Working with Piaget: Essays in honour of Bärbel Inhelder
A. Tryphon and J. Voneche (Eds.) Hove: The Psychology Press. 2000. ISBN 0 86377 621 3 (hbk)
This book is first-rate. It is a fine tribute to the contribution made by Bärbel Inhelder to developmental psychology. Her contribution is monumental. It is manifestly unfinished business which looks set for development. It has often gone unsufficiently unremarked in that her is neither their nor his. The least that can be done is to set the record straight. The contributors to this book include distinguished developmentalists whose work continues to invite much more than passing interest. So it is intriguing to know what they thought of her work. In this regard they are first-rate guides to ways ahead. It also turns out that their papers are independently engaging and can be read with value in their own right, and even enjoyment. Finally, the editors have provided those (no doubt too many of us) who did not attend the Cours Avancé with a vicarious experience which really is instructive. So just in case you missed what I said, let me say it again. This book is first-rate.
I plan to do two things. One is to report very briefly on each chapter. The other is to raise some questions, maybe for the editors, or for the contributors, or for you the reader. All replies are very welcome.
Individual Chapters: Summary Report
Their edited book has two aims (i) to distinguish Inhelder's work in the context of the Genevan school; (ii) to have the various sites of her work revisited by contemporary scholars.
Chap. 1: Bärbel Inhelder's contribution to psychology
Inhelder came to Geneva from St. Gallen aged 19 years in 1932. She was to remain there for the most of the next 65 years as 'Piaget's student and chief collaborator (in a role which was) seminal and crucial (amounting to) independence in interdependence' (pp.1-2). It is, or ought to be, well known that Piaget's central problem was to explain development from the causal to the normative, for example the temporal construction of atemporal knowledge. Inhelder's problem was the converse, namely the 'passage from (structural) atemporality to (procedural) temporality' (p.9). This involves the construction of any new procedure for use both in and beyond its specificity. Inhelder's methodological stance is implicated with a dual commitment both to Popperian falsifiability in science and to the art of experimenting which deliberately required the simultaneous interviewing of children on many different topics (pp.3, 9)
Chap. 2: From structural diagnosis to functional diagnosis of reasoning:
a dynamic conception of mental retardation
A functional perspective is incompatible with a structural dead-end by attesting the validity of the Piagetian model in psychiatric practice and by the further analysis of the developmental aspects of mental retardation (p.13). Inhelder's own study in 1943 anticipated later dynamic perspectives, such as Feuerstein's IE. It led Inhelder to propose new criteria of mental retardation in terms of the extent to which a subject has the capacity to make up any retardation of operatory construction (p.26). It involves such constructs as genetic viscosity or slowness in equilibration, reasoning oscillation, and "false equilibrium" (pp.30-31).
Chap 3: Perspective taking in the aftermath of the theory-theory and
the collapse of the social role-taking literature
'History...once again threatens to come full circle, as 50 years of interim work now appears to be leading us back to a set of insights already more or less explicitly contained in Piaget and Inhelder's original text' (p.39). The text in question is The child's conception (représentation) of space. This development through substages is 'representational in character' (p.42). What this advance is not, and is more or less explicitly so stated by Piaget and Inhelder, is 'some precise, singular, and salutary moment of onset when the scales of egocentrism fall abruptly and completely from young children's eyes' (p42). There is no "one miracle" advance here. Yet this insight has apparently been lost today, both in children's theory of mind research and in social perspective taking research (pp.50-51).
Chap 4: Building a theory of formal operational thinking: Inhelder's
psychology meets Piaget's epistemology
During the 1920s, Piaget had an account of formal thought. Some version of this account was used in his widely read text Psychology of intelligence (Piaget, 1947 in French; 1950 in English). Concurrent with Piaget's logical models in Traité de logique (1949) which were non-empirical was Inhelder's work on the development of inductive reasoning, which was empirical and based on a sample size n=1500 using fifteen tasks which have become bench-marks in subsequent research. This "coincidence" led to an account of formal operational thought which is (i) not dependent on actual objects, but is (ii) an operation on operations (iii) characterised by propositional logic. If Poincaré was right in denying that a pile of stones is a house, the good question remains about the authorship of 'a theory of formal operational reasoning' which Inhelder denied was due to her work (p.79)
Chap 5: The impact of social structure on development: an analysis
of individual differences in cognition
This chapter and the next are linked through a longitudinal study, conducted in Iceland over 20 years. There was a joint focus on developmental universalism and socialisation (p.85). The study set out to incorporate "independent variables" in a constructivist perspective, including social class, school year/grade and educational competence in relation to reasoning tasks. One main finding was in terms of the overriding effect of educational competence and, to a lesser extent, social class (p.94). There were also implications about both intra- and inter-individual differences in cognitive growth.
Chap 6: The impact of developmental change and social constraints
on cognition: the example of syllogistic reasoning
A central tenet of a constructivist model is the focus on both process and outcome. 'The construction of meaning is therefore necessarily an ever-changing process, as existing schemata are confronted again and again with new experiences' (p. 104) Using Hoffman's (sic) taxonomy of potential sources of invalidity in constructivist models, internal constraints relate to cognitive interactions, whilst external constraints are mediators/moderators of cognitive interaction (p.107). One main conclusion was that differences in cognitive development can be traced back to antecedent constructions in the ontogenesis of the subject. Another was that 'schooling leads to a developmental process of selective differentiation that reinforces dramatically the impact of previously acquired differences in individual resources' (p.118).
