Jean Piaget and his theory of the stages of cognitive development have made significant contributions to a wide cross-section of disciplines including educational psychology and applied developmental psychology. Though his original theory has undergone some amount of changes, the basic tenets are still applicable in understanding how humans develop progressively from birth to adulthood. Several theorists have criticized Piaget’s theory and have proposed alternative approaches to explaining human development.
Other theorists have espoused Piaget’s theory with few modifications or additions to the original theory.
Nevertheless his theory of cognitive development has had a tremendous impact on developmental psychology and will continue to represent a valid theory in helping to understand the nature and stages of human development. The field of applied developmental psychology has and will continue to benefit from the views put forward by Piaget. Biography of Jean Piaget Jean Piaget was born in Neuchatel, Switzerland on August 9, 1896 to what he described as a ‘tumultuous family environment.
From an early age Piaget showed signs of having superior intelligence and acquired an interest in several fields of study including psychoanalytic theory, philosophy, mechanics and natural history.
At the very young age of ten he published a study on mollusks (malacology). Several years later, in 1917 he published a philosophical novel. His intellectual and research accomplishments thereafter are numerous. In 1918, at only 21 years of age he obtained his doctoral degree in Biology from the University of Neuchatel continuing his study of mollusks in his thesis.
His interest in philosophy and psychology led him to Zurich where he worked with mental patients while studying psychoanalytic theory. His interest in child developmental psychology began in Paris with his work in a laboratory at a grade school. Here he worked along with Alfred Binet, who headed the laboratory, in standardizing reasoning tests for Paris children. He became curious about the thought processes of children that influenced them producing either the correct or incorrect answers. Piaget published a number of articles discussing the research he conducted here.
In 1921 Piaget was made director of studies at the Institut J. J. Rousseau in Geneva. In 1923 he married Valentine Chatenay with whom he had three children. He continued his study of child psychology and later published five books on the topic. His background in Biology had a significant amount of influence in his research (Slavin, 2000). These publications subsequently distinguished him in this field of study. His academic and administrative appointments saw him working at the University of Geneva, the Sorbonne, the Institut des Sciences de l’Education, and the Bureau International de l’Education.
He is also noted to have founded and directed a center for philosophers and psychologists called the Centre d’Epistemologie Genetique. He worked along with several other researchers including Alina Szeminska, Barbel Inhelder, and Marcel Lambercier. Among the research topics that he conducted extensive studies on have been noted the notions of number, physical quantity, and space; manipulation of objects; and the development of perception. These areas collaboratively contributed to his theory of cognitive development.
His platform of study was both at the professional and personal level. It is widely known that he conducted detailed observations of his three children Jacqueline, Lucienne and Laurent throughout their infant and language development years. His wife, herself a psychologist, also worked along with him during his observations, recording the behaviors of their children (Fischer & Hencke, 1996). Piaget’s contributions to the field of developmental psychological are indeed considerable and have been widely acknowledged.
He was awarded the Distinguished Scientific Contribution Award in 1969 by the American Psychological Association for his contributions. At his death in Geneva on September 16, 1980, Piaget had written and published more than 40 books and over 100 articles or chapters dealing with the topic of child psychology. His earliest works include The Origins of Intelligence in Children (1936/1952), The Construction of Reality in the Child (1937/1954) and Play, Dreams, and Imitation in Childhood (1945/1951) (Fischer & Hencke, 1996).
To date his research is believed to have made the single most important contribution to developmental psychology (Slavin, 2000; Beilin, 1992) and to a large extent the field of cognitive development psychology was founded primarily on his work (Goswami, 2001, p. 259). Piaget’s theory of cognitive development Piaget sought to describe how development occurs from the moment of birth unto adulthood and the cognitive changes that occur as physical development takes place. Using his background in Biology and his knowledge of the way organisms behave relative to their environment, Piaget sought to explain how children think along these lines.
Piaget’s position that children construct knowledge based on these processes was in antithesis to behaviorist orientation which suggested that behavior was molded exclusively by external environmental forces. Piaget’s theory was more constructivist in nature proposing that each child is actively involved in constructing his own reality. Construction of knowledge, Piaget argued, was facilitated via the interaction of the processes of adaptation, accommodation, assimilation and equilibration.
