On Theories of Learning and Piaget
adapted from Papert, in Language and Learning:
On the Complexity of Developmental Mechanisms
One can classify developmental theories according to how much of the complexity of the human mind they attribute to S0 (the initial state) and ST (the terminal state) and to the component of mental function responsible for development. For example, Skinner believes it is possible to explain the passage from S0 to ST by a very simple general developmental mechanism (GDM). Both Chomsky and Piaget have used forceful arguments to persuade us that ST is certainly more complex than Skinner believes, and probably too complex for a simple GDM to guide its growth from the kind of S0 Skinner would admit. The difficulty facing Skinner is a mismatch between his simple S0 and the putatively complex ST. There are in principle three (nonexclusive) reactions to this apparent mismatch: one can postulate that S0 is more complex than Skinner thought, which is the route taken by Chomsky; one can postulate, as Piaget does, that the GDM must be more powerful than Skinner believed; finally, one could deny the mismatch, for example, arguing as Herbert Simon does that ST really is structurally simple after all and thus that S0 and the GDM can both be simple as well (although, of course, Simon’s GDM and S0 are radically different from Skinner’s).
A naive perception of Piaget sees him as saying: nothing is innate, everything emerges from development. Of course, this is absurd if pushed undialectically to the limit; but what he does teach us is this: if you make a list of structures and notions and rules (or whatever you call them) found in adult intelligence, and if you ask which of them is innate, the answer will be NONE. The point behind the apparent contradiction is simple enough: everything has a developmental history through which it emerges from other, very different things. Whatever it is that is innate, we can at least be sure that is it NOT (and probably does not even resemble) any discrete part of the adult mind. The principle might seem quite obvious, but whereas it is exemplified in a deep and subtle way in Piaget’s total work, it is violated by the very form of Chomsky’s suggestions that developed entities, such as ‘the specified subject condition’ or ‘the notion of bound anaphor’ (these are his actual words) might be ‘properties’ of the initial state. In fact, one can see a large part of Piaget’s work as the search for INTERMEDIATE ENTITIES, which can play the role of precursors of the structures we find in the adult, or even of the child of any particular age. Thus, the question ‘Is the notion of number innate ?’ is displaced by seeing how it grows out of various precursors whose existence was not recognized by Aristotle or any other pre-Piagetian psychologists…. I argue…that the power of Piaget’s contribution would scarcely be altered if the intermediate objects he has discovered are proved to be ‘innate’; the hard and deep work was discovering the precursors.
Through locating INTERMEDIATE ENTITIES, structural precursors to that organization of mind which exhibits the well recognized skills of the developing child, and their interactions, I have tried to illuminate as precisely as possible how the mind becomes more complex through its interactions with a world of considerable variety. I need take no position on the initial state (S0) — beginning my analysis in the middle of things. In those cases examined here, it is possible to represent simply significant changes among the complex structures of the mind. Further, the role of serendipity in learning is clearly important. The complexity of the world — through continuous interaction over long periods of time — significantly augments whatever is a person’s initial knowledge state so that eventually, in the happiest outcomes, the human mind becomes an entity of untraceable complexity.