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Jean Piaget and the Theory of Cognitive Development

Rebekah Lockaby
Ivy Tech Community College


Jean Piaget and the Theory of Cognitive Development

The theory of cognitive development has allowed for scientists to understand the multiple
stages of learning that the human brain experiences from birth to adulthood in a more defined
way. From birth, children learn the very basics, such as motor skills, and use these skills as the
foundation to build on. Each time a new concept is learned the foundation grows, and continues
to grow all throughout the life of an individual. Once adulthood is reached humans are able to
think in more complex ways as a result of the growing foundation. The human brain experiences
many different levels of learning according to Jean Piaget.
Jean Piaget was a well-known cognitive scientist from Sweden. During the 1930s
through the 1950s he completed the majority of his cognitive experiments. He mostly studied
children and was especially interested in improving education. According to Roger Bibace he
was able to, attribute his variability to the implications of his important work on perception,
and to his willingness to get involved in widespread concrete applications of his approach to
education including the education of children with special needs (Bibace, 2013, pg. 167).
During this time he collected most of his scientific data that would be devoted to understanding
cognitive development.
He believed that learning was either one of two processes: assimilation or
accommodation. Assimilation is the most common form of learning used in todays classrooms.
It involves using memorization and skill acquisitions to store newly learned information.
Accommodation is different in that it is, an experience that is impossible to forget (Blatner,
2004, Pg. 2). In other words, accommodation comes naturally. For example, learning to walk is a
natural occurrence for children that we do not forget as we grow older. Jean Piaget compared the
human mind to the term schema defined as a preexisting mental concept that helps us to


organize and interpret information (King, 2013, Pg.216). A child may think that anything that
walks on two legs is human, which is not true. Eventually the child will learn the previous
statement about humans is incorrect and the mind will adapt. The schema will then be altered and
developed to make room for new information.
It is said that Jean Piagets main contribution to psychology was his theory of cognitive
development. This theory contains four separate categories of learning. Each category is defined
by an age group, and the different ways the brain is developing. These four groups, in order from
birth to adulthood, include the sensorimotor stage, preoperational stage (also known as the
symbolic stage), intuitive stage, and concrete operational stage (King, 2013, pg. 294-297). The
first stage is the sensorimotor stage which begins at birth and continues until the child is two
years old. The type of cognitive learning that is taking place in this stage is mostly motor reflexes
and sensory experiences. Sensory experiences meaning that the child is learning by what he or
she is smelling, tasting, seeing, hearing, and feeling. Throughout this stage the child becomes
more aware of the surrounding world, and that it is separate from itself (King, 2013, pg. 295).
Motor skills include any sort of physical motion such as crawling, waving the arms, and even
learning how to talk.
In this first stage there are primary, secondary, and tertiary circular reactions. The primary
circular reaction happens from birth to about four months. This is where a child does something
that acts as a stimulus, and responds with that same action over and over again. Secondary
circular reactions occur between four and twelve months. Now the childs actions are expanding
outward and include the surrounding environment. This is when imitation starts to occur (King,
2013, pg. 295). Around seven months is when a very important term called object permanency
starts to set in. Object permanence is an important milestone in the sensorimotor stage, because


this is when a child is aware that an object still exists, even though it cannot be seen. A good
example of this would be playing peek-a-boo. Lastly, the tertiary circular reactions start at 12
months and last until 24 months. This is when the child really begins to notice and understand
that he or she is in control of their own movements. Around one and a half years old the child
will learn mental representation, where playing pretend and problem solving begin (King, 2013,
Pg. 295).
The second stage is the preoperational stage. This includes children from age two and
generally lasts until age seven. Called preoperational because the child still cannot perform what
Piaget called operations, ...mental representations that are reversible (King, 2013, Pg. 295).
Children in this stage do not completely understand the concept that reversing a situation could
revitalize it and make it as it were. Here the child will also begin to have a better understanding
of the past and future even though the child is still considered an illogical thinker. Concepts of
volume, or conservation, are still unclear. Changing the shape of an object may cause a child to
think that the amount of the object has also changed. For example, the child may think that a
taller glass has more liquid even though it is much skinnier simply based on the appearance of
the glass. A child at this point in their life has an egocentric point of view, meaning that he or she
has only one point of view, their own. This would suggest that empathy has not yet been fully
learned, and the child does not understand that he or she is being self-centered (King, 2013, 295296).
Within the preoperational stage are two subgroups: the symbolic and the intuitive stages.
The symbolic stage occurs from age two until age four. This is when a child does not fully grasp
the concept of an object, and the child confuses one object with another. This can sometimes
cause a child to believe that two objects that look exactly the same are the same. In the intuitive


