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Society of Mind

10.6 about piaget's experiments

Although Piaget's experiments about conservation of quantity have been confirmed as thoroughly as any in psychology, we can appreciate why many people are skeptical when they first hear of these discoveries. They contradict the traditional assumption that children are much like adults, except more ignorant. How strange it is that in all the centuries of history, these phenomena went unnoticed until Piaget — as though no one had ever watched a child carefully! But it has always been that way with science. Why did it take so long for our thinkers to discover such simple ideas as Isaac Newton's laws of motion or Darwin's idea of natural selection? Here are some frequent challenges.

Parent: Couldn't it be that younger children use words in ways that do not mean the same things to adults? Perhaps they simply take Which is more? to mean Which is higher? or Which is longer?

Careful experiments show that this can't be entirely a matter of words. We can offer the same choices, wordlessly, yet most younger children will still reach out for taller, thinner jars of orange juice or stretched-out rows of candy eggs.

Critic: What happens when Appearance and History conflict? Won't that paralyze your whole Society-of-More?

It would indeed — unless More has yet other levels and alternatives. And adults have other kinds of explanations — like magic, evaporation, or theft. But indeed, stage magicians find that making things disappear does not entertain the youngest children; presumably they are too used to encountering the unexplainable. What happens when More cannot decide what to do? That depends upon the states of other agencies — including those involved in dealing with frustration, restlessness, and boredom.

Psychologist: We've heard of recent evidence that, despite what Piaget said, very young children do have concepts of

quantity; many of them can even count those eggs. Doesn't that refute some of Piaget's discoveries? Not necessarily. Consider that no one disputes the outcomes of those jar and cup experiments. What is the significance, then, of evidence that the young children do possess methods that could give correct answers — and yet they do not use those abilities? As far as I can see, such evidence would only further support the need for explanations like those of Papert and Piaget.

Biologist: Your theory might explain how some children could acquire those concepts about quantities — but it doesn't explain why all children end up with such similar abilities! Could we be born with built-in genes that make brains do this automatically?

This is a profound question. It is hard — but not impossible — to imagine how genes could directly influence the higher-level ideas and conceptions that we eventually learn. We'll discuss this in the appendix at the end of this book.