Theories of cognitive development: Jean Piaget.
Our first years of life are an incredible, but dangerous journey. Thousands of sperm died trying to make us, and only one made it. From our journey as an embryo to a foetus – the size of a single cell to a fully sized baby – we develop more than we will our entire lives. From birth until we’re a few years old, our development is still incredibly rapid; we have so much to learn in such little time! It is advantageous to learn quickly, that way we’re more likely to survive in the cruel, unforgiving world.
Jean Piaget (1896-1980) was actually not a psychologist at first; he dedicated his time to mollusc research. In fact, by the time he was 21 he’d already published twenty scientific papers on them! He soon moved to Paris, and got a job interviewing mental patients. Before long, he was working for Alfred Binet, and refining Burt’s reasoning test. During his time working at Binet’s lab, he studied the way that children reasoned. After two years of working with children, Piaget finally realised what he wanted to investigate – children’s development! He noticed that children of a younger aged answered questions qualitatively different than those of an older age. This suggested to him that younger children were not less knowledgeable, but gave different answers because they thought differently.
He spent over 10 years perfecting his theory, and it is widely acknowledged as one of the most valuable developmental theories – especially of it’s time. It’s no lie that there are many new, possibly more valid theories now, but Piaget’s theory has had a lot of influence on schools, teaching and education all over the world. So, let’s begin exploring Piaget’s theory, the key concepts and the stages.
Jean Piaget’s theory of cognitive development.
Piaget’s theory is based on stages, whereby each stage represents a qualitatively different type of thinking. Children in stage one cannot think the same as children in stage 2, 3 or 4 etc. Transitions from one stage to another are generally very fast, and the stages always follow an invariant sequence. Another important characteristic of his stage theory is that they are universal; the stages will work for everyone in the world regardless of their differences (except their age, of course, which is what the stages are based on!)
Piaget acknowledged that there is an interaction between a child and the environment, and this is a focal point for his theory. He believed a child cannot learn unless they are constantly interacting with their environment, making mistakes and then learning from them. He defined children as “lone scientists”; he did not identify any need for teachers or adults in cognitive development. Children have all the cognitive mechanisms to learn on their own, and the interaction with their environment allows them to do so. To put this in perspective, another theory by Lev Vygotsky suggested that the interaction is not important at all; the child will learn when encouraged to with an adult’s assistance. I will be explaining then contrasting Vygotsky’s theory to Piaget’s in my next post – so be sure to check back for that! With the background of his theory explained, let’s look at -
The Key Concepts of Piaget’s theory:
Before explaining the main part of Piaget’s theory (the four stages), it’s very important to look at some of the underlying principles behind it. Rather than write a stupidly long paragraph explaining it all, I will write the key terms in bold, then explain them in bullet points – just to keep things simple!
- Schema (pl. Schemata, although some say “Schemas” for the plural)
Possibly one of the most important concepts put forward by Piaget, Schemata help individuals understand the world they inhabit. They are cognitive structures that represent a certain aspect of the world, and can be seen as categories which have certain pre-conceived ideas in them. For example, my schema for Christmas includes: Christmas trees, presents, giving, money, green, red, gold, winter, Santa Claus etc. Someone else may have an entirely different schema, such as Jesus, birth, Church, holiday, Christianity etc. Of course, there are schemata for all kinds of things – yourself (self schemata), other people (people schemata), events/situations (event schemata) and roles/occupations (role schemata). With regards to Piaget’s theory, a child might have a pre-conceived schema for a dog. If the household has a small West Highland White Terrier as a dog, the schema might be “small, furry, four legs, white”. When the child interacts with a new dog – perhaps a Labrador, it will change to incorporate the new information, such as “big, golden, smooth etc.” This is known as:
Simply the process of incorporating new information into a pre-existing schema. So with the “dog” example, the child assimilated the Labrador’s information into the old dog schema. Assimilation is essentially fitting new information into schemata we already have in place. Unfortunately, this can lead to stereotyping. For example, if an old lady sees a teenager mug another person, she might assimilate “violence” or “crime” into her teenage schema. Next time she sees a teenager, her schema will be applied to them – and although they may be a kind person, she will probably show prejudice. Assimilation is normally a simple process, as new information already fits the pre-exisiting categories.
When coming across a new object for the first time, a child will attempt to apply an old schema to the object. For consistency, let’s use the dog example again. The child may have “four legs, furry” in their dog schema. When coming across another similar animal, such as a cat, they might say “Look, a dog!” – that’s assimilation. However, when told that it’s actually a cat – not a dog – they will accommodate the new information into another schema. They will now form a “cat” schema; “not all four legged furry animals are dogs – some are cats too!”. They have accommodated the new information. The process just mentioned – of assimilation then accommodation is known as -
Assimilation and accommodation are the two parts of adaptation – which is simply what it says – adapting our schemata to make an accurate (enough) model of the world we live in. It is a form of learning, but an entirely different form to the kind you’d see in behaviourist psychology for example (such as operant/classical conditioning).
