Psychology and Schooling: The Impact of Susan Isaacs and Jean Piaget on 1960s Science Education Reform

Jody S Hall. History of Education. Volume 29, Issue 2. March 2000.

Piaget’s fundamental psychology of mental growth not merely supports [activity] methods, but decisively demands them. A radical activity approach over virtually the whole front of education is in fact now shown to be the only one that makes psychological sense—at least for all the primary period, and even well into the secondary. (Nathan Isaacs [1965] Piaget: Some Answers to Teachers’ Questions). The importance of Piaget’s description of thought as internalized action lies in driving home to us our responsibility in providing enough action to internalize if we wish our children to become good thinkers. (M. Brearley [1963] ‘The practical implications for the teacher’, in First Years in School) … the study of science fits in with each stage of a child’s intellectual growth, as Piaget sees it, from the time of his entry into infant school to adolescence. (Nuffield Foundation [1967] Nuffield Junior Science: Teacher’s Guide 1)

These citations, all from the mid-1960s, illustrate effects of Jean Piaget’s commanding research on the English primary schooling community. Over the course of the twentieth century psychological models have become decisive factors in the establishment of school practices, particularly at the primary level. In the 1960s study of science accelerated at the primary level, and negotiations over how and what children can learn about the natural world coincided with discussion of ways to incorporate Piaget’s theory into school practices. This particular history makes science education reform a productive site for studying relations between psychology and schooling. How did Piaget’s theory and findings relate to existing practices and change them? What in Piaget’s work was deemed of value in defining primary science? How was it interpreted and used? To answer these questions, it is necessary to describe the case being made for primary science in the late 1950s and early 1960s, before Piaget’s research was widely known, then to describe salient features of Piaget’s research in circulation from the 1950s into the 1960s, and finally to examine the effects of its introduction on primary science practices.

The finding of this study is that the division of primary science into concepts and processes emerged in this period: some educationists envisioned a new order for schooling in the form of Piaget-derived hierarchies of conventional concepts and of certain kinds of limitations attached to behaviour at different developmental stages. Others placed the highest premium on scientific processes and a more generous view of children’s intellectual capabilities as suggested in the research of psychologist Susan Isaacs (1885-1948) and advanced in the 1960s by her collaborator Nathan Isaacs. This study will show tensions at play between these two competing psychological frameworks in the negotiation of teaching practices, curriculum and ideas about what constitutes childhood.

The Case for Science in the Primary Curriculum

The 1959 publication of a booklet, Science in the Primary School, was indicative of a new interest in science at the primary level. In it, several teachers’ groups—the Science Teachers’ Joint Sub-Committee of the Association of Teachers in Colleges and Departments of Education, the Association of Women Science Teachers, the London Association of Science Teachers and the Science Masters’ Association—responded to what they characterized as:

    … an urgent need for some guidance to be given to the many    teachers who are endeavouring to widen the scope of Nature    Study teaching by the inclusion of some aspects of the    Physical Sciences.

It was recommended that Nature Study and the Physical Sciences together be deemed ‘Science’—a more accurate designation of the study of the natural world than the existing explicit but exclusive designation of ‘Nature Study’. Two years later the Ministry of Education, while courteous to nature study, urged the adoption of ‘science’:

    There seems no point … in separating enquiries which deal    with living things from those which concern non-living,    calling one ‘nature study’ and the other ‘science’. If    nature study honestly means what it says, it can hardly be    unscientific, and ‘science’ is still only another name for    ‘nature study’.

Various authoritative groups issued further pronouncements on the status of primary science. Generally, children’s interests were regarded as changing in the direction of physical science because of the ‘direct impact of our technical civilization upon them today’, and it was children’s interests, perceived by the English reform community, which dictated the course of study at that time:

     The arid object lessons of half a century ago failed     because they were not rooted in the child’s own interest,     but sought rather to provide a veneer of unrelated facts to     be absorbed by passim scholars.

A curriculum based on children following up on their interests in the environment prevailed over systematic, sequential textbook-based programmes subject to examination. One observer described the struggle between educationists over the merits of each as ‘the perennial debate’ with the trend increasingly in the direction of the former. The experiential view dominated the discussion of primary science because it had a strong argument and persuasive proponents. Although Susan Isaacs was rarely invoked by name, her views, as formulated in Intellectual Growth in Young Children (1930), are reflected in most of the commentaries. According to Dorothy Gardner, Head of the Department of Child Development at the London Institute of Education from 1943 into the late 1960s, Susan Isaacs had contributed to twentieth-century English schooling the idea that the environment was a natural starting point for a child’s education, although Isaacs said that she got this idea from John Dewey.

An analysis of Intellectual Growth reveals principles embraced by the postwar science reform community. As it happened, its argument had been composed deliberately to reveal the poverty of Piaget’s earliest theory and empirical findings as developed in the 1920s. Drawing from John Dewey’s pragmatic philosophy and her own efforts to relate evolutionary biology to psychology, Isaacs brought children’s encounters with the natural world into the foreground in order to take issue with Piaget. In so doing she demonstrated instances of children’s learning in science. Isaacs characterized intellectual growth as follows:

    Intellectual growth certainly shows a psychological    coherence, but this coherence has the elasticity and vital    movement of a living process, not the rigid formality of a    logical system.

