Piagets Theory of Cognitive Development
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Piaget’s Theory of Cognitive Development
During the past half-century, the Swiss psychologist Jean Piaget devised a model
describing how humans go about making sense of their world by gathering and
organizing information (Piaget, 1954, 1963, 1970a, b). Piaget’s
ideas provided an explanation of the development of
thinking from infancy to adulthood.
According to Piaget (1954), certain ways of thinking that are quite simple
for an adult are not so simple for a child. Sometimes all you need to do to teach
a new concept is to give a student a few basic facts as background. At other
times, however, all the background facts in the world are useless. The student
simply is not ready to learn the concept. With some students, you can discuss
the general causes of civil wars and then ask why they think the American Civil
War broke out in 1861. But suppose the students respond with “When is 1861?”
Obviously their concepts of time are different from your own. They may think,
for example, that they will some day catch up to a sibling in age, or they may
confuse the past and the future.
Four Stages of Cognitive Development
Piaget hypothesized for children as
they grow. Piaget’s four stages of cognitive development are called sensorimotor,
pre-operational, concrete operational, and formal operational. Piaget believed
that all people pass through the same four stages in exactly the same
order. These stages are generally associated with specific ages, When you see ages linked to stages, these are only general guidelines, not labels for all children of a certain age. Piaget was interested
in the kinds of thinking abilities people are able to use, not in labeling.
Often, people can use one level of thinking to solve one kind of problem
and a different level to solve another. Piaget noted that individuals may go
through long periods of transition between stages and that a person may show
characteristics of one stage in one situation but characteristics of a higher or
lower stage in other situations. Therefore, knowing a student’s age is never a
guarantee that you know how the child will think (Ginsburg & Opper, 1988).
Infancy: The Sensorimotor Stage.
The earliest period is called the sensorimotor
stage, because the child’s thinking involves seeing, hearing, moving,
touching, tasting, and so on. During this period, the infant develops object permanence,
the understanding that objects in the environment exist whether the
baby perceives them or not. As most parents discover, before infants develop
object permanence, it is relatively easy to take something away from them. The
trick is to distract them and remove the object while they are not looking;
“out of sight, out of mind.” The older infant who searches for the ball that has
rolled out of sight is indicating an understanding that the objects still exist even
though they can’t be seen. A second major accomplishment in the sensorimotor period is the beginning
of logical, goal-directed actions. Think of the familiar container toy for
babies. It is usually plastic, has a lid, and contains several colorful items that
can be dumped out and replaced. A 6-month-old baby is likely to become frustrated
trying to get to the toys inside. An older child who has mastered the basics
of the sensorimotor stage will probably be able to deal with the toy better .
Through trial and error the child will slowly build a “container
toy” scheme: (1) get the lid off; (2) turn the container upside down;
(3) shake if the items jam; (4) watch the items fall.(Gale Encyclopedia of Childhood & Adolescence. Gale Research, 1998.)
The Preoperational Stage.
By the end of the sensorimotor stage, the child can use many action
schemes. As long as these schemes remain tied to physical actions, however,
they are of no use in recalling the past, keeping track of information, or planning.
For this, children need what Piaget called operations, or actions that are
carried out and reversed mentally rather than physically. The stage after sensorimotor
is called preoperational, because the child has not yet mastered these
According to Piaget, the first step from action to thinking is the internalization
of action, performing an action mentally rather than physically. The first
type of thinking that is separate from action involves making action schemes
symbolic. The ability to form and use symbols-words, gestures, signs, images,
and so on is a major accomplishment of the preoperational period and
moves children closer to mastering the mental operations of the next stage.
This ability to work with symbols, such as using the word “bicycle” or a picture
of a bicycle to stand for a
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Human development, Psychology, Child development, Cognitive science, Developmental psychology, Cognitive psychology, Constructivism, Neuroscience, Piagets theory of cognitive development, Jean Piaget, Cognitive development, Conservation
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