Piaget suggested that humans naturally strive to achieve a cognitive balance; there must be a balance between applying prior knowledge (assimilation) and changing schemata to account for new information (accommodation). Piaget suggested that when a child has a schema which doesn’t fit reality, there is tension in the mind. By balancing the use of assimilation and accommodation, this tension is reduced and we can proceed to higher levels of thought and learning (equilibration).
|QUICK SUMMARY: Children have schemata (cognitive structures that contain pre-existing ideas of the world), which are constantly changing. Schemata constantly undergo adaptation, through the processes of assimilation and accommodation. When seeing new objects there is a state of tension, and a child will attempt to assimilate the information to see if it fits into prior schemata. If this fails, the information must be accommodated by either adding new schemata or modifying the existing ones to accommodate the information. By balancing the use of assimilation and accommodation, an equilibrium is created, reducing cognitive tension (equilibration).|
If I am not explaining things well enough, check out the excellent animation at this website – just scroll to the “Criticisms of Piaget’s theory” part, and the animation should be there. Kudos to the creators, it is very easy to understand and follow.
The four stages of Piaget’s theory of Cognitive Development.
The following stages form the bulk of Piaget’s theory. I’ve kept you waiting long enough – so here they are, explained to the fullest of my knowledge! I’ve actually studied this over about 3 years though – so I should be able to provide some pretty useful information! If I miss anything out, please don’t hesitate to inform me.
STAGE ONE: The Sensorimotor stage
Occurs from birth to approx. 2 years old.
During this stage, information is received through all the senses. The child tries to make sense of the world during this stage, and as the name suggests, only senses and motor abilities are used to do so. The child utilizes innate behaviours to enhance this learning process, such as sucking, looking, grasping, crying and listening. To make this even more complex, there are 6 sub-stages of this one stage. To begin, the child uses only reflexes and innate behaviour. Towards the end of this stage, the child uses a range of complex sensorimotor skills. The sub-stages are as follows:
- Reflexes (0-1 month): The child uses only innate reflexes. For example, if a nipple or dummy is put into a baby’s mouth, they will reflexively suck on it. If an object is placed in their palm, the hand will automatically grab it. These reflexes have the sole function of keeping the child alive.
- Primary Circular Actions (1-4 months): The child now has a fixation with it’s own body with regards to behaviour(what Piaget refers to as primary behaviour); they will perform actions repeatedly on themselves (like sucking their own hand). They also begin to refine reflexes here to form more complex versions of them.
- Secondary Circular Reactions (4-8 months): At around 4 months, the child begins to take an interest in their environment (their behaviour is secondary). They notice that they can actually influence events in their world, for example they can drop a teddy which bashes a ball on the floor. Although this occurs, the infant will not make conscious connections between what they do and the consequences, they merely observe that their actions have interesting effects.
- Co-ordination of Secondary Circular Reactions (8-12 months): At this point, the child begins to engage in goal-directed behaviour; they begin to develop cause-effect relationships. So rather than crawl over to a teddy in a cart to pick it up, they might instead pull the cart over with the teddy in to acquire it. The child effectively knows that their behaviour will have a certain consequence. At this stage, object permanence is acquired – but I will explain this after these sub-stages.
- Tertiary Circular Reactions (12-18 months): At this stage, children like to use creativity and flexibility with their previous behaviours, and the result of their experimentation often leads to different outcomes. So rather than grabbing a box, they might instead try to tilt or manipulate it.
- Symbolic/Mental Representation (18-24 months): At this stage, the child develops symbolic thought and the ability to mentally represent objects in their head. Normally, the child would need to resort to trial-and-error to achieve a desired effect. Now, however, the child can ‘plan’ to some extent and mentally construct the consequences of an action in their head. Of course, predictions are not always accurate, but it is a step up from trial-and-error.
There are two key examples of mental representation in children: object permanence and deferred imitation.
Object permanence is when objects exist even when out of sight. In the first three sub-stages, children will not attempt to search for an object which is hidden from their view; in their mind, the object simply ceases to exist as they cannot see it. At sub-stage four, however, they show this characteristic of object permanence. If an object is hidden from them, they will attempt to find it, but will repeatedly look in the same place – even if the object is moved (the so called “A-not-B error”). However, by sub-stage 6, the child is able to mentally represent the object in their mind, leading to exploration for an object even if it is moved. They will continue to look for an object until they find it, as they understand objects exist regardless of where they are.
Deferred imitation is simply the imitation of behaviour a child has seen before. As a child can mentally represent behaviour they have seen, they are able to enact it through playing and in other situations. So a child might ‘talk’ down a toy telephone or ‘steer’ a toy car around the room.
|Sensorimotor quick evaluation: Bower (1982) found that children display object permanence at a much younger age than Piaget suggested. Children at 3 ½ months old show surprise (an elevated heart-rate) when a screen is removed to reveal an object has disappeared , than when the object remains. Willatts (1989) showed that children plan to move obstacles to desired toys through planning much earlier than Piaget’s theory would suggest they could.|
STAGE TWO: The Pre-operational Stage
Occurs from 2-7 years of age.
