Jean Piaget was born on August 9th, 1896 in Neuchâtel Switzerland. He was a budding scientist at an early age and started publishing papers by the age of eleven. He studied biology and philosophy at the University of Neuchâtel and received his Doctorate in Biology in 1918. However, after his Doctorate, he became interested in psychology, combining his biological training with his interest in epistemology (the study of origin, nature, methods, and limits of human knowledge). Even though he was known to be a psychologist, he believed himself to be an epistemologist.
In 1919, Piaget traveled to Paris to study and took a job at the Alfred Binet Laboratory School. His job was to devise and administer reading tests to school children and he began to notice similarities in the types of mistakes they made, which lead him to explore the thought process in these young children. In 1921, he began to publish his findings and the same year he came back to Switzerland, where he was appointed Director of the Rousseau Institute in Geneva. He was Professor of Philosophy at the University of Neuchâtel from 1926 to 1929, and in 1929 he joined the University of Geneva as a Professor of Child Psychology, remaining there until his death on September 16th, 1980. In 1955, he established the International Centre of Genetic Epistemology at Geneva and became its Director. In more than 50 books and monographs, Piaget developed the theme he first discovered in Paris, that the mind of the child evolves through a series of set stages to adulthood. (Editors of Britannica)
Jean Piaget was the first Psychologist to make a systematic study of cognitive intelligence. Cognitive Theory is the thought and expectation which has an effect on an individual’s attitude, belief, value, assumptions above the unknown. Piaget’s research created a broad theoretical system for the development of cognitive abilities. Piaget believed that Cognitive development was a progressive reorganization of mental processes resulting from biological maturation and environmental experience. He believed that children construct an understanding of the world around them, experience discrepancies between what they already know and what they discover in their environment, then adjust their ideas accordingly. Moreover, Piaget claimed that cognitive development is at the center of the human organism, and language is contingent on knowledge and understanding acquired through cognitive development. ‘ “As Von Glasersfeld says, that probably the most basic of all of Piaget’s ideas is that human development is a process of adaptation. And the highest form of adaptation is Cognition (or knowing)” ’. (Guy R. Lefrancois 69.)
Children do not connect with the different stories they hear, they connect more with the different words they hear which trigger thoughts about their own situation. Piaget believed that in this stage children build ideas from their own experiences. Hence they should help themselves find a way to think through a problem, rather than an adult giving them an answer. Piaget called the process in which the child learns from the previous experiences or the information which he gathered from his previous experience of Assimilation. Once the child has gathered more experiences on their own, they go through a mental process that modifies their view about the previously stored information. During this process, the child not only changes his view but also adapts to the new information. Piaget called the process of adapting to the new information as Accommodation. Piaget’s understanding was that Assimilation and Accommodation cannot exist without each other. They are effectively two sides of a coin. For instance, to recognize (assimilate) an apple as an apple, one must first focus (accommodate) on the contours of this object. To do this, one needs to roughly recognize the size of the object.
According to Piaget, cognitive development occurs in four stages with each stage being the product of learning that occurred in the earlier stages as well as preparation for the next stage. He named these stages Sensorimotor stage (Birth – 2 years), Preoperational stage (2 to 7 years), Concrete operations stage (7 to 12 years), and Formal Operations stage (11 to 15 years).
The Sensorimotor stage: During this stage children rely on their senses and physical activities to learn about the world. They learn through their senses and reflexes. They are like explorers and they want to see, hear, taste, and touch everything around them. They generally don’t appear to be thinking about what they do. Children at this stage are reveling in sensory experience and enjoying their rapidly-improving abilities to move around and take in new experiences. Sensory stimuli are paired up with voluntary motor responses, and sensory/body coordination is established. Syntax and grammar have not yet been developed, and relations between concepts are vaguely understood at best. During the late sensorimotor stage of cognitive development, children begin to learn the concept of “object permanence”. In other words, they learn that objects still exist even if they cannot see them.
The Preoperational stage: This stage extends from the second year until the seventh year in a child’s life. The child’s thinking during this stage is pre (before) operations. This means the child cannot use logic or transform, combine or separate ideas. The way a child think is very different from an adult way of thinking. Piaget defined the following major characteristics in the preoperational stage.
