Piaget's Theory of Cognitive Development

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Piaget's Theory of Cognitive Development

Piaget believed that children develop their knowledge by contructing their own understanding and adapting it to the world around them. According to Piaget, children do not kow less than adults, they are just born with basic mental structure and think in a different way. He viewed intellectual growth as a process of adaptation to the world. This the process of building new schemas. We have schemas for all behaviours we know how to carry out.

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Assimilation and Accomodation

Assimilation - learning that takes place when we acquire new information. We incorporate it into an existing schema. We use an existing schema to deal with a new object or situation.

Equilibration - we encounter new information and it fits. We are not thrown off by the new information.

Disequilibrium - we encounter new information and it doesn't fit. We are thrown off by the new information so we need to change something.

Accomodation - learning that takes place when we acquire new information. We accomodate the information by creating a new schema. This happens when the existing schema does not work, and needs to be changed to deal with a new object or situation.

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Process of adaptation

Adaptation happens through a series of different processes:

1. New stimulus - e.g. child use to sleep in a cot but now sleeps in a bed

2. Assimilation - e.g. sleep in the bed in same way as in cot

3. Disequilibrium - e.g. fall out of bed

4. Accomdation - e.g. learn to lay in centre of bed

5. New schema - e.g. new 'bed' schema

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Piaget's stages of development - sensorimotor

Piaget propsed a stage theory of intellectual development. Every child all over the world goes through the same stages in exactly the same way. These are biologically determined.

Sensorimotor stage (age 0-2 years) - this is where children learn through doing. They use their senses such as sight, smell, touch, taste or hearing. A baby’s early focus is on physical sensations and on developing basic physical coordination. They learn through trial and error. They can deliberately move their bodies and can eventually move objects. Babies have no object permanence; they do not understand that objects can still exist, even if they can’t see them. At around the age of 8 months, babies develop object permanence.

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Piaget's stages of development - pre-operational

Pre-operational stage (2-7 years) - this is where children do not yet have logical thought. At the beginning of this stage, children show lots of errors in the way they think and their reasoning. There are three main parts to this stage:

Egocentrism - children in this stage are egocentric, meaning they have a tendancy to see the world from their own point of view and to assume other people do too. Thry are unable to see things from someone else's perspective. Piaget used the three mountains task to demonstrate this.

Conservation - the ability to understand that redistributing material doesn't affect it's mass, volume or number. Piaget demonstrated this in many ways. For example, children were shown two beakers of the same size, with the exact same amount of water in, and were asked which had more in. The water was then poured from one beaker to a taller, thinner beaker and then children were asked which beaker had the most in and they would say the taller one.

Class inclusion - young children struggle to put things into different classes. For example, if a child is shown a picture which shows 3 dogs and 2 cats, they can correctly answer that there are more dogs than cats, but they cannot understand that there are more animals than dogs because dogs are put into the class of 'animals' and 'dogs'.

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Piaget's stages of development - concrete operatio

Concrete operational stage (7-11 years)

In this stage, children have logical thought, but they need real objects in order to solve problems. They struggle to understand hypothetical concepts. In this stage, children have developed egocentrism, conservation and class inclusion.

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Piaget's stages of development - formal operationa

Formal operational stage (11 years +)

In this stage, children can now think logically about abstract concepts. They can think hypothetically about situations without needing conrete objects. They can think about 'what if'... concepts.

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ARL evaluation of Piaget's theory

Application - the idea that children learn by actively exploring their environment and form their pwn mental representations have revolutionised classroom teaching. There has been a change from lecture style teaching to activity based and hands on kinaesthetic learning. For example, in nruseries and primary schools, children are now encouraged to learn maths by using counting blocks or objects with numbers on. This allows children to engage in tasks and construct their own knowledge. This is a strength because Piaget's theory has been applied to the real world and has helped children in the way they learn.

Research (supporting) - there is research evidence to support the egocentrism part of the pre-operational stage. An example of this is Piaget and Inhelder found that pre-operational children could not identify pictures of the three mountains tasks from a doll's perspective after it had been positioned on a location on the scence that was different from their own perspective. They just described their own view. This shows support for egocentrism because it shows that children struggle to see things from other people's point of views.

