Volume 28, Number 2 

Table of Contents

Genetic Epistemologist Homepage


Reminiscence of Hermina Sinclair De-Zwart

Mimi Sinclair

By way of introduction

Edy Veneziano
Université Nancy 2 and Paris V-CNRS
Nancy and Paris, France

Hermina Sinclair de-Zwart passed away in January 1997 in her seventy-eighth year, about eight years after she retired from the professorship chair she held for 19 years at the University of Geneva.

Hermina Sinclair de-Zwart, known in a more friendly fashion as Mimi, was an outstanding, classical-type, scholar allying deep knowledge of several disciplines (formally holding a degree in Linguistics, from Utrecht University, and a Ph.D. in Psychology, from Geneva University) with an original and path-breaking research mind. She was profoundly knowledgeable about Piaget’s theory and the experimental facts therein, and she was exceptionally gifted in communicating them, without losing their subtleties and intricacies, to students of various backgrounds.

Her main research interests were in developmental psycholinguistics, where her contributions ranged from the creation of innovative experimental means of investigation to the insightful empirical and theoretical treatment of fundamental issues. Together with her many and brilliant collaborators (among the earlier ones, Emilia Ferreiro, Jean-Paul Bronckart, Harold Chipman, Ioanna Berthoud-Papandropoulou, Eddy Rappe du Cher, Christine Othenin-Girard), she dealt with a wide range of questions. She studied the acquisition of several grammatical structures–from the passive to the basic SVO structure, from the temporal to the relative clause– and the development of metalinguistic knowledge. She dealt extensively with issues in early language acquisition and in more recent years she studied empirically the acquisition of language-universal notions like semanticity and compositionality of words, and of early pragmatic abilities allowed by displaced uses of language, at the level of implicit knowledge or "know-how".

However Mimi Sinclair was far from being "just" a distinguished developmental psycholinguist: her wide interests made her a true and thorough developmental psychologist. Indeed, she contributed both empirically and theoretically to other domains, particularly to developmental cognitive psychology and to education, where she was especially interested in mathematical education and in the contributions of the dynamics of social interaction. One of her unique characteristics was her outstanding capacity to interconnect findings and notions proper to different domains of inquiry and to integrate these in higher level conceptualizations, an activity in which she excelled during her retirement years and can be appreciated in several of her last essays and lectures.

The previous remarks constitute essentially factual information that an interested person could find out by spending time searching the literature [1]. The contributions that follow provide less known aspects of Mimi Sinclair’s work and personality. Their authors have all worked and/or closely interacted with Mimi over the years and on into the late days of her life. They had all read a paper at the Reminiscence of Hermina Sinclair session that was organized by Rheta DeVries in 1997 at the 27th Annual Symposium of the Jean Piaget Society in Santa Monica [2]. The variety of their specific research domains testifies to Hermina Sinclair’s wide ranging knowledge, interests and scientific involvement, as well as to the easiness with which she could hold relations with people coming from different professional and cultural backgrounds. From their writings one clearly senses Mimi’s intellectual enthusiasm and generosity in sharing her ideas and discoveries with others, her availability and readiness to be helpful, and the warmth of a sensitive and caring personality. The overall picture they reveal is that of a uniquely vivid and deeply inspiring teacher, researcher, collaborator and friend.

We thank the Genetic Epistemologist for lending its pages to render this collective homage to Hermina Sinclair de-Zwart so as to share with others the experiences, thoughts and feelings of some of the people who remained in close contact with her until the late days of her intense and brilliant life.


Tribute to Mimi Sinclair: The first years of research on language acquisition and intellectual operations

Emilia Ferreiro
CINVESTAV-IPN Centro de Investigaciones y Estudios Avanzados del Instituto Politécnico Nacional
Mexico City, Mexico

Mimi arrived in Geneva without knowing how decisive this city would be in her intellectual formation. She arrived with a background in comparative linguistics and a thesis on Sanskrit done in Utrecht.

Her discovery of Piaget (for whom she developed an overwhelming admiration both for his wisdom and his theory; an admiration – almost reverence – that she maintained throughout her life) transformed her into a student of psychology, with a Licence from the University of Geneva in 1962 and a doctorate in 1965, with the privilege of having had Pierre Gréco as one of the persons responsible for initiating her in the whereabouts of research in Psychology.

It is well known that Mimi had the great merit of reintroducing research in language acquisition into the context of Piagetian studies. What is less known is her way of generating, as Chef de Travaux, the first generation of students in developmental psycholinguistics, at a time when psycholinguistic research – redefined by Chomsky – was just beginning.

Mimi arrived in Geneva for accidental reasons, like I did. I arrived in 1966, hoping to take advantage of a stay that could last no more than a couple of years, and without any expectation of acquiring formal degrees. I simply asked for permission to attend Piaget’s courses and to participate (on a voluntary basis) in a research group. Having met Mimi by chance at a Congress in Buenos Aires a couple of years before, I asked for an appointment with her. At that moment, Mimi did not have a real research group, but I became – naturally and without any specific interest in language acquisition at that time – her research assistant. Mimi wanted to study the acquisition of passive structures. I followed her, with the excitement of developing a new experimental technique (that of testing the comprehension of complex structures through the use of pretend play with toy characters and objects) as a means to access both the comprehension and production of syntactic structures that could be qualified as "complex" within the Chomskyan paradigm current at that time. Passive structures were also interesting because they could be considered as "absent" from oral language and, as such, almost impossible to acquire through the empiricist paradigm.

I became involved in this work (totally unrelated to my initial interests) to such a degree that in 1968 I became the first person to co-author a text on psycholinguistics with Mimi: "Etude génétique de la comprehension, production et répétition des phrases au mode passif", eventually published in 1970 in Archives de Psychologie.

Some professors are considered successful when they contribute to forming students as "image and semblance" of themselves. None of this is true in Mimi’s case. She produced something peculiar: she inspired similar passions for research of linguistic phenomena in personalities that followed different routes.

During my second period in Geneva, I shared the same room in the new building of the University of Geneva (Uni II, in front of the old building of the Promenade des Bastions, and the Café Landolt) with Jean Paul Bronckart, Ioanna Papandropoulou, and Annette Karmiloff-Smith. Four different native tongues: French (from Belgium), Greek, English, and Spanish. If we include Mimi, there were many more than five languages, because Mimi was multilingual by mother-tongue and vocation. We were interested in matters which converged and diverged at the same time, and those interests developed into four singular trajectories with a same commitment to research of psycholinguistic phenomena.

Given the linguistic diversity of the group of assistants and students assembled by Mimi, the comparative dimension of the research was naturally present. It was not a question of someone saying, "I will do cross-linguistic research." Contrasting and comparing languages was not an a posteriori decision, but something inherent to psycholinguistic studies. This, of course, coincided with a period during which Switzerland (and the University of Geneva in particular) was a gathering of languages and nationalities, a multicultural space where those who were expelled or persecuted from other countries converged, looking for intellectual freedom and nourishment: people from Spain, Greece, Brazil, Argentina, Poland, Algeria… (to name only some of those who converted this intellectual space into a real "Société des Nations"). Later, this ceased to be so…. But that is a different story.

Clearly, in retrospection such a period may be seen as a reductionist period: an attempt to reduce "les opérations langagières" to intellectual operations. However, for those of us who participated in it, it was a period of intense intellectual search and of strong "bets": Chomsky was shaping a new linguistics, just like Piaget created a new developmental psychology. Both believed in the power of formalisms; both spoke of transformations and of structures in evolution. Of course, Chomsky’s nativism was a fundamental difference between these two great theories. At that time, however, we were convinced that nativism was a consequence of Chomsky’s opposition to Skinner, and not a fundamental piece of his theory.

