Piaget’s stages of cognitive development

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The theory of cognitive development focuses on mental processes such as perceiving, remembering, believing, and reasoning. Through his work, Piaget showed that children think in considerably different ways than adults do and as such he saw cognitive development as a progressive reorganization of mental processes resulting from maturation and experience (1973). To explain this theory, Piaget used the concept of stages to describe his development as a sequence of the four following stages: sensory – motor, preoperational, concrete operations, and formal operations.
There are three elements however to understanding his theory of cognitive development. They are schema, the fours process that enable transition from on stage to another, and finally the four stages themselves. He began his studies by making naturalistic observations. Piaget made careful, detailed observations of children, typically his own children or their friends, from these he wrote diary descriptions charting their development. He also conducted clinical interviews and observations of older children who were able to understand questions and hold conversations (McLeod 2009).
Based off these observation Piaget laid the ground work for his theories on cognitive development starting with the schema. A schema is the basic building block of intelligent behavior, a form of organizing information that a person uses to interpret the things he or she sees, hears, smell, and touches (Singer & Revenson, 1997). A schema can be thought of as a unit of knowledge, relating to one aspect of the world including objects, actions, and abstract (theoretical) concepts (ICELS). They are used to understand and to respond to situations and are stored and applied when needed.
A child is considered to be in a state of equilibrium or in a state of cognitive balance when she or he is capable of explaining what he or she is perceiving (schema) at the time (ICELS). The processes that form the building blocks of a schema are assimilation and accommodation. Assimilation and accommodation are two of the four processes that enable the transition from one cognitive stage to another. Assimilation is the process of interpreting experiences in terms of schema whereas accommodation is the process of adjusting schema based on new information or new experiences. Piaget 1973, p. 36) For example, a child may see a robin flying and thus conclude that all birds fly (assimilation), however upon learning a chicken cannot fly said child would have to adjust their existing schema of birds to accommodate chickens (accommodation). The other two of the four processes that enable the transition from one cognitive stage to another are equilibrium and disequilibrium. Equilibration is said to be the force which moves development along. Equilibrium occurs when a child’s schemas can deal with most new information through assimilation.
However, a state of disequilibrium occurs when new information cannot be fitted into existing schemas (Piaget 1973, p. 36). Thus the accommodation comes into play in order to restore a state of equilibrium. Together, assimilation and accommodation are processes of adjustment to changes in the environment and are defined as adaptation, the continuous process of using the environment to learn (ICELS). And, according to Piaget, adaptation is the most important principle of human functioning.
With these basic elements of cognitive learning established Piaget then began to establish his four stages of cognitive development. The first being the sensory – motor stage. This stage is considered to extend from birth to approximately age two. During this stage senses, reflexes, and motor abilities develop rapidly. During the early stages, infants are only aware of what is immediately in front of them. They focus on what they see, what they are doing, and physical interactions with their immediate environment (Piaget 1973, p. 6). Toward the end of the sensory-motor stage, the ability to form primitive mental images develops as the infant acquires object permanence (ICELS). Object permanence is the understanding that objects have a continued existence when they disappear from view. Until then, an infant doesn’t realize that objects can exist apart from him or herself. Thus in this stage behavior is organized around its sensory or motor effects culminates in attaining the concept of object permanence. The next stage is the preoperational stage.
This stage extend from ages 2 to 7 and during this stage the child is not yet able to think logically. With the acquisition of language, the child is able to represent the world through mental images and symbols, but in this stage, these symbols depend on his own perception and his intuition (Piaget 1973, p. 36). Preoperational children are completely egocentric. Although they begin to take greater interest in objects and people around them, they see these things from only their point of view. This also has been said to be the stage of curiosity.
Preoperational children are always questioning and investigating new things and since they know the world only from their very limited point of view they make up explanations for things they cannot explain (ICELS). The preoperational stage is therefore characterized by egocentric thought and the inability for children to adopted alternative viewpoints. According to Piaget this is the stage at which children’s’ thoughts differ the most from adults. The third stage is the concrete operational stage. This stage extends from ages 7 to 11 and it is during this stage that a child is able to perform mental operations.
Piaget defines a mental operation as an interiorized action, an action performed in the mind which permits the child to think about physical actions that he or she previously performed (Piaget 1973, p. 36). At this time children demonstrate logical, concrete reasoning and their thinking becomes less egocentric as they are increasingly aware of external events. The primary characteristic of concrete operational thought is its reversibility; the child can mentally reverse the direction of his or her thought (Piaget 1973, p. 36). For example a child knows something they can add they can also subtract.