In her analysis of data gathered while Head of the experimental Malting House School (1924-27), Isaacs articulated principles of children’s inquiry into the natural world which were present in the 1960s negotiation over the place of science in the primary curriculum. These principles are listed below.

    (1) Children learn from physical contact with the world. Children’s testing and measuring of reality weans them from personal schemas. (2) Children’s knowledge increases through experiences of        experiment, observation and discovery. For example, after burning bits of wool and cotton, a Making House School child observed that wool does not burn so easily as cotton. (3) Children have strong, spontaneous interests in and raised questions about the things and events of the natural world: … our technique was to meet the spontaneous inquiries of the children, as they were shown day by day, and to give them the means of following these inquiries out in sustained and progressive action. So the facts of their behaviour with fire and water and ice, with pulleys and see-saw and pendulum, and later with drilling machine and Bunsen burner, can be taken as immediate evidence of the spontaneous direction of their interests. We did not ‘teach’ our children about these things, nor try to create an interest in them, nor introduce any experiments or apparatus until the need for them had actually arisen…. It was … their eager questions … that led me gradually to give them material that would allow of these interests being followed out for their own sake. (4) Children can reason, when their interests are engaged. Although young children cannot sustain verbal thinking, it does spring up and die down, like wavecrests. (5) Given the right environment and degree of response from influential adults, children will pursue interests. Piaget’s conclusions applied only, Isaacs said, to the conditions of his experiment: Sustained conversations between one child and one adult in one place do not provide the circumstances which would provoke questions demanding causal explanation or inquiries about inanimate objects…. These occur rather in the course of free practical activity in a varied setting, and in play with other children and with adults who share in the practical pursuits. (6) From Isaacs’ point of view, there were no successive internal ‘structures’. Her records show variability and versatility of children’s thinking in everyday life: And on any day, [the children] would pass easily between the realms of pure fantasy and occasionally of magic, and those of practical insight and resource, and of verbal argument and reasoning. (7) Children can hypothesize and make inferences. Cognitive behaviour was not to be thought of as a set of single-unit acts of relation-finding, but as a complex dynamic series of adaptive reactions and reflections. These crystallize out here and there into clear judgements or definite hypotheses or inferences, which, however, gain ail their meaning from their place in the whole movement of the child’s mind in its attempt to grasp and organize its experience.

In the 1930s Isaacs had conveyed these beliefs at the London Institute of Education, as did her successor Dorothy Gardner. Many HMIs, lecturers and teachers educated at the Institute drew from their contacts with Isaacs in reform efforts in the 1960s. At a 1961 British Association for the Advancement of Science conference held to consider the place of science in the primary curriculum, science education specialist Jack Kerr reported on a survey of science education in training colleges. ‘Emphasis on children’s interests and children’s questioning’, Kerr reported, ‘in the early stages of science has been customary in this country’. Many colleges surveyed by Kerr indicated the background of this view:

    Any study of the needs and interests of young children    inevitably has reference to the kinds of scientific enquiry    they make spontaneously, and how this interest can be    stimulated and extended without formalization. This is    related to the theoretical study of intellectual growth and    refers to the work of Susan and Nathan Isaacs, Piaget,    etc.

What the Nuffield Primary Science Project (1963-67) suggested throughout their guides as the natural behaviour of children when they study the world was a particular set of psychological themes and practices which had entered the mainstream of schooling as a reform movement in the 1960s. Of 111 NJSP teachers surveyed, 35 reported that the practices were no different from ones they had been using. ‘No new methods used’, reported one teacher. ‘The idea of projects and ideas developing from the children were used in training college (1946-48)’. Ten out of 13 Heads surveyed said that Nuffield methods were already practised in their schools.

In the 1960s’ literature of primary science, the ideas of Susan Isaacs appear in a number of publications. Although not concerned ostensibly with primary science or with nature study, the progressive educator M.V. Daniel, in her highly popular book which went through many reprintings, Activity in the Primary School (1947), set out ways in which teachers could begin to introduce activity in schoolrooms; she had derived activity methods from Susan Isaacs. Metallurgist, educational researcher and science education reformer Nathan Isaacs was a prominent spokesperson in arguing a case for primary science. His methodical argumentation, his position as an elder authority on the basis of his own research, his collaboration with Susan Isaacs at the experimental Malting House School (1924-27), and his tenacious belief in the approach set out in Intellectual Growth in Young Children (1930) were compelling in a climate of general uncertainty. Likewise, the Froebel Educational Institute’s Gwen Allen, with her own past experience at the Malting House School, could explain clearly her view of primary science to neophytes and show many examples to persuade the uncommitted. Evelyn Lawrence, another collaborator at the Malting House School and Director of the National Froebel Institute (1943-63), brought to bear an informed clarity on the formulation of a case for primary science. These upholders of Susan Isaacs’s views already had elevated the study of science in the environment to an important place in the curriculum. They were prepared to testify to the educational community as to what science might mean at the primary level. Thus, the widespread interest in enlarging the primary curriculum to include science coincided with the maturation of a particular view. Isaacs and her colleagues eschewed graded experiences and the use of workcards. Reluctance to direct children’s experiences forcibly is a strong theme in their position. Teachers were to follow and guide and learn with their students.