Mimi and the students

I don’t think I have ever met, before or after, a person with the intellectual generosity that characterized Mimi. Imagine a traditional scenario in the academic world: a student arrives with data that has just been collected, or with an incipient project. She never asked, "Have you read the latest work published by X in Y journal?" Knowing that the student’s readings were precarious, she first showed a legitimate interest in the data and then, and only then, did she demand of the student the necessary updated readings. Mimi’s ability of "entering the other’s mind and data" was stimulating, empowering; in one word: generous.

The in-house weekly seminars were amazing spaces: we all thought aloud (Mimi included), without fearing the academic consequences of these acts of intellectual audacity, trying to help those who were presenting preliminary data or incipient theoretical reflections. We shared common or individual doubts, risks of incipient interpretations, and novel insights.

Mimi and Mexico

Between July 1981 and September 1994, Mimi came five times to Mexico invited to collaborate, as a presenter at seminars or congresses, or as an advisor, in the main higher education institutions in this country: CINVESTAV (Centro de Investigaciones y Estudios Avanzados del Instituto Politécnico Nacional), UNAM (Universidad Nacional Autónoma) and El Colegio de México (a graduate institution in social sciences).

During these visits, I had the privilege of taking her to visit the states of Puebla, Michoacán, and Oaxaca. Mimi loved to try to understand how the confection of embroideries, cloth, or ceramics, refined products of illiterate people, were transmitted in informal settings. As a lover of music and a pianist, she was very much aware of the musical manifestations of the places we visited. And she admired the landscape because, in her words, "it is beautiful to always have the mountains in the horizon, but never so close as to feel imprisoned."

Language was never an obstacle to communicate with Mimi. Mimi knew how to navigate among languages with facility but without ostentation. In one of her visits to Mexico, she performed the following feat (that to her was only a "normal" attempt to communicate): before beginning a seminar at my own institution, she asked the attendants if they preferred that she speak French or English. The same number of hands was put up for each of these two languages. Mimi then decided that she would speak in English but that she would write in French, on the blackboard, the essential parts of her arguments. And she did so, as if it were natural to speak in one language and write in another. Her audience was fascinated both by her speech and by her communicative abilities in different languages (none of which was her mother tongue).

It is almost impossible to have been a collaborator of Jean Piaget and Mimi Sinclair without sharing their engagement for scientific research, conducted with rigor and without concessions.


Mimi Sinclair and the naturalistic studies of early language acquisition

Edy Veneziano
Université Nancy 2 and Paris V-CNRS
Nancy and Paris, France

My very first "encounter" with Mimi Sinclair was with one of her writings, "Developmental Psycholinguistics" published in 1969, while I was a graduate student at Tufts University in the early seventies. Together with the already established attraction for the "neither/neither" tenets of Piaget’s epistemology, Mimi’s writing fascinated me and boosted my motivation to finish my M.A. thesis on the relationship between early language acquisition and cognitive development, thesis that I promptly sent to Mimi with only a dim hope to get a response from her. What a pleasant surprise when the hope became reality! I received from Mimi an encouraging letter (typed on a manual typewriter, whose central place I would come to appreciate later!) raising specific questions. She gladly agreed to discuss these questions with me in her Palais Wilson’s office when, as a diligent wife, I found myself more than willingly in Geneva that same year of 1972. On that occasion, she also invited me to attend to a lecture she was scheduled to give that same day and, when I wholeheartedly accepted the invitation, I didn’t know yet I was going to have the best course on conservation and reversibility that I had ever had: how easy and simple she was making look a topic I had painstakingly tried to grasp during my student years!

A couple of years later I again landed in Geneva, this time with a doctoral project I was bringing from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. Although the project wasn’t in line with the empirical work of Mimi’s group–it was again on early language acquisition based on the analysis of naturalistic data of mother-child interaction, while the empirical research of the group was based on experimental situations proposed to children over three to three-and-a-half years of age–Mimi was very interested in the period of development it addressed, a period on which she had written brilliant and landmarking theoretical essays. She eventually agreed to be co-director of my doctoral thesis, together with Itzchak Schlesinger and C. Greenbaum. It was the beginning of an unequaled relationship that moved from one in which Mimi held the role of "patronne" to one in which, particularly after her retirement, she held that of untiring collaborator and, at least for me, of dear friend.

Mimi Sinclair and Jean Piaget

Indeed, I consider myself extremely privileged to have been able to interact all these years with Mimi Sinclair’s brilliant intelligence, wide ranging knowledge and clearness of thought. And also to have at times "suffered" from her extremely rigorous attitude, often demanding more and better, particularly when it came to matters of writing. Armed with pencil and eraser, she would spend hours dissecting sentences, and our drafts would end up looking like a patchwork of uneven-sized pages that were assembling concrete "inserts", "cuts" and "pastes". In the later years she would use a very clever indirect way to let me know that a piece had to be written again. She would say something like "I understand very well what you mean but I’m afraid Morris [3] would find it difficult...". I may not have sufficiently internalized for myself her high standards but I’m afraid I now make my students "suffer" in similar ways!

What I found particularly mind-opening in our exchanges was her capacity to establish links among the particular empirical data we were considering, established facts or knowledge, and theoretical notions that were not trivially related one to the other. The result was that the empirical facts were gaining in meaning and in relevance while I had the feeling I gained a better grasp of the theoretical notions to which she was anchoring them. This was especially the case for the concepts and notions of Piaget’s theory. Her knowledge of Piaget’s theory and of the empirical body of facts gathered within its framework was both wide and deep, due also to her untiring reading and re-reading of Piaget’s writings and to her natural inclination to go to the heart of issues. Her knowledge was probably comparable to that of other specialists, but she had an exceptional and distinguishing talent for communicating it to others, also because she could make the theory come alive through a wealth of relevant and detailed examples of children’s behaviors. In the later years, when among my professorial duties I had to teach a course on Piaget’s theory, I turned quite often to Mimi who was always available to give me her time. While on the telephone, she would check things in this or that of Piaget’s books, that she kept always handy, trying to find a solution to my questions and doubts. And most often, while stating her "ignorance", she clarified for me thorny points on which I had previously spent hours in trying to find my way through Piaget’s writings.

Mimi was a fine and subtle observer. She had the ability to uncover what could be new and theoretically important in sequences of children’s behaviors, sometimes to the bewilderment of her colleagues who had gone through the same material several times without noticing what she had noticed. And she could relate them one to the other, or to abstract theoretical constructs, without losing track of the children and of what could be psychologically meaningful to them. At the time I was working on my doctoral thesis, Mimi was intensely involved in the so-called "babies’ research" with the CRESAS group in Paris (see Rayna’s paper). She would often take the time to vividly recount, with the pleasure of first-time discovery, examples of children’s behaviors, going mentally back and forth trying to better understand their psychological significance. Discussing my data with her, Mimi would often uncover analogies between some of the Paris examples and my own, elaborating and enriching the significance of both, and at the same time elevating the theoretical import of the original concepts. This was particularly the case for the notion of reciprocal imitation or reprise that became a central notion of my work on early lexical acquisition and, independently, with somewhat different connotations, of the work of the Paris’ team on peer interaction. But Mimi’s natural intellectual generosity made it hard to have her recognize the determinant role of her contributions. In her exchanges Mimi was always so much other-centered that she would lose track of the originality of her reasoning: she would think with, and sometimes for, her interlocutor; with great ease, she could "enter into" the other’s ideas, drawing from them the most valuable parts, often adding to them something new and of wider breadth. However, she used to minimize this invaluable procedure. More than once she would come up with what I considered to be an interesting and original point. So I would say "that’s interesting", but she would reply "I did nothing, I just repeated what you have said". Possible, but in that case my words had undoubtedly preceded my thoughts!

