Educational Psychology: Piaget’s Theory of Cognitive Development

Jean Piaget (1896-1980), a Swiss psychologist, is best known for his theory of human cognitive development. In contrast to other psychologists, Piaget believed that as humans develop, they progress through stages to adapt to their environment. His theory developed out of his study of children. He determined that younger children were not less intelligent, but rather provided answers based on their level of adaptation. Piaget’s Theory of Cognitive Development stemmed from this realization in his research.

Background and Key Concepts

Born in Switzerland near its border with France, Piaget was interested in biology and ecology. During college, which he attended in France, Piaget focused on psychoanalysis. In one research test Piaget noticed that younger children commonly provided wrong answers to the same questions. To Piaget, the age and commonality of these wrong answers of children of the same age were more interesting than the fact that the answers were wrong. This began his study of cognitive development, a study which earned him worldwide recognition and many awards.

There are two main concepts in Piaget’s theory: adaptation and organization. Adaptation is affiliated to survival needs: to survive in their environment, humans must adapt to it. Organization refers the developing individual’s structuralizing of learned adaptations to accommodate new adaptations. Within these two concepts, Piaget identified four main stages of cognitive development. Listed in order of appearance, these stages are: sensorimotor, preoperational, concrete operational, and formal operational.

Sensorimotor Stage

Occurring from birth to around two years of age, infants in this state demonstrate their intelligence through exploration. By reaching for, examining and even tasting objects, infants obtain knowledge of their surroundings. There are six sub-stages in this period:

  1. Reflexes: Approximately 0-1 month of age; understanding of surroundings is achieved solely through looking and sucking.
  2. Primary Circular Reactions: Approximately 1-4 months of age; infants in this stage begin to repeat pleasurable actions that previously were random, such as thumb sucking.
  3. Secondary Circular Reactions: Approximately 4-8 months; at this age children begin to repeat an action intentionally with the hopes of obtaining a response. The best example of this is crying to receive food.
  4. Coordination of Reactions: Approximately 8-12 months; at this stage children begin to recognize qualities about certain objects. They may use these objects to cause it to produce the quality they recognize.
  5. Tertiary Circular Reactions: Approximately 12-18 months; in this stage children try other methods to obtain a reaction or result. Often, this is when children become vocal as a means of determining which noises cause the desired reaction.
  6. Early Representational Thought: Approximately 18-24 months; at this final stage in infancy, children begin to use symbols to represent other objects, such as language.

The main purpose of this developmental stage is for infants to determine their relationship to their surroundings. Because of this, infants use the five senses to clarify their distinction from other objects.

Preoperational Stage

From around ages 2-7, children are in the Preoperational Stage. The main characteristic of this stage is the further development of verbal skills. From approximately ages 2-4, a child’s verbal skills grow, but remain focused on himself. From around ages 4-7, however, verbal skills become less egocentric and more social. Children in this stage do not completely grasp reality and tend to believe in the magical. Rules can be followed if they are simple.

Concrete Operational Stage

Concrete Operational Stage stage occurs around ages 7-11. In this stage, children are able to use logic to solve problems, but have not yet developed enough to solve abstract problems. Obtaining logic means that children in this age are able to sort and classify objects. Children also understand the concept of an object being reversible. Another major development during this period is a child’s movement away from egocentrism, which means that he is able to recognize another person’s point of view.

Formal Operational Stage

Formal Operational Stage of Piaget’s theory may begin around age 11, or perhaps much later if at all, and continues into adulthood. During this stage, children begin to be able to think of things in an abstract sense, making them able to conceptualize love, values, and similar things. Additionally, children are able to understand their capabilities and potential for achieving goals. Children or adults in this stage may still be egocentric in that they focus on obtaining attention or demonstrating their uniqueness.