Piaget’s Theory of Cognitive Development

Check out this DVD on our website for more on Piaget: Piaget’s Developmental Theory: An Overview

Jean Piaget was a Swiss developmental psychologist best known for his theories of cognitive development in children. Piaget’s main focus was on how children process knowledge.  Piaget placed great emphasis on the importance of the education of children, although he did not focus specifically on the application of his theories to methodology.

His work has influenced both the theory and practice of child psychology and education for decades. Central to Piaget’s theory is the idea that children develop their own theories about the world around them and that these theories are based on personal interactions with people and the environment. Children use “schemas” (actions that make things happen) to gain information about their environment and that these schema grow as children develop.

A child’s cognition increases as the child develops, and his way of understanding his world similarly grows and develops.Piaget’s ultimate conclusion, based on his study of the way that children amass knowledge, was that children’s reasoning is not flawed, but rather their limited life experiences cause them to come to different conclusions about information than do adults. For Piaget the essence of knowledge was not about being

able to repeat learned facts, but rather about assimilating information in order to make sense of it. Piaget believed that children obtain knowledge, and that they are able to make predictions and come to conclusions, by understanding the world through physical exploration of their world. For Piaget the introduction of abstract concepts at an early age meant that children only memorized and repeated information, not that they genuinely understood the information.

Piaget’s Stages of DevelopmentPiaget studied many children, and this study led him to develop the theory that all children progress through four stages of cognitive development. While all children advance through the stages in the same order, some progress more rapidly than others. Piaget’s stages of development are:

  • Sensorimotor Stage (ages birth to 2 years). In this stage, a child’s cognitive system is limited to his motor reflexes. Children in this stage learn from their caregivers, imitating what they see and hear, experimenting with sounds, and learning that they have some control of their movements. They begin to communicate and to learn what actions elicit what responses. During this stage children develop object permanence and build cognitive structures regarding how the world responds to them.
  • Pre-Operational Stage (ages 2 to 6 or 7 years). For Piaget, this stage is one in which children are egocentric, seeing what happens around them only from their own point of view. Thinking is not logical at this stage, during which children begin to use language and mental imagery. Visual representation and hands-on experiences are necessary for children at this stage; they cannot form abstract ideas.
  • Concrete Operational Stage (ages 6 or 7 to 11). During this stage children move from their egocentric point of view and are capable of taking another person’s perspective and incorporating more than one view simultaneously. They can see and reason with concrete knowledge, but are unable to look at the abstract side of things and develop all the possible outcomes. Although they are increasing their ability to think abstractly, children at this age might work story problems but will deal with just the facts, not the abstract concepts. Logical and systematic thought patterns still dominate.
  • Formal Operational Stage (age 11 or 12 through adulthood). During this stage a child is acquiring a knowledge base and cognitive structures that are similar to that of an adult. Logical, abstract, and theoretical thinking increases and children can use symbols related to abstract concepts in order to solve problems. At this stage, children are self-motivated and learn from reading and trying out new ideas and from friends and adults. Piaget believed children in this stage needed to revise their knowledge base but that not everyone reaches this stage of development.

Applications in Education

Check out this DVD on our website for more on Piaget: Classic Piaget DVD 2

Piaget did not focus on how his theories could be applied within education, and some researchers have indicated that ambiguities in the theories themselves have made it difficult to apply them. Piaget did, however, advocate hands on learning, and these practices are often used in preschool and primary classrooms where children are encouraged to learn by discovery.

In general, all teachers as well as others who work with children, can benefit from an awareness of these stages of development. Knowing when a child needs a practical application of an idea versus being able to use abstract reasoning can determine what information is presented and how it is presented. The use of symbols to represent an abstract idea, for instance, is not a skill that younger children will have, so presenting information before a child is ready will result in frustration and an unwillingness to engage in an activity. Understanding these stages of development can aid the instructor or care-giver in planning age- and developmentally-appropriate activities and lessons that will keep children engaged and active in the classroom or playroom.


2 Responses to “Piaget’s Theory of Cognitive Development”

  1. Kara Lee says:

    Love the article. I recently read one on Piaget’s theory of cognitive development. While he has his critics he has also revolutionised the way kids health and development is viewed/studied.

  2. steven meyerson says:

    No comment

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