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Jean Piaget and Cognitive Development
Jean Piaget was a Swiss psychologist who developed a Theory of Cognitive Development that tried to go beyond the simple measure of mental ability that is IQ and achieve a deeper understanding of the mental ability of a child. It was widely believed, during the 1930s, that children were simply worse thinkers than adults. However, through a series of skill tests, Piaget (1936) demonstrated that children think in completely different ways than adults and, moreover, their ability to reason compounds so that one form of logic leads to improved versions as the child develops. Piaget’s theory had four stages of cognitive development.
sense engine – The sensorimotor stage lasts from birth to about two years of age. This is a stage of discovery for the child. The child begins to examine the relationships between actions and the consequences of those actions. For example, a child begins to learn that if they push a spoon to the edge of a table, it will fall. A child also begins to develop the concept of self. The child learns that they are separate from the outside world and that the hand is part of themselves but the spoon is not. Additionally, the child learns that it is capable of taking actions and manipulating the environment around them. They become more object oriented and can play with a rattle or a keyboard, for example, for its enjoyment. During this stage, the child learns Object Permanence which is the understanding that when an object is out of sight it does not cease to exist. Piaget tested this by placing objects under a sheet in front of the child. An 8 month old will stop and lose interest almost immediately but a 1 year old will actively search for the object. At this point, the child understands that the object still exists and has a mental image of the object. This is the first sign that the child has developed Short Memory.
Pre-Operational – This stage lasts from 2 years to 7 years and is the stage during which children develop language. At this stage, children are able to think symbolically. For example, during play, you might see a child pretending that a stick is a sword or a gun. A child’s speech also shows their ability to think symbolically. However, while a child’s mind can think symbolically, it has trouble thinking logically and cannot manipulate information in the mind. Piaget (1936) demonstrated this through Conservation Experiments. There were two types of it: conservation of mass and number.
Conservation of mass – This experiment may involve a child being given two glasses with an equal amount of liquid inside. The experimenter will then pour one of the glasses into a longer glass in the child’s font without any liquid being added. The child will then be asked which contains more liquid and, at this stage, will answer that the larger container has more despite nothing being added. Additionally, the same experiment can be performed with two clay balls of the same size. The experimenter will roll one into a cylinder and the child will then identify the cylindrical one as the larger one.
Keeping Number – This experiment involves a child who is shown two rows of coins containing the same amount. The child will identify them as the same. However, once the experimenter extends one of the lines, the child will identify the one as the one that has more.
Functional Concrete – This stage lasts from the age of 7 to 12. In this stage, a child has mastered conservation and has become much less egocentric. The child now uses some logic and abstract thought but only in realistic terms that apply to his own experience. They still find it difficult to understand higher abstract thought.
Formal Operations – This is the final stage and begins around the age of 12. During this stage, the child improves his ability to think symbolically. They begin to consider abstract ideas such as morality or the future. The huge leap in the educational curriculum at this stage demonstrates this increase in mental capacity.
Piaget (1952) developed the idea of schemes according to the cognitive developments of the children. Piaget (1952) defined schemas as “a cohesive, repeatable action sequence possessing component actions that are tightly interconnected and governed by a core meaning”. That is, it is a way of organizing knowledge into mental plans based on the child’s daily experiences. For example, when a person goes to the cinema, they access the behaviors of buying a ticket, popcorn, finding a seat and enjoying the movie and follow this pattern every time they go to the cinema.
He identified three types of schemas: behavioral schemas relating to objects and physical experiences, symbolic schemas, used to represent abstract aspects of experience and functional schemas, used for mental activities using thoughts such as mathematics. Piaget believed that children’s schemas develop and become more advanced as the child grows older. Additionally, a child will assimilate new information from the environment and add this knowledge to their existing schemas. However, if the child encounters something with the same characteristics as an existing schema, it must accommodate this by creating a new schema. For example, a child develops a schema for a car but does not know the difference between a car and a truck so he must create a new schema to differentiate the two. When a child’s existing schema is sufficient to describe their current experiences, they are said to be in balance.
Some criticisms of Piaget’s Theory of Cognitive Development are:
Piaget may have underestimated the role of individual differences in children’s cognitive ability
No controls were set during the experimentation so there is nothing to measure against
Stage theory age limits may not be consistent with the cognitive ability of all children. Additionally, the age groups may change due to the Flynn Effect
Piaget, J. (1936). Origins of intelligence in the child. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul.
Piaget, J., & Cook, MT (1952). The origins of intelligence in children. New York, NY: International University Press.
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