In the reform community of the early 1960s others accepted the importance of experience but advocated more direction of children’s work. Jack Kerr must have thought that following up children’s interests would not amount to much, since he christened it ‘incidental learning’. He conveyed a sense of urgency in looking into the possibility of graded experiences and of influencing children’s thinking more directly, but he failed to provide details and guidance. Primary school administrator N. F. Newbury recommended the use of ‘instruction cards’ but neglected to explain or justify their use. All in all, the official documents make a weak case for anything but following up children’s interests with experiences in the environment.

The make-up of primary science was by no means considered a closed case, however. All official pronouncements acknowledged its trial status. The fact that the Science Teachers Joint Sub-committee chose a trial, Phillips’s (1959) series of demonstrations, as an example of scientific exploration, is indicative of the limited degree to which science was, at the time, a part of the curriculum. There was, the Ministry of Education announced, ‘plenty of room for experiment’. The current examples were all ‘merely experimental beginnings’, said Nathan Isaacs. According to the Ministry of Education, it was uncertain to what degree children should be told ‘man-made convention’ and to what degree children should find out ‘a natural truth’ for themselves.

The question how children used reason—to infer, hypothesize, deduce, generalize, extend arguments, experiment and make judgements—hovered vaguely over the deliberations of this entire period. It was not made to yield a single answer. Some valued experience before concepts and finally reason—an empiricist view. Others, following the lead of Susan Isaacs, assumed that children were capable of using reason from an early age in the context of interest and experience—a pragmatic view. One, Jack Kerr, conjectured, without explanation, that Piaget’s research indicated that science should start at age nine or earlier. In the process of negotiating what primary science might be, Piaget’s strong argument for a stage theory of logic related to age arrived on the scene.

Piaget Speaks for Himself

In the early 1960s, the London Institute of Education (LIE) arranged a series of lectures on aspects of children’s development, one of which was given by Jean Piaget. While Piaget did not speak directly to the question of science education, an analysis of this lecture shows Piaget’s challenge to views held in the science schooling community. Piaget described briefly the ways in which children’s verbal logic (operations) come into play in two stages: ‘the first “concrete” and closely related to action, between 7 and 11, and the second “formal” or propositional, only after 11 or 12’. He highlighted his finding that children differ from adults in this important way:

    In attempting … to single out the most general attribute    by which the child’s initial logic differs from ours (but    with a lag between its manifestations in action and in    speech), we find that it is its irreversibility, which    arises from the initial absence of decentration and leads to    non-conservations.

For the most part Piaget described his research without showing examples, with one noteworthy exception in which he specifically addressed the empiricist notion of the centrality of experience in intelligence. He showed how children with ‘earlier spontaneous experience’ were found incapable of conserving the quantity of a liquid. When earlier experiments were repeated, Piaget reported, with an additional experiment introduced, even those under 6 1/2 with experience could not conserve the quantity of liquid. Thus Piaget reiterated that reversible operations are ‘constructed only gradually’. In this instance, he was cautioning English educationists about the degree to which experience in the environment could lead directly to reversible operations. According to Piaget, his theory of intelligence did ‘not place the accent on experience alone but on the subject’s activity making this experience possible’. He stated emphatically that ‘experience, far from freeing itself from intellectual activity, only progresses inasmuch as it is organized and animated by intelligence itself’. Piaget was saying that children made sense of experience only to the degree that a child’s (logico-mathematical) intelligence organized that experience internally.

In The Origins of Intelligence in Children Piaget had acknowledged the importance of experience as an ancillary to maturing intelligence, and he went on to distinguish the difference between his view and an empiricist view in The Psychology of the Child:

    [The idea that sensori-motor structures are the source of    later operations of thought] means that intelligence    proceeds from action as a whole, in that it transforms    objects and reality, and that knowledge, whose formation can    be traced in the child, is essentially an active and    operatory assimilation.     However, the empiricist tradition, which has had so much    influence on a certain branch of pedagogy, regards knowledge    as a kind of copy of reality and intelligence as deriving    from perception alone (the term ‘sensation’ is no longer    used in this sense).

Piaget’s use of the term ‘action’ was particularly important, because English reform placed such a high premium on activity in the 1960s. Molly Brearley—progressive educator and editor of the book in which Piaget’s LIE speech appeared—in one of the opening quotes of this chapter, equates action with activity and experience. Piaget, however, used the term ‘action’ in a highly specialized way as a combination of experience and internal processing:

    … actions are the point of departure for the future    operations of intelligence, the operation being an    internalized action which becomes reversible and is    co-ordinated with others into an operational whole.

In the London Institute of Education address, Piaget explained that his observations of his own children’s actions in infancy (sensori-motor development in relation to space) had revealed ‘a kind of Copernican revolution’. At first the child is ‘centred in his own point of view’:

    The development begins by the construction of a multiplicity    of heterogeneous spaces (buccal, tactile, visual, etc.) each    of which is centred in the individual’s own body or    viewpoint; then, after a kind of minor Copernican    revolution, space finally comes to constitute a general    container, which contains all objects, including the child’s    own body, and is thus entirely decentred.