Towards naturalistic studies of early language acquisition

Mimi used to say that one of Piaget’s greatest marks of genius was to have devised the right situations making it possible to show, in a simple way, the kind of knowledge children had attained in specific domains. The fine and innovative experimental methods she initiated notwithstanding (see Ferreiro’s paper), she thought that nothing of that same caliber was available for language, and I think that one of her longings was to devise such crucial situations:

"Very few psycholinguistic experiments have as yet been carried out that captured basic grammatical competence in the way Piaget’s well-known experiments captured the underlying patterns of reasoning..." (Sinclair, 1995:104).

In general, she was strongly committed to research in experimentally-set situations carried out within the Piagetian clinical method. Every couple of years the group submitted to the FNRS (Fonds national suisse de la recherche scientifique) a new research project within this line, availing itself of the cleverness of ingenious experimenters, first and foremost Ioanna Berthoud-Papandropoulou.

Slowly, however, probably due to the synergy between the Paris and the early language acquisition work in Geneva, the relevance, both theoretical and empirical, of naturalistic data gained forcefulness in Mimi’s eyes and in early 1985 the idea of a project centered on the collection of naturalistic data of early language began to be mentioned. Some days Mimi seemed to be convinced; some other days, she wasn’t sure that such a project would work and we would discuss other, more classical type, research. As time passed, and no good alternative was in view, one day, between a sip of coffee and a puff at her omnipresent cigarette, she said--half laughingly, half challengingly-- "if we do not come up with a brilliant idea by tomorrow, we’ll propose the babies’ project". Since the following day nobody came up with a brilliant idea, Mimi started head-on, with her legendary energy and unique intellectual-knitting abilities, to write the first early language acquisition project, and since it was eventually funded, we all went out with our newly bought cameras to collect data. This was to be the first of a series of projects supported by the FNRS, the last two obtained after Mimi’s retirement.

An emphasis on the processes of construction

In our collaborative studies [4] the emphasis was placed particularly on the processes by which children construct basic properties of language starting from a state of knowledge where such properties are not yet present. From the vantage point of her double training, in linguistics and in psychology, and from that of her profound knowledge of Piagetian constructivism, Mimi could always give a wider breadth to the questions we were asking, always vigilant to reorient and refocus the research on the main problems if it went too far into side roads.

As a linguist, Mimi always considered that language has its own specificities compared to other domains of knowledge. However, without reducing language to cognition, she maintained that differences among domains could very well co-exist with common cognitive processes of the type described by Piaget for the construction of other domains of knowledge, first and foremost, the process of abstraction which brings about differentiations and integrations at all levels of knowledge:

"Thus it would seem that parallels between language acquisition and acquisition in the various other domains of knowledge should be sought in the mechanisms of construction, and especially in abstraction." (Sinclair, 1992:222).

"Simply expressed, it [the process of abstraction] involves taking one’s attention away from the outcome of an action or event and thinking about the why of the event, about the way it is similar to other events, and how it relates to other events." (Sinclair, 1995:102).

"Just as the child through the organization of his own actions constructs a world of objective things and a world of people that in his mind come to exist apart from his own activity, the child constructs a world of words or utterances through his language activity..." (Sinclair, 1989:14).

As Mimi often remarked, applying the constructivist approach to the study of early language acquisition means more than retracing a developmental sequence of successive steps or describing developmental changes. It implies most of all showing the way in which children can acquire new knowledge through a progressive construction whose directionality is constrained by the solution to problems encountered at earlier levels of functioning. And one of the constructivist themes I think Mimi cherished most was that of the child as problem raiser. Indeed, if the child is going to progress in solving problems, the most useful problems to be solved are those that children set for themselves. In this sense her constructivist approach was epistemologically and psychologically quite different from those cognitive approaches in which the child is seen as a problem solver and in which the problems or the relevant data are already well-defined by the initial conditions. In Mimi’s constructivist approach, children’s apprehension of a problem or the choice of relevant data need themselves to be explained, and are considered to be part and parcel of the developmental process itself. Moreover, the solution to one problem opens the door to a new problem to be solved, and thus to a new potential source of knowledge:

"At every level, what was already constructed makes it possible to conceive new problems for which new cognitive structures will be built." (Sinclair, 1989:14).

From this perspective, children grasp only gradually the characteristics of the language system in a sequence of small conquests and questions that may find local, though not always immediately right answers, and upon which are constructed the structural fragments that will be later coordinated into higher-order frames of knowledge.

Beyond the intellectual richness of which Mimi was making her collaborators benefit, simply and naturally, on an everyday basis, I would like to end this tribute by focusing on the outstanding person that was Mimi: discreet about her own multiple skills and achievements, delicately sensitive to the problems of others and appreciative of their efforts, eager to be helpful, and a mine of information on a wide diversity of subjects on which she was always amazingly up-to-date. How not to develop for her, over all these years, not only respect and admiration, but also deep affection?


Mimi Sinclair: An Exceptional Accompaniment

Sylvie Rayna [5]
Centre de Recherche de l’Education Spécialisée et de l’Adaptation Scolaire de l’Institut National de Recherche Pédagogique
Paris, France

I would like to take this opportunity to evoke Mimi's twenty-five years of fruitful cooperation with our research team in Paris.

The adventure originated in a deep friendship and intellectual mutual resonance between Mimi and Mira Stambak, the now retired director of the research center to which I belong, the Cresas. The CRESAS was created in 1969 with the aim of furthering research on the understanding and prevention of school failure. Mira Stambak's personal concern for young children’s development and education made it one of the central themes of the Cresas’ program from the very beginning and led to a first collaborative study, linking Paris and Geneva, on the transition between sensori-motor activities and symbolic play (Inhelder, Lézine, Sinclair & Stambak, 1972). This was the first of a series of collaborative studies carried out within a piagetian theoretical framework and the beginnings of Mimi's regular participation in our group meetings.

I met Mimi for the first time while I was a student of psychology at the University of Geneva. What a vivid teaching she offered in her psycholinguistics course! What a pedagogical style! Those who experienced it are not likely to forget it. What particularly impressed me was the wealth of studies she presented which provided a fantastic introduction and motivation to research. Among them there was the study on the very beginnings of symbolic play observed in a Parisian day care center... When, in 1972, I was about to return to France on the completion of my first degree, Mimi suggested that I contact Mira Stambak in Paris: she needed help to continue studying babies' cognitive development.

At that time, Mira and Mimi were planning a study on the beginnings of logical activities during the first three years of life. This new study, oriented by data collected previously, addressed the Piagetian epistemological differentiation between logical and physical aspects of knowledge, and meant to investigate the roots of logic through the spontaneous activities of very young children. I got soon so involved in the collection of data and in their analysis that I pursued the subject in my doctoral thesis. The overall results, highlighting the creativity of cognitive development, were later published in our first major collaborative work Infants and Objects (Sinclair, Stambak, Lézine, Rayna & Verba, 1982/1989).

Every three months Mimi came to Paris for a week-end seminar. The days preceding these meetings were a time of agitation and excitement for the preparation of the observations to be discussed. The excitement continued throughout the week-end, and accompanied us throughout the years while the group increased in number, enriched by the collaboration of other colleagues. Soon two Italian colleagues, Tullia Musatti and Laura Bonica, and other French researchers, Mina Verba, Monique Bréauté and other Cresas’ colleagues, joined us. A few years later, Mimi introduced to the group one of her very close colleagues, Edy Veneziano.

