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Alfred Binet (1857–1911) - Background, Research, Measurement of Children's Abilities, Contribution

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Best known for his development with Théodore Simon of the first standardized intelligence test, Alfred Binet can be considered one of the few "renaissance" psychologists of the twentieth century. His research included the measurement of individual differences in reaction times, association of auditory times with specific colors, auditory and visual imagery, and children's memory capabilities. In his early research, Binet also investigated children's fears. Using questionnaires, he studied creative artists of his time, such as Alexandre Dumas, in an attempt to provide insight into their methods of work and the sources of their creativity. As Theta Wolf notes, Binet also was known for his severe criticism of the methods of experimental psychology for its "sterile laboratory conditions" (pp. 90–91). His work on individual differences described in a 1896 article with Victor Henri initiated his work on measuring individual differences and took into account both the quantitative and qualitative aspects of individuals' responses. Binet was also a leader in providing programs for children with mental disabilities and establishing a pedagogical institute to provide appropriate instructional methods.


Binet's choice of a career as a psychologist matured outside of any formal educational study. He first entered law school earning his license at age twenty-one and then began study for the doctorate. However, he lost interest in that field and began medical studies, but did not complete them. Soon after, he began reading books in psychology. For the next six years he worked in the laboratory of Jean-Martin Charcot, a well-known neurologist, with mental patients and also developed an interest in hypnosis. At age thirty Binet completed a paper that stressed the importance of studying the normal individual before studying persons with serious emotional problems. The paper, which received a substantial monetary award from the Academy of Moral and Political Sciences, was cited for the demonstration of Binet's competence as an observer and his knowledge of the experimental method. The award committee concluded that Binet had a "gifted and uncommon mind" (Wolf, p. 6).


In 1890 Binet published papers that dealt with the observational study of his two daughters. Wolf suggests that these studies preceded those of Piaget's and possibly influenced Piaget in his research. Between 1888 and 1894 Binet studied in his father-in-law's laboratory at the College de France and took courses in botany and zoology. Wolf also noted that he became interested in comparative psychology, and researched the behavior and physiology of insects, earning a doctorate in 1894.

At the same time Binet and Henri Beaumis began the first French psychological journal. In 1894 Binet published four original papers, eighty-five reviews, and was appointed to the board of associates of the American Psychological Review. He also published two books: one on experimental psychology and other "on the psychology of master calculators and chess players" (Wolf, p. 9).

Binet's wide range of interests in a number of different academic areas was demonstrated by his authorship of several articles for biology journals and his review of research findings from the field of histology, anatomy, and physiology. In 1895 Binet was invited to give a series of lectures at the University of Bucharest. Though offered a professorship, Binet declined the appointment to return to Paris. Although Binet was now considered to be the "fore-most, if not the only French experimental psychologist," he never received an appointment at a French institution of higher learning (Wolf, p. 22). Raymond Fancher believes this was due in part to Binet's lack of official credentials resulting from his self-trained status and lack of personal support from his instructors.

Measurement of Children's Abilities

In the 1890s, Binet became associated with Théodore Simon, who had earned a medical degree and was an intern at an institution for retarded children. He became Binet's collaborator in the development of the first intelligence scale.

In 1899 Binet was invited to become a member of the new Society for the Study of the Child because of his interest in children's intellectual development. Wolf mentions that under Binet's leadership, members of the society aggressively pushed the French Ministry of Instruction to offer suitable instructional programs for children with mental disabilities. Binet's leadership also led to an appointment to a government commission to study the needs of these children in the public schools. He became convinced of the need to ascertain how to differentiate children with learning problems from those who could not learn adequately.

Wolf considers that Binet's greatest productivity was between 1901 to 1911. After his appointment to the government commission on the retarded in 1904, Binet noted that educational officials were primarily interested in administrative problems of the schools. There was no interest in how to differentiate objectively retarded children from normal children or to provide appropriate instruction for them. In 1905 Binet and his colleagues recommended special classes and schools for the retarded, which up to that time did not exist. A bill for such provisions was introduced in 1907 and in 1909 a law passed establishing classes for educational improvement. Binet and Simon were provided the criteria for entry and aided in the selection of students for the first special classes in the Paris schools. In 1905 Binet along with Simon published the first standardized scale of intelligence for which he is best known. The scale was composed of thirty items and was the product of more than fifteen years of careful investigations and experimental research with children. Subsequent revisions of the scale appeared in 1908 and 1911. A number of these items are still included in the latest (1960 and 1986) revisions of their test. During this period Binet also helped to establish the first pedagogical laboratory in France. Wolf noted that in the same time period he worked on the psychology of court testimony and, in 1909, published a popular book for teachers and parents about children, which contained many of his ideas about intelligence. In 1906 Binet and Simon published a paper that addressed "new methods for diagnosing idiocy, imbecility, and moronity," an important contribution because, for the first time, criteria were specified that allowed professionals to agree on different levels of retardation (Wolf, pp. 142–143).


