An Overview on Jean Piagets Cognitive Developmental Theory

Jean William Fritz Piaget became world-renowned for his academic work in relation to the ‘cognitive developmental theory’, which facilitated the understanding of how children learn during the initial stages of life. Although he became popular for his research related to intellectual development of children, his initial interests and passion was towards the biological sciences, mainly to study ‘molluscs’.

History of Piagest’s Cognitive developmental theory:

Piaget was born in 1896 in Neuchâtel, Switzerland and was famous for publishing scientific articles even at the age of 10 years. Following entering the University of Neuchâtel, he received a PhD in Natural Sciences. During this time, Piaget had developed an interest in ‘psychoanalysis’ and it became apparent when he was offered a job in Paris at Grange-Aux-Belles street School for boys. While working in his newfound job, Piaget was involved in marking intelligence question papers of children which was the trigger point leading to the formulation of ‘cognitive developmental theory’.

Basis for formulating cognitive developmental theory:

While assessing the intelligence papers of children, Piaget noticed the recurrent mistakes made by children of the same age in relation to specific questions. The pattern of mistakes made by children was different to what was made by older children and adults. Therefore, Piaget made the assumption that, ‘individuals exhibit certain distinctive common patterns of cognition in each period in their development’ and this assumption became popular as the ‘Piaget’s cognitive developmental theory.’

Key ideas highlighted in Piaget’s theory:

While proposing the cognitive developmental theory, Piaget’s thinking gave rise to several concepts, which underlined his theoretical process. Among them, adaption, assimilation, and accommodation can be linked to one another. Assimilation is the process in which a person acquires material into his or her mind whereas accommodation is the difference made by such assimilation to a person’s mind. Adapting to ones surrounding or to the world through assimilation and accommodation is known as ‘adaption’.

Furthermore, ideas such as ‘classification’ and ‘class classification’ deals with categorizing objects together and recognizing that some categories would have similarities or belongs to sub-classes.

Apart from these, ideas such as conservation, decentration, egocentrism, operation, schema and stage are some of the other important contributions made by Piaget.

Stages of Piaget’s cognitive development:

According to Piaget, the child achieves certain cognitive milestones in several stages. Although there can be variations between one child to another, Piaget sees it as a global phenomena or a pattern. The four stages in his cognitive development theory includes, sensori-motor, pre-operational, concrete operational and formal operational.


Piaget defines this stage as from birth to second year of life and some of the main characteristics during this stage include, differentiating self from objects, beginning to act intentionally, and realize that objects can exist even though they do cannot be perceived to the sense.


Thought to exist between 2nd year of life to 7th year, pre-operational stage is the time when a child learns to use language and assign words and images to objects. They still lack the ability to take the others viewpoint although they can classify objects using a single feature.


Recognized as existing between 7th to 11th year, it is the time when children develops the ability to think logically about objects and events. They can classify objects even further using several features whereas they distinguish between numbers, mass and weight with the advancing age.

-Formal operational

When a child reaches 11 years and above, children would develop the ability to logically think about abstract propositions and test hypothesis systematically. It is the time when a child develops the ability to be concerned with ideas relevant to future, hypothetical ideals and other problems.


PIAGET, JEAN. 1983. “Piaget’s Theory.” In Handbook of Child Psychology Vol. 1: History, Theory, and Methods, 4th edition, ed. William Kessen. New York: Wiley.