Mimi was very interested in the data we gathered in the day care centers. She would ask insightful questions or relate our data to results of studies carried out in Geneva, by her own team or by that of Bärbel Inhelder, or to those of American studies she knew first hand through her regular visits to the USA. Sometimes confusion grew within the group and the discussion was blocked. Mimi would then get up, take one of Piaget's books from the shelf and, to our surprise, would find just the "right" pages that helped us move ahead. Indeed, her knowledge of Piaget's work was both extensive and profound, and, thanks to her, we were able to penetrate deeper in some less known aspects of Piaget‘s work. Alternatively, she would remain silent while we debated, and then she would come up with a proposition. We would then stop debating, everything appearing suddenly so clear, and would thank her, but she would always reply : "but you have yourself just said the same thing before!".

When, under the impulse of Mira Stambak, we began studying groups of children under two years playing together, at first Mimi was not very convinced by this change in focus. However, she became soon interested in the data provided by the different French and Italian studies on peer interaction and on their potential for cognitive development. Mimi got particularly involved in the analysis of imitation taking place between these young peers during physical experimentation, imitation that came to be considered as a source of décentration. She also contributed actively to the analyses of early forms of cooperation among peers, in which she saw a social form of the group of displacements. As it was the case for the earlier collaborations, discussions with Mimi were precious, as were her prompts to re-read Piaget's observations, comments and theoretical position relating directly to peer interactions.

Having analyzed the processes of discovery and invention going on within shared play during the second year of life, in the eighties our group went on to focus on pretend play among three year olds, again observed in French and Italian day care centers. Once more, Mimi contributed in a determinant way to the discussion of results coming from each of the four studies and crucially to their theoretical coordination in view of the publication of a book she finally edited with Mira Stambak on this theme a few years later (Stambak & Sinclair, 1990/1993).

The Cresas study on collective pretend play was explicitly carried out within an educational perspective and was linked to other studies carried out by the Center on older children in nursery and elementary school. Thus, also colleagues working in these domains were eager to discuss matters of social interaction and early learning with Mimi, and they learned a lot from her. At the same time, Mimi was very interested in their data gathered in mathematics and literacy settings. Gradually, Mimi became also involved in our work concerning the kinds of pedagogical settings that would favor the involvement of all the children, at each step in development and education, in a dynamic process of co-construction of knowledge (she was an active member of the IEDPE (Institut éuropéen pour le développement des potentialités de tous les enfants) since the time of its creation). In 1995, she accepted my invitation to give a keynote lecture at the international conference on the quality of early childhood education organized by the INRP and the EecerA (European Early Childhood Education Research Association) on the theme: "What pedagogical objectives in preschool education?", in which she developed a strong psychological argumentation in favor of spontaneous activities in small groups of children.

Through all these years our group went on to develop projects and get involved in publications and scientific events. However, the seminars with Mimi remain, in my mind, the most precious moments: with such a generous woman who listened respectfully to everybody, they were occasions of unusual intellectual feasts. With her we felt clever. She offered us great moments of happiness. On going back to Geneva, she would always thank us for the beautiful facts we had provided and for the vigorous exchanges we had had. She could not imagine how much she had given us!

Mimi left us just after we had decided to work on a new book that would look at different aspects of communication studied in different settings by different members of our group, as well as by old and new collaborators from Italy, France and Japan. This project is still alive and ongoing [6] and Mimi's intellectual presence continues to accompany us in our task.

At a last dinner we had in Paris with several Cresas' colleagues, Tullia Musatti and Edy Veneziano, after a seminar in which we sketched the plan of this new collective book, Mimi played Mozart on the piano ...


Observing The Observer

Jeanne Bamberger
Massachusetts Institute of Technology
Cambridge, Mass., USA

Over the 25 years that Mimi Sinclair was my mentor and friend, our work together took the form of endless conversations (and sometimes arguments) at the wonderful, round table in her kitchen in Cartigny and also at the piano (hers or mine in Cambridge, Massachusetts) in the midst of playing four hand Mozart Sonatas or after an evening of chamber music with Morris. [7]

Mimi was unabashed in her commitment to Piaget and his work. But it was Mimi's understanding of Piaget and her ability to make his work come into focus that stand as the memorable moments for me. How often I saw her pluck an idea or an example from memory that, on the occasion, was almost breath-taking in its relevance to the matter at hand. The drama of those moments rested on Mimi's remarkable ability to turn Piaget's proverbial abstruseness into clear and practical meaning. And, as a result, that meaning suddenly became of enormous importance to the situation we were struggling to understand.

But Mimi did more than cite and talk about Piaget, she practiced Piaget. And using her deep understanding of his strategies, of his epistemology, she carried his ideas into new realms. The most important vehicle for this development, in my view, was Mimi's uncanny ability to "observe." I put the word in quotes because in her practice she created a whole new meaning for the word. Her unique insights grew out of those moments in the passing present when she caught in a child's gesture or action on an object, the nascent germ of a big idea--an idea which had, till then, remained quite hidden to the rest of us.

I would like to focus my attention on just a few examples of this remarkable and dynamic aspect of Mimi's life and work--instances of Mimi's unique "noticing." I begin with a paper, Young children's spontaneous activities and early child education, delivered at the EECERA Conference in Paris (Sinclair, 1996). Although Mimi always claimed that she didn't know anything about "education", she finds her way in this paper to do what she always did so well--to make an understanding of Piaget relevant and directly important to the matter at hand. Her opening remarks set the stage by construing learning as "the progressive elaboration of knowledge" while also reflecting the depth and breadth of her belief in Piaget's work:

In my opinion, Piaget's epistemological and psychological constructivist theory provides the most apposite conceptual foundations for understanding the processes that account for the progressive elaboration of knowledge in all human beings.

And going on, she tells us in but a few words, the substantive core of what is relevant and essential to this theory:

...knowledge is derived from actions that modify something in the outside world or that modify the knowing subject's position in relation to the outside world. In the beginning, there is no differentiation between what, in an interesting phenomenon, is due to [1] the subject's action and [2] what is due to properties of the objects acted upon.

Mimi goes on to explicate this often elusive and thus ignored distinction in a manner that brings the kernel of the idea into clear focus:

One of the most original principles in Piaget's theory resides in his conception of the existence of two sources of knowledge: human beings derive knowledge not only from [1] changes observed in the external world, but also [2] from the organization of their own actions...In epistemology this double aspect of every act of knowing leads to two different kinds of knowledge: Logical-mathematical knowledge can become formal, totally independent of objects and their properties. While physical knowledge is always a kind of mixture: it aims at knowledge of the properties of the objects that are studied, but needs a logical-mathematical framework for the construction and interpretation of experiments.

This could also be a description of Mimi's own exceptional ways of "observing." That is, she was both noticing "properties of the objects that are studied" (here, children's actions and interactions), together with a "logical-mathematical framework for the construction and interpretation of experiments" (here, a theoretical framework within which to interpret the children's actions). Mimi gives an example which demonstrates how, in her special way, "observing," in the foreground was always seen through the theoretical framework going on in the background. The result is her extraordinary ability for selectively and actively noticing: She writes (op cit.):

[For very young children] the two types of knowledge [logical/ physical]... are not yet differentiated, and the interest of the children is mainly directed towards the results of their actions. However, the results may depend on object properties to a greater or lesser degree. When a one-year old child puts four small objects in a line, the result is due to a repetition of 'putting next to.' The line is not a property of the objects, but it is conferred on them by the child. When the child taps with one block on another, noise is produced on account of their hardness, but tapping on a sponge produces no perceptible sound. If the child's attention was completely focused on making noise, the action on a sponge may be of no interest whatever. But a comparison between the two events may also lead to a connection between the action and properties of the objects--some are hard, some soft. This is a piece of knowledge about the physical world which may become the basis for a classification. (emphasis mine).

