Jean Piaget was a Swiss psychologist born in 1896 and died in 1980. He did research for a branch of psychology that he called “Genetic Epistemology”. Genetic, in the sense that Piaget used it, meant “development or emergence”.
(Miller, 2002) Epistemology means
the study of knowledge. Piaget developed one of the most widely known theories
of cognitive development in developmental psychology.
Piaget was working on the standardization of intelligence tests when he noticed a couple of things. He noted that the children’s incorrect answers were more informative than the correct answers. He concluded that the same mistakes were made by children of approximately the same age. He also noted that the kind of mistakes made by children of one age were qualitively different from the kinds made by other ages.
(Hergenhahn & Olson, 2001) Piaget believed that
humans learn through stages. He then began research in order to study these
stages. His primary method was to first observe children in their natural
settings, then form hypotheses about their behavior and finally to devise
problems to test his hypotheses. (Wood, Wood, & Boyd, 2011) He and his
assistants then asked these problems, as questions, to children to gauge their
answers and if they were right or wrong. The result of his research was that
human logical thinking did develop in a fixed sequence. He also concluded that children’s knowledge
of the world changed as their cognitive system developed. (Miller, 2002)
Piaget believed that the way a human’s knowledge developed was through organization. Organization is a mental process that uses specific experiences to make inferences that can be generalized to new experiences.
(Wood, Wood, & Boyd, 2011) Piaget also believed
that people construct their knowledge by taking an active role in the process. According
to Piaget, we develop schemes, or an organized pattern of behavior, as a result
of cognitive learning. The main task in cognitive development is the refinement
of our schemes. Piaget’s theory also states that we use such processes as assimilation (where new objects,
information, experiences are incorporated into what we already know), equilibration (motivates humans to keep
a scheme in balance with reality), and accommodation
(modifying existing schemes and crating new ones to incorporate new
information, events, etc) Piaget’s theory also says that accommodation is not
the end of the learning process. Children repeat the processes with each new
object until they create a new set of working rules for it.
Piaget’s Theory of Cognitive Development consists of four stages: Sensorimotor, Preoperational, Concrete Operational and Formal Operational. A child develops better schemes with each stage. Each stage differs in quantity of information acquired as well as in quality of knowledge and understanding.
(Renner, Morrissey, Mae, Feldman, & Majors, 2011) Movement from one
stage to the next occurred when an appropriate level of maturation was achieved
and when exposed to relevant types of experiences. There were five
characteristics of Piaget’s stage theory (Miller, 2002): 1) A stage is a structured whole in a
state of equilibrium, 2) Each stage derives from the previous stage,
incorporates and transforms that stage and prepares for the next, 3) The stages
follow an invariant sequence, 4) Stages are universal, and 5) Each stage
includes a coming – into – being and a being.
The first stage in Piaget’s theory is the sensorimotor stage. This stage is usually from birth until 2 years of age. In this stage, the infant understands the world through their senses and motor activities. During this stage, there is an absence of language. It has been noted that “fantastic development” takes place during this stage.
(Malerstein & Ahern, 1979) This stage is broken
down into six sub-stages to accommodate this development. (Miller, 2002) The first of these sub-stages is the
Modification of Reflexes. During this stage, babies strengthen, generalize and
differentiate behaviors that began as reflexes. The second sub – stage is the
Primary Circular Reaction stage. This sub – stage has the most widespread and
rapid development of schemes. This is because primary circular reactions, or a
behavior that focuses on the body rather than an object that is repeated over
and over again) now occur. Sub – stage number three is the Secondary Circular
Reaction stage. These reactions are centered on the external world rather than
the self. The fourth sub – stage is the Coordination of Secondary Schemes
stage. This stage includes babies learning the means – end behavior. They begin
learning what to do to get what they want. The fifth sub – stage is the
Tertiary Circular Reactions stage. In this stage, babies work through trial and
error to expand on the means – end behavior. The final stage in the
Sensorimotor Stage is the Invention of New Means through Mental Combinations
stage. This is the stage where babies begin to use mental symbols to represent
objects and events. Some behaviors a baby uses during the sensorimotor stage
are sucking, touching, chewing, shaking and manipulating objects. The end of
this stage is marked by the infant learning object permanence, the realization
that objects and people continue to exist even when they are out of sight.
