Jean Piaget’s Theory of Cognitive Development

Jean Piaget’s theory of cognitive development is widely known and although there is new evidence that discredits parts of his theory, many scientists have stood by his original hypotheses. Piaget’s information was gathered by the observation of his own children at play as well as other children he came into contact with. When I think of Piaget’s theory, I imagine the visual of a staircase, with each step leading to multiple floors above. At the bottom of the steps, an infant begins with only its basic senses. Through sight, touch, smell, sound, and taste, originates the baby’s initial understanding of its environment. However, as the infant begins to crawl up the staircase, and at each level comes into contact with new experiences, its schemas change through assimilation and accommodation.

Assimilation, as described in the text, is ‘the process by which a child uses their presently organized knowledge and current way of thinking to understand an experience’ (Shriner & Shriner, 2014). What this translates to is that a child’s schemes are converted to altered methods of thinking by adding new information to something they already knew, such as the example in our text of flying objects. A child learns that a bird is a flying thing, therefore it associates and refers to all flying things as a bird.

Accommodation, simply put, is when a child gains new information that does not fit into its current schema and in return, changes the original schema to ‘accommodate’ for new cognition. In the case of flying things, through accommodation, a child then realizes that an airplane, kite, etc., are different than a bird so they are able to give each thing its own individual title.

Piaget also believed that each person goes through various stages of cognitive development. using the imagery of the staircase, think of each step as a stage of cognitive development. Step #1 is what Piaget states as the sensorimotor stage. The sensorimotor stage, Piaget believed, was between the ages of 0 and 2-years-old. Within the sensorimotor stage, Jean Piaget describes sub-stages that occur according to the months of the child’s first two years.

In the first month of life, a child uses its natural reflexes (such as sucking) to interact with its surroundings. In months 1 to 4, an infant learns of their own body, and habits are formed. Months 4 through 8, a child learns through repetition and consequences of his/her actions. In 8 to 12 months, a child can intentionally interact with things in their environment due to their advanced senses. Object permanence, where a child understands that something exists, even if they cannot see it, is learned around month 10. Playing with objects allows for further exploration of one’s surroundings between 12 to 18 months of age. The last phase of the sensorimotor stage is 18 to 24 months, in which a toddler can think and understand its actions whether it engages in them or not.

The preoperational stage that Piaget considered the second stage of cognitive development, he described as being between the ages of 2 and 7 years old. In the preoperational stage, a child uses symbolism to understand and communicate. Language and numbers become a way for children to discern. Piaget believed that although a child had more knowledge, there were still limitations within the preoperational stage.

The first limit placed on development during the preoperational stage is centration, or the focusing in on one particular aspect, disabling the ability to broaden one’s thinking. Due to a child’s nonunderstanding that his or her actions can be reversed, Piaget defined this obstacle as ‘irreversibility’. Transformation and transduction are facets that a child misinterprets in their thought processes. According to Piaget, during the preoperational stage, a child does not understand that things can transform. Shriner and Shriner use the example of a child not understanding that 4 quarters equals a dollar, as they do not see the connection. In transduction, a child associates two or more things that respectively have no union. Other characteristics of the preoperational stage that Piaget felt were negatives were that of egocentrism and animism. In these, a child relates all things and people as having the same thoughts, feelings, and relation, which limits a child from seeing their views as different from anyone or anything else’s. The last substage of the preoperational stage in Piaget’s eyes was the fact that a child could not differentiate between reality and appearance.

The ages of 7 to 11 brought the concrete operational stage in which Piaget believed children were equipped to do concrete operations. This meant that kids in this age group were able to perform various problems by using logical thinking. As with the other stages of Piaget’s theory of cognitive development, the concrete operational stage brought its own series of substages. Spatial thinking is defined as, ‘a child’s ability to analyze, interpret, and problem-solve, using pattern recognition and the spatial relationships between objects’ (Shriner and Shriner, 2014), which is self-explanatory. Cause-and-effect thinking arrives in the concrete operational stage. In this subphase, children understand the relation of things in a specific order. Categorization, seriation, and transitive inference intersect to deliver a more in-depth classification of various objects in accordance of relation. Conservation allows a child to understand that changing the appearance of something does not change the original matter. Inductive and deductive reasoning help a child to come to a general or specific conclusion based on the information given.

In the final stage of Piaget’s theory of cognitive development, the formal operational stage, kids between 11 and 15 use abstract thinking and can hypothesize based on verbal input alone. During the formal operational stage, a child’s self-image can be built by a more in-depth egocentrism and their feelings of uniqueness, or personal fable.

Since Piaget’s original studies and theory of cognitive development was authored, many critics have tried to disprove the validity of it. One of the criticisms that I originally found to hold weight is that Piaget neglected to consider varying social factors from child to child, and the effect those social factors might have on a child’s development. With very basic knowledge of the depth of Piaget’s research, one might feel the same as I and consider that all children are not created equally in context of their environment. However, after reading “In Defense of Piaget’s Theory: A Reply to 10 Common Criticisms” written by Orlando Lourenco (University of Lisbon) and Armando Machado (Indiana University, Bloomington), I realize that Jean Piaget did calculate for variations in a child’s societal surroundings.

In their study, Lourenco and Machado revealed that Piaget said, ‘Society is the supreme unit and the individual can achieve his inventions and intellectual constructions only to the extent that he is the seat of collective interactions whose level and value depend obviously on society as a whole.” This tells me Jean Piaget believed each child would be able to achieve development based on the level of social interactions available to the child. After reading the peer-reviewed research done by Lourenco and Machado, I don’t believe the criticism of Piaget not considering social factors into his theory as accurate because I feel he did just that in the previously mentioned quote.

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