What continues to amaze me is the almost recursive aspect of this and other examples. On one hand, Mimi shows us the child's selective focus of attention--what the child chooses to notice as guided by her immediate interest--her current frame of reference--and the implications of that choice. And, in turn, Mimi is recursively playing out this process in her "observing." That is, her selective focus of attention, what she chooses to notice, is also guided by her current conceptual framework always running in the background.

Continuing this spiral outward, Mimi focuses our attention on an aspect of the child's actions that we would otherwise surely have missed. In this way, a singular moment of attention and later others yet to come, become "noticed" and, in turn, become relevant. And through this cumulative guidance we, as novices, begin to build our own appropriate and usable theoretical framework. As the framework is internalized, we also learn to keep it running in the background as a structure for organizing our seeing in the present foreground--for "observing." We quite literally come to see in a whole new way.

In another paper (Sinclair, 1990), Mimi stunningly explicates the implications of Piaget's often misunderstood notion of "action:"

Many psychologists and educators nowadays emphasize the essential role of young children's activity in cognitive development. Yet it is not always clear how activity is supposed to lead to new knowledge, nor what kind of activity is considered relevant in this context. From a constructivist point of view, the essential way of knowing the real world is not directly through our senses, but first and foremost through our material and/or mental actions. In this context, action has to be understood in the following way: all activity by which we bring about a change in the world around us or by which we change our own situation in relation to the world. In other words, it is activity that changes the knower-known relationship. (emphasis mine)

The formulation of "action" together with the "knower-known relationship," is powerful and suggestive. Consider in this regard, the importance Mimi gives to "imitation." And notice, too, that in the following passages, she also demonstrates how she and her collaborators, building upon Piaget's work, have gone beyond the territories carved out by Piaget himself. She says:

"...imitation has acquired something of a bad name, especially in circles where activity is emphasized. Considering the processes of abstraction, however, imitation, and especially reciprocal imitation, appears to play a propitious role…."

Though Piaget refers only sporadically....to the necessity and importance of [the child's interaction with other human beings], its contribution to the fundamental reflective processes is becoming clearer, especially through studies of peer-interaction among young children (Stambak & Sinclair, 1990; Sinclair, 1987). Even very simple reciprocal imitation (one child pushing a stick through a ball of cottonwool, another doing the same, and then going on to push the ball of cottonwool up and down the stick, and the first one imitating this further action) offers both partners an occasion to see their own actions from the outside and from the inside, as it were, and this may facilitate reflection on the action as an object of thought. (emphasis mine)

On first reading these passages, I was stunned by the insight--the transformation of what others take to be a mindless act, imitation, Mimi sees as the nascent source of reflection, the beginnings of abstraction--turning back to look at what we usually just look through. We see, here, another instance of Mimi "observing:" children's everyday, ordinary play holds the nub of emergent profundity.

It was from what Mimi was able to see in instances like this, that I learned to watch for moments that we later came to call "reflection-in-action." [8]. Mimi's insights began a process for me of trying to account for those seemingly unexplained moments of learning--of a child coming to see a situation (or a teacher coming to see a child) in a new way. Watching Mimi "observing" and talking long hours with her in an effort to make sense of my own observations, I gradually grew able to integrate--not so much what she said, but what I saw her do. It was an activity that for me profoundly changed the knower-known relationship. Like young children, my interest in observing had been "mainly directed towards the results of... actions." With Mimi's guidance, my focus gradually shifted to trying to account for the results; particularly I learned to look for subtle, but palpable signs of change-- transformations in strategies, and changes in how a child came to represent the "same" phenomena to him/herself.

Looking back, now, at Mimi's writings, I am struck by what seems to characterize much of her work--a merging, a completely reciprocal interaction between the almost sentient immediacy of direct experience--"observation," and the profundity and emergent theoretical implications of what she made of what she saw.

My conversations with her continue on in my imagination--she is present in mind and spirit. But I continue to deeply miss her living, human, inspiring, and comforting self.


Hermine Sinclair: Contributions of a Piaget Scholar to Early Education

Rheta DeVries
University of Northern Iowa
Cedar Falls, IA, USA

For over 25 years, I enjoyed the mentorship and friendship of Mimi Sinclair. She was a profoundly learned Piaget scholar whose own research was in developmental psycholinguistics and cognitive development. However, I engaged with her primarily with regard to the educational implications of Piaget’s research and theory. Mimi was remarkable in her willingness to engage with others on the grounds of their interests. She was a great teacher and loved to teach. I remember her as warm, intellectually vigorous, and generous. She was the most unpretentious person I ever knew. Whenever we were together, we found time for music. I treasure the memories of Mimi at the piano and me with my flute, enjoying some measure of reproduction of Bach, Mozart, and Loeillet. Whenever possible, we played together with Mimi’s violinist husband Morris. These were evenings in Chicago, Geneva, Houston, and Waterloo, Iowa, after days when Mimi gave lectures, read and gave feedback on manuscripts, and discussed the developmental and educational significance of children’s actions in videotaped classroom activities.

I was drawn to Mimi because of our shared interest in Piaget’s research and theory. When I was introduced to her by Constance Kamii at a conference at Rutgers University, I quickly found that I could learn a lot from her. When Connie and I began working to develop the educational implications of Piaget’s work, we took our debates, questions, and manuscripts to Mimi. In 1972, I went to Geneva for a two-week period during which Mimi read and discussed our first manuscripts. Over the years, I enjoyed the benefits of her feedback on many of my articles and books. She often added or changed just a word or two that greatly enriched, made more precise, or focused in a new way what I was trying to say. Her questions and comments often had the effect of giving me a whole new perspective that inspired me to rewrite.

When I spent two years in Geneva from 1976 to 1978, we always had lunch together on Fridays when we took turns picking up the check. That was something of a coup as it was very difficult to keep Mimi from picking up the tab. Mimi disliked air-conditioning which was not such a problem in Geneva but was in the United States where she always wore a scarf at her throat in such spaces.

Mimi Sinclair was an excellent cook, and I have wonderful memories of music followed by dining at her home in Cartigny. One night she learned it was my birthday and gaily stuck a candle on a delicious homemade raspberry tart.

Among Mimi Sinclair’s many scientific contributions, I would like to mention three that have been particularly important for my work in early education. These relate to the distinction of social arbitrary knowledge, the development of protostructures in infancy and early childhood, and constructivism in constructivist education.

Social Arbitrary Knowledge

Mimi pointed out Piaget’s distinction between two kinds of psychological experience and knowledge, physical (where the source of knowledge is objects) and logico-mathematical (where the source of knowledge is the individual who introduces into objects characteristics that are not characteristics of the objects themselves–such as number, classification, etc.), but she recognized that something was missing if we wanted to use these notions in thinking about educational goals. What was missing was the added distinction of social arbitrary knowledge whose source is people, or society–names of objects and ideas, dates of holidays, manners, and cultural facts such as driving on the right side of the road in some countries. Social arbitrary knowledge [9] is created by people when they agree that something is correct. The only way one can learn this kind of societal knowledge is through some sort of communication, including demonstration. As I have never found in Piaget’s work a specific mention of social arbitrary knowledge, I conclude that it was Mimi herself who added this important distinction to those of Piaget. I have found this distinction, along with those of Piaget, to be enormously helpful to teachers who quickly grasp that one should not teach physical knowledge as if it were arbitrary conventional knowledge. Many teachers I know ask themselves regularly what kind of knowledge it is they are trying to teach. If it is arbitrary conventional, they do not hesitate to communicate it directly. If it is physical knowledge, they engage children in experimenting with objects. If it is logico-mathematical knowledge, they encourage children to create relationships (concerning physical or societal objects and events).

