Piaget’s Theory of Cognitive Development

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According to Piaget, cognitive development is not only about learning new information but also about a fundamental shift in our thinking as we try to understand the world. This transformation happens gradually from birth to maturity and involves four stages (sensorimotor, preoperational, concrete operational, and formal operational) that follow a specific sequence for comprehending the world. Piaget’s early research in Biology led him to conclude that all species have two innate tendencies.

One tendency is the inclination for organization, which involves the combining, arranging, and rearranging of behavior and thoughts in coherent systems (Miller 2011). This tendency to organize assists in arranging psychological structures within the brain, which are our systems for comprehending and engaging with the world. Initially simple, these structures become increasingly intricate and advanced as we acquire knowledge and develop. Piaget referred to these structures as schemes, which are the fundamental elements of thinking (Miller 2011).

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Organized systems of actions or thoughts, called schemes, enable us to mentally represent and think about objects or events in our world. These schemes can range from small and specific to large and general. As our thinking processes become more organized and new schemes emerge, our behavior becomes more sophisticated and better suited to our environment.

Piaget identified two fundamental processes involved in our tendency to adapt to our environment: assimilation and accommodation (Miller 2011).

Assimilation is the process of fitting incoming information into one’s existing way of thinking, as described by Miller (2011). Sometimes, this requires distorting the new information to make it align with preconceived notions. For instance, when children encounter a skunk for the first time, they may mistakenly call it a “kitty,” as they attempt to match the new experience with their existing knowledge of animals. Conversely, Accommodation involves modifying existing schemes or creating new ones in response to new information. Instead of adjusting the information to fit our thinking, we adapt our thinking to accommodate the new information (Miller 2011).

Piaget’s theory of cognitive development involves several key processes, including Assimilation, Accommodation, and Equilibrium. One example of this is when children incorporate their understanding of skunks into their broader knowledge of animals. Equilibrium, another fundamental process, occurs when cognitive schemes align with environmental information. This process enables individuals to achieve a mental balance. If a particular scheme successfully applies to a situation or event, equilibrium is attained (Miller 2011).

On the contrary, if a specific scheme does not yield satisfactory outcomes, it leads to the creation of Disequilibrium. This refers to a state where an individual realizes that their current thought patterns are insufficient in solving problems or comprehending a situation. According to Piaget, the appropriate level of Disequilibrium serves as motivation for humans to find solutions by utilizing assimilation and accommodation (Miller 2011). Apart from these fundamental processes that impact growth, we can now examine Piaget’s distinct stages of development.

The text highlights the four stages of development according to Piaget: sensorimotor, preoperational, concrete operational, and formal operational. Piaget emphasized that individuals go through these stages in a specific order, with potential prolonged transitions between stages. It is possible for a person to exhibit traits of one stage in certain situations but display characteristics of a higher or lower stage in other scenarios. Hence, these stages serve as general guidelines and should not be considered as definitive labels for children of a particular age. Merely knowing a child’s age does not guarantee an understanding of their thought processes.

The first stage of development, known as the sensorimotor period, starts at birth and typically lasts until around two years of age (Beins 2012). This period is divided into six sub-stages: reflex modification, primary circular reactions, secondary circular reactions, coordination of secondary circular reactions, tertiary circular reactions, and the emergence of representational thought (Beins 2012). Reflex modification, which occurs from birth to about one month, involves adapting reflexes to be more useful.

Infants not only demonstrate sucking and rooting capabilities but also show different amounts of sucking on various stimuli. For instance, the way they suck on their mother’s breast is different from when they suck on a dry finger. Additionally, infants start developing more complex reflexes such as sucking on objects placed in their mouth, closing their fingers around objects, and turning their head towards noises. They are naturally curious and begin initiating activities. According to Piaget, around 1 month, the child enters a phase called primary circular reactions, which continues until about 4 months (Miller 2011).

Infants in the primary circular reactions sub-stage exhibit increased flexibility in their reflexes compared to earlier reflexes. They also engage in trial and error attempts related to their own body. Around the second month, patterns of repetitive events begin to emerge (Miller 2011). Infants try to replicate an intriguing outcome, thereby developing schemas that shape their memory. As they reach the fourth month, infants persist in their trial and error efforts to repeat and extend enjoyable and unexpected events. Their movements become more precise, accurate, and are frequently described as occurring “outside” their bodies.

The secondary circular reactions stage, also known as coordination of secondary circulatory reactions, is when the child develops awareness of Object Permanence. Object Permanence is the understanding that something continues to exist even when it is not visible. For example, an infant realizes that a ball that has rolled out of sight still exists. This stage occurs around 8-12 months and involves the infant coordinating schemas.

The infant retrieves concealed items but persistently looks for them in previous locations instead of where they were last hidden, thus exhibiting a lack of understanding of object permanence. As the infant gains an understanding of object permanence, separation anxiety starts to develop. Around 12-18 months old, the infant displays tertiary circular reactions, which entail a fascination with new and unfamiliar things for their own sake. Furthermore, they start to achieve independent walking without the need for a walker. The infant remains highly curious and interested, potentially giving rise to the generation of ideas and experimentation.