What Piaget meant when he said ‘actions are the point of departure for the future operations of intelligence’ was that the actions of infancy build on reflexes, and that these progressively maturing actions are the beginnings of intelligence. Again, he explained how logic starts with the internal coordination of actions:

    Logico-mathematical operations derive from actions, since    they are the result of an abstraction whose starting-point    is the co-ordination of actions, and not objects. Operations    of ‘order’, for example, are derived from co-ordination of    actions, since the pre-requisite for discovering a certain    order in a series of objects or a succession of events is    the capacity to register this order by means of actions    (from eye movements to manual reconstruction) which must    themselves be ordered. Objective order is therefore    known only by means of an order inherent in the actions    themselves.

The logic of actions, which Piaget said was constructed in the earliest years, was similar to the verbal logic which develops between seven and 11, but the logic of actions:

    … lies deeper down and is more primitive; it develops more    quickly and overcomes more rapidly the difficulties it    meets, but they are the same difficulties of decentration as    those which make their appearance later on the verbal    plane.

Given Piaget’s deep reservations about empiricism and his distinctive use of the term ‘action’, those who found in Piaget’s framework support for activity (observing a terrapin, for example) as the basis of learning in primary school misread one of his major conclusions. Those who held Susan Isaacs’s pragmatic concerns, of practical problem-solving in situations of interest to the learner from as young as age three, and at the same time accepted Piaget’s ideas, overlooked or confuted Piaget’s theory. His theory suggested that inquiry-based learning generated by children’s questions or hypotheses occurs when propositional logic comes into play at the approximate age of 11, because it was at that stage, Piaget thought, that a question and a hypothesis can be pursued experimentally with controls.

In the address at the London Institute of Education, Piaget described his work on number, indicating it had made an important contribution to mathematicians of the calibre of Poincare, Russell and Whitehead. He went on to say that his work on velocity, prompted by a question Einstein had asked him in 1928, had provided a solution to the understanding of velocity in physics, an understanding which replaced the classical formula. In presenting his own important contributions in these fields of advanced mathematics and pure science, Piaget indirectly suggested that educationists alter their thinking in light of his research. Though indirect, this was not a modest proposal. Piaget gave no practical advice, but it is clear that he urged the schooling community to abandon its naive faith in empiricism and to consider the gradual, internal construction of reversible operations in stages as a key to schooling.

Reverberations in the Schooling Community

The sheer mass of Piaget’s research into children’s intellectual activity and the complexity of his framework caught the English-speaking educational world by surprise in the late 1950s. His widely ranging exploratory work of the 1920s and 1930s had been followed by highly focused, experimental work, but the war years and the time required for translation created a lag between publication in Geneva and in England. In 1959 the Times Educational Supplement introduced its readership to Piaget’s research and concluded:

    This is an investigation of considerable scope, which is    still in the pure research stage. The results, it is hoped,    will represent a valuable contribution to knowledge in the    field of education.

Molly Brearley, Principal of The Froebel Educational Institute, ended the 1961 series of lectures on child development with this verdict on the future of schooling: ‘teaching, as well as being an art and a craft, must become a science’. In Brearley’s terms, teaching became a science with ‘careful, unprejudiced observation of children’. She saw the ‘fatherly figure of Piaget … wandering through all our lectures’.

In the thirties Susan Isaacs, then Head of the Department of Child Development at the London Institute of Education, had deflected the attention of the English educational community from Piaget’s research. She severely criticized Piaget’s research in the 1920s—for the limits he set on children’s thinking and for his research methodology. At her death in 1948 little was known in England of Piaget’s more recent research.

By the mid-1950s these research findings began to circulate. Among the first commentaries was a publication of the National Froebel Foundation, Some Aspects of Piaget’s Work, in which Nathan Isaacs reviewed the main lines of Piaget’s work and evaluated its significance for education. He continued to comment on Piaget’s work until his death in 1966. Enough interest had gathered by 1959 that the Association for Child Psychology and Psychiatry formed a Piaget study group, whose findings were published in a monogram written by psychologist E. A. Lunzer of Manchester University. It focused, in particular, on the educational implications of Piaget’s work. Also noting these implications, Molly Brearley and Elizabeth Hitchfield, educationists with continuing ties to primary schools and to teacher training, wrote A Teacher’s Guide to Piaget. The thinking of all of these people is affected by Piaget’s theoretical position, empirical base and method of research. A more careful analysis of their contributions reveals significant aspects of Piaget’s impact on the educational community.

