Revisiting Piaget Essay

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Abstract Eighty children aged between 4 years 2 months and 6 years 3 months were tested on length and number conservation, both when the transformation occurred because of a direct action by the experimenter and when it happened ‘accidentally ‘as the by-product of an activity directed towards a different goal. Fifty children conserved when the transformation was ‘accidental’, whereas only 13 were successful when it was intentional. These results are interpreted as evidence that characteristics of the experimenter’s behaviour, in particular his actions towards the task materials, can influence children’s interpretation of utterances by suggesting the experimenter is thinking about a different attribute from that specified linguistically. It is suggested that traditional procedures may underestimate children’s cognitive abilities. Introduction A substantial body of research has grown up around Piaget’s conservation tasks (Piaget, 1952; Piaget and Inhelder, 1969). Piaget’s findings have been replicated by many investigators using standardized procedures based on Piaget’s original method (Elkind, 1961; Dodwell, 1960; Hood, 1962; Smedslund, 1964). However a considerable amount of evidence has accumulated suggesting that children may have the knowledge necessary for conservation long before they succeed in the traditional conservation task (e.g., Frank, 1964; Gelman, 1972; Rose and Blank, 1974). These studies have usually involved ingenious methods for circumventing those features of the conservation task which the authors thought were particularly problematic for the child. For example, those suggesting attentional/perceptual difficulties have used screening procedures (Frank, 1964) or trained children to attend to the relevant attributes (Gelman, 1969). Those postulating linguistic difficulties have used pretraining in the use of the relational

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