of Hermina Sinclair De-Zwart
By way of introduction
Université Nancy 2 and Paris V-CNRS
Nancy and Paris, France
Hermina Sinclair de-Zwart passed away in January 1997 in her seventy-eighth
year, about eight years after she retired from the professorship
chair she held for 19 years at the University of Geneva.
Hermina Sinclair de-Zwart, known in a more friendly fashion as
Mimi, was an outstanding, classical-type, scholar allying deep knowledge
of several disciplines (formally holding a degree in Linguistics,
from Utrecht University, and a Ph.D. in Psychology, from Geneva
University) with an original and path-breaking research mind. She
was profoundly knowledgeable about Piagets theory and the
experimental facts therein, and she was exceptionally gifted in
communicating them, without losing their subtleties and intricacies,
to students of various backgrounds.
Her main research interests were in developmental psycholinguistics,
where her contributions ranged from the creation of innovative experimental
means of investigation to the insightful empirical and theoretical
treatment of fundamental issues. Together with her many and brilliant
collaborators (among the earlier ones, Emilia Ferreiro, Jean-Paul
Bronckart, Harold Chipman, Ioanna Berthoud-Papandropoulou, Eddy
Rappe du Cher, Christine Othenin-Girard), she dealt with a wide
range of questions. She studied the acquisition of several grammatical
structuresfrom the passive to the basic SVO structure, from
the temporal to the relative clause and the development of
metalinguistic knowledge. She dealt extensively with issues in early
language acquisition and in more recent years she studied empirically
the acquisition of language-universal notions like semanticity and
compositionality of words, and of early pragmatic abilities allowed
by displaced uses of language, at the level of implicit knowledge
However Mimi Sinclair was far from being "just" a distinguished
developmental psycholinguist: her wide interests made her a true
and thorough developmental psychologist. Indeed, she contributed
both empirically and theoretically to other domains, particularly
to developmental cognitive psychology and to education, where she
was especially interested in mathematical education and in the contributions
of the dynamics of social interaction. One of her unique characteristics
was her outstanding capacity to interconnect findings and notions
proper to different domains of inquiry and to integrate these in
higher level conceptualizations, an activity in which she excelled
during her retirement years and can be appreciated in several of
her last essays and lectures.
The previous remarks constitute essentially factual information
that an interested person could find out by spending time searching
the literature . The contributions that
follow provide less known aspects of Mimi Sinclairs work and
personality. Their authors have all worked and/or closely interacted
with Mimi over the years and on into the late days of her life.
They had all read a paper at the Reminiscence of Hermina Sinclair
session that was organized by Rheta DeVries in 1997 at the 27th
Annual Symposium of the Jean Piaget Society in Santa Monica
. The variety of their specific research
domains testifies to Hermina Sinclairs wide ranging knowledge,
interests and scientific involvement, as well as to the easiness
with which she could hold relations with people coming from different
professional and cultural backgrounds. From their writings one clearly
senses Mimis intellectual enthusiasm and generosity in sharing
her ideas and discoveries with others, her availability and readiness
to be helpful, and the warmth of a sensitive and caring personality.
The overall picture they reveal is that of a uniquely vivid and
deeply inspiring teacher, researcher, collaborator and friend.
We thank the Genetic Epistemologist for lending its pages to render
this collective homage to Hermina Sinclair de-Zwart so as
to share with others the experiences, thoughts and feelings of some
of the people who remained in close contact with her until the late
days of her intense and brilliant life.
Tribute to Mimi Sinclair: The first years of research on language
acquisition and intellectual operations
CINVESTAV-IPN Centro de Investigaciones y Estudios Avanzados del
Instituto Politécnico Nacional
Mexico City, Mexico
Mimi arrived in Geneva without knowing how decisive this city would
be in her intellectual formation. She arrived with a background
in comparative linguistics and a thesis on Sanskrit done in Utrecht.
Her discovery of Piaget (for whom she developed an overwhelming
admiration both for his wisdom and his theory; an admiration
almost reverence that she maintained throughout her life)
transformed her into a student of psychology, with a Licence
from the University of Geneva in 1962 and a doctorate in 1965, with
the privilege of having had Pierre Gréco as one of the persons
responsible for initiating her in the whereabouts of research in
It is well known that Mimi had the great merit of reintroducing
research in language acquisition into the context of Piagetian studies.
What is less known is her way of generating, as Chef de Travaux,
the first generation of students in developmental psycholinguistics,
at a time when psycholinguistic research redefined by Chomsky
was just beginning.
Mimi arrived in Geneva for accidental reasons, like I did. I arrived
in 1966, hoping to take advantage of a stay that could last no more
than a couple of years, and without any expectation of acquiring
formal degrees. I simply asked for permission to attend Piagets
courses and to participate (on a voluntary basis) in a research
group. Having met Mimi by chance at a Congress in Buenos Aires a
couple of years before, I asked for an appointment with her. At
that moment, Mimi did not have a real research group, but I became
naturally and without any specific interest in language acquisition
at that time her research assistant. Mimi wanted to study
the acquisition of passive structures. I followed her, with the
excitement of developing a new experimental technique (that of testing
the comprehension of complex structures through the use of pretend
play with toy characters and objects) as a means to access both
the comprehension and production of syntactic structures that could
be qualified as "complex" within the Chomskyan paradigm
current at that time. Passive structures were also interesting because
they could be considered as "absent" from oral language
and, as such, almost impossible to acquire through the empiricist
I became involved in this work (totally unrelated to my initial
interests) to such a degree that in 1968 I became the first
person to co-author a text on psycholinguistics with Mimi: "Etude
génétique de la comprehension, production et répétition
des phrases au mode passif", eventually published in 1970 in
Archives de Psychologie.
Some professors are considered successful when they contribute
to forming students as "image and semblance" of themselves. None
of this is true in Mimis case. She produced something peculiar:
she inspired similar passions for research of linguistic phenomena
in personalities that followed different routes.
During my second period in Geneva, I shared the same room in the
new building of the University of Geneva (Uni II, in front of the
old building of the Promenade des Bastions, and the Café
Landolt) with Jean Paul Bronckart, Ioanna Papandropoulou, and
Annette Karmiloff-Smith. Four different native tongues: French (from
Belgium), Greek, English, and Spanish. If we include Mimi, there
were many more than five languages, because Mimi was multilingual
by mother-tongue and vocation. We were interested in matters which
converged and diverged at the same time, and those interests developed
into four singular trajectories with a same commitment to research
of psycholinguistic phenomena.
Given the linguistic diversity of the group of assistants and students
assembled by Mimi, the comparative dimension of the research was
naturally present. It was not a question of someone saying, "I
will do cross-linguistic research." Contrasting and comparing
languages was not an a posteriori decision, but something
inherent to psycholinguistic studies. This, of course, coincided
with a period during which Switzerland (and the University of Geneva
in particular) was a gathering of languages and nationalities, a
multicultural space where those who were expelled or persecuted
from other countries converged, looking for intellectual freedom
and nourishment: people from Spain, Greece, Brazil, Argentina, Poland,
(to name only some of those who converted this intellectual
space into a real "Société des Nations").
Later, this ceased to be so
. But that is a different story.
Clearly, in retrospection such a period may be seen as a reductionist
period: an attempt to reduce "les opérations langagières"
to intellectual operations. However, for those of us who participated
in it, it was a period of intense intellectual search and of strong
"bets": Chomsky was shaping a new linguistics, just like
Piaget created a new developmental psychology. Both believed in
the power of formalisms; both spoke of transformations and of structures
in evolution. Of course, Chomskys nativism was a fundamental
difference between these two great theories. At that time, however,
we were convinced that nativism was a consequence of Chomskys
opposition to Skinner, and not a fundamental piece of his theory.