Alfred Binet remains an important figure in modern psychology. He was among the first to emphasize that no child suspected of retardation should be removed from the regular classroom without undergoing a psychological and medical assessment that would help confirm the retardation. Binet and Simon emphasized that diagnostic errors could be due to lack of "attitude" on the part of the examiner; variability in the meaning of the terms used, or lack of precision in the examination of the child.

Binet and Simon stated that test items used in assessment of children needed to be graded in difficulty and be age appropriate. In their discussion of new methods for the diagnosis of retarded children, Binet and Simon emphasized the properties inherent in the assessment of intelligence. These included the need to separate natural intelligence from lack of performance due to inadequate instruction. Attempting to reduce the effects of instruction, Binet and Simon did not require the child to read or write any material. For them the heart of the meaning of intelligence was judgment, to comprehend well, and to reason well.

Binet's sophisticated comments written in 1911 on how to proceed with an examination of the child could easily be repeated word-for-word for early-twenty-first-century psychology students. He stressed the importance of the observation of children and their activities, and outlined with Simon the normal development of intelligence in children from three to twelve years of age in an article published in 1916 (b). These comments were the result of detailed presentation of many test items and careful observations of the responses of the subjects. This article also contained a revision of the 1905 scale. Their monograph could also be read in the early twenty-first century by psychologists for its observational insights in the assessment of children's abilities. Binet and Simon's discussion of the different attitudes and motivations of school personnel concerning retarded children also remains relevant. The intelligence scale of 1908 was changed from one that assessed lack of intelligence into one that classified the intelligence of the retarded, the normal child, and those of superior intelligence. Of the thirty items that composed the 1905 scale, Binet and Simon retained only fourteen without any change.

Binet established the Laboratory of Experimental Pedagogy in Paris in 1905, the first such laboratory established in a school in Europe. The purpose of the laboratory was to provide a continuing source for experimental work with children and provide consultative help to teachers who wished to teach retarded children. Because of the work in these areas of psychology and education Binet can be considered the first school psychologist in the Western world.

One result of this lab-school collaboration was a study by Binet and Simon that focused on vision problems of school children. They noted that children might be labeled slow only because of difficulty in seeing the blackboard. Their concern resulted in the development of a standardized test of vision that teachers could use without the involvement of physicians. Binet was also interested in criteria for a good school, evaluation of teacher competence, the influence of environmental factors on intelligence, such as socioeconomic status, and the provision of classes for those of superior intelligence.


BINET, ALFRED. 1916. "New Investigations upon the Measure of the Intellectual Level among School Children" (1911). In The Development of Intelligence in Children. Baltimore: Williams and Wilkins.

BINET, ALFRED, and SIMON, THÉODORE. 1916a. "Applications of the New Methods to the Diagnosis of the Intellectual Level among Normal and Subnormal Children in Institutions and in Primary Schools" (1908). In The Development of Intelligence in Children, ed. Henry H. Goddard. Baltimore: Williams and Wilkins.

BINET, ALFRED, and SIMON, THÉODORE. 1916b. "The Development of Intelligence in the Child"(1908). In The Development of Intelligence in Children. Baltimore: Williams and Wilkins.

BINET, ALFRED, and SIMON, THÉODORE. 1916c. "New Methods for the Diagnosis of the Intellectual Level of Subnormals" (1905). In The Development of Intelligence in Children, ed. Henry H. Goddard. Baltimore: Williams and Wilkins.

FANCHER, RAYMOND E. 1998. "Alfred Binet, General Psychologist." In Portraits of Pioneers in Psychology. Vol. 3, ed. Gregory A. Kimble and Michael Wertheimer. Hillsdale, NJ: Erlbaum.

WOLF, THETA H. 1973. Alfred Binet. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.


B. S. Bloom (1913–1999) [next] [back] Second Language Learning Bilingualism and English as a Second Language - Early Literacy Development of English Language Learners (ELLs), Language-of-Instruction Studies

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