In the 1950s and 1960s Nathan Isaacs was considered an authoritative commentator on Piaget’s research. Lunzer singled out Isaacs’s 1955 article as ‘the most useful introduction to the field as a whole’, because it was a ‘broad evaluation of its significance for education’. More recently, Cunningham, in his 1988 study of curriculum change since 1945, dismissed Isaacs’s publications as not ‘very easily accessible to the average teacher, in that his style involved close argument about psychological and philosophical principles’. The validity of this criticism notwithstanding, Isaacs played an important role both in the negotiation of primary science and in the introduction of Piaget to administrators, curriculum reformers, educational researchers, journalists, policy makers, teacher educators and teachers. Nathan Isaacs’s relationship to Piaget was complex. Isaacs appreciated the intricacy and detail of Piaget’s argument, and he acknowledged its persuasiveness. Yet his earlier work with Susan Isaacs led him to question the severe limits to intelligence which Piaget set: especially the non-existence of reversible thinking until 7-8; the narrow focus on ‘formal’ concepts in which, Isaacs said, children have little interest; and, finally, Piaget’s disregard for ‘optimal conditions’ or the ‘contexts of real living learning’. Piaget’s study of his own three children up to the age of 18-21 months had the greatest effect on Isaacs’s view of children as inquirers. To Isaacs, Piaget’s notion of psychomotor intelligence, built in the first 18-21 months, demonstrated children’s performance of scientific processes from their earliest years. These processes, according to Isaacs, were the root of science and continued to be active after early childhood under the right conditions. They continued in the forms of ‘exploring, manipulating, experimenting, comparing, trying to discover causes or think up the right explanations, discussing and putting to the test’. Piaget’s exposition of scientific processes in the first 18-21 months were, according to Isaacs, more significant than Piaget’s work in the formal fields of logic (number, space, etc.), though he acknowledged that the latter had sparked more interest. Isaacs embellished Piaget’s framework with the addition of pragmatic provision for the growth of psychomotor intelligence and the later growth of verbal intelligence: the necessary conditions of ‘living learning activities’, i.e. children’s experiences, interests, questions, experiments and explanations:

    [The child’s psychomotor and verbal intelligence] are not    independent of his living learning activities or able to    advance him in separation from these. On the contrary, both    are instruments that can only operate with success if (a)    they habitually start from these activities; (b) they are    continually kept linked with them; and (c) they remain in    fact, up to a very advanced point, under their firm control.    Where these conditions are fulfilled, language and thought    do vastly enrich and multiply the child’s living learning    itself.

Overall Isaacs accepted some aspects of Piaget’s theory and overlooked or rejected others. He interpreted Piaget’s psychomotor intelligence as the root of science in the form of scientific processes which individuals utilize throughout life, but he strongly disagreed with the limitations Piaget placed on children’s thinking ability and with Piaget’s disregard for context. In the end, however, Isaacs incorporated Piaget’s conception of reversible thinking as the goal of education:

    Full mastery of both the laws and the resources of    reversible logic, so that this essential instrument shall be    available for every task of thought, must clearly be our    final intellectual goal.

In the field of psychology, Piaget’s novel perspective led to flourishing experimental work and in schooling to the introduction of hierarchies of concepts. In 1959 a study group of the Association for Child Psychology and Psychiatry met to pool information about Piagetian research. E. A. Lunzer of the Department of Education at the University of Manchester reported on the work of this group in a monogram entitled Recent Studies in Britain Based on the Work of Jean Piaget (e. 1960). He concluded that Piaget’s findings were confirmed and that English research had ‘something of an educational bias’, more so than in Geneva.

Lunzer accurately discerned that Piagetian notions of children’s logic and of the growth of reason in stages challenged views established earlier in the century—namely those which established norms of intelligence (IQ) and those which stressed the similarity between children’s and adults’ thinking. Lunzer pointed out that Piaget’s view confuted Susan Isaacs’s belief that, in Lunzer’s words, ‘differences between the thinking of children and that of adults are differences of degree and not of kind’.

Lunzer identified Piaget’s greatest contribution as the discovery that children at six to seven enter a ‘qualitatively new phase of development’, which Lunzer characterized in these terms: ‘The crucial step is taken when the child learns to handle two judgements simultaneously, and this in a sense is the beginning of reasoning’. Lunzer’s new appreciation of the differences in the quality of children’s thinking immediately led him to wonder what kind of experiences might be provided to speed children’s growth. On one hand, he acknowledged that Piaget was not focusing his research on the role of the environment; on the other, again and again, he adduced evidence for the superiority of experience for development:

    … the experiment strongly suggests that environment,    and especially education, can do a great deal to accelerate    the progress of children in their understanding of number. The work of Piaget stands out because … it offers an    amount of the way in which [psychological processes] are elaborated hi the course of maturation and of uncontrolled    experience. As such, it affords a basis for the modification    of experience hi ways designed to ensure the optimum rate of development….

The implication of Piaget’s work, then, from Lunzer’s point of view, was that stages of reasoning did exist and that children would quite likely accelerate through the stages, if the school provided the requisite experiences.

Piagetian research called attention to children’s understanding of highly stable mathematical concepts. In a particularly significant shift away from Piaget’s use of concepts, Lunzer formulated his own interpretation of concepts: (1) the concepts which Piaget viewed as interdependent, such as classification, seriation and number, should be separately introduced to children; (2) Piaget’s concepts could be enlarged to include conventional concepts, such as the decimal system; and (3) concepts formed the bulk of school content and were hierarchical. Lunzer’s shift of emphasis from Piaget’s highly stable mathematics concepts to a multitude of conventional concepts anticipated a major effect of the Piagetian framework on late twentieth-century schooling.