Mimi and the students
I dont think I have ever met, before or after, a person with
the intellectual generosity that characterized Mimi. Imagine a traditional
scenario in the academic world: a student arrives with data that
has just been collected, or with an incipient project. She never
asked, "Have you read the latest work published by X in Y journal?"
Knowing that the students readings were precarious, she first
showed a legitimate interest in the data and then, and only then,
did she demand of the student the necessary updated readings. Mimis
ability of "entering the others mind and data" was
stimulating, empowering; in one word: generous.
The in-house weekly seminars were amazing spaces: we all thought
aloud (Mimi included), without fearing the academic consequences
of these acts of intellectual audacity, trying to help those who
were presenting preliminary data or incipient theoretical reflections.
We shared common or individual doubts, risks of incipient interpretations,
and novel insights.
Mimi and Mexico
Between July 1981 and September 1994, Mimi came five times to Mexico
invited to collaborate, as a presenter at seminars or congresses,
or as an advisor, in the main higher education institutions in this
country: CINVESTAV (Centro de Investigaciones y Estudios Avanzados
del Instituto Politécnico Nacional), UNAM (Universidad Nacional
Autónoma) and El Colegio de México (a graduate institution
in social sciences).
During these visits, I had the privilege of taking her to visit
the states of Puebla, Michoacán, and Oaxaca. Mimi loved to
try to understand how the confection of embroideries, cloth, or
ceramics, refined products of illiterate people, were transmitted
in informal settings. As a lover of music and a pianist, she was
very much aware of the musical manifestations of the places we visited.
And she admired the landscape because, in her words, "it is
beautiful to always have the mountains in the horizon, but never
so close as to feel imprisoned."
Language was never an obstacle to communicate with Mimi. Mimi knew
how to navigate among languages with facility but without ostentation.
In one of her visits to Mexico, she performed the following feat
(that to her was only a "normal" attempt to communicate):
before beginning a seminar at my own institution, she asked the
attendants if they preferred that she speak French or English. The
same number of hands was put up for each of these two languages.
Mimi then decided that she would speak in English but that she would
write in French, on the blackboard, the essential parts of her arguments.
And she did so, as if it were natural to speak in one language and
write in another. Her audience was fascinated both by her speech
and by her communicative abilities in different languages (none
of which was her mother tongue).
It is almost impossible to have been a collaborator of Jean Piaget
and Mimi Sinclair without sharing their engagement for scientific
research, conducted with rigor and without concessions.
Mimi Sinclair and the naturalistic studies of early language acquisition
Université Nancy 2 and Paris V-CNRS
Nancy and Paris, France
My very first "encounter" with Mimi Sinclair was with
one of her writings, "Developmental Psycholinguistics"
published in 1969, while I was a graduate student at Tufts University
in the early seventies. Together with the already established attraction
for the "neither/neither" tenets of Piagets epistemology,
Mimis writing fascinated me and boosted my motivation to finish
my M.A. thesis on the relationship between early language acquisition
and cognitive development, thesis that I promptly sent to Mimi with
only a dim hope to get a response from her. What a pleasant surprise
when the hope became reality! I received from Mimi an encouraging
letter (typed on a manual typewriter, whose central place I would
come to appreciate later!) raising specific questions. She gladly
agreed to discuss these questions with me in her Palais Wilsons
office when, as a diligent wife, I found myself more than willingly
in Geneva that same year of 1972. On that occasion, she also invited
me to attend to a lecture she was scheduled to give that same day
and, when I wholeheartedly accepted the invitation, I didnt
know yet I was going to have the best course on conservation
and reversibility that I had ever had: how easy and simple
she was making look a topic I had painstakingly tried to grasp during
my student years!
A couple of years later I again landed in Geneva, this time with
a doctoral project I was bringing from the Hebrew University of
Jerusalem. Although the project wasnt in line with the empirical
work of Mimis groupit was again on early language acquisition
based on the analysis of naturalistic data of mother-child interaction,
while the empirical research of the group was based on experimental
situations proposed to children over three to three-and-a-half years
of ageMimi was very interested in the period of development
it addressed, a period on which she had written brilliant and landmarking
theoretical essays. She eventually agreed to be co-director of my
doctoral thesis, together with Itzchak Schlesinger and C. Greenbaum.
It was the beginning of an unequaled relationship that moved from
one in which Mimi held the role of "patronne" to
one in which, particularly after her retirement, she held that of
untiring collaborator and, at least for me, of dear friend.
Indeed, I consider myself extremely privileged to have been able
to interact all these years with Mimi Sinclairs brilliant
intelligence, wide ranging knowledge and clearness of thought. And
also to have at times "suffered" from her extremely rigorous
attitude, often demanding more and better, particularly when it
came to matters of writing. Armed with pencil and eraser, she would
spend hours dissecting sentences, and our drafts would end up looking
like a patchwork of uneven-sized pages that were assembling concrete
"inserts", "cuts" and "pastes". In
the later years she would use a very clever indirect way to let
me know that a piece had to be written again. She would say something
like "I understand very well what you mean but Im afraid
Morris  would find it difficult...".
I may not have sufficiently internalized for myself her high standards
but Im afraid I now make my students "suffer" in
What I found particularly mind-opening in our exchanges was her
capacity to establish links among the particular empirical data
we were considering, established facts or knowledge, and theoretical
notions that were not trivially related one to the other. The result
was that the empirical facts were gaining in meaning and in relevance
while I had the feeling I gained a better grasp of the theoretical
notions to which she was anchoring them. This was especially the
case for the concepts and notions of Piagets theory. Her knowledge
of Piagets theory and of the empirical body of facts gathered
within its framework was both wide and deep, due also to her untiring
reading and re-reading of Piagets writings and to her natural
inclination to go to the heart of issues. Her knowledge was probably
comparable to that of other specialists, but she had an exceptional
and distinguishing talent for communicating it to others, also because
she could make the theory come alive through a wealth of relevant
and detailed examples of childrens behaviors. In the later
years, when among my professorial duties I had to teach a course
on Piagets theory, I turned quite often to Mimi who was always
available to give me her time. While on the telephone, she would
check things in this or that of Piagets books, that she kept
always handy, trying to find a solution to my questions and doubts.
And most often, while stating her "ignorance", she clarified
for me thorny points on which I had previously spent hours in trying
to find my way through Piagets writings.
Mimi was a fine and subtle observer. She had the ability to uncover
what could be new and theoretically important in sequences of childrens
behaviors, sometimes to the bewilderment of her colleagues who had
gone through the same material several times without noticing what
she had noticed. And she could relate them one to the other, or
to abstract theoretical constructs, without losing track of the
children and of what could be psychologically meaningful to them.
At the time I was working on my doctoral thesis, Mimi was intensely
involved in the so-called "babies research" with
the CRESAS group in Paris (see Raynas paper). She would often
take the time to vividly recount, with the pleasure of first-time
discovery, examples of childrens behaviors, going mentally
back and forth trying to better understand their psychological significance.
Discussing my data with her, Mimi would often uncover analogies
between some of the Paris examples and my own, elaborating and enriching
the significance of both, and at the same time elevating the theoretical
import of the original concepts. This was particularly the case
for the notion of reciprocal imitation or reprise
that became a central notion of my work on early lexical acquisition
and, independently, with somewhat different connotations, of the
work of the Paris team on peer interaction. But Mimis
natural intellectual generosity made it hard to have her recognize
the determinant role of her contributions. In her exchanges Mimi
was always so much other-centered that she would lose track
of the originality of her reasoning: she would think with, and sometimes
for, her interlocutor; with great ease, she could "enter into"
the others ideas, drawing from them the most valuable parts,
often adding to them something new and of wider breadth. However,
she used to minimize this invaluable procedure. More than once she
would come up with what I considered to be an interesting and original
point. So I would say "thats interesting", but
she would reply "I did nothing, I just repeated what you
have said". Possible, but in that case my words
had undoubtedly preceded my thoughts!
