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Theories of
Cognitive Development
• Early psychologists believed that
children were not capable of
meaningful thought and that there
actions were purely random
• This view was changed by Swiss
psychologists Jean Piaget (1896 –
1980) who believed that indeed
children are capable of meaningful
thought and that their actions were
• He proposed his theory of cognitive
development which is today will very
relevant to psychology
Key Principles of Piaget’s Theory
• Piaget proposed that cognitive development occurs as
we explore and adapt to our changing world
• He described the process of adaptation as the use of
the environment to learn and make adjustments to our
• According to Piaget, adjustment occurs through two
– Assimilation
– Accomodation
• The process of taking in new information and making it
a part of an existing mental idea
• It is making sense of new information using existing
• An example:
– A child who calls all large, metal moving object “cars”
because this is the only vehicle that they are otherwise
familiar with
– A child who calls all medium sized furry animals “dogs”
because this is the only animal that they are familiar with
• Sometimes we can’t just assimilate new information
into existing ideas and we need to change the existing
idea to meet the new information
• Accommodation refers to changing an existing mental
idea to fit new information
• Involves restructuring existing ideas and is therefore
more complicated than assimilation
• An example:
– A child realises that a bus behaves differently to a car and so
reorganises there ideas to include the notion that there are
different vehicles that do different jobs.
• Piaget believed that assimilation and accommodation
are a part of behaviour and allow a child to develop
and adapt to their world.
• He also believed that assimilation and accommodation
lead to the formation of schemas- mental
representations of things and what they are. We form
schemata through experience and constantly modify
and change them using assimilation and
Cognitive Development
• Cognitive development continues throughout the
• From the time we are born, we encounter new
situations and information. We try to understand and
make sense of these experiences by assimilating them
into our existing schemata of the world. If we are
unable to assimilate these experiences we are forced
to accommodate (or else ignore) them. In this way, we
continually modify our existing ideas of the world.
• According to Piaget, this ongoing process forms the
basis for the development of our cognitive abilities.
Piaget’s 4 Stage Theory
• Piaget proposed that we move through 4 distinct
stages in our cognitive development
• Each stage is associated with a particular age although
there is some individual variation
• Piaget proposed that each stage must be progressed
through in order- an individual cannot skip stages
• Each stage describes the thinking capable by an
individual stage in that stage
• Piaget also outlined key accomplishments that occur at
each stage and that may signal an individuals
progression into the next stage.
Stage 1: Sensorimotor Stage
• Birth to 2 Years
• Infants understand their world by connecting sensory
experiences with motor abilities
• Accomplishments:
– Object Permanence: object still exist even when they cannot
be seen or touched (object permanence task)
– Goal Directed Behaviour: behaviour carried out with a
particular purpose in mind
Stage 2: Pre-operational Stage
• 2 – 7 years
• Characterised by the ability think more complexly and
internalise events i.e. Imagine things in their minds
-Egocentrism: capable of seeing the
world from their own perspective
only (mountain task)
-Animism: everything that exists has
some form of consciousness
e.g. The snow man was described
as “hurt” and “sick” by these children
Stage 2: Pre-opertational Stage
• Accomplishment continued:
– Transformation: understanding that
something can change from form to
– Centration: the ability to focus only on
one aspect or feature at a time
(counter task)
e.g. When asked if the long row of 6
counters had more counters than the 6
counters bunched up this 5 year old
would say yes (counter task)
– Reversibilty: the ability to follow a line
of reasoning back to its starting point
Stage 3: Concrete Operational
• 7 to 12 years
• Thinking revolves around what they can “see”; that is,
what is “concrete”
• Accomplishments:
– Conservation: the understanding that an object does not
change its weight, mass, volume or area when the object
changes its shape or appearance
• Conservation of Volume- (beaker task)
• Conservation of Mass- (play dough task)
– Classification: the ability to organise information into
categories based on similarities (classification task)
Stage 4: Formal Operational Stage
• 12 years and over
• Evidence of complex thought processes and more
sophisticated thinking
• Accomplishments:
– Abstract Thinking: an individual does not need to see or
visualise things in order to understand them e.g. Do you
understand the concept honesty? Or can you answer the
questions “what is the different between the brain and the
– Logical Thinking: an individual is able to develop strategies to
solve problems and test these strategies
– Idealistic Thinking: Aspire to be the “ideal”, have dreams for
the future and set goals
Strengths of Piaget’s Theory
• Many aspects of Piaget’s theory have been supported
by a great body of research conducted by many
different psychologists over time
• His theory has had useful applications to education and
the “readiness” of children to start to learn to read,
write and study mathematics. His theory is also used
be educators to develop appropriates learning tasks for
students at the different stages of their development
and schooling.
Criticisms of Piaget’s Theory
• However research has suggested that Piaget
underestimated the abilities of children.
• The gaps missed by Piaget are thought to be the result
of the methods he used to study children. As research
has become more sophisticated researchers have been
able to better measure the abilities of infants.
• See Box 5.12.
Criticisms of Piaget’s Theory
• It has been found that preoperational children are able
to correctly complete conservation tasks when these
tasks are modified in small ways.
• It is also believed that Piaget overestimated children’s
language abilities. It appears that for some tasks the
children do not lack the cognitive ability to complete
the task but rathe r the ability to communicate this
understanding or fully comprehend the task in the first
• Piaget’s theory was also based on a very small sample
size and he often studies only his own three children.