Jean Piaget (1896-1980) was actually not a psychologist at first; he dedicated his time to mollusk research. In fact, by the time he was 21 he’d already published twenty scientific papers.
He soon moved to Paris, and got a job interviewing mental patients. Before long, he was working for Alfred Binet, and refining Burt’s reasoning test. He spent over 10 years perfecting his theory, and it is widely acknowledged as one of the most valuable developmental theories
Jean Piaget’s theory of Cognitive development
Piaget’s theory is based on stages, whereby each stage represents a qualitatively different type of thinking. Children in stage one cannot think the same as children in stage 2, 3 or 4 etc. Transitions from one stage to another are generally very fast, and the stages always follow an invariant sequence. Another important characteristic of his stage theory is that they are universal; the stages will work for everyone in the world regardless of their differences (except their age, of course, which is what the stages are based on!)
Piaget acknowledged that there is an interaction between a child and the environment, and this is a focal point for his theory. He believed a child cannot learn unless they are constantly interacting with their environment, making mistakes and then learning from them. He defined children as “lone scientists”; he did not identify any need for teachers or adults in cognitive development. Children have all the cognitive mechanisms to learn on their own, and the interaction with their environment allows them to do so.
The Key Concepts of Piaget’s theory:
Before explaining the main part of Piaget’s theory (the four stages), it’s very important to look at some of the underlying principles behind it.
Schema (pl. Schemata, although some say “Schemas” for the plural)
possibly one of the most important concepts put forward by Piaget, Schemata help individuals understand the world they inhabit. They are cognitive structures that represent a certain aspect of the world, and can be seen as categories which have certain pre-conceived ideas in them.
Children have schemata (cognitive structures that contain pre-existing ideas of the world), which are constantly changing. Schemata constantly undergo adaptation, through the processes of assimilation and accommodation. When seeing new objects there is a state of tension, and a child will attempt to assimilate the information to see if it fits into prior schemata. If this fails, the information must be accommodated by either adding new schemata or modifying the existing ones to accommodate the information. By balancing the use of assimilation and accommodation, equilibrium is created, reducing cognitive tension (equilibration).
The four stages of Piaget’s theory of Cognitive Development
The following stages form the bulk of Piaget’s theory.
STAGE ONE: The Sensor motor stage
Occurs from birth to approx. 2 years old
During this stage, information is received through all the senses. The child tries to make sense of the world during this stage, and as the name suggests, only senses and motor abilities are used to do so. The child utilizes innate behaviours to enhance this learning process, such as sucking, looking, grasping, crying and listening. To make this even more complex, there are 6 sub-stages of this one stage. To begin, the child uses only reflexes and innate behaviour. Towards the end of this stage, the child uses a range of complex sensor motor skills.
STAGE TWO: The Pre-operational Stage
Occurs from 2-7 years of age
The mental representation of the sensor motor stage provides a smooth transition to semiotic functioning in the pre-operational stage. This essentially means that a child can use one object to represent another (symbolically). For example, a child swinging their arms in a circular motion might represent the wheels on a train, or be sticking their arms out and be running might symbolize the movement of an aeroplane. This shows the relationships children can form between language, actions and objects at this stage.
A major characteristic of this stage is egocentrism: perception of the world in relation to oneself only. Children struggle to perceive situations.
Another feature of this stage is conservation. Children struggle to understand the difference in quantity and measurements in different situations.
STAGE THREE: The Concrete Operational Stage
Occurs from 7-11 years of age
This stage sees another shift in children’s cognitive thinking. It is aptly named “concrete” because children struggle to apply concepts to anything which cannot physically be manipulated or seen. Nevertheless, the child continues to improve their conservation skills, and by the age of 11 they can conserve numbers, weight and volume (acquired in that order). The child can also understand principles of “class inclusion”; perspective tasks become much easier, and children begin to understand that other people actually have different views to themselves. Simple maths, such as addition/subtraction becomes much easier. However, as this stage is concrete, Piaget suggests children will struggle to apply any prior knowledge to abstract situations.
STAGE FOUR: The Formal Operational Stage
Occurs from age 11 onwards
Children at this stage acquire the ability to think hypothetically and “outside the box”. Logical conclusions can be inferred from verbal information, and “concrete”, physical objects are no longer necessary. When presented with a problem, children at this stage can consider solutions to the problem in a logical manner. The child becomes increasingly “adult-like” with regards to their cognitive abilities. Scientific reasoning is apparent in this stage, and is indicated by Piaget and Inhelder’s Pendulum Task (1958). When asked to determine the effect different weights and rope length have on the speed of a swinging pendulum, formal operational children came to consistent and logical conclusions.
- Duveen, G. & Psaltis, C. (2008). The constructive role of asymmetries in social interaction in U. Mueller, J. I. M. Carpendale, N. Budwig & B. Sokol (Eds.), Social life and social knowledge: Toward a process account of development. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.
- Psaltis, C.; Duveen, G. (2006). "Social relations and cognitive development: The influence of conversation type and representations of gender". European Journal of Social Psychology. 36 (3): 407–430. doi:10.1002/ejsp.308
Dr. Deepak Pancholi, Assistant Professor