Towards naturalistic studies of early language acquisition
Mimi used to say that one of Piagets greatest marks of genius
was to have devised the right situations making it possible to show,
in a simple way, the kind of knowledge children had attained in
specific domains. The fine and innovative experimental methods she
initiated notwithstanding (see Ferreiros paper), she thought
that nothing of that same caliber was available for language, and
I think that one of her longings was to devise such crucial situations:
"Very few psycholinguistic experiments have as yet been
carried out that captured basic grammatical competence in the
way Piagets well-known experiments captured the underlying
patterns of reasoning..." (Sinclair, 1995:104).
In general, she was strongly committed to research in experimentally-set
situations carried out within the Piagetian clinical method. Every
couple of years the group submitted to the FNRS (Fonds national
suisse de la recherche scientifique) a new research project within
this line, availing itself of the cleverness of ingenious experimenters,
first and foremost Ioanna Berthoud-Papandropoulou.
Slowly, however, probably due to the synergy between the Paris
and the early language acquisition work in Geneva, the relevance,
both theoretical and empirical, of naturalistic data gained forcefulness
in Mimis eyes and in early 1985 the idea of a project centered
on the collection of naturalistic data of early language began to
be mentioned. Some days Mimi seemed to be convinced; some other
days, she wasnt sure that such a project would work and we
would discuss other, more classical type, research. As time passed,
and no good alternative was in view, one day, between a sip of coffee
and a puff at her omnipresent cigarette, she said--half laughingly,
half challengingly-- "if we do not come up with a brilliant
idea by tomorrow, well propose the babies project".
Since the following day nobody came up with a brilliant idea, Mimi
started head-on, with her legendary energy and unique intellectual-knitting
abilities, to write the first early language acquisition project,
and since it was eventually funded, we all went out with our newly
bought cameras to collect data. This was to be the first of a series
of projects supported by the FNRS, the last two obtained after Mimis
An emphasis on the processes of construction
In our collaborative studies  the emphasis
was placed particularly on the processes by which children construct
basic properties of language starting from a state of knowledge
where such properties are not yet present. From the vantage point
of her double training, in linguistics and in psychology, and from
that of her profound knowledge of Piagetian constructivism, Mimi
could always give a wider breadth to the questions we were asking,
always vigilant to reorient and refocus the research on the main
problems if it went too far into side roads.
As a linguist, Mimi always considered that language has its own
specificities compared to other domains of knowledge. However, without
reducing language to cognition, she maintained that differences
among domains could very well co-exist with common cognitive processes
of the type described by Piaget for the construction of other domains
of knowledge, first and foremost, the process of abstraction which
brings about differentiations and integrations at all levels of
"Thus it would seem that parallels between language acquisition
and acquisition in the various other domains of knowledge should
be sought in the mechanisms of construction, and especially in
abstraction." (Sinclair, 1992:222).
"Simply expressed, it [the process of abstraction] involves
taking ones attention away from the outcome of an action
or event and thinking about the why of the event, about the way
it is similar to other events, and how it relates to other events."
"Just as the child through the organization of his own actions
constructs a world of objective things and a world of people that
in his mind come to exist apart from his own activity, the child
constructs a world of words or utterances through his language
activity..." (Sinclair, 1989:14).
As Mimi often remarked, applying the constructivist approach to
the study of early language acquisition means more than retracing
a developmental sequence of successive steps or describing developmental
changes. It implies most of all showing the way in which children
can acquire new knowledge through a progressive construction whose
directionality is constrained by the solution to problems encountered
at earlier levels of functioning. And one of the constructivist
themes I think Mimi cherished most was that of the child as problem
raiser. Indeed, if the child is going to progress in solving
problems, the most useful problems to be solved are those that children
set for themselves. In this sense her constructivist approach was
epistemologically and psychologically quite different from those
cognitive approaches in which the child is seen as a problem solver
and in which the problems or the relevant data are already well-defined
by the initial conditions. In Mimis constructivist approach,
childrens apprehension of a problem or the choice
of relevant data need themselves to be explained, and are considered
to be part and parcel of the developmental process itself. Moreover,
the solution to one problem opens the door to a new problem to be
solved, and thus to a new potential source of knowledge:
"At every level, what was already constructed makes it possible
to conceive new problems for which new cognitive structures will
be built." (Sinclair, 1989:14).
From this perspective, children grasp only gradually the characteristics
of the language system in a sequence of small conquests and questions
that may find local, though not always immediately right answers,
and upon which are constructed the structural fragments that will
be later coordinated into higher-order frames of knowledge.
Beyond the intellectual richness of which Mimi was making her collaborators
benefit, simply and naturally, on an everyday basis, I would like
to end this tribute by focusing on the outstanding person that was
Mimi: discreet about her own multiple skills and achievements, delicately
sensitive to the problems of others and appreciative of their efforts,
eager to be helpful, and a mine of information on a wide diversity
of subjects on which she was always amazingly up-to-date. How not
to develop for her, over all these years, not only respect and admiration,
but also deep affection?
Mimi Sinclair: An Exceptional Accompaniment
Sylvie Rayna 
Centre de Recherche de lEducation Spécialisée
et de lAdaptation Scolaire de lInstitut National de
I would like to take this opportunity to evoke Mimi's twenty-five
years of fruitful cooperation with our research team in Paris.
The adventure originated in a deep friendship and intellectual
mutual resonance between Mimi and Mira Stambak, the now retired
director of the research center to which I belong, the Cresas. The
CRESAS was created in 1969 with the aim of furthering research on
the understanding and prevention of school failure. Mira Stambak's
personal concern for young childrens development and education
made it one of the central themes of the Cresas program from
the very beginning and led to a first collaborative study, linking
Paris and Geneva, on the transition between sensori-motor activities
and symbolic play (Inhelder, Lézine, Sinclair & Stambak,
1972). This was the first of a series of collaborative studies carried
out within a piagetian theoretical framework and the beginnings
of Mimi's regular participation in our group meetings.
I met Mimi for the first time while I was a student of psychology
at the University of Geneva. What a vivid teaching she offered in
her psycholinguistics course! What a pedagogical style! Those who
experienced it are not likely to forget it. What particularly impressed
me was the wealth of studies she presented which provided
a fantastic introduction and motivation to research. Among them
there was the study on the very beginnings of symbolic play observed
in a Parisian day care center... When, in 1972, I was about to return
to France on the completion of my first degree, Mimi suggested that
I contact Mira Stambak in Paris: she needed help to continue studying
babies' cognitive development.
At that time, Mira and Mimi were planning a study on the beginnings
of logical activities during the first three years of life. This
new study, oriented by data collected previously, addressed the
Piagetian epistemological differentiation between logical and physical
aspects of knowledge, and meant to investigate the roots of logic
through the spontaneous activities of very young children. I got
soon so involved in the collection of data and in their analysis
that I pursued the subject in my doctoral thesis. The overall results,
highlighting the creativity of cognitive development, were later
published in our first major collaborative work Infants and Objects
(Sinclair, Stambak, Lézine, Rayna & Verba, 1982/1989).
Every three months Mimi came to Paris for a week-end seminar. The
days preceding these meetings were a time of agitation and excitement
for the preparation of the observations to be discussed. The excitement
continued throughout the week-end, and accompanied us throughout
the years while the group increased in number, enriched by the collaboration
of other colleagues. Soon two Italian colleagues, Tullia Musatti
and Laura Bonica, and other French researchers, Mina Verba, Monique
Bréauté and other Cresas colleagues, joined
us. A few years later, Mimi introduced to the group one of her very
close colleagues, Edy Veneziano.
Mimi was very interested in the data we gathered in the day care
centers. She would ask insightful questions or relate our
data to results of studies carried out in Geneva, by her
own team or by that of Bärbel Inhelder, or to those of American
studies she knew first hand through her regular visits to the USA.
