Cognitive Development Jean Piaget

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.


How we as human beings develop cognitively has been thoroughly researched. Theorists have suggested that children are incapable of understanding the world until they reach a particular stage of cognitive development. 

Cognitive Development:

Is the process whereby a child's understanding of the world changes as a function of age and experience. 

Theories of Cognitive Development :

Seek to explain the quantitative and qualitative intellectual abilities that occur during development.

No theory of cognitive development has had more impact than the cognitive stages presented by Jean Piaget. Piaget, a Swiss psychologist, suggested that children go through four separate stages in a fixed order that is universal in all children. 

Piaget declared that these stages differ not only in the quantity of information acquired at each, but also in the quality of knowledge and understanding at that stage. 

Piaget suggested that movement from one stage to the next occurred when the child reached an appropriate level of maturation and was exposed to relevant types of experiences. Without experience, children were assumed incapable of reaching their highest cognitive ability. 

Piagets four stages:

Sensorimotor : Ages 0-2

  Reoperational : Ages 2-7

 Concrete operational : Ages 8-12

 Formal operational : Ages 12 - Adult 

Sensorimotor : Ages 0-2

Sensorimotor stage in a child is from birth to approximately two years. 

-During this stage, a child has relatively little competence in representing the environment using images, language, or symbols

-An infant has no awareness of objects or people that are not immediately present at a given moment. Piaget called this a lack of object permanence. 

-Object permanence is the awareness that objects and people continue to exist even if they are out of sight. 

-In infants, when a person hides, the infant has no knowledge that they are just out of sight. 

-According to Piaget, this person or object that has disappeared is gone forever to the infant.

Preoperational stage is from the age of two to seven years

- The most important development at this time is language

-Children develop an internal representation of the world that allows them to describe people, events, and feelings.

- Children at this time use symbol.  (I.E. they can pretend when driving their toy car across the couch that the couch is actually a bridge.)

-Although the thinking of the child is more advanced than when it was in the sensorimotor stage, it is still qualitatively inferior to that of an adult.

- Children in the preoperational stage are characterized by what Piaget called egocentric thoughts

The world at this stage is viewed entirely from the child's own perspective. Thus a childs explanation to an adult can be uninformative.

Three-year-olds will generally hide their face when they are in trouble--even though they are in plain view, three-year-olds believe that their inability to see others also results in others inability to see them. A child in the preoperational stage also lacks the principle of conservation. This is the knowledge that quantity is unrelated to the arrangement and physical appearance of objects. Children who have not passed this stage do not know that the amount, volume or length of an object does not change length when the shape of the configuration is changed. If you put two identical pieces of clay in front of a child, one rolled up in the shape of a ball, the other rolled into a snake, a child at this stage may say the snake piece is bigger because it is rolled out. Piaget declared that this is not mastered until the next stage of development. The concrete operational stage lasts from the age of seven to twelve years of age. The beginning of this stage is marked by the mastery of the principal of conservation.

Children develop the ability to think in a more logical manner and they begin to overcome some of the egocentric characteristics of the preoperational period. One of the major ideas learned in this stage is the idea of reversibility. This is the idea that some changes can be undone by reversing an earlier action. An example is the ball of clay that is rolled out into a snake piece of clay. Children at this stage understand that you can regain the ball of clay formation by rolling the piece of clay the other way. Children can even conceptualize the stage in their heads without having to see the action performed.

Children in the concrete operational stage have a better understanding of time and space. Children at this stage have limits to their abstract thinking, according to Piaget.

The formal operational stage begins in most people at age twelve and continues into adulthood. This stage produces a new kind of thinking that is abstract, formal, and logical. Thinking is no longer tied to events that can be observed. A child at this stage can think hypothetically and use logic to solve problems. It is thought that not all individuals reach this level of thinking. Most studies show only forty to sixty percent of American college students and adults fully achieve it. In developing countries where the technology is not as advanced as the United States, almost no one reaches the formal operational stage.

Contemporary theorists suggest that a better description of how children develop cognitively can be provided by approaches that do not employ concrete fixed stages. Research also has proven that children are not always consistent in their performance of tasks at each stage. Furthermore, developmental psychologists imply that cognitive development proceeds in a continuous fashion; they propose that such development is primarily quantitative, rather than qualitative.

Most developmental theorists have agreed that Piaget has provided us with an accurate account of age-related changes in cognitive development. Piagets suggestion, that cognitive performance cannot be attained unless cognitive readiness is brought about by maturation and environmental stimuli, has been instrumental in determining the structure of educational curricula.

