Reflecting on Jean Piaget’s theory and influence

Published on Tuesday, 03 November 2020
Last updated on Sunday, 01 November 2020

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One hundred years ago, psychologist Jean Piaget’s curiosity in cognitive processes was sparked while working on children’s IQ tests. This experience was the impetus for his highly influential Theory of Cognitive Development, which triggered a massive change in direction in how child development was perceived and studied at the time.

Piaget’s theory, published in 1936, shattered old beliefs as he concluded the traditional idea of considering children as “empty vessels to be filled with knowledge” was incorrect, instead describing children as “little scientists” who learned through exploring, interacting with, and acting upon their environments.

Credited with founding the scientific study of children’s thinking theory, Piaget’s work initiated new fields of scientific study. His theory of learning described children’s development as a series of four stages – sensorimotor, preoperational, concrete operational and formal operational. He theorised that children learn through direct and active interaction with the environment.

The development of Piaget’s theory

It was 1920 when 24-year-old, Swiss-born Jean Piaget began working in Paris and his life-long research in children’s development was initiated. His work was to evaluate the results of standardised IQ tests for children. He became intrigued when he observed children of the same ages often providing the same kinds of incorrect answers.

He revised the test and allowed the children to explain their “incorrect” answers. When Piaget read their explanations, it raised new questions about the way children learn and by 1921 he had begun to publish his findings.

His research continued with his conclusions about child development largely based on observations and conversations with his own three children and their peers, method that was criticised due to its small sample size and that the children involved were from privileged backgrounds.

Piaget saw the child as constantly creating and re-creating their own model of reality, achieving mental growth by integrating simpler concepts into higher-level concepts at each stage of development. He disagreed with the idea of intelligence as a fixed trait, and regarded cognitive development as a process, which occurs due to biological maturation and interaction with the environment.

Piaget’s influence in education

Despite his research not being a theory of teaching, his work was highly influential in education during the latter half of the 20th century and is still studied today by students of psychology and education. While cognitive developmental psychology has undergone radical changes since Piaget formulated his theory, his influence still remains.

According to Piaget, the educator’s function is to assist children in their learning. Instead of pushing information, the emphasis is on sharing the learning experience. Encouraging children to be active, engaged and creating situations where children can naturally develop their mental abilities.

Four implications for teaching that arise from Piaget’s theory are:

  1. That the focus should be on the process of learning, rather than the end product
  2. Educators should recognise the crucial role of children’s self-initiated, active involvement in learning activities
  3. Instruction should be individualised so children can learn in accordance with their own readiness
  4. Educators should evaluate the level of the child's development so suitable tasks can be set

Three components to Piaget’s Theory of Cognitive Development

1. Schema

Schema is the term Piaget used to represent the basic building blocks of intelligent behaviour – a way of organising knowledge. Schemas can be thought of as “units” of knowledge, each informing the individual on how to react to new information or situations. As a child grows older, their schemas become more numerous and elaborate.

2. Adaptation processes enable transition from one stage to another

Piaget viewed intellectual growth as a process of adaptation to the world. This happens through:

  • Assimilation - using an existing schema and applying it to deal with a new situation or object
  • Accommodations - changing approaches when an existing schema doesn’t work in a particular situation
  • Equilibration - the driving force that moves all development forward. Piaget didn’t believe that development progressed steadily and suggested it moves in leaps and bounds according to experiences.

3. Stages of Cognitive Development

Piaget’s theory suggests that children move through four different stages of intellectual development, which reflect the increasing sophistication of children's thought. For early education the emphasis is on the first two stages.

  • Sensorimotor stage: From birth to 18-24 months - Infants gain their earliest understanding of the immediate world through their five senses and through their own actions, beginning with simple reflexes, such as sucking and grasping. Learning is based on experiences or trial and error. They start to become more curious, to do things intentionally and to explore through movement. By the end of the sensorimotor period, children develop a permanent sense of self and object
  • Preoperational stage: 18-24 months to 7 years - Characterised by the increasing ability to use language, verbal skills, imagination and abstract thinking progress quickly. Children are still considered egocentric – meaning they have difficulty thinking outside of their own viewpoint. By the latter part of this stage children are very curious, tending to ask a lot of exploratory questions – “why?” and “how?”
  • Concrete operational stage: 7 years to 11 - School-age children can perform concrete mental operations with symbols and begin to loosen their bonds of egocentrism.
  • Formal operational stage: 11 years to adult - Early adolescents can think and reason abstractly, solve theoretical problems and answer hypothetical questions.

The criticism and contribution of Piaget

Piaget’s view of children’s egocentric nature and his underestimation of the intellectual powers of very young children has increasingly fallen out of favour, replaced by a more generous position that sees a budding sense not only of the physical world but also of other minds, even in the “youngest young.”

In particular Piaget’s theory is criticised based on his research, his sample bias and the view that he undervalued the influence culture has on cognitive development.

Despite advances in the study of young children’s thinking, Piaget should not be dismissed. The influence of his ideas in developmental psychology have been enormous, increasing understanding and driving new research in the field.

The legacy of Jean Piaget to the world of early childhood education is that he provided insights into how a child gradually comes to grasp the world around them. He changed how people viewed a child’s world and their methods of studying children. He also recommended that educators are more than a transmitter of knowledge, they are also an essential observer and guide to helping children build their own knowledge. Piaget died in Geneva in September 1980. He was 84 years old.

References and further resources:

Simply Psychology: Jean Piaget’s theory and stages of cognitive development

Association for psychological science: The enduring influence of Jean Piaget

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