Lunzer summarized research on concepts: psychologist R. M. Beard thought that experience modified children’s concepts, and psychologist K. Lovell had indicated that children learned to understand conservation of substance in the course of the experiment. It may have been these studies which led Piaget, in his 1961 address at the London Institute of Education, to underscore emphatically evidence for children’s inability to attain reversible operations, even with prior experience, until they reach the concrete operational stage.

With the introduction in the 1950s of Piaget’s research, Isaacs came to emphasize scientific processes, problem solving in the environment, and reversible logic in ways which complemented his prior beliefs. Lunzer shifted his educational focus in an altogether different direction to the development of a hierarchy of concepts. Lunzer’s monogram indicates the arrival not only of a hierarchy of concepts in English educational circles but also of a hierarchy of experiences. Here it can be seen that Piaget’s theory had the effect in the schooling community of rationalizing the curriculum to piecemeal bits of incremental learning.

Piaget’s contentions about children’s thinking stunned Molly Brearley and Elizabeth Hitchfield. They could hardly believe that a researcher and psychologist saw important aspects of children which seasoned teachers like themselves had managed to ignore. In his empirical work, Piaget revealed children’s ‘apparent failure to understand something we should have taken for granted they knew’. For example, they found it astonishing that children in Stage II did not notice ‘the successive positions taken up by the water as the bottles are tilted, or observed that the level remained horizontal’. The bulk of the Brearley and Hitchfield book summarized Piaget’s findings in such areas as number, measurement and perspective. Brearley and Hitchfield said that Piaget had revealed new aspects of children’s thinking.

Furthermore, his method of questioning seemed, to Brearley and Hitchfield, to have important implications for teaching. Quoting Claparede, Piaget’s mentor, they underscored an element which teachers might learn from Piaget:

    The clinical method is the art of questioning … capturing    what is hidden behind the immediate appearance of things. It    analyzes down to its ultimate constituents the least little    remark made by the child … pursues and tracks it down,    till it can seize it, dissect it and lay bare the secret of    its composition.

Piaget gained credibility with teachers by showing them aspects of children’s intelligence of which they were unaware, and by demonstrating a particular kind of scientific approach to teaching. Children learn, according to Brearley and Hitchfield, by constructing a web of ‘causal sequences bit by bit’:

    The full understanding of causal relationships is preceded    by appropriate activity. Advances in understanding are    commonly preceded by, first, a ‘hunch’ about a causal    connection, and then a ‘trying-out’ phase, leading either to    success which satisfies the child for the time, or a    temporary abandonment of the problem and a return to it    later. Here we have a clear sequence of learning.

This description of learning closely matches Susan Isaacs’s pragmatic view, but in their next step Brearley and Hitchfield departed from Isaacs. In their review of The Child’s Conception of Space, they noted that Piaget and his co-researcher, Barbel Inhelder, ‘continually emphasize that growth in understanding is gradual and that between each stage there are many substages or small increases in understanding taking place’. Later they conjectured that ‘leading children to see something from our point of view may mean forming many intermediary steps in understanding’. Brearley’s and Hitchfield’s analysis of Piaget’s different levels of thought moved in the direction of steps of understanding, although they did not use the term ‘concepts’ to describe these steps.

The Reception of Piaget in the Negotiation of Primary Science

A consideration of Piaget’s work since 1936 entered the discussion of primary science in 1961 at a British Association for the Advancement of Science conference convened to define approaches to primary science. It was here that Nathan Isaacs introduced processes as the key to learning in science and explained their genesis in his interpretation of Piaget’s findings on the psychomotor development of infants. The child comes to school experienced in the use of processes:

    He is still ready to enjoy exploring, manipulating,    experimenting, comparing, trying to discover causes or to    think up the right explanations, discussing and arguing and    putting to the test. And these precisely are the interests    and activities which it is suggested that the primary school    should take up and foster; for these are the living roots    from which growth towards developed science can spring.

In addition, Isaacs took issue publicly with the low performance of children in Piaget’s tests. Quoting extensively from empirical evidence collected in Susan Isaacs’s Intellectual Growth in Young Children and C. W. Valentine’s Psychology of Early Childhood, he demonstrated that children’s verbal thinking was much higher when ‘closely linked with children’s own active experience and learning processes’.

At this 1961 BAAS conference the other speaker to mention Piaget briefly mentioned stages of development. While seconded to the London Institute of Education, W. T. J. Hewitt (1962), Headmaster of a junior school in Teddington, had familiarized himself with Piaget. To the question ‘What is science for the child at this age?’, Hewitt responded that it was:

    … a chance to explore the world around him, to investigate    and be given a satisfactory answer to his questions    according to the stage of his development…. We could help them in many ways on the journey from the stage of    intuition, through concrete reality to abstract representation and thought. Of course only the very able    child of the fourth year would be able to go the whole way.

The teacher was to know ‘the stage of mental development of the child’, though Hewitt did not explain the stages. In practice, Hewitt said, if teachers could set up a discovery room:

    … where the child could be left unhindered to attempt to solve his own problems, to indulge his own fantasy and to confront the practical difficulties presented by various physical phenomena, then we should be giving him a fair chance.