Sometimes confusion grew within the group and the discussion was
blocked. Mimi would then get up, take one of Piaget's books from
the shelf and, to our surprise, would find just the "right"
pages that helped us move ahead. Indeed, her knowledge of
Piaget's work was both extensive and profound, and, thanks to her,
we were able to penetrate deeper in some less known aspects of Piagets
work. Alternatively, she would remain silent while we debated,
and then she would come up with a proposition. We would then stop
debating, everything appearing suddenly so clear, and would thank
her, but she would always reply : "but you have yourself just said
the same thing before!".
When, under the impulse of Mira Stambak, we began studying groups
of children under two years playing together, at first Mimi was
not very convinced by this change in focus. However, she became
soon interested in the data provided by the different French and
Italian studies on peer interaction and on their potential for cognitive
development. Mimi got particularly involved in the analysis
of imitation taking place between these young peers during physical
experimentation, imitation that came to be considered as a source
of décentration. She also contributed actively to the analyses
of early forms of cooperation among peers, in which she saw
a social form of the group of displacements. As it was the case
for the earlier collaborations, discussions with Mimi were precious,
as were her prompts to re-read Piaget's observations, comments
and theoretical position relating directly to peer interactions.
Having analyzed the processes of discovery and invention going
on within shared play during the second year of life, in the eighties
our group went on to focus on pretend play among three year olds,
again observed in French and Italian day care centers. Once more,
Mimi contributed in a determinant way to the discussion of results
coming from each of the four studies and crucially to their theoretical
coordination in view of the publication of a book she finally
edited with Mira Stambak on this theme a few years later (Stambak
& Sinclair, 1990/1993).
The Cresas study on collective pretend play was explicitly carried
out within an educational perspective and was linked to other studies
carried out by the Center on older children in nursery and
elementary school. Thus, also colleagues working in these domains
were eager to discuss matters of social interaction and early learning
with Mimi, and they learned a lot from her. At the same time, Mimi
was very interested in their data gathered in mathematics and literacy
settings. Gradually, Mimi became also involved in
our work concerning the kinds of pedagogical settings that
would favor the involvement of all the children, at each step in
development and education, in a dynamic process of co-construction
of knowledge (she was an active member of the IEDPE (Institut éuropéen
pour le développement des potentialités de tous les
enfants) since the time of its creation). In 1995, she accepted
my invitation to give a keynote lecture at the international conference
on the quality of early childhood education organized by the INRP
and the EecerA (European Early Childhood Education Research Association)
on the theme: "What pedagogical objectives in preschool
education?", in which she developed a strong psychological
argumentation in favor of spontaneous activities in small groups
Through all these years our group went on to develop projects and
get involved in publications and scientific events. However,
the seminars with Mimi remain, in my mind, the most precious moments:
with such a generous woman who listened respectfully to everybody,
they were occasions of unusual intellectual feasts. With
her we felt clever. She offered us great moments of happiness. On
going back to Geneva, she would always thank us for the beautiful
facts we had provided and for the vigorous exchanges we had had.
She could not imagine how much she had given us!
Mimi left us just after we had decided to work on a new book that
would look at different aspects of communication studied in different
settings by different members of our group, as well as by old and
new collaborators from Italy, France and Japan. This project is
still alive and ongoing  and Mimi's intellectual
presence continues to accompany us in our task.
At a last dinner we had in Paris with several Cresas' colleagues,
Tullia Musatti and Edy Veneziano, after a seminar in which we sketched
the plan of this new collective book, Mimi played Mozart on the
Observing The Observer
Massachusetts Institute of Technology
Cambridge, Mass., USA
Over the 25 years that Mimi Sinclair was my mentor and friend,
our work together took the form of endless conversations (and sometimes
arguments) at the wonderful, round table in her kitchen in Cartigny
and also at the piano (hers or mine in Cambridge, Massachusetts)
in the midst of playing four hand Mozart Sonatas or after an evening
of chamber music with Morris. 
Mimi was unabashed in her commitment to Piaget and his work. But
it was Mimi's understanding of Piaget and her ability to
make his work come into focus that stand as the memorable moments
for me. How often I saw her pluck an idea or an example from memory
that, on the occasion, was almost breath-taking in its relevance
to the matter at hand. The drama of those moments rested on Mimi's
remarkable ability to turn Piaget's proverbial abstruseness into
clear and practical meaning. And, as a result, that meaning suddenly
became of enormous importance to the situation we were struggling
But Mimi did more than cite and talk about Piaget, she practiced
Piaget. And using her deep understanding of his strategies, of his
epistemology, she carried his ideas into new realms. The most important
vehicle for this development, in my view, was Mimi's uncanny ability
to "observe." I put the word in quotes because in her practice she
created a whole new meaning for the word. Her unique insights grew
out of those moments in the passing present when she caught in a
child's gesture or action on an object, the nascent germ of a big
idea--an idea which had, till then, remained quite hidden to the
rest of us.
I would like to focus my attention on just a few examples of this
remarkable and dynamic aspect of Mimi's life and work--instances
of Mimi's unique "noticing." I begin with a paper, Young children's
spontaneous activities and early child education, delivered
at the EECERA Conference in Paris (Sinclair, 1996). Although Mimi
always claimed that she didn't know anything about "education",
she finds her way in this paper to do what she always did so well--to
make an understanding of Piaget relevant and directly important
to the matter at hand. Her opening remarks set the stage by construing
learning as "the progressive elaboration of knowledge" while also
reflecting the depth and breadth of her belief in Piaget's work:
In my opinion, Piaget's epistemological and psychological constructivist
theory provides the most apposite conceptual foundations for understanding
the processes that account for the progressive elaboration of
knowledge in all human beings.
And going on, she tells us in but a few words, the substantive
core of what is relevant and essential to this theory:
...knowledge is derived from actions that modify something in
the outside world or that modify the knowing subject's position
in relation to the outside world. In the beginning, there is no
differentiation between what, in an interesting phenomenon, is
due to  the subject's action and  what is due to properties
of the objects acted upon.
Mimi goes on to explicate this often elusive and thus ignored distinction
in a manner that brings the kernel of the idea into clear focus:
One of the most original principles in Piaget's theory resides
in his conception of the existence of two sources of knowledge:
human beings derive knowledge not only from  changes observed
in the external world, but also  from the organization of their
own actions...In epistemology this double aspect of every act
of knowing leads to two different kinds of knowledge: Logical-mathematical
knowledge can become formal, totally independent of objects and
their properties. While physical knowledge is always a kind of
mixture: it aims at knowledge of the properties of the objects
that are studied, but needs a logical-mathematical framework for
the construction and interpretation of experiments.
This could also be a description of Mimi's own exceptional ways
of "observing." That is, she was both noticing "properties of the
objects that are studied" (here, children's actions and interactions),
together with a "logical-mathematical framework for the construction
and interpretation of experiments" (here, a theoretical framework
within which to interpret the children's actions). Mimi gives an
example which demonstrates how, in her special way, "observing,"
in the foreground was always seen through the theoretical
framework going on in the background. The result is her extraordinary
ability for selectively and actively noticing: She writes
[For very young children] the two types of knowledge [logical/
physical]... are not yet differentiated, and the interest of the
children is mainly directed towards the results of their actions.
However, the results may depend on object properties to a greater
or lesser degree. When a one-year old child puts four small objects
in a line, the result is due to a repetition of 'putting next
to.' The line is not a property of the objects, but it is conferred
on them by the child. When the child taps with one block on
another, noise is produced on account of their hardness, but tapping
on a sponge produces no perceptible sound. If the child's attention
was completely focused on making noise, the action on a sponge
may be of no interest whatever. But a comparison between the two
events may also lead to a connection between the action and
properties of the objects--some are hard, some soft. This
is a piece of knowledge about the physical world which may
become the basis for a classification. (emphasis mine).
