Piaget's Constructivism and Adult Learning

Authored by: Etienne Bourgeois

The Routledge International Handbook of Learning

Print publication date:  December  2011
Online publication date:  May  2012

Print ISBN: 9780415571302
eBook ISBN: 9780203357385
Adobe ISBN: 9781136598562


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Is Piaget's constructivism still of any relevance to adult learning theory today? This provocative question deserves to be raised in the light of the numerous criticisms that can be – and have been – addressed to Piaget's theory as a frame of reference for understanding adult learning. Let us remind ourselves of some of them. Piaget's theory of intelligence implies that the most advanced stage of cognitive development, namely, the ‘formal operations’ stage, is to be attained at adolescence and that no further ‘progress’ can in fact be expected beyond this stage. This assumption has long been challenged by two major findings. One is that a more advanced stage of thinking can be observed beyond the formal operations stage, namely, ‘postformal thought’ (Baffrey-Dumont, 2000; Sinnott, 2009). Moreover, the very notion of development stages has long been questioned, at least in the area of adult education. For example, since the 1980s, the éducabilité cognitive (cognitive educability) movement has challenged the idea that the cognitive functioning of an adult at a given age can be wholly characterised by any single stage in all areas of his or her life (e.g. Paravy and Martin, 1996; Sorel, 1994). In other words, cognitive performance and development are, to a large extent, contingent to situations and activity domains. A similar argument can be found in the theory of Multiple Intelligences (Gardner, 2006, 2009).

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