Early Childhood Education

Binet, Alfred (1857-1911)


Alfred Binet was a French psychologist who studied and researched a wide variety of topics dealing with the mental capacity of humans. His work has impacted the field of education primarily in regard to intelligence testing, albeit a small example of his contributions to general psychology. Many of his findings were anticipatory of future research in psychology. Throughout his lifetime, Binet published extensive works on topics ranging from psychophysics to creativity and launched the publication of L’Ann^e Psychologique, which remains a prominent psychology journal in France today.

Alfred Binet was born in July 1857, in Nice, France. His physician father and artistic mother separated when Alfred was young and from then on his mother took responsibility for his upbringing. At fifteen years of age, he studied at the prestigious Louis-le-Grand and was rewarded for his exemplary capabilities in literary composition and translation. He studied both law and medicine, and while he held a degree in law, did not continue either vocation. In his twenties he was granted permission as a reader at the Bibliotheque Nationale, wherein he began to read about developments in psychology.

The works of both Theodule Ribot and John Stuart Mill intrigued a young Binet and piqued his interest in sensory and associationistic psychology. In the 1880s he was introduced to Jean-Martin Charcot at the Salpetriere Hospital, during which time he observed, experimented, and published extensively on hypnosis and hysteria. In defending a controversial theory and questionable experimentation, Binet gradually came to understand the effect of suggestibility on psychological experimentation.

Binet married Laure Balbiani in 1884 and their two daughters, Madeleine and Alice, were born in 1885 and 1887, respectively. Binet left the Salpetriere in 1890 and conducted home experiments with his daughters, systematically observing their behavior and responses. His published works detailing these experiments suggest a budding interest in individual differences and measuring intelligence. Binet’s test of his daughter’s ability to differentiate the relative size of collections prefaced conservation studies by Jean Piaget.

Soon afterwards, Binet took a volunteer position at the Laboratory of Experimental Psychology at the Sorbonne, which led to a position as director in 1894. Along with Henry Beaunis he established the psychology journal L’Annee Psychologique in this first year; many of his collaborative works with Theodore Simon on intelligence were published through this journal. This publication is arguably his most significant contribution to psychology.

Binet’s experimental research extended to schoolchildren and Victor Henri briefly assisted him on investigations of visual memory and inquiry into individual psychology. Binet’s writings reflected a growing understanding that intelligence could be measured as well as of the individual differences in intelligence. Toward the end of the century he joined La Societe Libre pour l’Etude Psychologique de l’Enfant (the Free Society for the Psychological Study of the Child) and was selected to a Commission on the Education of Retarded Children by the French government in 1904. This affiliation as well as the addition of Theodore Simon to the laboratory at the Sorbonne gave way to the development of intelligence tests for which he is known.

Motivated by the desire to identify deficiencies that determine mental subnormality, Binet and Simon set out to design an instrument to aid in this process. Their work culminated in a series of age-related items indicating the child’s mental abilities. While Binet consistently favored classifying rather than quantifying intelligence, future uses and revisions of the original Binet-Simon intelligence tests have given rise to a number of scoring systems such as the intelligence quotient (IQ).

Within his lifetime, Alfred Binet foreshadowed many modern research topics in experimental psychology. His multitudinous literary contributions offer preliminary insight into a vast array of subjects relating to the workings of the human mind. His research emphasis on the variable intelligence of children provided an initial framework for measuring and understanding the individual differences of both typically and atypically developing children.

Further Readings: Binet, Alfred, and Theodore Simon (1980). The development of intelligence in children. Nashville, TN: Williams Printing Company; Binet, Alfred (1915). A method of measuring the intelligence of young children. Chicago, IL: Chicago Medical Book Company; Kimble, Gregory A., and Michael Wertheimer (1991). Portraits of pioneers in psychology, Vol. 3. Mahwah, NJ: Erlbaum; Palmer, Joy A. (2001). Fifty major thinkers on education: From Confucius to Dewey. London: Routledge; Wolf, Theta H. (1973). Alfred Binet. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

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