What continues to amaze me is the almost recursive aspect of this
and other examples. On one hand, Mimi shows us the child's
selective focus of attention--what the child chooses to notice as
guided by her immediate interest--her current frame of reference--and
the implications of that choice. And, in turn, Mimi is recursively
playing out this process in her "observing." That is, her
selective focus of attention, what she chooses to notice, is also
guided by her current conceptual framework always running in the
Continuing this spiral outward, Mimi focuses our attention
on an aspect of the child's actions that we would otherwise surely
have missed. In this way, a singular moment of attention and later
others yet to come, become "noticed" and, in turn, become relevant.
And through this cumulative guidance we, as novices, begin to build
our own appropriate and usable theoretical framework. As the framework
is internalized, we also learn to keep it running in the background
as a structure for organizing our seeing in the present foreground--for
"observing." We quite literally come to see in a whole new way.
In another paper (Sinclair, 1990), Mimi stunningly explicates
the implications of Piaget's often misunderstood notion of "action:"
Many psychologists and educators nowadays emphasize the essential
role of young children's activity in cognitive development. Yet
it is not always clear how activity is supposed to lead to new
knowledge, nor what kind of activity is considered relevant in
this context. From a constructivist point of view, the essential
way of knowing the real world is not directly through our senses,
but first and foremost through our material and/or mental actions.
In this context, action has to be understood in the following
way: all activity by which we bring about a change in the world
around us or by which we change our own situation in relation
to the world. In other words, it is activity that changes the
knower-known relationship. (emphasis mine)
The formulation of "action" together with the "knower-known relationship,"
is powerful and suggestive. Consider in this regard, the importance
Mimi gives to "imitation." And notice, too, that in the following
passages, she also demonstrates how she and her collaborators, building
upon Piaget's work, have gone beyond the territories carved out
by Piaget himself. She says:
"...imitation has acquired something of a bad name, especially
in circles where activity is emphasized. Considering the processes
of abstraction, however, imitation, and especially reciprocal
imitation, appears to play a propitious role
Though Piaget refers only sporadically....to the necessity and
importance of [the child's interaction with other human beings],
its contribution to the fundamental reflective processes is becoming
clearer, especially through studies of peer-interaction among
young children (Stambak & Sinclair, 1990; Sinclair, 1987).
Even very simple reciprocal imitation (one child pushing a stick
through a ball of cottonwool, another doing the same, and then
going on to push the ball of cottonwool up and down the stick,
and the first one imitating this further action) offers both partners
an occasion to see their own actions from the outside and from
the inside, as it were, and this may facilitate reflection
on the action as an object of thought. (emphasis mine)
On first reading these passages, I was stunned by the insight--the
transformation of what others take to be a mindless act, imitation,
Mimi sees as the nascent source of reflection, the beginnings of
abstraction--turning back to look at what we usually just
look through. We see, here, another instance of Mimi "observing:"
children's everyday, ordinary play holds the nub of emergent profundity.
It was from what Mimi was able to see in instances like this, that
I learned to watch for moments that we later came to call "reflection-in-action."
. Mimi's insights began a process for
me of trying to account for those seemingly unexplained moments
of learning--of a child coming to see a situation (or a teacher
coming to see a child) in a new way. Watching Mimi "observing" and
talking long hours with her in an effort to make sense of my own
observations, I gradually grew able to integrate--not so much what
she said, but what I saw her do. It was an activity that for me
profoundly changed the knower-known relationship. Like young children,
my interest in observing had been "mainly directed towards the results
of... actions." With Mimi's guidance, my focus gradually shifted
to trying to account for the results; particularly I learned
to look for subtle, but palpable signs of change-- transformations
in strategies, and changes in how a child came to represent the
"same" phenomena to him/herself.
Looking back, now, at Mimi's writings, I am struck by what seems
to characterize much of her work--a merging, a completely reciprocal
interaction between the almost sentient immediacy of direct experience--"observation,"
and the profundity and emergent theoretical implications of what
she made of what she saw.
My conversations with her continue on in my imagination--she is
present in mind and spirit. But I continue to deeply miss her living,
human, inspiring, and comforting self.
Hermine Sinclair: Contributions of a Piaget Scholar to Early Education
University of Northern Iowa
Cedar Falls, IA, USA
For over 25 years, I enjoyed the mentorship and friendship of Mimi
Sinclair. She was a profoundly learned Piaget scholar whose own
research was in developmental psycholinguistics and cognitive development.
However, I engaged with her primarily with regard to the educational
implications of Piagets research and theory. Mimi was remarkable
in her willingness to engage with others on the grounds of their
interests. She was a great teacher and loved to teach. I remember
her as warm, intellectually vigorous, and generous. She was the
most unpretentious person I ever knew. Whenever we were together,
we found time for music. I treasure the memories of Mimi at the
piano and me with my flute, enjoying some measure of reproduction
of Bach, Mozart, and Loeillet. Whenever possible, we played together
with Mimis violinist husband Morris. These were evenings in
Chicago, Geneva, Houston, and Waterloo, Iowa, after days when Mimi
gave lectures, read and gave feedback on manuscripts, and discussed
the developmental and educational significance of childrens
actions in videotaped classroom activities.
I was drawn to Mimi because of our shared interest in Piagets
research and theory. When I was introduced to her by Constance Kamii
at a conference at Rutgers University, I quickly found that I could
learn a lot from her. When Connie and I began working to develop
the educational implications of Piagets work, we took our
debates, questions, and manuscripts to Mimi. In 1972, I went to
Geneva for a two-week period during which Mimi read and discussed
our first manuscripts. Over the years, I enjoyed the benefits of
her feedback on many of my articles and books. She often added or
changed just a word or two that greatly enriched, made more precise,
or focused in a new way what I was trying to say. Her questions
and comments often had the effect of giving me a whole new perspective
that inspired me to rewrite.
When I spent two years in Geneva from 1976 to 1978, we always had
lunch together on Fridays when we took turns picking up the check.
That was something of a coup as it was very difficult to
keep Mimi from picking up the tab. Mimi disliked air-conditioning
which was not such a problem in Geneva but was in the United States
where she always wore a scarf at her throat in such spaces.
Mimi Sinclair was an excellent cook, and I have wonderful memories
of music followed by dining at her home in Cartigny. One night she
learned it was my birthday and gaily stuck a candle on a delicious
homemade raspberry tart.
Among Mimi Sinclairs many scientific contributions, I would
like to mention three that have been particularly important for
my work in early education. These relate to the distinction of social
arbitrary knowledge, the development of protostructures in infancy
and early childhood, and constructivism in constructivist education.
Social Arbitrary Knowledge
Mimi pointed out Piagets distinction between two kinds of
psychological experience and knowledge, physical (where the source
of knowledge is objects) and logico-mathematical (where the source
of knowledge is the individual who introduces into objects characteristics
that are not characteristics of the objects themselvessuch
as number, classification, etc.), but she recognized that something
was missing if we wanted to use these notions in thinking about
educational goals. What was missing was the added distinction of
social arbitrary knowledge whose source is people, or societynames
of objects and ideas, dates of holidays, manners, and cultural facts
such as driving on the right side of the road in some countries.
Social arbitrary knowledge  is created
by people when they agree that something is correct. The only way
one can learn this kind of societal knowledge is through some sort
of communication, including demonstration. As I have never found
in Piagets work a specific mention of social arbitrary knowledge,
I conclude that it was Mimi herself who added this important distinction
to those of Piaget. I have found this distinction, along with those
of Piaget, to be enormously helpful to teachers who quickly grasp
that one should not teach physical knowledge as if it were arbitrary
conventional knowledge. Many teachers I know ask themselves regularly
what kind of knowledge it is they are trying to teach. If it is
arbitrary conventional, they do not hesitate to communicate it directly.
If it is physical knowledge, they engage children in experimenting
with objects. If it is logico-mathematical knowledge, they encourage
children to create relationships (concerning physical or societal
objects and events).