Chap 7: Mental imagery: from Inhelder's ideas to neuro-cognitive models
One claim is that 'for Piaget, there was primacy of operations upon imagery whereas , for Inhelder, mental imagery was the support of thought' (p.124). A second is that 'mental imagery is not residual perception but active imitation by the sensory-motoric organs' (p.124). A third is that, in neuro-cognitive models, 'mere recognition does not allow any grounded conclusion about the observer's sensitivity to perspective, rotation, or point of view' (p. 126). A fourth claim is the main conclusion in that 'consequently, cognitivistic psychologists have neither verified nor falsified the Genevan constructivistic theory' (p.127).
Chap 8: Learning in Geneva: the contribution of Bärbel Inhelder
and her colleagues
Inhelder's work was conspicuously successful in several ways. One was the insight into cognitive development due to Inhelder's illuminating protocols. Another was the technique of 'confronting children with the failure of their own predictions' (p.138). A third was her principal focus on the nature, not the timing, of developmental advance. A fourth was the design of a major empirical study in Learning and the development of cognition (1974). Another three factors in the reckoning are argued to be less appealing. First, her work was located in its Genevan context. This means that 'it is desperately hard to embody disequilibrium or reflective abstraction as an experimental procedure' (p.130). Second, the 1974 study should have included an adequate control group to test the competing claims of "cognitive"-v-"linguistic" hypotheses, when this was not the case (p.131). Third, the conclusion to draw from a recent study is more in line with a "linguistic" hypothesis in that 'language plays an important and rather specific role in children's growing ability to understand and form ordinal series'(p. 138).
Chap 9: Scheme theory as a key to the learning paradox
The learning paradox is 'the paradox of how one might know something one does not yet know' (p.143). According to Fodor, the only adequate solution available right now of this paradox is some version of nativism and empirical induction in hypothesis-testing (p.143). But this conclusion is vulnerable to a solution based on the logic of creative acts, where this logic is abduction. In abduction, a hypothetical rule is generated from a single case as follows (p.144):
The crucial move is in premise (2) which could be based on analogy or comparison or grounded belief (p.145). Action schemes have exactly this capacity in that an actual result of an action can be assimilated to an expected result along with augmentation in the scope of expectation (p. 146). One merit is that abductive logic is in a better position than inductive logic to explain the emergence of novel structures (p.148).
Chap 10: Culture and universals: a tribute to Bärbel Inhelder
At issue is the use of a 'small scale homogeneous society to introduce a large theory of development' (p.149). Whereas Inhelder - and Vygotsky too (p. 152) - took Western scientist as her developmental endpoint, other endpoints are valued in other societies where the value of cognition is only as a means to preferred social ends (p151). Thus Zinacantects do not value weaving as a technical skills; rather they value weaving for its social aspects (p. 163). This means that individualism, independence and autonomy have a lesser social value than social utility and cultural conservation. Even so, elements of individual constructivism are reflected in the social training of the skills of weaving (p.162). But this learning is socially value-laden, marked by the contrary prescriptions such as "Let her do it by herself" and "She doesn't know how to", so I must teach her to do in our way (p.170).
Chap 11: Bärbel Inhelder and the fall of Valhalla
Inhelder sought not to restore 'epistemology to philosophy as Brünhilde restored the Rhinegold to the Rhine. Her tack was, rather, to suggest a world in which the gods of Genevan epistemology and the gnomes of American cognitivism would, through some sort of union. give rise to a psychology that had the universal traits of Piagetian epistemology and the individual traits of real people with real histories living real lives' (p. 180). This quest has the consequence that, for Inhelder, the epistemic subject should be more broadly conceived and so endowed with value, intention, motivation, self and self-esteem' (p.183). Even so, this did not do away with equilibration theory 'applied both to causal and implicative domains' (p. 185). This is because 'the functioning of structures created new schemes and that coordination of the new schemes created new structures' (p. 186). This is interesting, if only because the uses made by different individuals of the self-same structure in the same situation are so different (p.188).
Chap 12: The experimental approach of children and adolescents
Two omisions in Genevan theory are the functional aspects of thought and adolescent reasoning. This leads to a third which is the evolution in reasoning from childhood to adolescence (p.193). Markers of this evolution are "there must be a relationship, but its necessary to experiment in order to know what sort" and "I want to see if what I think is correct", notably in a study of the 'free discovery of laws and causes' (p. 194). Fifteen tasks were used in four categories with subjects selected such that 'no subject knew in advance the laws to be discovered....But it is clear that the solution to each problem implies an undeniable cultural and educational contribution' (p.195). The quartet comprised: (i) discovery of physical invariants; (ii) notions of equilibrium of forces; (iii) proportional ratios; (iv) experimental verification. A functional analysis - i.e. analysis of the functioning of inductive reasoning (p. 202) - of the findings was based on differences in motives, strategy, interpretation and verification across three stages, namely (a) imaginative techniques, (b) concrete techniques, (c) scientific techniques. Taking motives as an example, this amounted to: (a) 'activity for effect, accompanied often by the pleasure of being the cause' (p. 202); (b) activity to find a new relationship (p. 203); (c) activity directed on the search for truth (p. 204). There was a fit between these findings and Piaget's structural analysis in terms of a group of four propositional transformations (p. 206). This structure is not consciously realised by any subject who nonetheless has the capacity to use it in his or her own activity, whether individual or social (p. 207). In short, the main question is "How is a child going to use an intellectual instrument in a context such that that child is going to experiment and so not merely respond to questions posed by an investigator?" (p. 193). The answer is in terms of a 'system which corresponds to the general structures of his or her formal reasoning' (p. 207). This in no way reduces the role of the socio-cultural milieu. It does throw light on the formation of a "game-plan" which Poincaré contrasted to the rules determining any particular move in a game of chess.
Questions for contributors and readers
About the reviewer
Les Smith is Reader in Psychology and Epistemology of Development at the Department of Educational Research, Lancaster University. Further details of his interests can be found at his departmental webpage