The Development of Protostructures in Infancy and Early Childhood

Mimi was particularly brilliant in her ability to relate Piaget’s theory to the mundane actions of children that occur not in Genevan experiments, but in everyday life. Hearing Mimi’s lectures and reading writings by her and her collaborators about protostructures identifiable in the actions of infants and young children, have been especially important to me. This work, mainly in Paris day care centers, was a collaboration between Mimi and colleagues led by Mira Stambak at the CRESAS. It follows up on certain suggestions by Piaget and Inhelder that logical structures such as classification and seriation are foreshadowed in the sensorimotor period. However, Mimi’s work with her Parisian colleagues has a dynamic and psychological focus rather than a structural one. Their book, Infants and Objects, (Sinclair, Stambak, Lezine, Rayna, & Verba, 1982/1989) is a report of naturalistic study of children between the ages of 10 and 24 months, the period of the "transition from action-based intelligence to conceptualized thought" (p. 1). This research fills a gap in Piaget’s research on the development of logic between 18 and 36 months [10]. Through microanalysis of videotapes of individual infants with certain kinds of objects, they were able to discern, at an earlier age than generally thought possible, a progressive organization of actions that prefigure logical reasoning with regard to logic, physics, and symbolization. This work elaborates Piaget’s (1977) notion that "action contains within it a form of logic" (pp. 6-7) (quoted in Sinclair et al., 1982/1989, pp. 187-188) and opens the way to a better understanding of the mechanisms underlying the continuity of cognitive development from the sensorimotor stage to the stage of concrete operations. This work is especially helpful to constructivist educators. Also of significance to educators is the finding that babies and toddlers evidenced "tenacity and intellectual coherence . . . when facing the problems they themselves raised and the meanings they themselves attributed to events" (Sinclair et al., p. 197). They continue as follows:

Their capacity for sustained concentration, . . . clearly shows that the "lack of attention span" and "brief concentration" attributed to children are but artifacts (sic) arising from observations made in situations that are foreign to the child’s preoccupations. (p. 197)

Even babies’ purposes are crucial for development and learning!

Similarly, in the introduction to Pretend Play among 3-Year-Olds, Mimi and Mira Stambak (Sinclair & Stambak, 1993) pointed out that in collective pretend play, one can observe a common frame of reference, conservation of propositions and symbolic frameworks, and reciprocity in the coordinations of propositions. In the microculture of a community of children, they found a system of cooperation that is both logical and social. Children’s negotiations, justifications, compromise proposals, and reciprocal adaptations reveal that correspondences and reciprocities are being constructed in the course of interactions and are preparing the way for reasoning that comes to full flower at age 6 or 7. Thus, the study of collective pretend play provides an opportunity for observing children’s "capacities for constructing equilibrated exchanges of thought" (p. xii). Sinclair and Stambak conclude that children’s peer interactions would "exert a positive influence on the children’s socio-cognitive development, as much as, or possibly more than, the detachment from the hic et nunc and the comprehension of the duality of fictional roles stressed by other authors" (Sinclair & Stambak, 1993, p. xviii).

Constructivism in Constructivist Education

Although Mimi Sinclair often denied knowledge about education due to lack of experience, she made significant contributions to the work of a number of people trying to draw educational implications from Genevan work. She improved my writing about Piaget’s theory and often amazed me by pulling a book from a shelf and turning to just the passage I needed. She reflected with me on educational issues, especially during her later years, on how education could be constructivist, that is, how it could relate to Piaget’s constructivism.

Clearly, the work on protostructures is important for constructivist educators who want to use constructivist theory to understand the developmental significance of children’s actions in certain kinds of classroom activities. Work involving protostructures focuses on changes in the structure and function of intelligence that are observable in the classroom. In particular, the research on infants and objects reveals that the choice of materials influences which aspect of children’s reasoning is activated. With objects that in themselves are not very interesting, such as seriated balls of clay, wooden rods, and cups or cubes, children engage in differentiated behaviors of collecting, nesting, and making one-to-one correspondences. With objects such as tubes, a piece of uncooked spaghetti, beads, cotton wool, etc., children engage in experimentation, fabrication of new objects, and putting on and putting into. With materials such as dolls, a teddy bear, and familiar objects such as plate, spoon, toy toilet, etc., children engage in symbolic play. While the latter type of materials are often made available to children in early childhood classrooms, the other two types are not. This information can inspire teachers to experiment with different kinds of materials aimed at promoting differentiated reasoning.

In her reflections on how education can be constructivist, Mimi, following Piaget, always emphasized the importance of children’s social interaction in educational endeavors. This includes the work on pretend play and her references to our own work:

" In the classroom, socio-moral attitudes form a foundation on which all the activities sketched above are based. They should be treated from the point of view adopted by DeVries and Zan (1994) and extended to the younger ages the book is concerned with." (Sinclair, undated)

In an unpublished piece entitled "How Can Education Be Constructivist?" Mimi offered some "guidelines from epistemological and psychological constructivism for a truly constructivist early education, starting with Piaget’s cooperation principle" (p. 7). These dealt with "the most general concepts that underlie progress (reciprocity, inversion, adding and complementizing, inclusion, classification, etc.), that are particularly striking in interpersonal activities, and that might be fostered in order to achieve a more constructivist form of education" (p. 10). Mimi outlined interpersonal activities that included active reproduction of another child’s actions on objects, joint construction in parallel and complementary activities, and societal interactions such as pretend play with everyday objects. She also outlined mechanisms of progress inspired by later work by Piaget, Piaget and Garcia, and Piaget and Inhelder. These include heuristic procedures, regulations and control mechanisms, communication, and the socio-moral atmosphere.

To sum up, one can say that Hermine Sinclair’s research and reflective consultation have greatly enriched teachers’ understanding of those elements of classroom planning and intervention that are particularly constructivist in nature. I will always be grateful for Mimi’s friendship and mentorship.


All Roads Led to Mimi

Constance Kamii
University of Alabama at Birmingham
Birmingham, Alabama, USA

I met Mimi Sinclair in Geneva in June, 1965, when she was trying to finish writing her dissertation entitled Language and Operations under Piaget's direction. My preoccupation then was to improve the educability of low-income, disadvantaged children through two years of preschool education. I was trying first of all to conceptualize goals for preschool education before figuring out how to reach them. Having studied everything I could about cognitive development and preschool education, I had concluded that the only promising lead was Piaget's theory. It was, and still is, the only scientific theory in existence describing cognitive development from birth to adolescence. It also was, and still is, the only theory that described children's development of many basic aspects of knowledge.

In June, 1965, having written a paper outlining my ideas about how to "apply" Piaget's theory to preschool education, I decided to go to Geneva to see Piaget, if possible. In retrospect, the paper was an incredibly bad one. I had no idea that I had assimilated Piaget's theory into an empiricist way of thinking learned in graduate school.

When I arrived in Geneva, I was fortunate enough to catch the last lecture Piaget gave before the summer vacation and was surprised that I understood his French. (I was born in Geneva and spoke French during the first eight years of my life.) His books were full of difficult words and interminable sentences, but Piaget was a different person when he spoke. He talked like a normal human being!

I decided to ask the Piagetian expert in the Pedagogy Section of the Institute, Mani Denis, to critique my paper. Her reaction was "I am not sure what to tell you, but I know somebody who will be able to react to it. Her name is Mimi Sinclair." Dr. Denis invited Mimi and me to her house, making sure that I understood how busy Mimi was trying to finish her dissertation.

Mimi's reaction to my paper was something like "Piaget's theory is very difficult, vast, and complicated, and you need to spend a lot of time reading his books to understand why this paper is not quite right." I did not understand most of what she said but made up my mind to get a postdoctoral fellowship to study under Piaget and others for a year.

