Piaget’s Theory of Cognitive Development

Piaget can be credited with making the most appreciable advances in our understanding of children’s thought processes, thanks to his thorough investigation into the epigenesis of human intelligence (the study of how one’s interactions in the environment influence development). According to Piaget, as children increase in age, so do their cognitive abilities. Thus, adults, unlike children, demonstrate both reasoned and logical thought processes. Some psychologists revere Piaget as the “giant in developmental psychology in the area of cognition” (Weber, 1984, p. 1951). Before Piaget introduced his theory, children were considered to be passive beings, molded and shaped by their surroundings (DeVries & Kohlberg, 1987). Much of Piaget’s research in child cognition was based on his very meticulous observations of his three children; he spent years watching them, carefully observing the use and function of their eyes, ears, arms, and legs during their very early development. A constructivist at heart, Piaget firmly believed that children construct their knowledge of the world by using what they already know to interpret novel experiences and events. Piaget was not so much concerned about what children knew as he was about how they processed problems and devised solutions to challenging tasks.

According to constructivists like Piaget, cognitive development constitutes qualitative and quantitative changes in the way children reason and think about their worlds. A three-year-old is not a miniature version of a ten-year- old who simply lacks the experience and knowledge of his older peer. Not only are there quantitative differences—variations in the amount or degree of knowledge that each child possesses, but also there are qualitative differences too, or variations in how they know what they know. There are differences in the type and form of knowledge that each child possesses (Bjorlund, 2005).

Piaget’s work in intelligence testing spurred his interest in children’s thought processes. For example, two children may agree that a tree is alive, but offer very different explanations for their response; one child might reply that it is because the tree moves and another child might say that it is because it makes seeds. Piaget’s work revealed many surprising ways in which children think (DeVries & Kohlberg, 1987, p. 17). He contended that children’s “incorrect” views about the world are subjective—reflecting a very unique personal perspective (De Vries & Kohlberg, 1987). In other words, each child’s unique interactions in the world precipitate his or her thoughts and reactions.

Piaget is also considered to be a stage theorist. He believed that children’s cognitive development consists of four distinct stages, with each stage of development to be qualitatively and quantitatively different than the one that preceded it and the one that will follow. According to Piaget’s theory, all children’s cognitive processes proceed in the same sequential manner; it is not possible for a child to miss a stage nor is it possible for children to regress to an earlier stage of reasoning or cognitive functioning. Changes in children’s thought processes and their progression from one stage to the next occur rather abruptly and over relatively brief periods. However, Piaget emphasized that there is evidence of continuity in the development of cognition, which facilitates the child’s relatively easy transition from one stage of cognitive development to the next. According to Bjorklund (2005), continuity is achieved due to brief “preparatory phases” between stages in which the developing child withstands a dual existence in two qualitatively different cognitive worlds. Thus, a seven-year-old child may demonstrate some aspects of concrete operational thought (e.g., the ability to classify objects and reverse operations) but may, at times, show signs of egocentric thought, which is prevalent at the preoperational stage of development.

Before examining Piaget’s stages of cognitive development, it is necessary to explicate a key term that is central to his theory: schemata.

Table l.l Piaget’s Stages of Cognitive Development


People of all ages, including babies, have a tendency to organize knowledge of their environment into what Piaget refers to as schemata or schemes. Schemes consist of physical actions, concepts, and theories that children use to gain information about their world. They are mental structures in the brain that underlie an individual’s intelligence. For example, young infants have particular schemes for interacting with their favorite rattle; they know how to grab it and thrust it in their month. A five-year-old child who has had both urban and suburban experiences might possess a broad scheme that includes knowledge of both domestic animals (cats and dogs) and farm animals (cows and sheep). By the same token, an eight-year-old child might possess a particular scheme for writing that includes both print and cursive letters.

Piaget believed that when learning occurs, unobservable changes in an individual’s cognition occur as well; e.g., a person’s schemes are modified and refined. It is logical to assume that the older an individual becomes and the more experiences he gains, the more extensive his mental structures become. However, it is also important to remember that the schemes of very young children are primarily comprised of physical actions. Children between birth and age two learn about the world primarily through their senses and motor abilities. As children develop, their schemes expand to include a range of mental operations, concepts, and theories that are largely facilitated by language. For instance, children become increasingly more adept at using symbol systems (e.g., language, numbers, sign language, etc.) to organize schemes of an abstract and complex nature.

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