The second stage of Piaget’s Theory of Cognitive Development is the Preoperational Stage. This stage lasts from around age two until age six. During this stage, a child has the ability to mentally represent objects making it possible to construct a scheme for the idea that one thing can stand for another (symbolic or semiotic function). This is a stage that is primarily focused on language. However, during this stage, the ability to use logic is still restricted. They cannot perform mental operations that follow logical rules. Children have difficulty with this because of centration (focusing on one dimension). Children exhibit egocentrism (believing that everyone around them feels, sees, knows what they know). Children also have animistic thinking where they believe that inanimate objects are alive. The Preoperational Stage has two subdivisions.
(Hergenhahn & Olson, 2001) They are the
Preconceptual Thinking stage and the Period of Intuitive Thought stage. In the
Preconceptual Thinking stage is where the basic concept thinking begins
forming. In the Period of intuitive Thought stage, a child can solve problems
based on intuition rather than by a logic rule. The end of this stage is marked
by a shift in play preferences that includes pretending. A child also realizes
at the end of this stage that putting on a mask or a costume does not change
The third stage of Piaget’s theory is the Concrete Operational Stage. This stage usually lasts from age six to age eleven or twelve. Children gradually develop schemes that allow them to focus on two dimensions at the same time. Children also develop reversibility, the fact that only the appearance of an object has been changed and it can be returned to its original state. They also develop conservation (the knowledge that quantity is unrelated to the arrangement and physical appearance of objects). Children have developed more logic skills in this stage. They can now apply logic to real world problems, but still cannot think logically about hypothetical or abstract problems. According to Piaget, a child moves out of this stage and into the final one when they can respond correctly to hypothetical problems.
The final stage of Piaget’s theory is the Formal Operational Stage. This stage usually begins around age eleven or twelve and goes beyond. During this stage, humans can construct a scheme that allows them to coordinate present realities with other possible realities.
(Wood, Wood, & Boyd, 2011) The logical thinking
skills have now expanded to include abstract problems and hypothetical
situations. Although this stage occurs during the teen years, some adults rarely
use it. (Renner, Morrissey, Mae, Feldman, & Majors, 2011) Some studies say
that some individuals never even reach this stage. Most studies reveal that
only 40 to 60% of college students and adults fully reach it. Others studies
estimate as low as 25%. Some behaviors in this stage include naïve idealism
(making elaborate plans), adolescent egocentrism (belief that all the focus is
on them), imaginary audience (the audience that is always focused on them), and
personal fable (believing that they are so unique that no one has ever felt as
Some believe that there has been no other theory of cognitive development as influential as Piaget’s. His problems have been used by thousands of developmental psychologists around the world.
(Wood, Wood, & Boyd, 2011) Although his stages
have been challenged, they are an accurate account of age related changes in
relation to cognitive development. Piaget himself claims he is one of the
primary revisionists of his theory. He made changes over the years in relation
to developmental change and equilibration. Although some contemporary theorists
claim that stage theories are not accurate in predicting a child’s cognitive
behavior, Piaget’s theory is regarded as one of the most comprehensive
cognitive development theories.
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Hergenhahn, B., & Olson, M. (2001). Introduction to Theories of Learning (6th ed). Saddle River, NJ: Prentice - Hall, Inc.
Malerstein, A., & Ahern, M. (1979). Piaget's Stages of Cognitive Development and Adult Character Structure. American Journal of Psychotherapy , 107-118.
Miller, P. (2002). Theories of Developmental Psychology (4th ed). New York, NY: Worth Publishers.
Renner, T., Morrissey, J., Mae, L., Feldman, R., & Majors, M. (2011). Psychsmart. New York, NY: The McGraw - Hill Companies, Inc.
Wood, S., Wood, E., & Boyd, D. (2011). The World of Psychology (7th ed). Boston, MA: Pearson Education, Inc.
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