Conservation is also a major acquisition of the concrete operational stage. Piaget defines conservation as the ability to see that objects or quantities remain the same despite a change in their physical appearance. Children are thus able to learn to conserve such quantities as number, mass, area, weight, and volume (Piaget 1973, p. 36). The characteristics of the concrete stage are thus conservation, mental operations, and the ability for children to adopt alternative viewpoints. The final stage is the formal operational stage, it extends from ages 11 to 16.
Unlike the concrete operational stage the formal stage does not deal with thinking in the present but rather deals with the ability to think about the future, abstract thought, and the hypothetical. Piaget’s final stage coincides with the beginning of adolescence, and marks the start of abstract thought and deductive reasoning. Thought is more flexible, rational, and systematic. The individual can now conceive all the possible ways they can solve a problem, and can approach a problem from several points of view (Piaget 1973, p. 360).
Although Piaget believed in lifelong intellectual development, he insisted that the formal operational stage is the final stage of cognitive development, and that continued intellectual development in adults depends on the accumulation of knowledge (ICELS). Thus this staged is marked by the child’s ability to harmoniously reason abstractly and logically as well as not be limited to concrete thinking. The influence of Piaget’s ideas in developmental psychology has been enormous. He changed how people viewed the child’s world and their methods of studying children.
Piaget’s ideas have generated a huge amount of research which has increased our understanding of cognitive development. His ideas have even been of practical use in understanding and communicating with children, particularly in the field of education. Piaget did not directly relate his theory to education, however many researchers have explained how features of Piaget’s theory can be applied to teaching and learning. One example of Piaget’s cognitive development theory influencing education can be seen in the concept of discovery learning; the idea that children learn best through doing and actively exploring.
This concept sparked a huge reform in many primary schools’ curriculums. These reforms held recurring themes of individual learning, flexibility in the curriculum, the centrality of play in children’s learning, the use of the environment, learning by discovery and the importance of the evaluation of children’s progress (McLeod 2009). In addition since Piaget’s theory is based upon biological maturation, children should not be taught certain concepts until they have reached the appropriate stage cognitive development.
Overall five overreaching concepts have been newly been applied to primary education based off Piaget’s theories: Focus on the process of learning rather than the end product of it, using active methods that require rediscovering or reconstructing “truths”, using collaborative as well as individual activities (so children can learn from each other), devising situations that present useful problems and create disequilibrium in the child, and evaluate the level of the child’s development so suitable tasks can be set (McLeod 2009).
Although Piaget’s findings did make many groundbreaking and seemingly beneficial contributions to education there are some skeptics as to whether or not his theories are on cognitive development are on point. For example Vygotsky and Bruner would rather not talk about stages at all, preferring to see development as continuous. Vygotsky, a Soviet Belarusian psychologist and founder of a theory of human cultural and biosocial development or cultural-historical psychology.
Vygotsky’s theories stress the fundamental role of social interaction in the development of cognition as he believed strongly that community plays a central role in the process of “making meaning. ” Unlike Piaget he believed social learning precedes development (McLeod 2007). Bruner, a psychologist who has made significant contributions to human cognitive psychology and cognitive learning theory in educational psychology, would similarly argue against Piaget’s theory of “readiness. Burner places importance on outcomes of learning, include not just the concepts, categories, and problem-solving procedures invented previously by the culture, but also the ability to “invent” these things for oneself (McLeod 2008). Therefore he argued that schools waste time trying to match the complexity of subject material to a child’s cognitive stage of development. In addition the concept of schema is incompatible with the theories of Bruner and Vygotsky. Behaviorism would also refute Piaget’s schema theory because is cannot be directly observed as it is an internal process (McLeod 1009).
Therefore, they would claim it cannot be objectively measured. Finally as several studies have shown Piaget underestimated the abilities of children because his tests were sometimes confusing or difficult to understand (McLeod 2009). Also since the children he used for his studies were mainly his own his sample is biased, and consequently the results of these studies cannot be generalized to children from different cultures. Piaget’s theories on cognitive development have been groundbreaking and extremely beneficial to the world of developmental psychology.
However there are some notable discrepancies with his studies such and limited and biased sampling. There are also distinguished rebuttals and argumentations for opposing theories. However Piaget’s work remains the stepping stone for studies of cognitive development and remain an extremely crucial part of developmental psychology as a whole.

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