Piaget's theory of cognitive development

Swiss psychologist Piaget formulated a theory of cognitive development that explains how children process and incorporate new experiences into their behavior. Discover how this theory has influenced research on children's cognition.

Jean Piaget revolutionized the field of cognition with his observations on cognitive development in children. Based on the observations of many children, including his own, Piaget reasoned that a child's thought process is shaped by the knowledge of the world that they acquire and then apply. A child's thought process matures in stages; experiences gleaned from one stage are used to moderate behavior to adapt to new environments in successive stages. It is this ability to adapt to their environment that makes children's thought processes different from those of adults.

At the heart of Piaget's theory are three inter-related principles that attempt to explain how a child adapts knowledge and experience to understanding. The inter-related principles are organization, adaptation, and equilibration. Organization explains how a child makes sense of the world using what the child's knowledge of the world is. The principle of adaptation predicts how the experiences and knowledge children have about their world are incorporated into their behavior. In equilibration, the child balances their experience from the outside world with the knowledge in his inner world. As a child's mental prowess matures, the experiences gained contribute to an understanding of the world. Assimilation of new information leads to the modification of behavior to incorporate the changes, also known as accommodation.

Piaget formulated that a child's thought process follows a series of cognitive stages. Each stage defines a new way of thinking that serves as the basis for the next successive stage. At the center of each stage is a scheme, or an organized pattern of thought about how things work and how things relate to each other. All children progress through these stages.

The first stage a child experiences is the Sensori-motor stage, which begins at birth and ends at age two. At the Sensori-motor stage, infants learn about their self and the world around them. An infant uses motor reflexes at birth and random sensory stimuli to explore the world around them. After one month, infants begin to reproduce simple, repetitive actions at random that lead to pleasing results. At 4 months of age, infants are introduced to the concept of object permanence. Through games such as Peek-A-Boo, an infant first discovers that a person will still exist even when out of sight. Infants begin to adapt situations to new experiences beginning at 8 months of age. At 10 months of age, infants learn about causality, where certain events cause other things to happen. After a year, babies begin to problem solve by trial and error. The concept of object permanence is fully realized beginning at 18 months. The beginning of shaping actions towards particular goals and symbolic thought using language marks the end of the first stage.

The second stage of cognitive development, known as the Pre-operational stage, begins at age 2 and continues until age 7. Children use pretend play to understand the world around them. Toddlers and children at this stage also begin to use language to communicate their mental representation of the world. At the Pre-operational stage, a child is egocentric; the child's behavior is in satisfying their own needs and desires.

The third stage of cognitive development is the Concrete Operational stage, beginning at age 7 and ending at age 11. At this stage, a child uses logical reasoning to manipulate the world around them. Children begin to understand concrete objects and are also able to not only use their own perspective, but the perspectives of other people at the same time to understand the situation around them. The concepts of conservation and reversibility are understood. Conservation is the realization that the physical characteristics of an object remain unchanged despite any changes in appearance.

The fourth and final stage of cognitive development is the Formal Operational stage. This stage finds the child logically thinking about and re-constructing an abstract problem. The child can now considers problems that are focused on matters other than themselves.

Piaget's observations have inspired more research than any other theory in cognitive development. He was able to show that children experienced a different thought process than adults, and that assimilation and accommodation lead to adaptation to new situations. His theories underlie many preschool and elementary school curriculums.

Piaget's theory has not been without its critics, however. The criticisms that have been leveled against Piaget include his own observations of the child behavior; Piaget examined the behavior of the average child, and did not allow for any exceptions. Modern research has shown that infants follow some of the stages at a much earlier age than Piaget theorized. As an example, the concept of object permanence has been observed at an earlier age than Piaget predicted. Furthermore, infants have been found to conceptualize at an earlier age. Regardless of this criticism, children tend to conform to the stages that have been laid out by Piaget, even if the cycle occurs at an earlier age. Without the underlying basis of Piaget's cognitive theory, we would still treat the learning process of a child the same as the learning style of adults.

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