The Development of Protostructures in Infancy and Early Childhood
Mimi was particularly brilliant in her ability to relate Piagets
theory to the mundane actions of children that occur not in Genevan
experiments, but in everyday life. Hearing Mimis lectures
and reading writings by her and her collaborators about protostructures
identifiable in the actions of infants and young children, have
been especially important to me. This work, mainly in Paris day
care centers, was a collaboration between Mimi and colleagues led
by Mira Stambak at the CRESAS. It follows up on certain suggestions
by Piaget and Inhelder that logical structures such as classification
and seriation are foreshadowed in the sensorimotor period. However,
Mimis work with her Parisian colleagues has a dynamic and
psychological focus rather than a structural one. Their book, Infants
and Objects, (Sinclair, Stambak, Lezine, Rayna, & Verba,
1982/1989) is a report of naturalistic study of children between
the ages of 10 and 24 months, the period of the "transition
from action-based intelligence to conceptualized thought" (p.
1). This research fills a gap in Piagets research on the development
of logic between 18 and 36 months .
Through microanalysis of videotapes of individual infants with certain
kinds of objects, they were able to discern, at an earlier age than
generally thought possible, a progressive organization of actions
that prefigure logical reasoning with regard to logic, physics,
and symbolization. This work elaborates Piagets (1977) notion
that "action contains within it a form of logic" (pp.
6-7) (quoted in Sinclair et al., 1982/1989, pp. 187-188)
and opens the way to a better understanding of the mechanisms underlying
the continuity of cognitive development from the sensorimotor stage
to the stage of concrete operations. This work is especially helpful
to constructivist educators. Also of significance to educators is
the finding that babies and toddlers evidenced "tenacity and
intellectual coherence . . . when facing the problems they themselves
raised and the meanings they themselves attributed to events"
(Sinclair et al., p. 197). They continue as follows:
Their capacity for sustained concentration, . . . clearly shows
that the "lack of attention span" and "brief concentration"
attributed to children are but artifacts (sic) arising from observations
made in situations that are foreign to the childs preoccupations.
Even babies purposes are crucial for development and learning!
Similarly, in the introduction to Pretend Play among 3-Year-Olds,
Mimi and Mira Stambak (Sinclair & Stambak, 1993) pointed out
that in collective pretend play, one can observe a common frame
of reference, conservation of propositions and symbolic frameworks,
and reciprocity in the coordinations of propositions. In the microculture
of a community of children, they found a system of cooperation that
is both logical and social. Childrens negotiations, justifications,
compromise proposals, and reciprocal adaptations reveal that correspondences
and reciprocities are being constructed in the course of interactions
and are preparing the way for reasoning that comes to full flower
at age 6 or 7. Thus, the study of collective pretend play provides
an opportunity for observing childrens "capacities for
constructing equilibrated exchanges of thought" (p. xii). Sinclair
and Stambak conclude that childrens peer interactions would
"exert a positive influence on the childrens socio-cognitive
development, as much as, or possibly more than, the detachment from
the hic et nunc and the comprehension of the duality of fictional
roles stressed by other authors" (Sinclair & Stambak, 1993,
Constructivism in Constructivist Education
Although Mimi Sinclair often denied knowledge about education due
to lack of experience, she made significant contributions to the
work of a number of people trying to draw educational implications
from Genevan work. She improved my writing about Piagets theory
and often amazed me by pulling a book from a shelf and turning to
just the passage I needed. She reflected with me on educational
issues, especially during her later years, on how education could
be constructivist, that is, how it could relate to Piagets
Clearly, the work on protostructures is important for constructivist
educators who want to use constructivist theory to understand the
developmental significance of childrens actions in certain
kinds of classroom activities. Work involving protostructures focuses
on changes in the structure and function of intelligence that are
observable in the classroom. In particular, the research on infants
and objects reveals that the choice of materials influences which
aspect of childrens reasoning is activated. With objects that
in themselves are not very interesting, such as seriated balls of
clay, wooden rods, and cups or cubes, children engage in differentiated
behaviors of collecting, nesting, and making one-to-one correspondences.
With objects such as tubes, a piece of uncooked spaghetti, beads,
cotton wool, etc., children engage in experimentation, fabrication
of new objects, and putting on and putting into. With materials
such as dolls, a teddy bear, and familiar objects such as plate,
spoon, toy toilet, etc., children engage in symbolic play. While
the latter type of materials are often made available to children
in early childhood classrooms, the other two types are not. This
information can inspire teachers to experiment with different kinds
of materials aimed at promoting differentiated reasoning.
In her reflections on how education can be constructivist, Mimi,
following Piaget, always emphasized the importance of childrens
social interaction in educational endeavors. This includes the work
on pretend play and her references to our own work:
" In the classroom, socio-moral attitudes form a foundation
on which all the activities sketched above are based. They should
be treated from the point of view adopted by DeVries and Zan (1994)
and extended to the younger ages the book is concerned with."
In an unpublished piece entitled "How Can Education Be Constructivist?"
Mimi offered some "guidelines from epistemological and psychological
constructivism for a truly constructivist early education, starting
with Piagets cooperation principle" (p. 7). These dealt
with "the most general concepts that underlie progress (reciprocity,
inversion, adding and complementizing, inclusion, classification,
etc.), that are particularly striking in interpersonal activities,
and that might be fostered in order to achieve a more constructivist
form of education" (p. 10). Mimi outlined interpersonal activities
that included active reproduction of another childs actions
on objects, joint construction in parallel and complementary activities,
and societal interactions such as pretend play with everyday objects.
She also outlined mechanisms of progress inspired by later work
by Piaget, Piaget and Garcia, and Piaget and Inhelder. These include
heuristic procedures, regulations and control mechanisms, communication,
and the socio-moral atmosphere.
To sum up, one can say that Hermine Sinclairs research and
reflective consultation have greatly enriched teachers understanding
of those elements of classroom planning and intervention that are
particularly constructivist in nature. I will always be grateful
for Mimis friendship and mentorship.
All Roads Led to Mimi
University of Alabama at Birmingham
Birmingham, Alabama, USA
I met Mimi Sinclair in Geneva in June, 1965, when she was trying
to finish writing her dissertation entitled Language and Operations
under Piaget's direction. My preoccupation then was to improve the
educability of low-income, disadvantaged children through two years
of preschool education. I was trying first of all to conceptualize
goals for preschool education before figuring out how to reach them.
Having studied everything I could about cognitive development and
preschool education, I had concluded that the only promising lead
was Piaget's theory. It was, and still is, the only scientific theory
in existence describing cognitive development from birth to adolescence.
It also was, and still is, the only theory that described children's
development of many basic aspects of knowledge.
In June, 1965, having written a paper outlining my ideas about
how to "apply" Piaget's theory to preschool education, I decided
to go to Geneva to see Piaget, if possible. In retrospect, the paper
was an incredibly bad one. I had no idea that I had assimilated
Piaget's theory into an empiricist way of thinking learned in graduate
When I arrived in Geneva, I was fortunate enough to catch the last
lecture Piaget gave before the summer vacation and was surprised
that I understood his French. (I was born in Geneva and spoke French
during the first eight years of my life.) His books were full of
difficult words and interminable sentences, but Piaget was a different
person when he spoke. He talked like a normal human being!
I decided to ask the Piagetian expert in the Pedagogy Section of
the Institute, Mani Denis, to critique my paper. Her reaction was
"I am not sure what to tell you, but I know somebody who will be
able to react to it. Her name is Mimi Sinclair." Dr. Denis invited
Mimi and me to her house, making sure that I understood how busy
Mimi was trying to finish her dissertation.
Mimi's reaction to my paper was something like "Piaget's theory
is very difficult, vast, and complicated, and you need to spend
a lot of time reading his books to understand why this paper is
not quite right." I did not understand most of what she said but
made up my mind to get a postdoctoral fellowship to study under
Piaget and others for a year.
