ordinary idea, and a person feels joyful when he’s done it. The child has the same feeling as the great thinker; it’s a new and joyous discovery when you find it for the first time.”

This respect for and valuing and wanting to learn about children’s knowledge is the heritage of the Center. There is a line from Piaget to Steffe and von Glasersfeld to Bev in her interviewing little Grace, and to all of our research associates as they work with children. In our work we are following in the footsteps of Piaget, the giant in the nursery.

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