Cognitive Development Theory – Jean Piaget
Jean Piaget (1896 – 1980) was a biologist by his profession but he moved into the study of the development of children’s understanding through observing them and talking and listening to them while they worked on exercise he set. Piaget (1936) was the first psychologist to make a systematic study of cognitive development. His contributions include a theory of child cognitive development, detailed observational studies of cognition in children, and a series of simple but ingenious tests to reveal different cognitive abilities.
Before Piaget’s work, the common assumption in psychology was that children are merely less competent thinkers than adults. Piaget showed that young children think in strikingly different ways compared to adults.
According to Piaget, children are born with a very basic mental structure (genetically inherited and evolved) on which all subsequent learning and knowledge are based.
Piaget’s Cognitive Development Theory Differs From Others In Several Ways:
- It is concerned with children, rather than all learners.
- It focuses on the development, rather than learning per se, so it does not address learning of information or specific behaviors.
- It proposes discrete stages of development, marked by qualitative differences, rather than a gradual increase in number and complexity of behaviors, concepts, ideas, etc.
Three Basic Components of Piaget’s Cognitive Theory:
- Schemas (Building blocks of knowledge).
- Adaptation processes enable the transition from one stage to another (equilibrium, assimilation).
- Stages of Development:
- concrete operational,
- Formal operational.
Stages of Cognitive Development Theory
A child’s cognitive development is about a child developing or constructing a mental model of the world.
Imagine what it would be like if you did not have a mental model of your world. It would mean that you would not be able to make so much use of information from your past experience or to plan future actions. Jean Piaget was interested both in how children learned and in how they thought. Piaget studied children from infancy to adolescence and carried out many of his own investigations using his three children. He used the following research methods:
Piaget made careful, detailed naturalistic observations of children. These were mainly his own children and the children of friends. From there he wrote diary descriptions charting their development. He also used clinical interviews and observations of older children who were able to understand questions and hold conversations.
Piaget believed that children think differently than adults, and stated they go through 4 universal stages of cognitive development. Development is therefore biologically based and changes as the child mature. Cognition, therefore, develops in all children in the same sequence of stages.
Each child goes through the stages in the same order, and no stage can be missed out – although some individuals may never attain the later stages. There are individual differences in the rate at which children progress through stages.
Piaget did not claim that a particular stage was reached at a certain age – although descriptions of the stages often include an indication of the age at which the average child would reach each stage. Piaget (1952) believed that these stages are universal – i.e. that the same sequence of development occurs in children all over the world, whatever their culture.
|Stage of Development||Key Feature||Research Study|
0 – 2 yrs.
|Object Permanence||Blanket & Ball Study|
2 – 7 yrs.
7 – 11 yrs.
|Conservation||Conservation of Number|
|Manipulate ideas in head, e.g. Abstract Reasoning||Pendulum Task|
Evaluation of Piaget’s Cognitive Development Theory
- 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. He was an inspiration to many who came after and took up his ideas. Piaget’s ideas have generated a huge amount of research which has increased our understanding of cognitive development.
- His ideas have been of practical use in understanding and communicating with children, particularly in the field of education (re: Discovery Learning).
- Are the stages real? Vygotsky and Bruner would rather not talk about stages at all, preferring to see development as a continuous process. Others have queried the age ranges of the stages. Some studies have shown that progress to the formal operational stage is not guaranteed. For example, Keating (1979) reported that 40-60% of college students fail at formal operation tasks, and Dasen (1994) states that only one-third of adults ever reach the formal operational stage.
- Because Piaget concentrated on the universal stages of cognitive development and biological maturation, he failed to consider the effect that the social setting and culture may have on cognitive development (re Vygotsky, 1978).
- Piaget’s methods (observation and clinical interviews) are more open to biased interpretation than other methods. Because Piaget conducted the observations alone the data collected are based on his own subjective interpretation of events. It would have been more reliable if Piaget conducted the observations with another researcher and compared the results afterward to check if they are similar (i.e. have inter-rater reliability).
- As several studies have shown Piaget underestimated the abilities of children because his tests were sometimes confusing or difficult to understand (e.g. Hughes, 1975).
- The concept of schema is incompatible with the theories of Bruner (1966) and Vygotsky (1978). Behaviorism would also refute Piaget’s schema theory because is cannot be directly observed as it is an internal process. Therefore, they would claim it cannot be objectively measured.
- Piaget carried out his studies with a handful of participants (i.e. small sample size) – and in the early studies, he generally used his own children (from Switzerland). This sample is biased, and accordingly, the results of these studies cannot be generalized to children from different cultures.
- For Piaget language is seen as secondary to the action, i.e. thought precedes language. The Russian psychologist Lev Vygotsky (1978) argues that the development of language and thought go together and that the origin of reasoning is more to do with our ability to communicate with others than with our interaction with the material world.
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