stage comes after the symbolic stage from age four to eight. This stage is where a child,
...generally understands the essence of an object and does not confuse one object with
another... (Malerstein & Ahern, 1979, pg. 108). The child is now beginning to focus more on
other characteristics of objects, even though there is still only one unchanging point of view. The
intuitive stage is where a child begins to learn justice. Good behaviors deserve rewards, and bad
behaviors deserve punishment.
The third stage is the concrete operational stage which deals with children whose age
group is from about seven to eleven years old. Now the child is beginning to think more logically
in situations, but continues to have difficulty thinking abstractly. Children in this age group learn
better when facts or something with a definite answer is presented, which is why it is called the
concrete operational stage (King, 2013, pg. 295-296). The child is finally beginning to see the
world through more than their own point of view, and learning to empathize with others.
Mental imaging improves greatly, and the child would now understand the concept of
conservation. He or she could complete the experiment with the two glasses from earlier and
know that the taller, skinnier glass can hold the same amount of volume as the shorter, fatter one.
It becomes understood that amount of substance is not changing, just the shape. The child is also
able to think operationally, and can reverse situations to go back to the beginning (King, 2013,
pg. 295-296)
The fourth and final stage of Piagets theory of cognitive development is the formal
operational stage. This stage targets those from age eleven to fifteen and sometimes into
adulthood. According to Piaget, this last stage is the ultimate stage of development. He believed
that some individual never fully reach this last stage. Children are now reaching adolescence and
their schemas are constantly changing due to hormones caused by puberty. Those experiencing


this final stage are learning to think more logically, abstractly, and theoretically. Using concrete
information is not necessary here because the individual is able to brainstorm many different
possible outcomes to any given situation. Not only can the child think abstractly but can also
make predictions, and form hypotheses. The past and the future are familiar terms at this point
and empathizing can come naturally to some. The formal operational stage is where idealistic
thinking is introduced which is, ...comparing how things are to how they might be (King,
2013, pg. 297). This means being able to create possible situations and repercussions. Problem
solving called hypothetical-deductive reasoning is introduced. This is where plans are not only
devised to solve problems but tests are performed in order to find solutions.
After reviewing each stage individually we find that the human brain is more complex
than previously imagined. The cognitive process that occurs from birth to adulthood is
continuously changing, not only our way of thinking, but also our behaviors. Learning begins
with the most basic motor and sensory skills as a foundation and continues to grow, never taking
a break. Eventually the mind is able to learn concretely which builds and builds all the way up to
abstract and theoretical learning. Schemas are constantly adapting to our environment with each
new experience. Through the observations and experiments conducted by Piaget the population
all around the world can better understand the human mind. With that understanding can come
more meaningful preparation as parents, teachers, and even as role models. It is easier to
understand why children do the things that they do, and what to look for as far as abnormal
behavior. This theory allows for closer connections on a more personal level with everyone,
because we are all one in the same when it comes to learning.


Bibace, R. (2013). Challenges in Piagets Legacy. Integrative Psychological &Behavioral
Science, 47(1). 167-175.
Blatner, A. (2004).The Developmental Nature of Consciousness Transformation. Revision,
26(4), 2-7.
King, L.A. (2013). Experience psychology (2nd ed.). New York, NY: McGraw-Hill Malerstein,
A. J., & Ahern, M. M. (1979). Piaget's stages of cognitive development and adult
character structure. American Journal of Psychotherapy, 33(1), 107.