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Piaget’s Theory of Cognitive Development


Piaget’s Theory of Cognitive Development:


“Cognitive Development refers to transition in youngster patterns of thinking including reasoning, remembering and problem solving”. 

Piaget’s Theory is stage theory of development. Piaget proposed that youngsters progress through four stages of cognitive development which are characterized by different thought processes. Piaget regarded his age norms as approximations and acknowledged that transitional ages may vary, but he was convinced that all children progress through his four stages of cognitive development in the same order.

Piaget’s Theoretical Notions:

He designed a proper framework to understand the structure, functioning and development of the human cognitive network. He believed that there are two aspects to human mind; one is cognitive structure and other is cognitive functioning.

Cognitive structure:

The human baby is born with few practical instincts and reflexes such as sucking, looking, reaching and grasping. Piaget termed these reflexes and instincts as Schemas. A schema represents a unit of one’s cognitive structure in the shape of general potential to perform particular class of behaviours (like sucking, grasping, reaching etc), the content of which is related to the conditions that prevail during any manifestation of that general potential. As child grows, through interaction with physical and social environment, he is able to form different schemas, resulting in changes and modifications in his cognitive structure.

Cognitive Functioning:

An individual response to social and physical environment depends on the schemas available to him. On the other hand, the individual has to adapt to his environment for survival as well as for proper growth and development. The task of such adaptation is carried out through the process of assimilation and accommodation.

  • Assimilation: 

“Assimilation involves interpreting new experiences in terms of existing mental structures without changing them”.

  • Accommodation:

“Accommodation involves changing existing mental structures to explain new experiences. ”

Accommodation and assimilation often occur interactively. A child who has learned to call four legged pets “puppies” may apply this scheme the first time she encounters a eat (assimilation) but she will eventually discover that puppies and  cats are different types of animals and make adjustments to her mental schemes (accommodation).

  • Equilibration:-

Piaget postulated that the process of assimilation or accommodation helps the organism to adjust or maintain a harmonious relationship between himself and his environment. This adjustment mechanism was called equilibration Piaget.

Factors responsible for Cognitive make up and its Functioning: 

  • The biologically inherited reflexes and mental dispositions as the fundamental cognitive structure.
  • The changes and development brought about in the cognitive structure through maturation.

The changes and development in the cognitive structure brought about through experiences involving the processes of assimilation, accommodation and equilibration.

Stages of Piaget’s theory: 

The four stages of Piaget’s theory are as follows.

Sensorimotor stage (From birth to about two years)

Piaget called this stage sensorimotor because infants are developing the ability to coordinate their sensory input with their motor actions. The cognitive development during this stage occurs along the following pattern:

  1. At birth the infant exhibits a limited number of uncoordinated reflexes such as sucking, looking, reaching and grasping.
  2. During the next four months the uncoordinated reflexes are coordinated into simple schemes providing the child with a general potential to perform certain classes of behaviour.
  3. At the beginning of this stage, a child’s behaviour is dominated by innate reflexes. But by the end of the stage, the infant is able to react to object outside himself. The key to this transition is the acquisition of the concept of object Permanence.

“Object permanence develops when a child recognizes that objects continue to exist even when they are no longer visible.”

It you show a four month old an eye-catching toy and then cover the toy with a pillow, the child will not attempt to search for the toy. The first signs of object permanence usually appear between four and eight months of age, when children will often pursue an object that is partially covered in their presence. Progress is gradual, and Piaget believed that children typically don’t master the concept of object permanence until they are about eighteen months old.

Pre operational period: (2-7 years)

During this stage, children gradually improve in their use of mental images. Although progress in symbolic thought continues, Piaget emphasized shortcomings in symbolic thought continue, in pre operational thought.

Consider a simple problem that Piaget presented to youngsters. He would take two identical beakers and fill each with equal amount of water. After the youngsters had agreed that both beakers contained the same amount of water, he would pour water from one of the beakers into much taller and thinner. He would then ask the child whether the two differently shaped containers still contained the same amount of water. The children in the preoperational period generally said no. They typically focused on the higher water line in the taller beaker and insisted that there was more water in the slender beaker. This is because the children in this stage have not yet mastered the principle of conservation. Conservation is Piaget’s term for the awareness that physical quantities remain constant in spite of changes in their shape or appearance.