In the fall of 1966, I registered as a student at the University
of Geneva and took Piaget's courses on intelligence and the epistemology
of mathematics. It soon became clear that I could not make sense
of many points such as the relationship between the operative and
figurative aspects of knowledge on the one hand and other distinctions
on the other hand. Examples of other distinctions are reflective
and empirical abstraction, assimilation and accommodation, and abstraction
and representation. I asked teaching assistants to explain these
points, and a pattern soon began to emerge: They all said,
"I'm not sure how to answer your question, but I know someone who
will be able to--Madame Sinclair."
All roads thus led to Mimi. Everyone recognized Mimi's knowledge
and ability to explain Piaget's theory. I started to write my questions
and periodically asked Mimi to sit down with me to clarify theoretical
points. She was always down to earth, clear with examples, and willing
to think hard to give me another example if one was not enough.
Mimi was not only knowledgeable but also generous. For example,
many dissertations would not have been written if she had not forcefully
helped discouraged students. She carefully analyzed data with them
and sometimes even helped them fix sandwiches before making them
sit down to write!
One year in the 1970s, Hans Furth had a teaching position at the
Institute to lecture about the education of deaf children. Everybody
assumed that Furth's French was adequate for the job, but students
soon began to complain. Mimi volunteered to act as his translator
for every weekly lecture Furth gave during the rest of that year!
For many years starting in 1977, Mimi was a Visiting Professor
at MIT one month per year. She also gave short courses at many other
universities in the U.S. Even as a visiting professor, she scheduled
generous office hours and encouraged students to come and talk about
any question or project they wanted to discuss.
Most people specialize in a specific area of child development,
but Mimi was knowledgeable about psycholinguistics, early childhood
education, and mathematics education. She knew a lot, but the uniqueness
of Mimi's knowledge was that she had an unusual and sensible perspective
about many topics.
An example is Mimi's conceptualization of social (conventional)
knowledge as one of the three kinds of knowledge based on their
ultimate sources. Piaget wrote a great deal about two kinds of knowledge--physical
and logico-mathematical--and pointed out that physical knowledge
has a source in objects, but the source of logico-mathematical knowledge
is in each child's (mental) action. Piaget never identified social
knowledge as the third kind of knowledge, but Mimi, the linguist,
unmistakably found it in Play, Dreams, and Imitation. As
can be seen in that book, Piaget was, of course, aware of conventions
as another source of knowledge but did not elevate conventions to
the position of the third source of knowledge. Mimi's conceptualization
of social knowledge especially helps educators as will be seen shortly.
Mimi was an academic and a research scholar, but she was also interested
in practical questions about education, like what to do in the classroom
and why. When I ran a preschool program in Ypsilanti, Michigan in
the late 1960s, to develop a curriculum based on Piaget's theory,
Mimi came as a consultant for a week in 1968, 1969, and 1970. She
observed in classrooms, went on home visits with teachers, gave
Piagetian tasks to children, conducted inservice sessions, and helped
us evaluate our efforts and answer our questions.
In the 1970s, when I conducted experiments for Piaget at the International
Center of Genetic Epistemology, Mimi helped me perfect interview
techniques and conceptualize the findings by analyzing protocols.
Later, she also read and critiqued drafts of books I was writing
with Rheta DeVries such as Physical Knowledge in Preschool Education
and Group Games in Early Education. She made time to help
us grow, but also said she learned a lot by working with people
on projects that truly interested her.
Now that my research is on how to teach elementary mathematics
based on Piaget's theory, I recognize my indebtedness to Mimi in
new ways. I could not have been convinced of the desirability of
getting children to invent arithmetic if she had not helped
me understand so clearly that the source of logico-mathematical
knowledge is inside each child's mind. Because of her delineation
of social knowledge as the third kind of knowledge, I was also able
to see that much of traditional math education consists of social
knowledge such as conventional algorithms. The conventional algorithms
of "carrying," "borrowing," and long division are mere social conventions
children are now taught to follow without understanding them. I
would not have realized in the early 1990s that these rules are
harmful to children's development of numerical reasoning if Mimi
had not pointed out the difference between social and logico-mathematical
The distinction between physical and logico-mathematical knowledge,
as well as between abstraction and representation, that Mimi clarified
for me over many years also enables me to oppose the current fashion
of "manipulatives." Some manipulatives are useful if used well,
but for those who are clear about these distinctions, it is obvious
that base-ten blocks and fraction pies are off the mark. The ideas
of tens and ones or two-sixths and one-third can,
of course, not come from objects.
These theoretical distinctions were mentioned only in passing in
the nearly 15 years I ended up spending partly in Geneva. I learned
these distinctions from Mimi, through many years of conversations
in many contexts. My life would not be what it is today if she had
not been my mentor for more than 30 years. I never went back to
the professors I had in graduate school, but I would still be going
back to Mimi to ask her opinion if she were still alive.
Together with Mimi Sinclair: Learning how to learn
Institute of Psychology
CNR - Consiglio Nazionale delle Ricerche
It is not easy for me to talk about Mimi Sinclair and it is only
now, three years after her death, that I manage to find the words
to bridge the gap that her untimely death has opened in my professional
and personal life. To speak of untimely death of a person who, as
she often reminded us, was approaching her eighties, may seem inappropriate.
Nevertheless it best describes the nature of our relationship, the
professional commitments we shared and that feeling of walking along
an endless road towards the discovery of the human mind that Mimi
communicated to us.
My relationship with Mimi developed in Paris within the framework
of the relations we both separately entertained with Mira Stambak
and the CRESAS team of bébéologues at the INRP
. At our Paris meetings we would discuss our studies on pre-logical,
pre-physical and symbolic performances and their development in
the course of interactions among toddlers. Our discussions were
always very animated as we were led to tackle important theoretical
as well as methodological issues. Mimi always provided clarity and
intellectual coherence to this debate. However, during these discussions,
by tacit agreement, we all avoided discussing the educational implications
of our research even though both the CRESAS team and myself together
with my Italian colleagues were all deeply involved in actions to
improve the quality of early educational settings. Indeed, Mimi's
intellectual rigor restrained her from committing herself in
an area in which she felt she had no specific professional experience.
Years later, during a talk to teachers in the city of Pistoia, Italy,
I heard her make this attitude explicit by quoting Piaget, for whom
pedagogy was not a mere application of child psychology but a science
in its own right that requires specific studies, experience, and
professionalism. And yet, precisely in the framework of some research
carried out in Pistoia I heard Mimi make two remarks having
extremely important educational implications.
The first remark occurred when, together with Mina Verba and Susanna
Mayer, the four of us were planning the observational setting of
some new research on the development of experimentation in children
aged between two and four years. The collaboration of teachers from
several Pistoia educational centers allowed us to come up with a
setting that, in social and emotional terms, was highly familiar
to the children. The children were accustomed to being presented
with material and objects to explore freely in a group composed
of several peers and a teacher. The presence of the adult and her
availability to answer the children's requests was an important
component of the relational atmosphere habitually experienced by
the children and some of us did not want to disturb it. However,
Mimi was very concerned that an intrusive attitude of the adult
could interfere with the children's process of cognitive construction.
In the course of discussion, we came to realize that in our previous
work on peer interactions we had found processes of indirect transmission
of knowledge between children, as when they observe each other reciprocally
and include elements of the other children's activities in their
own. In itself, a peers activity represents a proposal made
to the observing child and thus fosters her own process of cognitive
construction. Mimi then suggested that the most appropriate
adults behavior would be a general attitude of listening
and observing similar to that found in the children, together with
the possible suggestion of new elements through an apparently random
manipulation of objects. Using an example drawn from our
study of an exchange between little Karine and one of her peers,
we thus coined the expression "to act like Karine"
to indicate the delicate role of a more competent partner in guiding
the children in the process of discovering the world in a non intrusive
The other important remark made by Mimi about education occurred
while she was visiting the babies room at an infant-toddler
center in Pistoia. Here, the extensive professional experience of
the teachers had produced a daily-life setting that clearly guaranteed
both the possibility of new experiences and their repeatability.
