By Catherine A. Sanderson, Amherst College
The most famous figure in the psychology of cognitive development is Jean Piaget. Even today, much of what we know about children’s cognitive development is based on his work. Piaget’s big breakthrough occurred while he was working in Paris in 1920 to develop questions for children’s intelligence tests, and specifically to figure out at what age children could answer particular types of questions correctly.
Children See the World Differently than Adults
Piaget’s process led to an interesting observation: children at a certain age consistently gave wrong answers and used the same pattern of reasoning to arrive at their conclusions. For example, children believed there was more liquid in a glass that was tall and thin than one that was shorter and wider, even when they actually saw the liquid being poured from one glass into another.
Piaget’s interactions with children of all ages led him to believe that they actually see the world differently than adults. This might seem like a pretty obvious observation now, but that’s thanks to Piaget; at that time, it was revolutionary. People just assumed that children saw the world in the same way that adults did, that they just knew less; they merely had less information and knowledge because they had less experience in the world. Piaget suggested this was wrong, and that children actually saw the world differently.
Based on these observations, Piaget formed a theory of cognitive development which proposes that children move through a series of four distinct stages. These stages roughly correspond to particular ages.
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In the first stage, known as sensorimotor, children learn by actions and sensations. They experience the world by looking at things, touching things, and putting things into their mouths. This stage lasts from birth to about age two.
But the most important cognitive development during this stage is the development of object permanence, meaning an awareness that things continue to exist even when you cannot see them. Until this awareness arrives, basically it’s ‘out of sight, out of mind’.
According to Piaget, very little kids lack this understanding. If you show an infant a set of keys and then hide the keys underneath a scarf, they don’t search for it. It’s as if they believe the object no longer exists, so why try to find it. But later on during this stage, they do learn that objects continue to exist even when they aren’t visible.
In the second stage, called preoperational, children are able to use language, which is a clear sign of higher-level thinking. They are also able to use symbols to stand in for other objects; for example, they can wrap a towel around their shoulders and pretend it’s a cape, or pick up a stick on the playground and say, “This is a gun”.
But children also lack two fundamental cognitive abilities. First, they are egocentric in their thinking, meaning they can’t really see things from another person’s point of view. Here’s a simple example: If you hold up a cup and then block it from another person’s point of view with a piece of paper, the child will believe that both you and the other person are seeing a cup. They can’t understand how they are seeing a cup, but the other person is seeing a piece of paper. Second, children at this stage lack the concept of conservation, meaning they don’t understand that something stays the same in quantity even though its appearance changes.
Children at this stage—which lasts from about two to six years of age—also show animism, meaning a belief that objects have thoughts and feelings. They may believe their stuffed animals are lonely when they have to stay alone in the room all day. They may believe that dark clouds are angry.
Concrete Operational Stage
From about age seven to 11, children overcome many of the cognitive errors and enter a third stage called concrete operational. They now understand conservation, and get that jokes that rely on this concept are pretty funny, like ‘Mr. Jones went into a restaurant and ordered a whole pizza for dinner. When the waiter asked if he wanted it cut into 6 or 8 pieces, Mr. Jones said, “Oh, you’d better make it 6, I could never eat 8 pieces.”’
But children in this stage still lack the ability to think about abstract problems. So, if you ask them to calculate a quick math problem—say 4 plus 8 equals 12—they can quickly do that. But if you then immediately ask them that what is 12 minus 8, they have to recalculate to get the answer. They cannot just use memory and logical inference to realize that it must be 4.
Formal Operational Stage
Finally, typically around age 12, Piaget believed children reach the final stage, formal operational, which is what characterizes thinking throughout adulthood. They can now perform abstract reasoning and logic. They can use symbols, can solve hypothetical problems, and solve if/then problems. So, if given a hypothetical problem, like ‘If Bill is faster than David, and David is faster than Carlos, who is the fastest?’, a child in the formal operational stage could infer that Bill is the fastest; a child in an earlier stage wouldn’t have the ability to figure this out.
Piaget’s theory was revolutionary when it was proposed 100 years ago, as it clearly laid out how thinking changes from infancy through early adolescence. Further research has also shown that thinking does evolve over time, like he proposed, and that this process is largely the same across cultures.
Common Questions about Jean Piaget’s Theory of Cognitive Development
Piaget’s theory of cognitive development proposes that children move through a series of four distinct stages, and that these stages roughly correspond to particular ages.
The first stage in Piaget’s theory of cognitive development is known as sensorimotor. In this stage, children learn by actions and sensations. They experience the world by looking at things, touching things, and putting things into their mouths. This stage lasts from birth to about age two.
Piaget believed that around age 12, children reach the formal operational stage, which is what characterizes thinking throughout adulthood. They can now perform abstract reasoning and logic. They can use symbols, can solve hypothetical problems, and solve if/then problems.