Piaget commenced by proposing that children are born with a natural inclination to interact with and a need to understand their environment (Slavin, 2000). From the earliest stage children develop mental patterns that guide their behavior, what Piaget calls schemes. Schemes are used to “find out about and act in the world” (Slavin, 2000, p. 30). The goal of intellectual development, according to Piaget, was towards adaptation where existing schemes are adjusted in response to modifications in the environment.
As new situations arise children either incorporate new objects or events into existing schemes through assimilation or they adjust existing schemes when new objects and events do not fit into those existing schemes in the process of accommodation. When unfamiliar situations arise a state of disequilibrium ensues and the processes of accommodation and assimilation facilitate the return to equilibrium where balance is restored between existing understanding and new experiences – the process of equilibration (Slavin, 2000). The dimensions of the theory
Piaget believed that children passed through four different stages of development that are defined by different characteristic features from birth to adulthood. Piaget proposed that each child moves progressively through each of the stages of cognitive development as they mature physically. The four distinct stages of cognitive development that Piaget has specified are the sensorimotor, preoperational, concrete operational and formal operational periods. He also gives an estimate as to the age at which each child will enter either stage.
Wakefield (1996) points out, though, that “the age range for each stage is only an average” a child may enter a specific stage earlier or later than that estimated by Piaget. However, each child, Piaget argues, must pass through each of these stages of development in the specified order and no child can skip a particular stage. It must also be noted here that his theory is necessarily universal as it examines only how all children will progress and does not seek to analyze individual differences among children. The sensorimotor period represents a child zero (0) to two (2) years old.
The main aspects of this stage Slavin (2000) summarizes as where “infants learn about their surroundings by using their senses and motor skills”. Piaget believes that each child is born with some built in mechanisms and tendencies and these he labels as reflexes. Because a newborn child has not yet developed a concept of his environment, his initial response to this environment up to one month old is instinctive. These reflexes, however, soon become the basis through which the child acquires new perspectives and behaviors (schemes) in an attempt to learn about and understand his environment.
From birth to one month children begin to establish schemes as they commence the processing of interacting with and understanding their environment. Initially displaying behaviors by simple reflex children soon begin to modify these reflexes. From one to four months children attempt to reproduce recurring themes in their schemas. Children later begin to establish repetitive patterns in behavior and to associate different behaviors with different schemes. Examples include an infant crying when hungry and laughing when happy.
The period two to four months Fischer and Silvern (1985) notes as when the child is developing the ability to intelligently adapt individual actions such as grasping a rattle (p. 634). Between four and eight months children are more object-oriented paying more attention to objects in their external environment, becoming more observant and less preoccupied with issues related to themselves such as hunger and sleep. Children begin to display more coordination in their schemes.
From eight to 12 months children become aware of what they want and begin to construct their own schemas in order to achieve their goals. Behaviors are now more deliberate, carried out with a particular purpose in view. From 12 to 18 months children they are exploring new possibilities with objects in their environment. A child’s action at this stage is very experimental using trial and error to discover new schemas. From 18 to 24 months children begin to transition from this stage to the second preoperational stage.
They are developing the ability to function using symbolic representations. Of course a child at the sensorimotor stage may not necessarily be able to fully understand every new thing that he perceives in his environment. Wakefield (1996) comments that, even though a child is unable to perform some amount of logical thinking at this stage, there is still some attempt to understand his environment through the use of his sense perceptions and motor skills. The preoperational stage is between ages two and seven years approximately.
At this second stage children begin to be able to use symbols to represent things mentally by associating those new things with objects they are familiar with. While they are a little more developed cognitively than the earlier stage they still have a very narrow view of their environment. Within this stage, from age two to four years a child is relatively egocentric believing that everyone else sees things from their perspective. They also possess some amount of animism, believing that objects have characteristics similar to living things such as the ability to move.
From age four to seven children further develop their reasoning capacities even though their thought processes are not completely logical. They have difficulty, however, with the concepts of centration and conservation. Slavin (2000) explains these concepts by illustrating that in this stage a child does not understand that the amount of milk in a tall glass is the same when it is poured into a shallower container nor are they able to realize that an object painted a different color is still the same object.
