Piaget's Theory of Cognitive Development

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Schemas are internalised representations of a mental or physical action that allows an individual to interact or understand the world around them

  • Schemas are innate
  • Children are born with the ability to recognise faces (Fantz, 1961)

Schemas become more complex when the individual has more experiences


  • Fitting new information into exising schemas


  • Creating or modifiying an existing scheme to fit new information into

Accomodation and assimilation are caused by the biological principle of equilibrium. 

The intellect tries to maintain a sense of balance and information that doesn't fit into a schema creates a disequilibrium.

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Sensorimotor Stage (0-2 years)

Early movements are uncoordinated. 

  • Over time sensory and motor skills improve and schemas are formed.

Infants do not have object permanency until about 18 months. 

  • Bower and Wishart (1972) showed objects to children between 1-4 months. They found that if the lights were switched off, the child would still look for the object, which suggests object permanence.

Infants rely on innate reflexes to interact with the environment.

  • 'Circular reactions' describe the repetitive motions infants use that form schemas

The sensorimotor stage contains 6 sub-stages that when progressed through make the child's actions more refined and intentional.

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Pre-Operational Stage (2-6 years)

Thinking and reasoning is dominated by the appearance of objects.

Knowledge is represented by language, mental imagery and symbolic thought. 

The Pre-Operational Stage contains two sub-stages.

  • Preconceptual Thinking (2-4 years)
    • There is a lack of ability to classify objects in an ordered way.
    • Objects that are vaguely similar are classified as the same, eg. all four legged animals are dogs.
    • Living attributes are assigned to innanimate objects, eg. dolls feel pain when broken. This is called "animism".
  • Intuitive Thinking (4-6 years
    • Children use mental operations to solve problems but cannot explain the underlying principle.
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Three Mountains Task (Piaget and Inhelder 1956)

Aim: To investigate children's representations of the world and to confirm that children in this stage are egocentric.

Method: A model fo 3 mountains was set up on a table, they were different colours and each topped by a different feature (a cross, a house and snow).

A 'doll' was placed at different points on the table and the child was given several tasks to assess their ability to 'see' from the doll's viewpoint.

  • The child was given models of the moutains and asked to rearrange them according to what the doll could see.
  • The child was given 10 photos and asled which one resembled the doll's viewpoint.
  • The child was allowed to choose a photo and move the doll so it's viewpoint matched the photo.

Results: Children under the age of 7 were unable to complete the tasks. They instead showed their own viewpoint. 

Conclusion: Young children are egocentric.

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Hughes Egocentric Task (1975)

Aim: To test whether children in the Pre-Operational Stage are egocentric.

Method: Children between 3.5 and 5 are show a 3D model of intersecting walls in a '+' shape. A policeman is placed at the end of one wall so he could see two sections. The children were asked to place a doll where the policeman could not hide it. This resembled a game of hide and seek children played on the school playground.

Results: 90% of the children placed the doll where the policeman could not see it. This trend continued when another policeman was introducted.

Conclusion: Children can see from other perspectives.

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Conservation Task

Aim: To confirm that in the Pre-Operational Stage, thinking is dominated by the appearance of objects.

Method: Participants in the Pre-Operational Stage were shown two identical glasses of water. The child then watched the water from one glass being poured into a taller and skinnier glass. It appeared as though there was more water in the second glass. The child was asked which glass had more water in.

Results: 70% of Pre-Operational Stage children saif that the taller glass had more water in.

Conclusion: Thinking is dominated by appearance in the Pre-Operational Stage.

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Concrete Operational Stage (7-11 years)

Logical rules replace intution.

Children need concrete examples to solve problems.

They can focus on more than one aspect of a problem, therefore can complete conservation tasks better.

They have several new abilities.

  • They understand that some actions are reversible.
  • They can see categories within categories, eg. labrador is a category within the category of dogs.
  • They can order objects.
  • They can follow logical relations within a series, this is called transivity.
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Formal Operational Stage (12+ years)

Capable of systematic, abstract reasoning and can deal with hypothetical problems.

They can understand cause and effect relations and develop their own theories.

They can understad and apply abstract concepts.

They can explore all logical possiblities systematically when problem solving. 

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Four Beakers Task (Piaget and Inhelder 1956)

Aim: To investigate the ability of children in the Formal Operational Stage to solve problems in a logical and systematic way.

Method: Participants were given four beakers of colourless liquid and asked to find out which combination produced a yellow liquid.

Results: Children under 11/12 tried random combinations of the liquids to find the combination. Children over 12 used a systematic approach by excluding possibilities until they found the combination. 

Conclusion: Children in the Formal Operational Stage will use a logical and systematic approach to solve problems.

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Evaluating Piaget's Theory of Cognitive Developmen

Piaget's methods are not reliable. Children in the Pre-Operational Stage cannot think hypothetically which makes Piaget's Three Mountain Task harder. 

Piaget's results can only be replicated if his standard design is followed. If they are altered to make the test more child friendly or clearer, the child can complete the tasks at a much earlier age (Bower and Wishart 1972).

Rose and Black (1974) showed Piaget used demand characteristics which affected his results.

Paiget used sample bias. Most of the children used in his studies were his and his friends' children.

Piaget did not interpret the child's mistakes. He assumed if they couldn't do something it was because they hadn't developed into that stage. He didn't look into individual differences and reasons why they could have made mistakes.

Dasen (1994) found that only 1/3 of adults achieve the Formal Operational Stage.

There are cross cultural similarities as children progress throguh the stages in the same way across cutures.

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