John Flavell is credited with introducing the work of Piaget to American psychology and founding the field of metacognition.
Flavell is a preeminent figure in modern developmental psychology. Born in Rockville, Massachusetts, he was educated at Northeastern and then earned a PhD in clinical psychology at Clark University. There, he was introduced to Heinz Werner’s organismic developmental theory, beginning a lifelong passion for the study of children’s thinking. After a brief period as a clinical psychologist at a Veterans Administration hospital in Colorado, Flavell accepted a teaching position at Rochester and then moved steadily westward, initially to Minnesota, and finally to Stanford University, where he is now an Emeritus Professor.
Three of Flavell’s many contributions to developmental psychology stand out. First, his brilliant treatise on the work of Jean Piaget effectively introduced Piaget, and the structuralist approach to children’s thinking, to American psychology. So clear and compelling was Flavell’s presentation that the Piagetian approach quickly became the dominant paradigm in cognitive development, and it remains a powerful force in that field.
Second, Flavell has written a series of seminal theoretical essays on cognitive development. These now classic essays address, for example, the validity of the “stage” construct in explaining development, the nature of developmental sequences and transitions, the methodological pitfalls associated with diagnosing cognitive competence, the relation of memory to cognitive development, and the nature of metacognition. Flavell further discussed these issues in his highly successful textbook on cognitive development, the first on that topic to appear in North America.
Third, Flavell has carried out ground-breaking empirical research on children’s metacognition (much of it in an extended collaboration with Eleanor Flavell and Frances Green). Just as it is difficult to imagine what the field of cognitive development would look like today had there never been a Piaget, so it is with metacognition and Flavell. He has pioneered research into children’s knowledge about memory (which he christened “metamemory”), the development of their perspective-taking and communication skills, their knowledge about perception, their understanding of the appearance–reality distinction, their developing “theories of mind,” and their understanding of thinking and consciousness. His discovery of two levels of visual perspective-taking has been especially influential. At level 1 (2 to 3 years of age), children understand that others may not see something that they do and vice versa, whereas at level 2 (4 to 5 years of age), children further recognize that two individuals viewing the very same thing may nonetheless see it differently. Similarly influential is his finding that younger children fail to recognize the distinction between appearance and reality—that, for example, an object may look like one thing but actually be something quite different. Flavell incorporated these and related findings into a persuasive “connections-representations” account of theory-of-mind development.
Flavell is a past president of the Society for Research in Child Development (SRCD). He has received numerous awards, including an American Psychological Association (APA) Distinguished Scientific Contribution Award and an APA Mentoring Award in Developmental Psychology. In addition, Flavell is one of very few developmental psychologists ever to be elected to the National Academy of Sciences. He remains a prominent contributor to the developmental literature.
- Flavell, H. (1963). The developmental psychology of Jean Piaget. Princeton, NJ: Van Nostrand.
- Flavell, H., Green F. L., & Flavell, E. R. (1995). Young children’s knowledge about thinking. Monographs of the Society for Research in Child Development, Serial No. 243,60(1).
- Flavell, J. , Miller, P. H., & Miller, S. A. (2002). Cognitive development (4th ed.). Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall.