Jean Piaget was a Swiss psychologist, who was born in 1896 and died in 1980. His constructivist cognitive developmental theory is among the best known and most influential approaches to the development of human intellectual capacities. It has made its mark in psychology (both developmental and educational,) education theory and even in epistemology.
Children think differently from adults
Piaget’s interest in child development started when he was working with Alfred Binet (the creator of the first IQ test and the originator of the modern concept of intelligence.) Piaget noticed that the cognitive functions of younger children are different – in a qualitative rather just quantitative way – from those of adults. Children are not only less knowledgeable than adults, but also employ different modes of thinking.
Cognitive abilities develop through the process of adaptation
The main engine of development is, according to Piaget, a process of natural (and thus, to large degree, genetically determined) maturation of the human brain. This maturation process is, however, heavily and necessarily influenced by the environment. The development happens as the maturing brain interacts with the environmental challenges. Piagetian development can be understood as progressively more sophisticated and complex adaptation to the environment. This ability to adapt the cognitive structures of the human mind (“schemas”) to the environment is the essence of intelligence.
Adaptation balances assimilation and accommodation
Adaptation is driven by the challenges of the environment, but made possible by the maturation of the brain. Piaget introduced two key concepts that describe the mechanism of adaptation: assimilation and accommodation. According to Piaget, a child’s mind is in a balanced state (equilibrium) when the cognitive apparatus the child has is good enough for the child to cope with the environment This coping includes the ability to react and act and the ability to make sense of it, to grasp it on a cognitive level. The equilibrium is disrupted when the existing cognitive structures (“schemas”) are not sufficient to deal with the environmental stimuli. In such a case, adaptation is necessary to return to the state of the equilibrium, often on a more complex or sophisticated level.
Adaptation happens either via assimilation or accommodation. Assimilation describes using the existing cognitive framework in a new situation. The perceptions might be thus changed to enable them to fit in pre-existing structures. New information is added (assimilated) into pre-existing model. For example, a child might see a goat but perceive it as type of sheep, and thus calls it a “baaa-baaa”. The sensory input is thus assimilated into the category of a “baa-baa”/sheep. Later on, a child might create a new cognitive category (scheme) of a goat (possibly labeling it “meeh-meeh”). This creation of a new scheme is an example of accommodation.
Cognitive development progresses through distinct stages
The adaptive development of human cognitive abilities advances through a series of stages. These stages are fixed in the sense that they follow each other always in the same order and it’s impossible to attain a higher stage without previously attaining lower stages. The stages are qualitatively distinct: at each level, novel modes of functioning appear that did not exist (and could not exist) at the preceding stages.
Stage 1: Sensory-motor. This stage includes early childhood, up to around 24 months of age. Cognitive development starts with an innate set of reflexes (primitive schemas) and proceeds via physical actions. Manipulation of objects is crucial for development. Object permanence develops at around 6 to 8 months of age, when the child begins to know that an item removed from their view still exists and may potentially be brought back again. Symbolic representation of the world starts to emerge towards the end of this period.
Stage 2: Pre-operational. This stage extends throughout the pre-school and early primary school years, usually lasting between 2 and 6 years of age. Children at this stage of cognitive development commonly use magical thinking and have difficulties understanding other points of view. This ego-centrism can be observed in physical as well as moral judgments: for example children don’t easily realize that an observer positioned differently from them will see different features of the landscape. Language development progresses, and classification begins but usually only one trait is used for classifying objects. Children have trouble understanding that an object might belong to more than one class (so that their mother is somebody’s sister). According to Piaget, at this stage children don’t understand the conservation of liquid volume, and thus assume that the same volume of liquid transferred from a low, wide glass to a tall, narrow one is actually bigger, despite observing that no liquid has been added.
Stage 3: Concrete operations. This stage stretches throughout the early school years between approximately ages of 7 and 11 years old. Logical reasoning emerges, and children at this stage can classify objects according to many traits. The conservation principle is well grasped. Problem solving is possible, but concrete props and examples are still necessary.
Stage 4: Formal operations. Final maturity of the cognitive structures, achieved from around 11 years old onward (although it’s been shown that only about 20% of American 14-year olds function at this level). Formal logic, algebra and fluent use of symbols becomes possible. Abstract thinking and probabilistic reasoning begins. Children and adults at this stage are capable of understanding and formulating general rules, as well as entertaining variety of different hypothetical outcomes.
Piaget’s theory is among the most influential in psychology
Piaget’s original ideas as well as his methodology have been questioned, and to some extent refuted, in further research on psychological thinking. He almost certainly underestimated the abilities of young children and infants and doesn’t take into account cultural and social aspects of development; (it’s unlikely that the stage of formal operations will spontaneously arise without purposeful education.) The general-processor model of the mind is less popular now as it’s being supplemented and even supplanted with the evolutionarily inspired concepts of specific problem-solving modules. Despite all that, it’s almost impossible to overstate Piaget’s importance and influence on the development of psychology as a scientific discipline. He presented a consistent, comprehensive theory of development of human ability to learn, reason, and understand that continues to inform psychological and educational practice and inspire further empirical research and theorizing.
Sources and further reading:
Wadsworth B. Piaget’s Theory of Cognitive and Affective Development: Allyn and Bacon Classics Edition: Foundations of Constructivism
Piaget, J., and Inhelder, B. (1962). The Psychology of the Child. New York: Basic Books.
Piaget, J. (1952). The Origins of Intelligence in Children. New York: International University Press. (Original work published 1936.)
Beilin, H. (1992). Piaget’s enduring contribution to developmental psychology. Developmental Psychology 28: 191–204. doi:10.1037/0012-1622.214.171.124.
Boeree, B. Jean Piaget and Cognitive Development. Retrieved on 15 Jan 2011 from http://webspace.ship.edu/cgboer/genpsypiaget.html
Overview Of Cognitive Development, Piaget’s Theory Of Cognitive Development, Vygotsky’s Sociocultural Theory. Retrieved on 15 Jan 2011 from http://social.jrank.org/pages/145/Cognitive-Development.html
Huitt, W., & Hummel, J. (2003). Piaget’s theory of cognitive development. Educational Psychology Interactive. Valdosta, GA: Valdosta State University. Retrieved on 15 Jan 2011 from http://www.edpsycinteractive.org/topics/cogsys/piaget.html
Piaget’s Theory of Child Development. Retrieved on 15 Jan 2011 from http://www.simplypsychology.pwp.blueyonder.co.uk/piaget.html
Atherton J S (2010) Learning and Teaching; Piaget’s developmental theory [On-line] UK: Retrieved on 15 Jan 2016 from http://www.learningandteaching.info/learning/piaget.htm
F. Blanchard-Field (2001). Adult Cognitive Development: Post-Piagetian Perspectives. International Encyclopedia of the Social & Behavioral Sciences, 2001.
A. de Ribaupierre (2001). Piaget’s Theory of Child Development. International Encyclopedia of the Social & Behavioral Sciences.