Jean Piaget's Theory of Cognitive Development
No theory of cognitive development has had more impact than that of Jean Piaget's stages of cognitive thinking. Jean Piaget, a Swiss psychologists idenitfied four stages in which children develop cognitively.
Piaget described two processes used by the individual in its attempt to adapt: assimilation and accomodation. Both of these processes are used thoughout life as the person increasingly adapts to the environment in a more complex manner.
Assimilation is the process of using or transforming the environment so that it can be placed in preexisting cognitive structures. Accomodation is the process of changing cognitive structures in order to accept something from the environment. Both processes are used simultaneously and alternately throughout life. An example of assimilation would be when an infant uses a sucking schema that was developed by sucking on a small bottle when attempting to suck on a larger bottle. An example of accomodation would be when the child needs to modify a sucking schema developed by sucking on a pacifier to one that would be successful for sucking on a bottle.
As schemes become increasingly more complex (i.e., responsible for more complex behaviors) they are termed structures. As one's structures become more complex, they are organized in a hierarchical manner (i.e., from general to specific).
Stages of Cognitive Development. Piaget identified four stages in cognitive development:
Many pre-school and primary programs are modeled on Piaget's theory, which, as stated previously, provides part of the foundation for constructivist learning. Discovery learning and supporting the developing interests of the child are two primary instructional techniques. It is recommended that parents and teachers challenge the child's abilities, but NOT present material or information that is too far beyond the child's level. It is also recommended that teachers use a wide variety of concrete experiences to help the child learn (e.g., use of manipulatives, working in groups to get experience seeing from another's perspective, field trips, etc).
Piaget's research methods were based primarily on case studies [they were descriptive]. While some of his ideas have been supported through more correlational and experimental methodologies, others have not. For example, Piaget believed that biological development drives the movement from one cognitive stage to the next. Data from cross-sectional studies of children in a variety of western cultures seem to support this assertion for the stages of sensorimotor, preoperational, and concrete operations.
According to Piaget, there are four interrelated factors that allow movementfrom stage to stage. These factors include maturation, experience, socialinteraction, and equilibration. Maturation is the physical andpsychological growth that occurs in the child at a specific stage. Experienceis when the child thinks and interacts with real or concrete objects in theexternal environment. Social interaction involves the child socializingwith others, especially chilren. The last factor of stage movement is equilibration,this occurs when the child brings together maturation, experience, and socialinteraction in order to build mental schema. Equilibration is considered to bethe tendency for children to seek cognitive coherence and stability. They aremotivated in this drive for equilibration by disequilibrium or aperceived discrepancy between an existing scheme and something new. http://facultyweb.cortland.edu/andersmd/PIAGET/6.HTML
However, data from similar cross-sectional studies of adolescents do not support the assertion that all individuals will automatically move to the next cognitive stage as they biologically mature. Data from adult populations provides essentially the same result: Between 30 to 35% of adults attain the cognitive development stage of formal operations (Kuhn, Langer, Kohlberg & Haan, 1977). For formal operations, it appears that maturation establishes the basis, but a special environment is required for most adolescents and adults to attain this stage.
There are a number of specific examples of how to use Piagetian theory in teaching/learning process.
Citation: Huitt, W. (1997). Cognitive development: Applications. Educational Psychology Interactive. Valdosta, GA: Valdosta State University. Retrieved [date], from http://chiron.valdosta.edu/whuitt/col/cogsys/piagtuse.html.