Human development: Piaget

Revision cards outlining Piagets theory in health and social care unit 12 (human development: factors & theorists), including the stages,learning theory, the tests conducted by Piaget and also the tests carried out by those challenging Piagets theory, concluded with an evaluation of Piagets theory

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Stages of cognitive development

Stages of cognitive development (as described by Piaget)

0-2 years: Sensori- motor stage: Children acquire object permanence (aged around 8 months according to Piaget) however children are still egocentric and are unable to conserve.

2-7 years: Pre operational stage, divided into 2 periods

  • Preconceptual period: 2-4 years. Children may begin to use symbols, such as words and images, to represent other things (like using a cardboard box as a racing car). During this stage children also use animisn: this is giving intentions to inanimate objects, such as saying 'the leaves are dancing' or 'the naughty box tripped me up'.. During this stage they are also egocentric.


  • Intuitive period: 4-7 years. The child's judgements of situations tend to be intuitive, i.e. they judge situations by appearance without looking at other factors or using logical reasoning; therefore they are usually unable to conserve.
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Stages of cognitive development

7-11 years: the stage of formal operations: children are able to perform logical operations, providing that they are dealing with real (concrete) materials and situations rather than hypothetical ideas. One example of a logical explanation is reversibility: understanding that if, for example, you add a group of three beads to a group of four beads to get 7 beads, the original situation (a group of 4 beads) can be restored by taking 3 beads away. Another operation is conservation: knowing that redistributing material does not affect it's mass, number or volume.

11 years +: the stage of formal operations: Children become able to perform mental operations on abstract and hypothetical situations, such as algebra in mathematics (dealing with x and y as unknown numbers). Hypothetical thinking means considering the possible consequences of situations which haven't yet occured; such as asking children questions like "What would it be like if sheep could talk?" Children in this stage are likely to give inventive answers, such as 'They would organise a revolution against farmers'

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Object permanence

Understanding that objects exist independently from ourselves; and continue to exist even when we cannot see them.

Piagets test:

First, the child is given a small toy to play with. Then their attention is temporarily distracted, for example with a set of keys. While they are distracted, the experimenter will hide the original toy under a blanket. If the child looks for the toy, then they have object permanence. Piaget said most children begin to show object permanence at about 8 months old.

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Object permanence

Alternative tests: Bower and Wishart (1972)

Instead of hiding the toy under a blanket, they waited until an infant reached out for an object and then turned off the light so the infant couldn't see the object. The recorded the infants reaction using an infra-red camera and found that younger infants, between the ages of 1 and 4 months, continues to reach for the toy for up to a minute and a half after the light was switched off, suggesting object permanence is acquired much earlier.


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The inability to view a situation from somebody elses point of view

Piagets test:

This is known as the three mountains test. During this test the child is taken into a room with a model of three mountains mounted on a board. On top of one mountain, there is some snow, a red cross on another and a hut on another. Seated on one side of the model is a doll. The child is allowed to walk around the model before being told to sit opposite the doll. They are then given ten cards showing pictures of the model from different viewpoints, and then asked to select the picture which shows the model as the doll sees it. Children who select the correct viewpoint are no longer egocentric. By the age of 7, most children are no longer egocentric

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Alternative test: Hughes (policeman test)

Hughes used an arrangement of walls (arranged in the shape of a cross) forming four areas, which he labelled A, B, C and D. He placed a policeman doll in a position where it was able to see into only areas B and D. The boy doll was placed in area A and the child was asked if the policeman could see the boy (the answer was, of course, no). This procedure was repeated with the remaining three areas and if the child made a mistake, they were corrected. Next, the policeman doll was placed so he could see only into areas A and C. The child was asked to hide the boy doll so the policeman couldn't see him. Most children were able to do this without mistakes. These were known as practise rounds.                                   Finally, a second policeman doll was placed on the model in a position where it was able to see only into areas A and B, and the original policeman doll was able to see into only areas B and D. The child was then asked to hide the boy doll where neither policeman could see him. If the child answered area C (the correct answer) they were said to be no longer egocentric.                                        Hughes found that 90% of children ages between 3 1/2 to 5 were no longer egocentric.

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Picture of Hughes' test


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The ability to understand that redistributing material doesn't affect it's mass, number or volume.                                                                                           Piagets test: the beakers test:                                                                                 The child is shown two clear beakers containing the same amount of water. The child is asked 'Is there the same amount of water in these two beakers, or is there more in one than the other?' The child should answer that they are the same. Then the water from one beaker is poured into a third beaker with a wider base. The child is asked the same question again. A child can conserve will answer that they are still the same.                                                                                                        Conservation of number: The child is shown two rows of counters, containing the same number in each, equally spaced out. The child is asked if there is the same number in each, or more in one than the other. Then one of the rows is made longer by spreading the counters out, and the question was asked again. Conservation of mass: The child was shown two equal sized balls of play-dough. 'The Question' was asked, and then one of the balls was squashed and 'The Question' was repeated.

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Alternative test: McGarrigle and Donaldson (1974)

Conservation of number: The counters are laid out the same way as in Piagets test, and 'The Question' was asked. The researcher then picked up a teddy and pretended the teddy was interfering with the test, using phrases like 'Oh no! The naughty teddy is messing up the counters!' whilst spreading out one row of counters, to make it appear longer. After this, the reseearcher asked 'The Question'

McGarrigle and Donaldson then found that 60% of 6 year olds could conserve, when the situation is given context or meaning.

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Learning theory

Piaget believed that children learned through a process of assimilation and accomodation, and that childrens responses to situations are known as schemas. Children develop schemas through a cycle:

Faced with a new situation, a child is likely to select an existing (or known) schema to deal with this. This is known as assimilation. Assimilation allows children to make sense of new situations. However, in some situations, existing schemas may not be effective in dealing with each new situation, so the child may have to adjust one of their existing schemas, forming a new schema. This is known as accomodation.

Piaget believed that in order to develop schemas, they should be provided with adquate opportunities and equipment to play and explore various situations. This is known as discovery learning.

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Key words

Schema: A plan of action, stored in the childs memory which allows the child to respond to situations

Assimilation: A known or existing schema is selected when a child is faced with a new situation. This is the method by which a child makes sennse of a new situation

Equilibrium: The process of understanding the world through a new schema: The state of balance- using different schemas for difference situations

Disequilibrium: The process of unbalance where the new schema is being formed to understand a new situation

Accommodation: The process of adjusting to a new situation- The development of a new schema to respond to a new situation.

Discovery learning: Learning through play and direct experience

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More key words

Object permanence: knowing that objects exist independent from ourselves and that they continue to exist even when we cannot see them

Egocentrism: The inability to see a situation from another persons point of view

Conservation: Knowing that redistributing a material doesn't affect it's mass, number or volume


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Evaluation of stage theory

Piagets theory plausibly describes the development of thinking and understanding.

However, it is not clear that development actually falls into these stages.

Vygotsky emphasises the role of social learning and instruction; that cognitive development cannot happen through discovery alone.

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Evaluation of Piagets tests

In some cases, Piagets tests are confusing and difficult for children to understand.

Other researchers found the timings of success in these tests are slightly different to Piagets findings, however he still made a significant contrubution in originating the study of study of cognitive development and dividing tests for this.

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Evaluation of Piagets research

A positive feature of piagets research was his detailed observation and reporting of the behaviour of children.

However, His samples were very small and were considered to lack generalisability.

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thank you so much :) really helps


thank you so much :) really helps

Sam Morran

I like this resource because it includes alternative tests - always good to extend your knowledge that little bit more.

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