In the fall of 1966, I registered as a student at the University of Geneva and took Piaget's courses on intelligence and the epistemology of mathematics. It soon became clear that I could not make sense of many points such as the relationship between the operative and figurative aspects of knowledge on the one hand and other distinctions on the other hand. Examples of other distinctions are reflective and empirical abstraction, assimilation and accommodation, and abstraction and representation. I asked teaching assistants to explain these points, and a pattern soon began to emerge: They all said, "I'm not sure how to answer your question, but I know someone who will be able to--Madame Sinclair."

All roads thus led to Mimi. Everyone recognized Mimi's knowledge and ability to explain Piaget's theory. I started to write my questions and periodically asked Mimi to sit down with me to clarify theoretical points. She was always down to earth, clear with examples, and willing to think hard to give me another example if one was not enough.

Mimi was not only knowledgeable but also generous. For example, many dissertations would not have been written if she had not forcefully helped discouraged students. She carefully analyzed data with them and sometimes even helped them fix sandwiches before making them sit down to write!

One year in the 1970s, Hans Furth had a teaching position at the Institute to lecture about the education of deaf children. Everybody assumed that Furth's French was adequate for the job, but students soon began to complain. Mimi volunteered to act as his translator for every weekly lecture Furth gave during the rest of that year!

For many years starting in 1977, Mimi was a Visiting Professor at MIT one month per year. She also gave short courses at many other universities in the U.S. Even as a visiting professor, she scheduled generous office hours and encouraged students to come and talk about any question or project they wanted to discuss.

Most people specialize in a specific area of child development, but Mimi was knowledgeable about psycholinguistics, early childhood education, and mathematics education. She knew a lot, but the uniqueness of Mimi's knowledge was that she had an unusual and sensible perspective about many topics.

An example is Mimi's conceptualization of social (conventional) knowledge as one of the three kinds of knowledge based on their ultimate sources. Piaget wrote a great deal about two kinds of knowledge--physical and logico-mathematical--and pointed out that physical knowledge has a source in objects, but the source of logico-mathematical knowledge is in each child's (mental) action. Piaget never identified social knowledge as the third kind of knowledge, but Mimi, the linguist, unmistakably found it in Play, Dreams, and Imitation. As can be seen in that book, Piaget was, of course, aware of conventions as another source of knowledge but did not elevate conventions to the position of the third source of knowledge. Mimi's conceptualization of social knowledge especially helps educators as will be seen shortly.

Mimi was an academic and a research scholar, but she was also interested in practical questions about education, like what to do in the classroom and why. When I ran a preschool program in Ypsilanti, Michigan in the late 1960s, to develop a curriculum based on Piaget's theory, Mimi came as a consultant for a week in 1968, 1969, and 1970. She observed in classrooms, went on home visits with teachers, gave Piagetian tasks to children, conducted inservice sessions, and helped us evaluate our efforts and answer our questions.

In the 1970s, when I conducted experiments for Piaget at the International Center of Genetic Epistemology, Mimi helped me perfect interview techniques and conceptualize the findings by analyzing protocols. Later, she also read and critiqued drafts of books I was writing with Rheta DeVries such as Physical Knowledge in Preschool Education and Group Games in Early Education. She made time to help us grow, but also said she learned a lot by working with people on projects that truly interested her.

Now that my research is on how to teach elementary mathematics based on Piaget's theory, I recognize my indebtedness to Mimi in new ways. I could not have been convinced of the desirability of getting children to invent arithmetic if she had not helped me understand so clearly that the source of logico-mathematical knowledge is inside each child's mind. Because of her delineation of social knowledge as the third kind of knowledge, I was also able to see that much of traditional math education consists of social knowledge such as conventional algorithms. The conventional algorithms of "carrying," "borrowing," and long division are mere social conventions children are now taught to follow without understanding them. I would not have realized in the early 1990s that these rules are harmful to children's development of numerical reasoning if Mimi had not pointed out the difference between social and logico-mathematical knowledge.

The distinction between physical and logico-mathematical knowledge, as well as between abstraction and representation, that Mimi clarified for me over many years also enables me to oppose the current fashion of "manipulatives." Some manipulatives are useful if used well, but for those who are clear about these distinctions, it is obvious that base-ten blocks and fraction pies are off the mark. The ideas of tens and ones or two-sixths and one-third can, of course, not come from objects.

These theoretical distinctions were mentioned only in passing in the nearly 15 years I ended up spending partly in Geneva. I learned these distinctions from Mimi, through many years of conversations in many contexts. My life would not be what it is today if she had not been my mentor for more than 30 years. I never went back to the professors I had in graduate school, but I would still be going back to Mimi to ask her opinion if she were still alive.


Together with Mimi Sinclair: Learning how to learn

Tullia Musatti
Institute of Psychology
CNR - Consiglio Nazionale delle Ricerche
Rome, Italy

It is not easy for me to talk about Mimi Sinclair and it is only now, three years after her death, that I manage to find the words to bridge the gap that her untimely death has opened in my professional and personal life. To speak of untimely death of a person who, as she often reminded us, was approaching her eighties, may seem inappropriate. Nevertheless it best describes the nature of our relationship, the professional commitments we shared and that feeling of walking along an endless road towards the discovery of the human mind that Mimi communicated to us.

My relationship with Mimi developed in Paris within the framework of the relations we both separately entertained with Mira Stambak and the CRESAS team of bébéologues at the INRP [8]. At our Paris meetings we would discuss our studies on pre-logical, pre-physical and symbolic performances and their development in the course of interactions among toddlers. Our discussions were always very animated as we were led to tackle important theoretical as well as methodological issues. Mimi always provided clarity and intellectual coherence to this debate. However, during these discussions, by tacit agreement, we all avoided discussing the educational implications of our research even though both the CRESAS team and myself together with my Italian colleagues were all deeply involved in actions to improve the quality of early educational settings. Indeed, Mimi's intellectual rigor restrained her from committing herself in an area in which she felt she had no specific professional experience. Years later, during a talk to teachers in the city of Pistoia, Italy, I heard her make this attitude explicit by quoting Piaget, for whom pedagogy was not a mere application of child psychology but a science in its own right that requires specific studies, experience, and professionalism. And yet, precisely in the framework of some research carried out in Pistoia I heard Mimi make two remarks having extremely important educational implications.

The first remark occurred when, together with Mina Verba and Susanna Mayer, the four of us were planning the observational setting of some new research on the development of experimentation in children aged between two and four years. The collaboration of teachers from several Pistoia educational centers allowed us to come up with a setting that, in social and emotional terms, was highly familiar to the children. The children were accustomed to being presented with material and objects to explore freely in a group composed of several peers and a teacher. The presence of the adult and her availability to answer the children's requests was an important component of the relational atmosphere habitually experienced by the children and some of us did not want to disturb it. However, Mimi was very concerned that an intrusive attitude of the adult could interfere with the children's process of cognitive construction. In the course of discussion, we came to realize that in our previous work on peer interactions we had found processes of indirect transmission of knowledge between children, as when they observe each other reciprocally and include elements of the other children's activities in their own. In itself, a peer’s activity represents a proposal made to the observing child and thus fosters her own process of cognitive construction. Mimi then suggested that the most appropriate adult’s behavior would be a general attitude of listening and observing similar to that found in the children, together with the possible suggestion of new elements through an apparently random manipulation of objects. Using an example drawn from our study of an exchange between little Karine and one of her peers, we thus coined the expression "to act like Karine" to indicate the delicate role of a more competent partner in guiding the children in the process of discovering the world in a non intrusive fashion.

The other important remark made by Mimi about education occurred while she was visiting the babies’ room at an infant-toddler center in Pistoia. Here, the extensive professional experience of the teachers had produced a daily-life setting that clearly guaranteed both the possibility of new experiences and their repeatability. Mimi immediately grasped this dual potential of the context offered to the children and pointed out that it supported the unfolding of the fundamental functional processes of intelligence, accommodation and assimilation, as described by Piaget.

With these suggestions, which I drew upon in my subsequent research, did Mimi break the constraints she had imposed upon herself in order to avoid infringement on the field of pedagogy? I rather feel that, using the non intrusive style of the great teacher she was, she was pointing out new paths that must be followed if we want to relate epistemological research to the reality of our society. First, we should analyze the opportunities that a context offers the children who live in it from the point of view of how each child is supported in her own processes of cognitive construction. Second, we should consider how teachers can further support these processes by introducing into the context new objects-to-think-with or about thus using the specific human potential of acting intelligently.



CINVESTAV-IPN: Centro de Investigaciones y Estudios Avanzados del Instituto Politécnico Nacional (Center for Research and Advanced Studies of the National Polytechnic Institute)

CNR: Consiglio Nazionale delle Ricerche (National Research Council)

CRESAS: Centre de Recherche de l’Education Spécialisée et de l’Adaptation Scolaire (Research Center on Special Education and School Adaptation)

EECERA: European Early Childhood Education Research Association

FNRS: Fonds national suisse de la recherche scientifique (Swiss National Foundation for Scientific Research)

IEDPE: Institut Européen pour le développement des potentialités de tous les enfants (European Institute for the development of the Potentialities of all children)

INRP: Institut National de Recherche Pédagogique (National Institute for Pedagogical Research)

UNAM: Universidad Nacional Autónoma (Autonomous National University)



Bartlett, F. C. (1932). Remembering: A Study in Experimental and Social Psychology. Cambridge, UK.: Cambridge University Press.

DeVries, R., & Zan, B. (1994). Moral classrooms, moral children: Establishing a constructivist atmosphere in early education. New York: Teachers College Press.

Inhelder, B. Lézine, Sinclair H. & Stambak M. (1972) Les débuts de la fonction sémiotique, Archives de Psychologie, 163, 183-243.

Piaget, J. (1976). Autobiographie. In J. Piaget, Les sciences sociales avec et après Piaget. Hommage publié à l’occasion du 80e anniversaire de Jean Piaget. Revue Européenne des Sociences Sociales, 14 (38/39), 1-43.

Sinclair H., Stambak M., Lézine I., Rayna S. & Verba M. (1982) Les bébés et les choses : la créativité du développement cognitif. Paris : P.U.F. (Infants and Objects: the creativity of cognitive development. San Diego: Academic Press, 1989).

Sinclair, H. (1987). Symbolism and interpersonal interaction. In J. Montangero, A. Tryphon & S. Dionnet (eds) Symbolism and knowledge. Cahiers de la Fondation Archives Piaget, No. 8. Genéve, Switzerland.

Sinclair, H. (1989). Language acquisition: A constructivist view. In J. Montangero & A. Tryphon (Eds.), Language and Cognition .Cahiers de la Fondation Archives Jean Piaget, 10, 7-16.

Sinclair, H. (1990). Learning: the interactive re-creation of knowledge. In A. P. Steffe & T. Wood (Eds), Transforming Children's Mathematics Education. Hillsdale, N.J: Lawrence Erlbaum.

Sinclair, H. (1992). Changing perspectives in child language acquisition. In H. Beilin & P. Pufall (Eds.) Piaget's theory: Prospects and possibilities (pp. 211-228). Hilllsdale, N.J: Lawrence Erlbaum Ass.

Sinclair, H. (1995). Comparative linguistics and language acquisition. In R. Arzapalo & Y Lastra (Eds.), Vitalidad et influencia de las lenguas indigenas en Latinoamérica. II Colloquio Mauricio Swadesh. (pp. 97-105). Mexico: Universidad Nacional Autonoma de Mexico, Instituto de Investigaciones Antropologicas.

Sinclair, H. (1996). Activités spontanées des jeunes enfants et objectifs pédagogiques des institutions préscolaires. In S. Rayna, F. Laevers, M. Deleau (Eds), L’education préscolaire : quels objectifs pédagogiques? (pp. 183-200). Baumes-Les-Dames. INRP et Nathan. (original manuscript: "Young children's spontaneous activities and early child education").

Sinclair, H. "How can education be constructivist?" Unpublished manuscript.

Sinclair, H. & Stambak, M. (1993). Pretend play among 3-year-olds. Hillsdale, NJ: Erlbaum.

Sinclair, H., Stambak, M., Lezine, I., Rayna, S., & Verba, M. (1982/1989). Infants and objects: The creativity of cognitive development. San Diego, CA: Academic Press.

Stambak M. & Sinclair H. (Eds.) (1993). Les jeux de fiction entre enfants de trois ans. Paris: P.U.F. (Pretend play among the three year olds. Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Earlbaum, 1993).



  1. More details of this kind can be found in the introduction to an issue of the Archives de Psychologie--vol. 65, no. 253, 1997. In this issue are published the papers read at a Symposium Mimi Sinclair was invited to organize at the Growing Mind Congress held on the Centennial of Jean Piaget’s birth--the last Symposium Mimi was to organize and to which she contributed an excellent introduction and a masterly discussion. She later wrote to me that "of course" she didn’t have any notes of neither.

  2. This is with the exception of Tullia Musatti who was asked to write a short piece on Mimi Sinclair’s Italian collaboration on the occasion of the publication of the present set of tributes.

  3. Morris was Mimi’s husband, who was responsible for public information at WHO, and who served as first "public" to our writings, revised many articles written by Mimi, and especially by Mimi’s colleagues, and co-translated the books issued from the Paris collaboration.

  4. Our last co-authored article is going to appear in Journal of Child Language at the end of this year.

  5. The author wishes to thank Edy Veneziano for her precious help in the translation of this paper.

  6. A book, edited by S. Rayna and E. Veneziano, is in preparation.

  7. Morris, Mimi's husband, is a violinist totally committed to playing chamber music. While Mimi was often his musical accompanist, Morris frequently accompanied Mimi as they traversed the subtleties of English.

  8. F.C. Bartlett, in his seminal book, Remembering, makes the point this way: "There is one way in which an organism could learn how to [learn]. It may be the only way. At any rate, it is the way that has been discovered and it is continually used. An organism has somehow to acquire the capacity to turn round upon its own 'schemata' and to construct them afresh. This is a crucial step in organic development. " (Bartlett, 1932, p. 206)

  9. I now refer to this as conventional arbitrary knowledge because people sometimes misunderstand the term to mean knowledge about social interactions rather than knowledge of society.

  10. Piaget’s own work on this period was limited mainly to imitation, dreams, play, and symbolization, including the early use of language.


Nominees for the 2001-2004 Jean Piaget Society Board

Michael Chandler (Co-Chair Nominations Committee)

In compliance with past practices and current bylaws, the Nominations Committee requests your assistance in identify ing persons who might serve as future officers or members of our Board of Directors. Each year 5 members rotate off of our 15 person Board and are replaced by a new cohort chosen in ways meant to insure that the group is reasonably balanced with respect to areas of research interest and other foreseeable demographic considerations. The Nominations Committee is especially charged with the responsibility of insuring sufficient continuity in the governance of the Society to guarantee its viability, and of identifying persons who have been active in the Society, or who are scholars in areas of special concern to the Society. Previous members of the Board can be re-nominated after a hiatus of one year.

As a way of accomplishing these purposes we actively seek your advice and suggestions. If you would like to recommend one or more persons for possible inclusion in the 2001-2004 Board, please forward your suggestions, along with a brief account in support of your nomination(s), to:

Michael Chandler
Dept. of Psychology
University of British Columbia
2136 West Mall
Vancouver, B.C. Canada, V6T 1Z4

or: chandler@unixg.ubc.ca

Table of Contents | Genetic Epistemologist Homepage