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Piaget vs. Gardner on Childhood Intelligence

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Which view do you think best describes childhood intelligence – Piaget’s view or the Nature verses Nurture discussion or Gardener’s multiple intelligences? Explain your answer.

When considering intelligence, Piaget focuses on the mental processes that occur, rather than on the actual measure of the intellect. He uses four areas to define intelligence where Gardner defines eight. For Piaget these areas are a biological approach to looking at intelligence, the succession of the stages, knowledge, and intellectual competence (Vander Zanden, 2003).

Piaget’s biological approach, or biological adaptation, focuses on the physical and mental aspects of our bodies. This includes our reflexes, which occur when certain stimuli trigger an instinctive response. He also discusses how we adapt to certain situations using assimilation and accommodation. Assimilation occurs when new information is introduced to a person. The person begins to integrate the new information into existing files, or “schema”. Accommodation occurs when the person reorganizes schema to accommodate him or herself with the environment (Vander Zanden, 2003).

The succession of stages involves the movement through four stages that Piaget has set and defined. Children must move through these stages during their childhood. These include Sensorimotor, Preoperational, Concrete operational, and Formal operational (Vander Zanden, 2003). Stage movement is an important factor of Piaget’s definition of intelligence, because Piaget states there are a specific set of criteria that must be met and mastered at each stage. In order to move from the first stage to the next, the child must master that specific set of criteria (Vander Zanden, 2003).

To define Intellectual Competence, Piaget focuses on the highest level of functioning that can occur at a specific stage. Although Piaget has approximate ages assigned to stages, a child’s competence is only measured by what stage they are in, not by age. If the child can only perform tasks that are at the preoperational stage, which is the highest level the child is at regardless of age (Vander Zanden, 2003).

Piaget’s theory explains how human intelligence develops through an intellectual regulatory process geared by adaptation to the environment (Vander Zanden, 2003). During this on-going relationship with the environment the child exhibits certain organizations based upon assimilation- the taking in process of experience, accepting new encounters and fitting them into existing schemes, and accommodation- the reaction of the individual who encounters new experiences that are not consistent with existing schemes and so the person must change their scheme to accept or accommodate the new information (Vander Zanden, 2003). Piaget felt that a baby is an active and curious organism, which reaches out and seeks to regulate a balance between assimilation and accommodation. This balance is what Piaget describes as equilibrium.

Piaget considered the process of equilibrium an important factor in the cognitive growth and development of a child. It was for this reason Piaget insisted that children must be allowed to do their own learning. Piaget realized that humans progressively develop or mature to higher states of cognitive development and realized that children acquire knowledge transmitted by parents, teachers, and books; he called this “social transmission.” Piaget believed that when a child hears contradictory statements that challenge established schemes, equilibrium is disturbed (Vander Zanden, 2003). Piaget called such a disruption in equilibrium “cognitive conflict or disequilibrium.” When children experience cognitive conflict, they set out in search of an answer that will enable them to achieve states of equilibrium.

Piaget felt that all children go through certain stages of intellectual development in the same order, even though the chronological ages may vary between bright and dull students.

Early in his career, he had been a devoted student of Piaget; however, as Gardner probed more deeply in his own study of the mind, he re-evaluated Piaget’s theories as “too narrow a notion of how the human mind works.” Gardner further stated that he did not believe in the existence of “one form of cognition” that “cuts across all human thinking.” Gardner observed that there are at least seven intelligences and that each of these intelligences has autonomous intellectual incapacities (1999).

Subsequently, Gardner wrote about his observations of multiple intelligences in what has turned out to be a seminal book in the educational community, Frames of Mind, which was published in 1983. The Theory of Multiple Intelligences, which Gardner proposed in this book, has become a catalyst, as well as the framework, for many current educational strategies that are proving successful in enhancing student success. The theory advances a mental paradigm in which each individual’s mind can be thought of as a delicious pie, with seven large pre-cut slices, each with its own distinct taste. In other words, Gardner proposed at least eight relatively autonomous intellectual capacities that individuals employ to approach problems (1999):




§spatial, bodily-kinesthetic,


§interpersonal, and

§intrapersonal intelligences.

According to Gardner (1999), the implication of the theory is that learning/teaching should focus on the particular intelligences of each person. For example, if an individual has strong spatial or musical intelligences, they should be encouraged to develop these abilities. Gardner points out that the different intelligences represent not only different content domains but also learning modalities. A further implication of the theory is that assessment of abilities should measure all forms of intelligence, not just linguistic and logical-mathematical.

Gardner says, “Although they are not necessarily dependent on each other, these intelligences seldom operate in isolation. Every normal individual possesses varying degrees of each of these intelligences, but the ways in which intelligences combine and blend are as varied as the faces and the personalities of individuals” (1999).

In summary, Piaget describes four stages of intelligence looking at them through a biological approach (Vander Zanden, 2003). Piaget believed that if one did not make it through one stage successfully then they could not move on to the next stage of intelligence (Vander Zanden, 2003). Whereas Gardner describes eight stage of intelligence (MI – Multiple Intelligences) and states that, everyone processes an area and presents evidence from many domains including biology, anthropology, and the creative arts to which they excel at and it is in that area they should be nurtured to grow (1999).

In summary, Gardner refers to IQ testing and the biases that go along with them socially, culturally, and in general not testing of all the different areas of intelligence.

As quoted by Gardner (1999):

“Human beings are able to deal with numerous kinds of content besides words, numbers, and logical relations — for example, space, music, the psyches of other human beings. Like the elastic band, definitions of intelligence need to be expanded to include human skill in dealing with these diverse contents. In addition, we must not restrict attention to solving problems that have been posed by others; we must consider equally the capacity of individuals to fashion products — scientific experiments, effective organizations — that draw on one or more human intelligences. The elastic band can accommodate such broadening as well.”


Gardner, H. (1999). Who Owns Intelligence? Retrieved April 19, 2003 from http://www.theatlantic.com/issues/99feb/intel.htm

Vander Zanden, J.W. (2003). Human development (7th ed.). New York: McGraw-Hill.

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