Works Cited







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:

  1. Sensorimotor stage (Infancy). In this period (which has 6 stages), intelligence is demonstrated through motor activity without the use of symbols. Knowledge of the world is limited (but developing) because its based on physical interactions / experiences. Children acquire object permanence at about 7 months of age (memory). Physical development (mobility) allows the child to begin developing new intellectual abilities. Some symbollic (language) abilities are developed at the end of this stage.
  2. Pre-operational stage (Toddler and Early Childhood). In this period (which has two substages), intelligence is demonstrated through the use of symbols, language use matures, and memory and imagination are developed, but thinking is done in a nonlogical, nonreversable manner. Egocentric thinking predominates
  3. Concrete operational stage (Elementary and early adolescence). In this stage (characterized by 7 types of conservation: number, length, liquid, mass, weight, area, volume), intelligence is demonstarted through logical and systematic manipulation of symbols related to concrete objects. Operational thinking develops (mental actions that are reversible). Egocentric thought diminishes.
  4. Formal operational stage (Adolescence and adulthood). In this stage, intelligence is demonstrated through the logical use of symbols related to abstract concepts. Early in the period there is a return to egocentric thought. Only 35% of high school graduates in industrialized countries obtain formal operations; many people do not think formally during adulthood.

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.


Stage Movement

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.


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.

Cognitive Development: Applications*

Citation: Huitt, W. (1997). Cognitive development: Applications. Educational Psychology Interactive. Valdosta, GA: Valdosta State University. Retrieved [date], from


Teaching the Preoperational Child
(Toddler and Early Childhood)

Use concrete props and visual aids to illustrate lessons and help children understand what is being presented.

  • Use physical illustrations.
  • Use drawings and illustrations.

Make instructions relatively short, using actions as well as words, to lessen likelihood that the students will get confused.

  • After giving instructions, ask a student to demonstrate them as a model for the rest of the class.
  • Explain a game by acting out the part of a participant.

Do not expect the students to find it easy to see the world from someone else's perspective since they are likely to be very egocentric at this point.

  • Avoid lessons about worlds too far removed from the child's experience.
  • Discuss sharing from the child's own experience.

Give children a great deal of physical practice with the facts and skills that will serve as building blocks for later development.

  • Use cut-out letters to build words.
  • Avoid overuse of workbooks and other paper-and-pencil tasks.

Encourage the manipulation of physical objects that can change in shape while retaining a constant mass, giving the students a chance to move toward the understanding of conservation and two-way logic needed in the next stage.

  • Provide opportunities to play with clay, water, or sand.
  • Engage students in conversations about the changes the students are experiencing when manipulating objects.

Provide many opportunities to experience the world in order to build a foundation for concept learning and language.

  • Take field trips.
  • Use and teach words to describe what they are seeing, doing, touching, tasting, etc.
  • Discuss what they are seeing on TV.


Teaching the Concrete Operational Child
(Middle Childhood)

Continue to use concrete props and visual aids, especially when dealing with sophisticated material.

  • Provide time-lines for history lessons.
  • Provide three-dimensional models in science.

Continue to give students a chance to manipulate objects and test out their ideas.

  • Demonstrate simple scientific experiments in which the students can participate.
  • Show craftwork to illustrate daily occupations of people of an earlier period.

Make sure that lectures and readings are brief and well organized.

  • Use materials that present a progression of ideas from step to step.
  • Have students read short stories or books with short, logical chapters, moving to longer reading assignments only when the students are ready.

Ask students to deal with no more than three or four variables at a time.

  • Require readings with a limited number of characters.
  • Demonstrate experiments with a limited number of steps.

Use familiar examples to help explain more complex ideas so students will have a beginning point for assimilating new information.

  • Compare students' own lives with those of the characters in a story.
  • Use story problems in mathematics.

Give opportunities to classify and group objects and ideas on increasingly complex levels.

  • Give students separate sentences on slips of paper to be grouped into paragraphs.
  • Use outlines, hierarchies, and analogies to show the relationship of unknown new material to already acquired knowledge.

Present problems which require logical, analytical thinking to solve.

  • Provide materials such as Mind Twisters, Brain Teasers, and riddles.
  • Focus discussions on open-ended questions which stimulate thinking (e.g., are the mind and the brain the same thing?)


Teaching Students Beginning to Use Formal Operations

Continue to use many of the teaching strategies and materials appropriate for students at the concrete operational stage.

  • Use visual aids such as charts and illustrations, as well a simple but somewhat more sophisticated graphs and diagrams.
  • Use well-organized materials that offer step by step explanations.

Give students an opportunity to explore many hypothetical questions.

  • Provide students opportunities to discuss social issues.
  • Provide consideration of hypothetical "other worlds."

Encourage students to explain how they solve problems.

  • Ask students to work in pairs with one student acting as the problem solver, thinking aloud while tackling a problem, with the other student acting as the listener, checking to see that all steps are mentioned and that everything seems logical.
  • Make sure that at least some of the tests you give ask for more than rote memory or one final answer; essay questions, for example, might ask students to justify two different positions on an issue.

Whenever possible, teach broad concepts, not just facts, using materials and ideas relevant to the students.

  • While discussing a topic such as the Civil War, consider what other issues have divided the country since then.
  • Use lyrics from popular music to teach poetic devices, to reflect on social problems, and so on.

 Back to Teacher Talk with Toni