According to Piaget, their inability to understand conservation is due to some basic flows in preoperational thinking. These flaws include centration, irreversibility, and ego centrism,

Centration is the tendency to focus on just one feature of the problem, neglecting other important aspects.

When working on the conservation problem with water, preoperational children that to concentrate on the height of the water while ignoring the width.

Irreversibility is the ability to envision reversing an action: 

Preoperational children can’t mentally “undo” something. For instance, in grappling with the conservation of water, they don’t think about what would happen if the water were poured back from the tall beaker in the original beaker.

      Egocentrism in thinking is characterized by a limited ability to share another person’s view point.

For instance, if you ask a preoperational girl whether her sister has a sister, she will probably say no if they are the only two girls in the family. She is unable to view sisterhood from her sister’s perspective (this also show irreversibility).

A notable feature of egocentrism is animism- the belief that all things are living, just like oneself. Thus, youngster attributes lifelike, human qualities to inanimate objects, asking questions such as, “when does the ocean stop to rest”.

As evident, Piaget emphasized the weaknesses apparent in preoperational thought. Indeed that is why he called this stage preoperational the ability to perform operations internal transformations, manipulations, and reorganization of mental structures emerges in next stage.

Concrete Operational Stage:

The development of mental operations makes the beginning of the concrete operational stage, which usually east from 7 to 11 years. Piaget called these stage concrete operations because children can perform operation only on images of tangible objects and actual events.

During this stage, children master the operations of irreversibility and decentration. Reversibility allows them to mentally undo a thing. Decentration allows them to focus on more than on feature of a problem simultaneously. This ability in turn needs to a decline in egocentrism as it applies to liquid, mass, number, volume area, length.

Formal operational period:

The final stage of the Piaget’s theory is formal operational period which typically begins around 11 years of age. In this stage, children begin to apply their operations to abstract concepts in addition to concrete objects. Many adolescents spend hours mulling over hypothetical possibilities related to abstractions such as justice, love and free will.

According to Piaget, youngster graduate to relatively adult modes of thinking in this stage. He believed that after children achieve formal operations, further development in thinking are changes in degree rather than fundamental changes in the nature of thinking.

Youngsters in this stage become more systematic in their problem- solving efforts. Rather than employing trial and error, they envision possible courses of action try to use logic to reason out the likely consequences of each possible solution before they act. Hence, their thought processes can be characterized as abstract, systematic, logic and reflective.

Critical Evaluation of Piaget’s Theory:

Jean Piaget made a landmark contribution to psychology’s understanding of children in general and their cognitive development in particular. However, there are some weak points which are as follows.

  1. In many areas, Piaget appears to have underestimated young children’s cognitive development. For example, researchers have found evidence that children begin to develop object permanence much earlier than Piaget thoughts, perhaps as early as three to four months of age. Also, they have found evidence that preoperational children exhibit less egocentrism and animism than Piaget believed.
  2. Piaget’s model suffers from problems that plague most stage theories. Piaget had little to say about individual differences in development. Also, people often simultaneously display patterns of thinking which are characteristic of several stages. This “mixing” of stages call into value of organizing development into stages.
  3. Piaget believed that children all across the globe developed their cognitive thinking in the order which he presented at roughly the same age. Subsequent research has shown that the sequence of stages is largely invariant, but the timetable that children follow in passing through these stages varies considerably across cultures. Thus, Piaget underestimated the influence of culture factors on cognitive development.


As with any theory, Piaget’s is not flawless. However, without Piaget’s theory to guide research, many crucial questions about children’s development might not have been confronted until decades later life at all. By some measures, the influence of Piaget is declining, but, ironically even many of the new directions in the study of cognitive development grew out of efforts to test, revise or discredit Piaget’s theory.

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