The mental representation of the sensorimotor stage provides a smooth transition to semiotic functioning in the pre-operational stage. This essentially means that a child can use one object to represent another (symbolically). For example, a child swinging their arms in a circular motion might represent the wheels on a train, or sticking their arms out and running might symbolise the movement of an aeroplane. This shows the relationships children can form between language, actions and objects at this stage.
A major characteristic of this stage is egocentrism: perception of the world in relation to oneself only. Children struggle to perceive situations from another point of view or perspective, as shown by Piaget and Inhelder’s Three Mountains Task (1956). In this study, children were asked what can be perceived from certain positions on a 3D model. See the diagram below for a clearer idea.
The child would have been asked, “What view does Piaget have?”. In the actual study though, they were shown around 8 cards of possible viewpoints rather than the three above. As you can imagine, the children struggled to decentralise and pick the correct picture.
Another feature of this stage is conservation. Children struggle to understand the difference in quantity and measurements in different situations. For example, suppose a child is shown a short, fat beaker full of water. When that water is transferred entirely to a tall, thin beaker – we would know the level of water is identical – only the beaker has changed. However, a child in this stage will conclude there is more water in the tall beaker, just because the level of water looks higher. Children in this stage also lack the required cognition to apply reversibility to situations; they cannot imagine objects or numbers reversed to their previous form. This will be explored in the next stage (where reversibility IS present).
When a child has the ability to decenter, they are said to progress to the next stage.
|Pre-operational quick evaluation: McGarrigle & Donaldson (1978) found that when a “naughty teddy” was used to scatter sweets around, children were more likely to conserve the correct amount of sweets. This suggests Piaget’s methods were simply not relevant to children, but the use of a teddy helped them understand. Similarly, McGarrigle (1978) found that rephrasing Piaget’s original questions to simpler, more child-orientated forms helped increase the amount of correct answers they provided. So is it that Piaget was correct, or just that his methodology was too complex for children’s cognition?|
STAGE THREE: The Concrete Operational Stage
Occurs from 7-11 years of age.
This stage sees another shift in children’s cognitive thinking. It is aptly named “concrete” because children struggle to apply concepts to anything which cannot physically be manipulated or seen. Nevertheless, the child continues to improve their conservation skills, and by the age of 11 they can conserve numbers, weight and volume (acquired in that order). The child can also understand principles of “class inclusion”; perspective tasks become much easier, and children begin to understand that other people actually have different views to themselves. Simple maths, such as addition/subtraction become much easier. However, as this stage is concrete, Piaget suggests children will struggle to apply any prior knowledge to abstract situations. For example, when asked seriation tasks such as “John is taller than Pete. John is shorter than Simon. Who is tallest?” , concrete children often fail to provide a correct answer as the situation is too abstract. However, when dolls are used to represent Pete, Simon and John, the children are able to answer – as the situation is bought back to a concrete one with physical representations.
|Concrete-operational quick evaluation: Tomlinson-Keasey (1978) found that acquisition of conservation does occur in the order Piaget suggested. Jahoda (1983), however, found that 9 year old Zimbabwean children had expert knowledge of small businesses and trade compared to British children of the same age. Zimbabwean children knew about the strategies involved in business, as it was hugely beneficial to have this knowledge from a young age in their culture. This is an important criticism for Piaget’s theory; it doesn’t appear to account for cross-cultural differences.|
STAGE FOUR: The Formal Operational Stage.
Occurs from age 11 onwards.
Children at this stage acquire the ability to think hypothetically and “outside the box”. Logical conclusions can be inferred from verbal information, and “concrete”, physical objects are no longer necessary. When presented with a problem, children at this stage can consider solutions to the problem in a logical manner. The child becomes increasingly “adult-like” with regards to their cognitive abilities. Scientific reasoning is apparent in this stage, and is indicated by Piaget and Inhelder’s Pendulum Task (1958). When asked to determine the effect different weights and rope length have on the speed of a swinging pendulum, formal operational children came to consistent and logical conclusions.
|Formal operational quick evaluation: Martorano (1977) found a massive range in ability between 12-18 year old females in the USA. He found the ability to complete formal operational tasks successfully ranged from 15-95%. This suggests that formal operational principles may be acquired, but it takes a range of time to apply them to different situations. Danner and Day (1977) found that students trained to complete formal operational tasks showed increases in the ability around 17 years of age. This suggests that the beginning of the formal operational stage (age 11) marks a time where children can potentially acquire formal operational thought processes, but may not specifically gain them without training. Think about why this is important! It may indicate that Piaget underestimated the role of teaching in his theory; he emphasised the concept of a “lone scientist” as mentioned above. Maybe this isn’t so? Maybe there is a need for interaction and a teacher?|
So there you have it. Piaget’s theory of cognitive development!
This might be the end of the post, but we certainly don’t finish there! I will soon blog about the main contender to Piaget’s theory – proposed by Vygotsky. When I’ve done that, I shall compare the two theories then evaluate them till there’s nothing left!
If you require any of the references for studies I’ve mentioned, please let me know and I’ll tell you them. Frankly, I can’t be bothered to type them all out now after all that (it’s taken about 3 hours!)
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Until next time,