The third stage of cognitive development is the concrete operational stage which covers children aged seven to eleven. At this stage children, while experiencing difficult thinking in abstract, are able to form concepts and solve problems. Of course they must be able to relate such operations to already familiar objects or situations in order for them to function properly. They are now able to understand and apply the principles of conservation and centration. Their reasoning is also considerably more logical and can show interrelations between different objects and classes of objects.
They are still limited, however, in that they are unable to reason in abstract terms but need concrete circumstances and examples as guides. A child in the final formal operational stage, lasting from age eleven (11) to adulthood, is now able to reason in abstract and to conceptualize situations beyond what they can see and touch. They have now developed the capacity to perform reasoning about events, actions or objects that they cannot see or that are strictly hypothetical and they are also able to use deductive reasoning.
They begin to devise plans to solve problems and test their hypothesis against a variety of options. Piaget’s stratification of cognitive development into different stages has considerable implications particularly for educational goals. Because children are able only after having moved through certain stages, to manipulate certain tasks and to be effective in certain cognitive activities, learning situations must be structured so that they match the developmental stages.
Education must therefore be developmentally appropriate to the abilities of the child and attempts should be made to help children, as they progress from one stage to the next, to manipulate the operations inherent at each stage. Piaget’s view of cognitive development has been quite formidable and influential in helping researchers understand the processes at work at different stages and ages. There have, however, been several criticisms of the model. One of the major criticisms has focused on the presumed universality of the stages that Piaget describes.
He supposes that every child, irrespective of situational context, will go through these stages at a prescribed time and that the principles are therefore applicable to all children everywhere. Some researchers have noted, however, that the rate and stage of development is not at all universal. The ages that Piaget initially suggested as delineating each stage are therefore thought of as rough estimates and children can enter and exit each stage either earlier or later than initially prescribed.
Another concern that was raised with regards to Piaget’s theory was that it suggested that as the child progressed through the stages that the abilities at the lower stage no longer become useful or necessary. Piaget later clarified, however, that the concrete thinking and other abilities at the lower stage are not only essential before a child is able to progress to more complex thinking but they are also persistent over time and that a child never loses the lower abilities. He suggests that over time certain tasks become automatic, almost instinctive, but they are still essential even in the later stages of development.
Further Piaget’s original theory had not considered the potential impact that the environment may have in impacting behavior. His initial argument much to anti-behaviorist and thus the power of environmental factors to shape behavior was almost ignored. Even though he accounted for these influences in his explanations of the process of adaptation and equilibration, he did not focus much on this aspect. Researchers have found that various social and environmental factors can have a considerable impact on a child’s development.
They propose that a child can enter a stage earlier and progress through that stage much quicker than others based on the stimuli available in his environment. Similarly a child’s development may be significantly retarded if adequate stimuli are not provided in the environment. A child would therefore progress through stages later and at a slower pace. The behaviorist position that the environment matters is therefore not completely invalid and their view of the potential influence of the external environment in shaping behavior has some merit.
Despite this failure to fully acknowledge and explain the relevance and impact of environmental factors in facilitating knowledge construction based on reality and even though the theory seems to emphasize universal stages of development, Fischer and Hencke (1996) believe that Piaget with his cognitive development theory is notably still the most influential researcher and theorist on developmental that the twentieth century has seen (Fischer & Hencke, 1996, p. 09). Current research Several theorists have arisen in more recent times to expand on Piaget’s original theory, to propose modifications on the areas of weakness or to suggest a complete new approach to understanding cognitive development. Among those worthy of mention are Robbie Case, Kurt Fischer, Michael Shayer and Juan Pascual-Leone. Robbie Case is a neo-Piagetian who agrees with Piaget’s general position that children go through developmental stages.
Case also agrees with Piaget that each stage is delineated based on age and is representative of the changing ways that children are able to mentally represent reality and how they process information in their brains. Case also supports that cognitive development occurs in four stages commencing from when a child is around one month old until the period of adulthood. Within each stage he also recognizes substages of development postulating, like Piaget that each successive stage is a continuation or a building on to the former (Sternberg, 1987, p. 08). Beginning in the mid-nineteen seventies Case began to propose alternative interpretations of the stage development theory. He has developed some characteristics in his new theory that are not in complete alignment with original Piagetian thought. His first area of departure is with relation to the way that information is processed in the brain throughout the stages.