In this interpretation of Piaget, children required privacy and objects in order to build a mental framework. Instead of following a child’s interests or orchestrating a series of experiences, the teacher was to stay out of children’s way and let them go through the stages on their own. This interpretation of Piaget suggested children’s self-regulation in the schoolroom.

In 1963 the Nuffield Foundation funded the Nuffield Junior Science Project (NJSP), intending to produce materials for teachers’ use in primary science. In 1967 the Foundation published three guides. An appendix to Guide 1 credited Piaget as the ‘most influential’ psychologist ‘on the processes of learning in the child’. In another guide his contribution was described in general terms:

    All intelligent action includes one of two processes called    assimilation and accommodation. These mean imposing what you    want on an object separate from yourself or adapting    yourself to it.

In the stage from age four to seven or eight of ‘intuitive thought’, the child ‘is leaping to certain conclusions which are half right. But they may let him down because he has not taken all the elements in a situation into account’. From eight to 11 or 12, in the stage of concrete operations, the child ‘grasps more and more complicated relations’. At this point in the appendix Piaget was quoted directly:

    … the same children as reach the operations just described    are usually incapable of them when they cease to manipulate    objects and are invited to mason with simple verbal    propositions.

The appendix avoided practical demonstration of these findings; instead, the reader was informed that it was ‘obvious from this how the study of science fits in with each stage of a child’s intellectual growth’.

The actual relation between the Piagetian philosophy as described and the reported practices reveals the assumption that children learn to grasp ‘more and more complicated relations’. At the end of Guide 2, in notes on ‘the stage of development of children’, the responses of different age-groups were distinguished as follows:

    It seems that older children, while they still need basic    sensory experience similar to the infants’, pass through    that stags more rapidly. They do more experimenting,    bringing to bear the greater range of techniques at their    disposal. Their wider experience enables them to give more    realistic explanations of their observations, although the    infants’ guesses will be just as reasonable to them in the    context of their own limited experience.

In NJSP, Piaget’s stage theory of logic prompted the observation that children build from experiences at younger ages to experiments at older ages. Occasionally there were examples of children working along these lines at different ages in Guide 1 and Guide 2. A class of children aged 6-7 undertook a study of rainbow colours after noticing rainbows on the floor of the hall and in the fish tank. Among a variety of objects left on a table were rolls of coloured Cellophane, which provided the opportunity for many experiences:

    Sandra, who looked at her hands through the Cellophane,    found they were first green, then yellow, and drew round her    hand and stuck the different colours over the outlines. By    chance the children discovered that they could make a new    colour by putting two of the transparent sheets together.    Some made masks, filling each eye with a different colour,    then looking at pictures and many other things and telling    each other what they looked like. Pauline and Therese spent    quite a time wearing the coloured spectacles, and trying to    pick out coloured pegs from a box which was always    available, and guessing the colours.

In contrast children of 9-10 carried out experiments:

    [Ruth and Hilary] found the millipedes and centipedes under the brick but could not decide whether they had gone there because it was damp or because it was dark. This led to experiments to try to find an answer. The tank was emptied and a fresh layer of dry soil placed in the bottom. The soil was moistened at one end and left dry at the other. Centipedes and millipedes were put in the middle and left to choose which conditions they preferred. This experiment was repeated several times before the girls went on to test centipedes’ preference for darkness or light.

Here is an example of children aged 9-10 reasoning with a verbal proposition that leads to experimental work, an example more in line with Susan Isaacs than with Jean Piaget.

Both guides report a high level of practical work, although they include little explicit analysis of children’s understanding and reasoning in relation to Piaget’s stages. While Nathan Isaacs is acknowledged as a primary mentor to the Nuffield team, the contributions of Susan Isaacs are unacknowledged.

NJSP was not the only science project to incorporate Piaget at this time. The Oxford Primary Science Project (OPSP) deliberately combined the thinking of Jean Piaget and Susan Isaacs. In 1964 the Ministry of Education awarded a grant to the Oxford University Institute of Education ‘to discover which scientific concepts could be formed by children as a result of approaches to science in the classroom and which experiences are helpful in the gradual formation of concepts’.

Thus concepts were introduced into English primary science reform. The Oxford team, headed by Stuart Redman, took its definition of a concept from a Piagetian psychologist, K. Lovell: ‘the ability of a person to discriminate or differentiate between the properties of the objects or events before him and to generalize his findings in respect of any common feature he may find’.

Piaget’s ‘pioneer work’ suggested to the Oxford team ‘a framework of smaller concepts, building up to a whole view of science’. Here it can be seen that Lunzer’s remodeling of Piaget’s highly stable mathematical concepts into more conventional concepts was carried into practice in the science education community.

Furthermore, while stating that ‘formal reasoning becomes significant only from the beginning of the secondary stage of education’, at the same trine Redman noted ‘the child at the primary stage may be able to make abstractions about the scientific experiences which he has, and to form scientific concepts in a simple, unsophisticated form’. Citing Susan Isaacs, Redman called attention to her findings that ‘the thought processes of young children can be quite complicated when they are concerned with something that interests them deeply’ and that children did not ‘always conform to the modes of thought suggested by Piaget’. Accordingly the Oxford team determined that:

    … the child’s experience must be structured in order that his understanding is gradually refined and deepened. If these concepts could be identified it was felt that they should be investigated in the situation of the primary teacher with his class.

