Piaget’s theory of cognitive development - Cognition and development

AQA A-level Psychology: Revision Made Easy - Jean-Marc Lawton 2017

Piaget’s theory of cognitive development
Cognition and development


Piaget saw knowledge as discovered using: (1) functional invariants, structures remaining the same throughout development. There are two of these: (a) the process of adaption — involving assimilation (fitting new environmental experiences into existing schemas) and accommodation (altering existing schemas to fit in new experiences), and (b) the process of equilibration — involving swinging between equilibrium, a pleasant state of balance, and disequilibrium, an unpleasant state of imbalance motivating a return to equilibrium. (2) Variant structures — structures that develop as knowledge is discovered. There are two of these: a) schemas —ways of understanding the world, and b) operations — logical strings of schemas. Therefore, cognitive development involves constantly swinging between equilibrium and disequilibrium, through continuous series of assimilation and accommodation.

There are four stages of cognitive development: the sensorimotor stage (0—2 years), where object permanence, an understanding that objects which are not being perceived or acted upon still exist, develops; the pre-operational stage (2—7 years), where children are egocentric (cannot see a situation from another’s point of view); the concrete operational stage (7—11 years), where conservation, an understanding that changing the appearance of something does not affect its mass, number or volume, develops, and class inclusion, an understanding that some sets of objects or sub-sets can be sets of other larger classes of objects, also develops; and the formal operational stage (11+ years), where abstract reasoning develops.


Fig 11.1 Jean Piaget was possibly the most influential psychologist of all time and his theory of cognitive development is still held in high regard

Focal study

Piaget & Inhelder (1956) assessed at what age children are egocentric. Infants aged 4—8 years explored a model of three mountains by walking around it, then sat on one side with a doll on the opposite side. The children were shown ten pictures of different views of the model, including the doll’s and their own. They were asked to select the picture representing the doll’s view. 4 year olds chose the picture matching their own view. 6 year olds showed some understanding of other viewpoints, but often selected the wrong picture. 7 and 8 year olds consistently chose the picture representing the doll’s view. It was concluded that children below 7 years are egocentric, while older children can decentre, see things from another’s viewpoint.


• Bower & Wishart (1972) found that 1-month-old babies show surprise when toys disappear, suggesting that Piaget witnessed immature motor skills, not a lack of object permanence.

• Piaget (1952) got 7-year-old children to agree that two identically shaped beakers A and B contained equal amounts of liquid. Having witnessed beaker A being poured into beaker C, a taller, thinner beaker that contained the same amount, the children stated that C contained more, which suggests they could not conserve.

• Inhelder & Piaget (1958) asked participants to consider which of three was the most important in assessing the speed of swing of a pendulum. The solution was to vary 1 variable at a time and children in the formal operations stage were able to do this, but younger children could not, as they tried several variables at once. This suggests that children in the formal operation stage can think logically in an abstract manner in order to see the relationships between things.

Positive evaluation

Image Cross-cultural evidence implies that the stages of development (except formal operations) occur as a universal, invariant sequence, suggesting cognitive development is a biological process.

Image Piaget’s theory became the starting point for many later theories and research. Schaffer (2004) argues it is the most comprehensive account of how children come to understand the world.

Image Piaget was not rigid in his beliefs. His theory was constantly adapted in response to criticism. In later life he referred to his stages of development as ’spirals of development’ to reflect evidence that there were transitional periods in which children’s thinking was a combination of the stage they were leaving and the stage they were progressing on to.

Negative evaluation

Image Piaget’s often poor methodology, such as using research situations that were unfamiliar to children (for example, the Swiss Mountain study), led him to underestimate what children of different ages could achieve.

Image Piaget neglected the important role of emotional and social factors in intellectual development and in doing so over-emphasised cognitive aspects of development.

Image Piaget saw language ability as reflecting an individual’s level of cognitive development, while theorists like Bruner argued it was the other way round, with language development preceding cognitive development.

Practical application

Piaget’s theory has wide applications in primary education, especially in discovery learning, where children learn through independent exploration, and the idea of curriculum, where certain skills are taught at certain ages to reflect a child’s level of cognitive development.