Work of Jean Piaget

SPiaget was one of the first psychologist to develop cognitive development as a topic for systematic studies. His contributions include a theory of child cognitive development, detailed observational studies of cognition in children, and a series of simple, but ingenious tests to reveal different cognitive abilities. As per Piaget, children are born with very basic mental structure (genetically inherited and evolved) on which all subsequent learning and knowledge are based. Piaget concluded that children lacked the concept of the object- the knowledge that objects are distinct from both the individual and their perception of a particular object. The various stages of cognitive development as given by him are illustrated in the table below.

Stages Of Development Key Features research Tools
Sensorimotor (0-2 yrs.) Object Permanence Blanket and Ball Study
Preoperational (2-7 yrs.) Egocentrism Three Mountains
Concrete Operational (7-11 yrs.) Conservation Conservation of Number
Formal Operational (11 yrs. +) Manipulate ideas in head, e.g. Abstract Reasoning Pendulum Task
  • The Sensorimotor Stage (0-2 yrs.) : As the name suggests, children in this stage gather knowledge through their senses as they manipulate objects. The toddler’s development at this age consists of his motor and tactile skills of exploring the world. According to Piaget, a major part of a child’s development is underlined by the concept of object permanency, i.e., an object exists even when it cannot be seen by the toddler. And when children are able to understand this concept, they are able to do both- attach names as well as words to various objects
  • The Preoperational Stage (2-7 yrs) : Kids in this stage comprehend through pretend play, but still struggle with logic and understanding the point of view of other people. In other words, children in this stage are egocentric, and will barely understand the other person’s point of view. For example- a researcher might take a lump of clay, divide it into two equal pieces, and then give a child the option of choosing two pieces of clay to play with. One piece of clay is rolled into a compact ball, while the other is smashed into a flat pancake shape. Since the flat shape looks larger, the preoperational child is likely to choose that piece even though the two pieces are exactly the same size.
  • The Concrete Operational Stage (7-11yrs) : Children at this stage become less egocentric, and start understanding that there can be multiple views about the very same object, and that all people do not think exactly like they do. They do start to think reasonably, but can still be quite rigid. They tend to struggle with complex and vague concepts.
  • The Formal Operational Stage (11yrs +): This final stage sees the children using logic to a greater extent, their aptitude to use their reasoning power increases, and they are better able to understand abstract ideas. At this point, children see multiple solutions to problems, and are able to think more logically about their surroundings.

One important point of observation here is that the child’s intellectual development is not viewed as a quantitative process by Piaget. He was of the view that children do not simply add to their bank of knowledge as they get older. But, there is a qualitative change in how children think as they gradually go through these four stages. An 11-year-old child does not simply have more information of the world than he did at five years of agehere is a related fundamental change in how he/ she thinks about the world Fundamental Concepts:

Fundamental Concepts:

  • Schemas: A schema refers to the mental and physical processes involved in comprehending. These are divisions of knowledge that help a child to decipher the world around. According to Piaget, a schema includes both a category of knowledge and the process of obtaining that knowledge. As a child has various experiences, the new information he gathers helps him to tweak, compute, or change his previously known schemas. For example, a child may have a schema about a type of animal, such as a dog. If the child’s sole experience has been with small dogs, a child might believe that all dogs are small, furry, and have four legs. Suppose then that the child encounters an enormous dog. The child will take in this new information, modify his/ her previously existing schemas, and include these new observations.
  • Assimilation: The process by which the new information that a child gathers is mixed with his/ her already existing schemas is known as assimilation. This process is extremely individualised as they tend to change their existing information marginally to fit in with their pre-existing beliefs. In the example above, seeing a dog and labelling it “dog” is a case of assimilating the animal into the child’s dog schema.
  • Accommodation: Another aspect of the adaptation process involves amending the existing schemas in accordance with the new information that the child receives. Accommodation consists of modifying existing schemas as a result of new information or new experiences. New schemas may also be developed during this process.
  • Equilibration: Equilibration is the system through which a balance between assimilation and accommodation is maintained in a child’s mind. As a child progresses, it is necessary that he/ she maintains a balance between applying his/ her previous knowledge and changing their behaviour to make way for new knowledge. Equilibration helps explain how children can move from one stage of though into the next.

Educational Implications

Learning through doing and actively exploring were some of the keen ideas that were central to the way primary school curriculum was being transformed. Since Piaget’s theory is based upon biological maturation and stages, the belief that the child is ready to learn is very important. Readiness refers to the fact that certain information and concepts should be passed on only when the child is ready. As per Piaget, children should be taught certain concepts only when they reach that appropriate stage of cognitive development.

The processes of assimilation and accommodation, according to Piaget, require an active learner and not a passive learner because problem-solving skills cannot be taught, they must be discovered. The teacher’s role should be limited to that of a facilitator rather than direct tuition.
Cognitive Learning Vs. Constructivist Learning There is a minor difference in these two theories of cognitive learning and constructivist learning though they are used interchangeably. While cognitive theory states that humans learn and make decisions based on what is the most logical thing to do and learn; constructivist theory states that people construct their own understanding and knowledge of the world, through experiencing things and reflecting on those experiences. If cognitive theory believes that learning is a logical process without any emotion or humanistic factor, constructivism believes that learning is a combination of logic and humanistic approaches. Cognitive constructivism refers to the process that combines the logic of cognitive behaviour and the personal approach of constructivist behaviour.

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