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Discuss Piaget's theory of cognitive development
(8 + 16 marks)
Piaget's theory of cognitive development involves five key mechanisms, the first being `schema',
which are self-constructed behavioural or cognitive structures held in the mind to help with
everyday life. Next is `assimilation', which occurs when an existing schema is used for a new
object. The third mechanism is `accommodation'. This occurs when a child adapts an existing
schema in order to understand new information. Next is `equilibration', which can be achieved
when a schema is developed to include new information. Last is `operations', which can simply be
used to describe logical mental rules. Despite Piaget's claims, there is little research support about
the effects of disequilibrium. Inhelder et al. found that children's learning was helped when there
was a mild conflict between what the expected and what actually happened.
Piaget also proposed several stages that occur during childhood. The first stage is the
sensorimotor stage (birth to 2 years); during which children learn to co-ordinate sensory input
with motor actions. The key development of this stage is object permanence, which occurs around
8 months of age. In contradiction, Baillargeon and DeVos found that infants as young as 3-4
months old did display object permanence. To find this, they used tasks such as the rolling car
task, where a large carrot or a small carrot is placed on a toy train set and rolled along a track
behind a window. It was found that the infants looked longer at the large carrot when it didn't
appear, presumably expecting the top half to be visible. However, it could be argued that such
research lacks ecological validity as the method is not realistic or representative of real life.
The second stage is the pre-operational stage (2 to 7 years), where children's thoughts become
increasingly symbolic but remains egocentric. Furthermore, children are still not capable of
reversibility of thought. Piaget illustrated this stage using the three mountains task, during which
children were shown a set of pictures and asked to choose the one which showed the doll
perspective. It was found that children aged around 4 tended to choose their own perspective.
However, Hughes showed that children could cope with the task if it was more realistic.
The third stage is the concrete operational stage (7 to 11 years), in which children acquire the
basics of logical reasoning and start to conserve quantitative data. Piaget demonstrated
conservation by showing children various displays of quantity. If the display was transformed so
that the quantity appeared to have increased, younger children could not conserve the quantity.
However, McGarrigle and Donaldson argued that this deliberate transformation acted as a
demand characteristic, demanding an alternative response.
The final stage is the formal operational stage (11 years +), which involves children being able to
solve abstract problems using hypothetic-deductive reasoning. Piaget and Inhelder used the
beaker problem to demonstrate how children apply logical thinking to problem solving and found
that young children tried random combinations whereas children at the stage of formal operations
developed a logical strategy. However, Dasen claims that only a third of adults ever reach this
stage and even then not during adolescence.
A limitation of these studies is that Piaget underestimated children's abilities at younger ages, and
overestimated their ability to use abstract logic in the fourth stage. A further criticism is that the
methods used to research children's behaviour were flawed and the way the questions were
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asked may have been difficult for the children understand and (Samuel and Bryant). Despite this,
all evidence still supports the view that there are qualitative changes in cognitive development as
a child matures. Moreover, Piaget remains one of the most influential psychologists as his theory
has had an enormous influence on education and psychological research.…read more