Piaget’s Theory of Cognitive Development



During the past half-century, the Swiss psychologist Jean Piaget devised a model


describing how humans go about making sense of their world by gathering and


organizing information (Piaget, 1954, 1963, 1970a, b). Piaget’s


ideas provided an explanation of the development of


thinking from infancy to adulthood.


According to Piaget (1954), certain ways of thinking that are quite simple


for an adult are not so simple for a child. Sometimes all you need to do to teach


a new concept is to give a student a few basic facts as background. At other


times, however, all the background facts in the world are useless. The student


simply is not ready to learn the concept. With some students, you can discuss


the general causes of civil wars and then ask why they think the American Civil


War broke out in 1861. But suppose the students respond with “When is 1861?”


Obviously their concepts of time are different from your own. They may think,


for example, that they will some day catch up to a sibling in age, or they may


confuse the past and the future.


Four Stages of Cognitive Development


Piaget hypothesized for children as


they grow. Piaget’s four stages of cognitive development are called sensorimotor,


pre-operational, concrete operational, and formal operational. Piaget believed


that all people pass through the same four stages in exactly the same


order. These stages are generally associated with specific ages, When you see ages linked to stages, these are only general guidelines, not labels for all children of a certain age. Piaget was interested


in the kinds of thinking abilities people are able to use, not in labeling.


Often, people can use one level of thinking to solve one kind of problem


and a different level to solve another. Piaget noted that individuals may go


through long periods of transition between stages and that a person may show


characteristics of one stage in one situation but characteristics of a higher or


lower stage in other situations. Therefore, knowing a student’s age is never a


guarantee that you know how the child will think (Ginsburg & Opper, 1988).


Infancy: The Sensorimotor Stage.


The earliest period is called the sensorimotor


stage, because the child’s thinking involves seeing, hearing, moving,


touching, tasting, and so on. During this period, the infant develops object permanence,


the understanding that objects in the environment exist whether the


baby perceives them or not. As most parents discover, before infants develop


object permanence, it is relatively easy to take something away from them. The


trick is to distract them and remove the object while they are not looking;


“out of sight, out of mind.” The older infant who searches for the ball that has


rolled out of sight is indicating an understanding that the objects still exist even


though they can’t be seen. A second major accomplishment in the sensorimotor period is the beginning


of logical, goal-directed actions. Think of the familiar container toy for


babies. It is usually plastic, has a lid, and contains several colorful items that


can be dumped out and replaced. A 6-month-old baby is likely to become frustrated


trying to get to the toys inside. An older child who has mastered the basics


of the sensorimotor stage will probably be able to deal with the toy better .


Through trial and error the child will slowly build a “container


toy” scheme: (1) get the lid off; (2) turn the container upside down;


(3) shake if the items jam; (4) watch the items fall.(Gale Encyclopedia of Childhood & Adolescence. Gale Research, 1998.)




The Preoperational Stage.


By the end of the sensorimotor stage, the child can use many action


schemes. As long as these schemes remain tied to physical actions, however,


they are of no use in recalling the past, keeping track of information, or planning.


For this, children need what Piaget called operations, or actions that are


carried out and reversed mentally rather than physically. The stage after sensorimotor


is called preoperational, because the child has not yet mastered these


mental operations


According to Piaget, the first step from action to thinking is the internalization


of action, performing an action mentally rather than physically. The first


type of thinking that is separate from action involves making action schemes


symbolic. The ability to form and use symbols-words, gestures, signs, images,


and so on is a major accomplishment of the preoperational period and


moves children closer to mastering the mental operations of the next stage.


This ability to work with symbols, such as using the word “bicycle” or a picture


of a bicycle to stand for a