Egocentric thinking is the belief that everything revolves around oneself. According to Piaget, egocentrism of the young child leads them to believe that everyone thinks as they do and that the whole world shares their feelings and desires. For example, little Nancy gets a phone call from her father, who asks little Nancy if Mommy is home. Instead of saying, ‘yes’, little Nancy nods her head. Her father, hearing no response, asks again, to which little Nancy again nods her head. What little Nancy fails to appreciate is that her father is unable to see her nodding. Little Nancy can only take her own perspective – ‘I am nodding my head yes, why do you keep asking me this question?’
Animistic thinking is the belief that inanimate objects (such as toys and teddy bears) have human feelings and intentions. Piaget meant that for the preoperational child the world of nature is alive, conscious and has a purpose. For example, a child would want to dress their teddy bear in warm clothes to take them outside for fear that it might get cold in winters and feel lonely without them. They are connecting human qualities and feelings to an inanimate object.
Perception-bound thoughts are where children make a judgment based on the immediate, perceptual appearance of the object. For example when Helen’s mom gives her half a glass of juice and her brother Ryan a smaller glass but filled to the top of the same juice. Seeing this Helen ask’s her mom to fill her glass to the top like Ryan’s so that she can have as much juice as her brother.
Centration occurs from age 4-7. At this age, the child begins to develop logic or reasoning. Children tend to believe what they see around them. It also refers to the tendency to focus on only one aspect of a situation, problem or object. CHANGE EXAMPLE, For example, a child may complain that there is very little ice cream left in a big bowl. The child will be satisfied if the ice cream is transferred to a little bowl, even though nothing is added because he only considers how full the bowl appears to be.
States versus transformation refer to the extent to which a child’s attention is focused on momentary states or the appearance of an object, rather than transformations or what is done to the object. For example, when Ella saw her friend Dylan, with whom she has played several times before, dressed as a Ninja for Halloween, she asked her mom who that boy was. When she saw Dylan again in his regular shorts and shirts she could recognize him again.
Irreversibility is a characteristic where children cannot think through a series of steps in a problem and then go backward and return to the starting point. Going back to the above example, When Ella’s mom explained to her that when Dylan puts on the Ninja costume he still the same person. But Ella insisted that the boy in the Ninja costume was not Dylan. She failed to imagine Dylan in any other costume than his regular clothes.
Transductive reasoning is another feature of a child’s thinking in the preoperational substage. Transductive reasoning is a faulty type of logic that involves making inferences from one species to another. It can lead to correct or accurate conclusions, but it is not guaranteed to do so. For example when the teacher asked the children in a preschool classroom “Why does it get dark at night?”. the children respond by saying “because we go to bed”.
Lack of hierarchical classification is where children have difficulties grouping objects into different groups of classes and subclasses. For example, Adam has a pile of toy vehicles split into trucks and cars. Adam is then asked ‘Tell me, are there more trucks than cars, or the same number?’. Adam will almost always say there are more trucks than cars.
The Concrete operational stage: This stage usually starts from the age of seven and lasts until age twelve. When children go through this stage, many changes in their thought patterns are visible. They possess the characteristic of reversibility, allowing them to reverse the direction of their thoughts. For example, a child can retrace his steps to the schoolyard to find the lunch bag which he had forgotten. By this time they stop counting on fingers as their thought process becomes abstract. They begin to notice differences in classes and objects. The child at this stage can hold several qualities in mind. For example, they can differentiate between the different breed of dogs or they can add, subtract, and multiply in their heads.
The formal operational stage begins around the age of twelve and lasts until the age of fifteen in a child’s life. This period is marked by the ability to think beyond concrete reality. Concrete things and events are no longer required as objects of thoughts. They can come up with new and more general logical rules through internal reflections. They become more conscious about their thought process. They are capable of fully understanding and appreciating the symbolic abstraction of algebra and the use of metaphor in literature. They also get involved in a spontaneous discussion on topics such as philosophy, religion, and morality in which abstract concepts are tackled.
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