Limitation - the theory ignores the role of others in a child's learning. For example, research suggests that others are central to the process of learning. Vygotsky suggested that learning is a social process and a child needs support from peers or adults in order to learn. Piaget didn't see others as being a focus. This is a weakness because Piaget just focusses on the biological aspects of childhood, and doesn't take into account how other people will affect a child's congitive development.

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Research evidence for sensorimotor stage

Research findings - Piaget found that object permanence develops around 8 months; before this time children don't reach for a toy that has been covered up by a blanket.

Counter evidnece - Bower and Wishart found that infants aged 1 to 4 months continued to reach for an object for up to 90 seconds after the lights had been turned out. This evidence criticses Piaget as the baby may have been distracted by the cloth in Piaget's study, making the findings unreliable.

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Research evidence for preoperational stage


Supporting - one of Piaget's studies found that children believe that there was more water in a taller, thinner beaker even though they had the same water in.

Counter evidence - McGarrigle and Donaldson found that children aged 4 to 6 could conserve, as long as they were not put off by the way they were questioned.


Supporting - Piaget and Inhelder found that children couldn't identify pictures of 3 mountains task from doll's perspective.

Counter evidence - Donaldson showed children a model with four walls. A policeman doll was placed at different locations. 90% of 3.5-5 year olds could understand two viewpoints at same time.

Class inclusion

Supporting - Piaget suggested children could not correctly answer whether there was more dogs or animals.

Counter evidence - Siegler and Svetina found children of 5 could answer successfully if they were given an explanation of class inclusion.

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Research evidence for formal operational stage

Supporting research - Smith et al found that children younger than this stage struggled with syllogistic reasoning rasks such as working out how many heads a yellow cat has when a yellow cat has two heads.

Counter evidence - Bradmetz showed that at the age of 15 only one participant could reliably show formal reasoning whereas Piaget said that this developed between the ages of 11 and 12. This shows that Piaget underestimated the abilities of adolescents.

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General Strengths of Piaget's Theory

Early years settings such as nurseries and the curriculum is designed to fit in with Piaget's theory and accomodates learning aimed at different stages. For example, there is a wider range of activities and experiences in the different rooms which allows for selection of age/stage related activities, such as messy play with sand and water, or lots of objects that can be used for counting and spelling like building blocks, objects with letters and numbers on etc. This is a strength because it means that Piaget's theory has allows nurseries to focus on specific tasks that can help a child's cognitive development.

Piaget was not rigid in his beliefs, he constantly adapted his theory in response to critical evidence. An example of this was he later changed his stages into spirals of cognitive development to reflect evidence that a child's thinking is transitional and will be a combination of the stage they are entering/leaving. This is a strength because it means that Piaget took into consideration counter research evidence, and adapted his theory, so it is more up to date and accurate.

Cross-cultural evidence suggests that stages are universal and invariant and that cognitive development could be a biological process of maturation. For example, the thoery is not dependent upon socialisation or culture, but instead biological characteristics of children. This makes the theory more objective and consequently scientific. This is a strength as the theory can be applied to children all over the world,

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General Weaknesses of Piaget's theory

The theory overestimated children's natural curiosity to learn. Their intellectual curiosity varies more than Piaget estimated. For example, children naturally want to learn, and they do things such as putting objects in their mouth, or moving objects around. This is therefore a weakness of Piaget's theory, as he doesn't account for children learning through their own curiosity.

Piaget's sample came from the University nursery which can be seen as a bias sample as the parents/children would be middle/upper class. This could have implications for genetics or inherited personality or intelligence. For example, because of the class of the children's parents, they may have been socialised from a very early age to be more inquisitive and curious, and they may have more educational toys. Therefore, this is a weakness of the theory because the findings may not be generalisable to other children of a different class, due to Piaget's bias sample.

The theory ignores the important role of social and emotional factors in intellectual development. Therefore, it overemphasises the cognitive aspecrs of development. For example, if a child is from a middle or upper class family, their parents may encourage them to learn by giving them more educational toys, or sending them to better nurseries/schools. This is a weakness because Piaget's theory doesn't take into consideration the fact that children can be brought up in different ways that leads to them being more intelligent or developing faster.

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