Theories of Cognitive Development -Jean Piaget

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  • Created on: 27-05-16 11:19

Jean Piaget's theory

Cognitve development - refer to throught or thinking. We gradually develop the ability to think, plan and carry out deliberate action for ourselves i.e. our thinking skills develop.

Piaget noted that even from a very young age, children are very inquistive. He viewed intellectual development as a pricess in which children actively explore the world. He believe that children construct their understanding of the world by trying out actions and seeing what effects they have. 

Schemas: Piaget believed that thinking starts from basic building blocks called 'schemas'. Piaget believed that infants are born with a few innate schemas e.g. movement, sucking, crying etc.

Schemas develop through a process of:

  • Assimilation: when existing schema is expanded to incorporate new experiences
  • Accomodation: when a new experience is so different that it cannot easily assimilate and so a new schema is formed
  • Adaptation: when the two processes combine.
  • Equililbration: When we are adapting our understanding of the world grows and we are said to be going through the process of equilibration
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Piaget's Stages

Sensorimoter stage (0-2 years) - the infant only knows the world via its immediate senses. It relies on simple reflexes. At around 6 weeks, the reflexes begin to be replaced by simple, deliberate actions and later, more complex motor movement and manipulation. An important aspect is object permanence (the ability to realise when an object is out of sight, it still exists; this is only gained after 8-9 months. When he showed his young infant a toy the child reached out to grab it. He then covered it over with a cloth and the child lost interest as it ceases to exist. 

Bower and Wishart (1972) contradicted Piagets claim. They altered Piagets original procedure by showing young infant an object. When the infant appeared to reach out for the object, turned off the light. They noted that infants from the age of 1 month continued to reach for the object.

Operations - higher order mental abilities, which enable the child to understand more complex rules about the world around them. The are logical manipulations dealing with the relationships between things. Piaget believed that the reason children think in different ways at different stages is because of the operation of which they are capable at any particular stage. As we grow from infant to child, operations are acquired.

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Piaget's Stages

Preoperational stage (2-7 years) - At around 2, Piaget noted that a child's thinking becomes more complex. The child develops symbolic thought. This is largely due to the development of language. This enables the child to think symbolically. This child also starts to use objects to symbolise other things. They engage is make-believe play.

This stage is mainly characterised by what children can't do rather than by what they can do. One of the limitations of this stage is the childs egocentric thought. This refers to the childs inability to understand that other people may see and percieve things differently from themselves.

Piaget and Inhelder (1956) - Three mountains. Developed in the 1940's. They investigated childrens egocentric thought. They used the three mountains task and found that children under the age of 7 typically indicated that the dolls viewpoint would be the same as their own. Children over the age of 7 were able to distinguish the dolls viewpoint from their own.

Conservation: Children in this stage have a lack of conservation. This is the ability to understand that amounts do not change even when the physical apperance of something changes. It can be tested using number, mass or volume of liquid.

Centration - conservation also occurs due to centration. This refers to the childs inability to fucus on more than one aspect of the object or situation at a time.

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Piaget's stages

Concrete operational stage (7-11 years) - the child is able to carry ut some higher order thinking (operational thought). Conservation develops in this stage. Number is first to emerge (5-6), followed by mass (7-8) and finally volume at 11. The reason for being able to conserve is that they are now able to focus on more than just one aspect of the stimulus - they are able to decentrate. 

The child is no longer egocentric, i.e. they can understand that other people see or feel different from themselves. They can do the three mountains task.

Classification and ordering - children in this stage can name sets of objects according to a specified characteristic. Children can also order objects according to size, shape, colour etc.

Limitations in thinking

Childrens thinking in this stage remains limited as they require concrete examples. They are unable to think hypothetically or deal with abstract concepts. Transitivity refers to the ability to recognise logical relationships within a series.

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Piaget's stages

Formal operational stage (11 years onwards)

This final stage is characterised by the ability to think in abstract terms, reason logically and draw conclusions from available information. Hypothetical thinking becomes possible rather than more random methods of problem solving such as trial and error. Young people at the formal operational stage are able to develop their own theories about the world which they can test in an organised way. When solving a real or hypothetical problem. Formal operational thinkers typically attempt to explore all logical possibilites systematically.

Piaget set children the task of finding what determines the frequency of swing of a pendulum. Children in the formal operational stage approached the task systematically.

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Evaluation of Piaget's stage theory


A major strength of Piaget's theory is that it is  supported by both biological (nature) and environmental (nurture) approaches in that it accounts for both biological factors and environmental factors in the development of intelligence. As the brain grows and becomes more complex, this allows higher levels of thinking to develop. Piaget referred to this as biological maturation. This is supported by the biological approach in which some twin studies indicate that intelligence is hereditary as MZ twins tend to share similar levels of intellect. 

Piaget's theory has greatly influenced the way children are taught in school, most especially in primary education. His theory is said to have influenced a report into the way children should be taught led by Lady Plowden in 1967. The report recommended that primary teaching should no longer be teacher led, but instead should centre on the child discovering for themselves

Piaget provided a thorough and comprehensive explanation of childrens cognitive development which is sopported by large amounts of research evidence e.g. three mountains. His theories have also inspired a huge amount of research, which has vastly increased our understanding of cognitive development in children.

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Evaluation of Piaget's stage theory


Hughes (1975) conducted a study similar to 3 mountains. They found that 90% of the responses were correct for a sample of 30 children between 3 and 5. Even the youngest with a mean age of 3 years 9 months achieved 88%. Concluding, children as young as 3 are able to decentrate completely contradicting Piagets results.

Wheldall & Poborca (1980) believe that children are unable to perform Piagets conservation tasks simply because they don't understand the question

Piaget was Swiss and therefore carried out his work on Swiss children. Therefore, his sample sizes were not only small but culturally biased. 

Piaget mainly used clinal interviews and participant observations to collect his data. This makes it difficult to record data promptly and objectively, which throws doubt over the validity of his findings. Piaget's presence may have influenced his childrens reponses and behaviour thereby introducing confounding variables and social desirability into the mix.

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