Jean Piaget's Cognitive Developmental Theory

Jean Piaget, cognitive developmental theory, stressed that children actively construct their own congnitive worlds

The famous Swiss psychologist, Jean Piaget (1896-1980), stressed that children actively construct their own cognitive worlds; information is not just poured into their minds from the environment. Piaget believed that children adapt their thinking to include new ideas. He thought that assimilation (which is an individual's incorporation of new information into their existing knowledge) and accommodations (an individual's adjustment to new information) operate even in the very young infant's life. Newborns reflexively suck everything that touches their lips (assimilation), but, after several months of experience, they construct their understanding of the world differently. Some objects, such as fingers and the mother's breast, can be sucked, but others, such as fuzzy blankets, should not be sucked (accommodation).

Piaget believed that we go through four stages in understanding the world. Each of the stages is age-related and consists of distinct ways of thinking. The sensorimotor stage, which lasts from birth to about two years of age, is the first Piagetian stage. In this stage, infants construct an understanding of the world by coordinating sensory experiences (such as seeing and hearing) with physical, motoric actions- hence the term sensorimotor. At the beginning of this stage, newborns have little more than reflexive patterns with which to work. At the end of the stage, 2-year-olds have complex sensorimotor patterns and are beginning to operate with primitive symbols.

The preoperational stage, which lasts from approximately two to seven years of age, is the second Piagetian stage. In this stage, children begin to represent the world with words, images, and drawings. Symbolic thought goes beyond simple connections of sensory information and physical action. However, although preschool children can symbolically represent the world, according to Piaget, they still lack the ability to perform operations, the Piagetian term for internalized mental actions that allow children to do mentally what they previously did physically.

The concrete operational stage, which lasts from approximately seven to eleven years of age, is the third Piagetian stage. In this stage, children can perform operations, and logical reasoning replaces intuitive thought as long as reasoning can be applied to specific or concrete examples. For instance, concrete operational thinkers cannot imagine the steps necessary to complete algebraic equation, which is too abstract for thinking at this stage of development.

The formal operational stage, which appears between the ages of eleven and fifteen, is the fourth and final Piagetian stage. In this stage, individuals move beyond concrete experiences and think in abstract and more logical terms. As part of thinking more abstractly, adolescents develop images of ideal circumstances. They might think about what an ideal parent is like and compare their parents to this ideal standard. They begin to entertain possibilities for the future and are fascinated with what they can be. In solving problems, formal operational thinkers are more systematic, developing hypotheses and why something is happening the way it is, then twisting these hypotheses in a deductive fashion.

Remember, it is the different way of understanding the world that makes one stage more advanced than another; knowing more information does not make the child's thinking more advanced, in the Piagetian view. This is what Piaget meant when he said the child's cognition is qualitatively different in one stage compared to another.

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