During the sensorimotor stage, which lasts from birth to approximately 2 years old (Miller 2011), children exhibit various cognitive developments. For instance, they may engage in activities like feeding oatmeal into the VCR due to their curiosity. At around 18-24 months, the last sub-stage of this stage emerges, known as the beginnings of representational thought. During this phase, children demonstrate the ability to mentally represent objects or actions that are not physically present. They also begin to internalize schemas and manipulate their surroundings in their mind. Moreover, they become capable of recognizing the presence or absence of their caregivers, exhibiting symbolic thought. Additionally, they remember past behaviors and become aware of not repeating them.

The child’s understanding of cause and effect is demonstrated when they realize that jumping off the chair will result in pain. Additionally, the child begins to exhibit semiotic function, which involves the ability to use symbols such as language, pictures, signs, or gestures to represent actions or objects mentally. This type of thinking, according to Piaget, allows for the symbolic nature of action schemes. In the later stages of the sensorimotor stage, the child begins to utilize imitation, memory, and thought processes. Their reflex actions transform into more purposeful and directed activities.

Finally, the child has demonstrated the development of object permanence and the initial stages of logic and goal-directed actions (Siegler 2005). During the sensorimotor stage, the child is able to use various action schemes. However, these schemes are only beneficial for physical actions and do not aid in remembering or planning. As a result, children must develop operations, which involve thinking through actions instead of physically performing them (Sugarman 1987).

During the preoperational stage, which typically occurs from around age 2 to 6 or 7 years, the child is in the process of mastering mental operations. Although not yet fully accomplished, the child is progressing towards this goal. This stage involves the development of symbol capacities, language growth, and mental imagery. The semiotic function is fully developed and the child’s vocabulary expands from 200 to 2,000 words. While the child demonstrates the ability to think about objects in symbolic form, it is limited to one direction or using one-way logic.

Their focus is on one single perceptual dimension at a time, known as Centration (Miller 2011). They cannot comprehend all dimensions and are unable to compensate for differences in width and height. At this stage, they do not understand Conservation, which is the concept that the amount or number of something stays the same despite changes in arrangement or appearance. For instance, a child may incorrectly believe that the taller glass contains more water than the shorter one, even though both glasses have the same quantity of water. Moreover, they have not yet achieved an understanding of quantity and global limitation.

Children in the pre-operational stage tend to be egocentric, meaning they think that others perceive the world as they do (Kesserling 2011). It is important to clarify that being egocentric doesn’t necessarily imply selfishness; it just means that children assume everyone shares their feelings. For example, if a child is scared of dogs, they believe that everyone else is also afraid of dogs. This egocentrism can be observed in both the child’s language and what Piaget referred to as collective monologue (Kesserling 2011).

The collective monologue is the speech form in which children in a group talk without interacting or communicating effectively. In this form of speech, children happily talk about their activities even though nobody is listening. As children reach later elementary to middle school years, they develop new skills necessary for growth. Piaget called this period of “hands-on” thinking the Concrete operations period (Sugarman 1987). The concrete operations period starts at around 6 or 7 years old and continues until about 11 or 12 years old.

Concrete operations can be defined as cognitive activities that are linked to tangible objects and real-life situations (Sugarman 1987). Throughout this period, children acquire the capacity to execute mental operations with mental representations. They demonstrate comprehension of concepts like conservation and logical reasoning. They engage in hands-on experiments, particularly in scientific disciplines. Their understanding becomes more rational, adaptable, and methodical. The child engages in genuine mental operations, conceptualizes transformations and static states, and effectively resolves challenges related to conservation, class inclusion, time, and various other issues (Sugarman 1987).

In terms of cognitive development, children have an understanding of the concept of ice, water, and steam. They acknowledge that the physical world is logically stable and realize that elements can be transformed while conserving many of their original characteristics. Reversibility, which is the ability to mentally reverse a series of steps and return to the starting point, is exhibited by the child (Sugarman 1987). This stage of development involves mastering important operations such as classification and seriation (Sugarman 1987).

The child demonstrates their ability to successfully comprehend this concept when they realize that there are multiple ways to categorize a group of objects. For instance, buttons can be classified based on their color or their shape. The child is capable of concentrating on a specific feature of objects in a collection and organizing them accordingly (Nakagaki 2011). Additionally, the child can arrange objects in an orderly manner, either from largest to smallest or vice versa (seriation). Unlike the preoperational child, the concrete-operational child grasps the concept of sequential relationships.

The child’s cognitive abilities, such as conservation, classification, and seriation, are limited to physical reality. Their logical thinking is based on concrete situations that can be organized, classified, or manipulated. However, they are unable to reason hypothetically until they reach the formal operations stage. It is during high school and college that the child transitions into the formal operations stage (Sugarman 1987).

Formal operations involve abstract thinking and coordination of multiple variables. During this stage, children can shift their focus from reality to possibilities and demonstrate abilities in abstract, systematic, and scientific thinking. They utilize hypothetico-deductive reasoning, which is a problem-solving strategy that involves identifying all factors that may impact a problem and systematically evaluating potential solutions. Additionally, propositional thought is another formal operation that develops during this time (Sugarman 1987).