The team decided to address the study of science in four concept areas (energy, structure, life and chance), each with several sub-concepts, in the popular form of ‘science that comes spontaneously from the environment of the child and his interests’. The overall approach was based on:

    … the hypothesis that young children can be led to form scientific concepts by immersing them in experiences    stemming from a conceptual framework of science in the teacher’s mind.

OPSP combined Piaget’s framework with elements of Susan Isaacs’s view: a hierarchy of concepts in science and a pragmatic belief in children’s ability to transcend Piaget’s modes of thought when interests in the environment are aroused. Although Redman openly embraced both Susan Isaacs and Jean Piaget, Peter Boyers, another member of the OPSP team, stated that anything ‘involving scientific inference was hardly to be expected from young children’—a statement at variance with Susan Isaacs’s convictions. This anomaly is indicative of tensions which emerged as the psychological theories of Susan Isaacs and Jean Piaget intermingled in the 1960s.


What emerges from this study is the finding that shifts in primary school practices stemming from Piaget’s theory and empirical research mixed, sometimes awkwardly, with the prevailing view in reform circles as articulated by interwar psychologist Susan Isaacs. In addition, the schooling community began to shift in the direction of creating hierarchies of concepts.

The Piagetian notion of fixed stages, which set limits on children’s use of logic, began to circulate alongside Isaacs’s view that children use reason from an early age and can raise questions, hypothesize and experiment when conditions stimulate their interest. Definitions of children as inquirers show a range of psychological perspectives:

  • Susan Isaacs: given the right environment and support from adults, children can pursue interests, raise questions, hypothesize and make inferences about the natural world, and they increase their knowledge of the world through experiences of experiment, observation and discovery.
  • Nathan Isaacs: children come to school well versed in the processes of experimenting, comparing, explaining, discovering causes, arguing and putting to the test.
  • Jean Piaget: children under 6 1/2 are unable to reverse their verbal thinking, children between seven and 11 can if they use concrete materials, and children after 11 can think propositionally.
  • The Nuffield Junior Science Project: young primary school children can make observations and older primary school children may experiment on occasion.
  • The Oxford Primary Science Project: children have greater ability to make abstractions about scientific experiences than Piaget suggests, and they can be led to scaffold scientific concepts through immersion in experiences.

English responses to Piaget’s work were grounded strongly in the prevailing reform practice of pragmatic pedagogy, but at the same time the educational community also began to shift toward hierarchies of experience and knowledge.

A Question about the Reception of Piaget’s Work in England Remains

Why did the English reform community embrace Piaget’s theory so warmly? The magnitude of his research is not sufficient to explain its impact. One explanation is that Piagetian theory arrived when reformers were making a concerted effort to promote activity and experience methods, particularly in junior schools, and Piaget’s theory conveniently called attention to children’s need to handle materials in the concrete operational stage. Piaget himself suggested another answer to this question in pointing out the similarity between his own view and pragmatism. In his ‘Conclusions’ to The Origins of Intelligence in Children (1952), he took up a consideration of the pragmatic view, calling it ‘the theory of groping’, and he acknowledged its compatibility with his own ‘theory of assimilation’. He characterized the pragmatic view thus: ‘every complete act of intelligence presupposes three periods: the question (which orients searching), the hypothesis (or actual searching), and control’. It is a ‘trial and error’ kind of learning which combines an a priori idea, gleaned from the subject’s activity, and ‘the pressure of the external environment’. Referring primarily to Claparede, and once to William James, Piaget showed how their views paralleled his, except that he had replaced James’s ‘law of coalescence’ and Claparede’s impetus for intelligence, ‘necessity’, with an organic basis. In these, ‘a connecting link between the motor organization and the implication is lacking, this connecting link is assimilation’.

To a certain degree, then, Piaget’s view matched pragmatic tendencies in English schooling. Piaget did legitimize activity, but only to the extent that the interplay between reason and experience manifested itself as reversible thinking (conservation) in particular stages. The pragmatic pedagogy of Susan Isaacs, which encouraged children to follow up interests (ideas) in a ‘trial and error’ way, provided a seedbed for the reception of Piaget. On the other hand, English responses took exception to Piaget’s finding of the impossibility of verbal logic in children under the age of 6 1/2 to 7 and of propositional thinking under the age of 11. Those with the closest ties to Susan Isaacs, such as Nathan Isaacs, Allen, Lawrence and Redman, held that children could experiment occasionally and that children’s thinking could transcend Piaget’s modes of thought when interests in the environment were roused deeply. Some, such as Lunzer, Brearley, Hitchfield and NJSP, recommended the introduction of a hierarchy of experiences, or a hierarchy of concepts, or experience leading to experiment at the upper end of primary school. Gwen Allen spoke for Susan Isaacs and her successors when she said:

    Even very young children make deductions within their experience. The child of eighteen months who turned on the gas taps ran to fetch his mother to put things right; and the four-year-old in the car that couldn’t be made to move    drily commented, ‘You know, I suppose, that the handbrake is    on?’

It was these views of children that tempered the effect of Jean Piaget in English primary science reform in the 1960s.