Mimi immediately grasped this dual potential of the context offered
to the children and pointed out that it supported the unfolding
of the fundamental functional processes of intelligence, accommodation
and assimilation, as described by Piaget.
With these suggestions, which I drew upon in my subsequent
research, did Mimi break the constraints she had imposed upon herself
in order to avoid infringement on the field of pedagogy? I rather
feel that, using the non intrusive style of the great teacher she
was, she was pointing out new paths that must be followed if we
want to relate epistemological research to the reality of our society.
First, we should analyze the opportunities that a context offers
the children who live in it from the point of view of how each child
is supported in her own processes of cognitive construction. Second,
we should consider how teachers can further support these processes
by introducing into the context new objects-to-think-with or about
thus using the specific human potential of acting
CINVESTAV-IPN: Centro de Investigaciones y Estudios Avanzados
del Instituto Politécnico Nacional (Center for Research
and Advanced Studies of the National Polytechnic Institute)
CNR: Consiglio Nazionale delle Ricerche (National Research Council)
CRESAS: Centre de Recherche de lEducation Spécialisée
et de lAdaptation Scolaire (Research Center on Special Education
and School Adaptation)
EECERA: European Early Childhood Education Research Association
FNRS: Fonds national suisse de la recherche scientifique (Swiss
National Foundation for Scientific Research)
IEDPE: Institut Européen pour le développement des
potentialités de tous les enfants (European Institute for
the development of the Potentialities of all children)
INRP: Institut National de Recherche Pédagogique (National
Institute for Pedagogical Research)
UNAM: Universidad Nacional Autónoma (Autonomous National
Bartlett, F. C. (1932). Remembering: A Study in Experimental
and Social Psychology. Cambridge, UK.: Cambridge University
DeVries, R., & Zan, B. (1994). Moral classrooms, moral children:
Establishing a constructivist atmosphere in early education.
New York: Teachers College Press.
Inhelder, B. Lézine, Sinclair H. & Stambak M. (1972)
Les débuts de la fonction sémiotique, Archives
de Psychologie, 163, 183-243.
Piaget, J. (1976). Autobiographie. In J. Piaget, Les sciences
sociales avec et après Piaget. Hommage publié
à loccasion du 80e anniversaire de Jean Piaget.
Revue Européenne des Sociences Sociales, 14 (38/39),
Sinclair H., Stambak M., Lézine I., Rayna S. & Verba
M. (1982) Les bébés et les choses : la créativité
du développement cognitif. Paris : P.U.F. (Infants
and Objects: the creativity of cognitive development. San Diego:
Academic Press, 1989).
Sinclair, H. (1987). Symbolism and interpersonal interaction. In
J. Montangero, A. Tryphon & S. Dionnet (eds) Symbolism and
knowledge. Cahiers de la Fondation Archives Piaget, No. 8. Genéve,
Sinclair, H. (1989). Language acquisition: A constructivist view.
In J. Montangero & A. Tryphon (Eds.), Language and Cognition
.Cahiers de la Fondation Archives Jean Piaget, 10,
Sinclair, H. (1990). Learning: the interactive re-creation of knowledge.
In A. P. Steffe & T. Wood (Eds), Transforming Children's
Mathematics Education. Hillsdale, N.J: Lawrence Erlbaum.
Sinclair, H. (1992). Changing perspectives in child language acquisition.
In H. Beilin & P. Pufall (Eds.) Piaget's theory: Prospects
and possibilities (pp. 211-228). Hilllsdale, N.J: Lawrence Erlbaum
Sinclair, H. (1995). Comparative linguistics and language acquisition.
In R. Arzapalo & Y Lastra (Eds.), Vitalidad et influencia
de las lenguas indigenas en Latinoamérica. II Colloquio
Mauricio Swadesh. (pp. 97-105). Mexico: Universidad Nacional Autonoma
de Mexico, Instituto de Investigaciones Antropologicas.
Sinclair, H. (1996). Activités spontanées des jeunes
enfants et objectifs pédagogiques des institutions préscolaires.
In S. Rayna, F. Laevers, M. Deleau (Eds), Leducation préscolaire
: quels objectifs pédagogiques? (pp. 183-200). Baumes-Les-Dames.
INRP et Nathan. (original manuscript: "Young children's spontaneous
activities and early child education").
Sinclair, H. "How can education be constructivist?"
Sinclair, H. & Stambak, M. (1993). Pretend play among 3-year-olds.
Hillsdale, NJ: Erlbaum.
Sinclair, H., Stambak, M., Lezine, I., Rayna, S., & Verba,
M. (1982/1989). Infants and objects: The creativity of cognitive
development. San Diego, CA: Academic Press.
Stambak M. & Sinclair H. (Eds.) (1993). Les jeux de fiction
entre enfants de trois ans. Paris: P.U.F. (Pretend play among
the three year olds. Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Earlbaum, 1993).
- More details of this kind can be found in the introduction to
an issue of the Archives de Psychologie--vol. 65, no. 253, 1997.
In this issue are published the papers read at a Symposium Mimi
Sinclair was invited to organize at the Growing Mind Congress
held on the Centennial of Jean Piagets birth--the last Symposium
Mimi was to organize and to which she contributed an excellent
introduction and a masterly discussion. She later wrote to me
that "of course" she didnt have any notes of neither.
- This is with the exception of Tullia Musatti who was asked to
write a short piece on Mimi Sinclairs Italian collaboration
on the occasion of the publication of the present set of tributes.
- Morris was Mimis husband, who was responsible for public
information at WHO, and who served as first "public"
to our writings, revised many articles written by Mimi, and especially
by Mimis colleagues, and co-translated the books issued
from the Paris collaboration.
- Our last co-authored article is going to appear in Journal of
Child Language at the end of this year.
- The author wishes to thank Edy Veneziano for her precious help
in the translation of this paper.
- A book, edited by S. Rayna and E. Veneziano, is in preparation.
- Morris, Mimi's husband, is a violinist totally committed to
playing chamber music. While Mimi was often his musical accompanist,
Morris frequently accompanied Mimi as they traversed the subtleties
- F.C. Bartlett, in his seminal book, Remembering, makes the point
this way: "There is one way in which an organism could learn
how to [learn]. It may be the only way. At any rate, it is the
way that has been discovered and it is continually used. An organism
has somehow to acquire the capacity to turn round upon its own
'schemata' and to construct them afresh. This is a crucial step
in organic development. " (Bartlett, 1932, p. 206)
- I now refer to this as conventional arbitrary knowledge because
people sometimes misunderstand the term to mean knowledge about
social interactions rather than knowledge of society.
- Piagets own work on this period was limited mainly to
imitation, dreams, play, and symbolization, including the early
use of language.
Nominees for the 2001-2004 Jean Piaget Society Board
Michael Chandler (Co-Chair Nominations Committee)
In compliance with past practices and current bylaws, the Nominations
Committee requests your assistance in identify ing persons who might
serve as future officers or members of our Board of Directors. Each
year 5 members rotate off of our 15 person Board and are replaced
by a new cohort chosen in ways meant to insure that the group is
reasonably balanced with respect to areas of research interest and
other foreseeable demographic considerations. The Nominations Committee
is especially charged with the responsibility of insuring sufficient
continuity in the governance of the Society to guarantee its viability,
and of identifying persons who have been active in the Society,
or who are scholars in areas of special concern to the Society.
Previous members of the Board can be re-nominated after a hiatus
of one year.
As a way of accomplishing these purposes we actively seek your
advice and suggestions. If you would like to recommend one or more
persons for possible inclusion in the 2001-2004 Board, please forward
your suggestions, along with a brief account in support of your
Dept. of Psychology
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