According to Miller (2011), children have the ability to think about various outcomes, interpret events in relation to hypothetical situations, and understand abstract concepts like conservation of motion and chemical interactions. They also utilize inductive reasoning, as described by Sugarman (1987), by making generalizations based on specific observations. An example of this is a meteorologist observing changes in weather to determine general principles about weather patterns.

Formal-operation thinkers have the ability to generate hypotheses, conduct experiments to test them, and manipulate variables in order to conduct a valid test. While many psychologists appreciate Piaget’s insightful descriptions of children’s thinking, there is disagreement regarding the underlying explanations for the development of thinking. One argument is that some individuals do not believe that thinking develops in distinct stages. Although they acknowledge that children undergo changes, they believe that the stage model lacks consistency in children’s thinking (Nakagaki 2011).

One critique of Piaget’s stage theory is that if a child grasps the concept of numbers before weight, they should be able to consistently apply the concept of conservation in all situations. Another criticism is that development may be more continuous than it initially appears (Nakagaki 2011). For instance, the ability to understand object permanence may progress gradually as a child’s memory develops. Research has shown that change can be both continuous and discontinuous, as explained by the catastrophe theory (Nakagaki 2011). Sudden changes may be preceded by slow developmental changes, while gradual changes can result in abrupt improvements in abilities.

According to Nakagaki (2011), Piaget’s theory had another limitation: underestimating children’s abilities. This was particularly evident in younger children during their early stages of development. It is proposed that these individuals may have had a greater understanding than they were able to demonstrate when solving problems. The notion suggests that young children’s inability to express themselves sufficiently often gives an untrue perception of their cognitive capabilities. It asserts that just because a child may struggle to explain their reasoning, it does not mean they lack reasoning skills. In essence, it is possible that we are born with a more extensive range of cognitive tools than Piaget’s theory proposed.

According to Kesserling (2011), Piaget’s theory does not provide an explanation for how young children can excel in certain areas. For instance, Kesserling cites the example of a 9-year old chess player with expert skills in thinking abstractly about chess moves, while a novice 20-year old player may rely on more concrete strategies to plan and remember moves. Similarly, Nakagaki (2011) criticizes Piaget’s theory for neglecting the influence of a child’s cultural and social group. Nakagaki argues that even concrete operations like classification can develop differently in different cultures.

Western schools emphasize the kind of thinking necessary to master scientific thinking and formal operations. A study conducted across different cultures found that children in western cultures develop conservation skills between the ages of 7 and 11 years earlier than children in Papua New Guinea (Siegler 2005). Despite Papua New Guinea’s education system being based on Western patterns and assumptions, cultural factors still play a significant role in intelligence development.

Culture plays a crucial role in shaping cognitive development and influencing a child’s learning process and understanding of the world. According to Siegler (2005), Piaget’s stages of cognitive development may not be universal as they heavily rely on the expectations and practices of Western cultures. However, despite its limitations, Piaget’s theory remains a prominent force in the field of developmental psychology. Piaget’s work primarily revolved around the progress of intelligence from infancy to adulthood, emphasizing that intellectual development enables children to adapt to their surroundings.

By attaining more precise and comprehensive portrayals of reality, adaptation can be accomplished. Piaget’s comprehensive illustration encompassed four developmental stages: the sensorimotor, preoperational, concrete operational, and formal operational phases (Miller 2011). The sensorimotor phase pertains to the age range of 0-2 years, the preoperational phase spans from ages 2 to 6 or 7, the concrete operational phase spans from ages 6 or 7 to 11 or 12, and the formal operational phase extends from early adolescence until the end of life. Each phase entails significant transformations in the comprehension of concepts such as conservation, classification, and relationships (Sugarman 1987).

According to Sugarman (1987), Piaget identified three fundamental developmental processes: assimilation, accommodation, and equilibration. Piaget’s stage descriptions propose that children exhibit distinct ways of thinking during different periods of development, possess similar reasoning abilities for various concepts, and are unable to grasp modes of thought more advanced than those associated with their current stage.


Beins, B. C. (2012). Jean Piaget: Theorist of the child’s mind. Portraits of Pioneersin Developmental Psychology, 27: 89-107. Kesserling, T. , & Muller, U. (2011). The Concept of Egocentrism in the Context of Piaget’s Theory. New Ideas in Psychology, 23(3): 327-345. doi:10. 1016/j. newideapsych. 2010. 03. 008 Miller, P. H. (2011). Piaget’s theory: Past, present, and future. The Wiley-Blackwellhandbook of childhood cognitive development, 2: 649-672. Nakagaki, A. (2011). The Significance and Potential of Piaget’s Developmental StageTheory. Japanese Journal of Developmental Psychology, 22(4): 369-380. Siegler, R. S. (2005) Childern’s Thinking. Upper Saddle River, New Jersey: Prentice Hall. Sugarman, S. (1987). Piaget’s Construction of the Child’s Reality. CambridgeUniversity Press, 5: 258.

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