Jean Piaget’s cognitive developmental theory defines the cognitive development of children in four stages. These stages are the sensory-motor stage from birth to two years old, the pre-operational stage from two to seven years old, the concrete operational stage from seven to eleven years old, and the formal operational stage. These four stages form the main frame for education in learning institutes from kindergarten to tertiary levels.
The sensory-motor stage sees children using their five senses to feed their minds with concrete models of the world around them. From the time they are in their mother’s womb, education through the senses of touch, hearing and taste begins. Devoid of smell and sight in the dark womb, babies are actively experimenting with the world around them in their mother’s womb. Scans have shown fetuses sucking thumbs and responding to loud music.
The sensory-motor stage sees infants and beginning toddlers reaching out for things they can feel, taste, see, smell and hear. Through many repetitions of the same activities, their brains start to form images of the world around them. Learning through the five senses is by memory of familiar happenings and by repeating what they see. Because their sense of taste is first developed, by the comforting suckling at their mother’s breast, their initial spontaneous reaction to new things is to put them into the mouth.
Hence, subsequently when they learn to grasp things with their hands, hitting the nose of their fathers with a rattle is fun because their father makes funny noises and a familiar clownish face that makes them happy, and they are encouraged to repeat the action. When they are much older by a few months, however, their father will not seem too happy when they do the same thing with a wooden baton or a glass bottle of tomato ketchup. Thus they begin to associate auditory and facial input with different items, actions and reactions.
From the age of eighteen months to twenty-six months, toddlers enter another learning phase in their lives known as the pre-operational stage. By this age, images have been formed in their minds. But they are not able to manipulate these images in their minds to make any connections between them. The pre-operational stage spans the ages of two to seven and consists of two stages. The first stage consists of the symbolic function substage. Children are able to formulate designs of absent objects but are not able to manipulate and transform the information in a logical manner.
The second pre-operational stage spans the ages of four to seven years of children’s lives and is known as the intuitive thought stage. During this stage, children enter primitive reasoning and are curious about the world around them, often annoying those around them with their questions. They are aware of a vast amount of knowledge but may not be able to manage that.
Children at this stage are involved in centration and conservation processes. In centration, they focus all their attention on one characteristic of an object compared to others of the same object. Nevertheless, at the same time, the process of conservation exists in them being aware that altering the object’s appearance does not change its basic properties. Hence, when water is poured from a tall and thin glass into a short bowl, the children’s assumption will be that since the height is shortened, the amount of water is lessened.
At this stage, learning is usually by imitation. Girls may start dressing up the hair of their friends and relatives. Play is a predominant form of learning. During this stage, they start accumulating symbolic images while they internalise these play activities.
The third stage of Piaget’s cognitive developmental theory occurs between the ages of seven and eleven years. Known as the concrete operational stage, children have arrived when they are able to use logic in an appropriate manner. This stage is characterised by several processes, namely, seriation, transitivity, classification, decentering, reversibility, conservation, and elimination of ego-centrism. However, they can only solve problems using concrete experiences and not abstract ones.
The fourth and final stage of Piaget’s cognitive developmental theory is the formal operational stage. During this stage, children enter their adolescent years. This final stage occurs around the time puberty sets in. They begin to move away from concrete experiences into abstract thinking, logical reasoning and drawing conclusions from the information that is available to them. This stage continues into adulthood.
Abstract thinking at this final stage is characterised by the adolescents being able to verbalise their problem solving processes. However, they tend to solve problems in a trial and error manner. They tend to devise plans and solutions based on what they think they know best, and rely on hypothetical-deductive reasoning.
At this final stage, adolescents start grasping abstract ideals such as love, logical proofs and values. They tend to do so, however, with adolescent ego-centrism, where their social matters tend to revolve around the ‘me’, ‘us’, ‘mine’, and ‘ours’ rather than the ‘others’. They also starting thinking about possibilities for their own future. They suddenly develop a concern about themselves and how they appear to others, while building up a deep sense of personal uniqueness and invincibility.
Piaget’s cognitive developmental stage theory has gone through challenges from others. Piaget himself admits that there are gaps to fill. Nevertheless, his theory provides a framework that is solid enough for parents and teachers to build meaningful learning experiences for the young in their charge.