Jean Piaget's Theory of Cognitive Development

By Saul Mcleod, PhD | published Dec 01, 2021

According to Piaget (1936, 1950), cognitive development is driven by biological factors as a result of the maturation of innate structures in the brain (nature). These interact with the child's experience (nurture).

Children construct their knowledge in response to their experiences in their environment. Development can only occur when the brain has matured to a point of “readiness”.

According to Piaget, children do not only know less than adults they think very differently. He divided children's cognitive development in four stages, each of the stages represent a new way of thinking and understanding the world.

Piaget did not just describe the stages that children go through but the processes as well. He studied the way children learnt, he focused on their motivation (why do children learn) and how children learn (the process of adaptation).

Motivation for Learning

Schemas are mental structures which contains all of the information we have relating to one aspect of the world around us. According to Piaget, we are born with a few primitive schemas such as sucking which give us a mean to interact with the world.

These are physical but as the child develops they become mental schemas. These schemas become more complex with experience.

Operations are more sophisticated mental structures which allow us to combine schemas in a logical (reasonable) way. As children grow they can carry out more complex operations and begin to imagine hypothetical (imaginary) situations- What would happen if? Apart from the schemas we are born with schemas and operations are learned through interaction with other people and the environment.

Adaptation is the process by which the child changes its mental models of the world to match more closely how the world actually is.

When our existing schemas can explain what we perceive around us, we are in a state of equilibration. However, when we meet a new situation that we cannot explain it creates disequilibrium, this is an unpleasant sensation which we try to escape, this gives the motivation for learning.

According to Piaget, reorganization to higher levels of thinking is not accomplished easily. The child must "rethink" his or her view of the world. An important step in the process is the experience of cognitive conflict. In other words, the child becomes aware that he or she holds two contradictory views about a situation and they both cannot be true. This step is referred to as disequilibrium.

To get back to a state of equilibration we need to modify our existing schemas, to learn and adapt to the new situation. This is done through the processes of accommodation and assimilation. This is how our schemas evolve and become more sophisticated.

Assimilation: when the new experience is not very different form previous experiences of a particular object or situation we assimilate the new situation by adding information to a previous schema.

For example, a baby learns to pick up a rattle he or she will then use the same schema (grasping) to pick up other objects.

Accommodation: when the new experience is very different from what we have encountered before we need to change our schemas in a very radical way or create a whole new schema.

For example, a baby tries to use the same schema for grasping to pick up a very small object. It doesn’t work. The baby then changes the schema by now using the forefinger and thumb to pick up the object.

Equilibration is a regulatory process that maintains a balance between assimilation and accommodation to facilitate cognitive growth. Think of it this way: We can't merely assimilate all the time; if we did, we would never learn any new concepts or principles. Everything new we encountered would just get put in the same few "slots" we already had. Neither can we accommodate all the time; if we did, everything we encountered would seem new; there would be no recurring regularities in our world. We'd be exhausted by the mental effort!

Stages of Cognitive Development

According to Piaget, intellectual development takes place through stages which occur in a fixed order and which are universal (all children pass through these stages regardless of social or cultural background).

A mnemonic to remember the stages in order:

Sweet (Sensory motor stage)

Puppies (Pre-operational stage)

Consume (Concrete operational stage)

Flowers (Formal operational stage)

Sensory Motor Stage
(birth – 2 years)

The first stage is the sensory motor stage, and during this stage the infant focuses on physical sensations and on learning to co-ordinate his body. The child realises that other people are separate from them. He also acquires basic language.

Infants are born with a set of reflexes which are used to explore and manipulate objects. The focus is on physical sensations and on learning to co-ordinate our bodies. The child realises that other people are separate from them. The child acquires basic language. Object permanence from around 8 months old.

Object Permanence

Object permanence refers to the understanding that objects exist permanently even when they are no longer visible. Piaget observed the behaviour of infants who were looking at an attractive object when it was removed from their sight. Until about eight months, children would immediately switch their attention away from the object once it was out of sight.

From about eight months, however, they would actively look for the object. If, for example, the object was pushed behind a screen within their reach they would simply push the screen aside. Piaget concluded from this that, prior to about eight months of age children do not understand that objects continue to exist once they are out of sight.

Pre-operational Stage
(2-7 years)

The pre-operational stage is one of Piaget's intellectual development stages. It takes place between 2 and 7 years. At the beginning of this stage the child does not use operations so the thinking is influenced by the way things appear rather than logical reasoning. A child cannot conserve which means that the child does not understand that quantity remains the same even if the appearance changes.

Conservation of Volume

The volume task used two identical glasses with either the same or different amounts of water. One amount was poured into either a narrower glass or a wider glass. Each child was given 4 trials with each task, 2 equal and 2 unequal. The order of trials varied between children.

Piaget found that if children in the pre-operational stage see two glasses together with liquid coming up to the same height in each they can correctly spot the fact that they contain the same amount of liquid. However, if the liquid was poured from a short and wide glass to a taller, thinner container, young children typically believed that there was now more liquid in the taller container.


Furthermore, the child is egocentric; he assumes that other people see the world as he does. This has been shown in the three mountains study.

A child is shown a display of three mountains; the tallest mountain is covered with snow. On top of another are some trees, and on top of the third is a church. The child stands on one side of the display, and there is a doll on the other side of it. The child is shown pictures of the scene from different viewpoints and asked to select the view that best matched what the doll can “see”.

Typically a four years old child reports what can be seen from her perspective and not what can be seen from the doll's perspective. Six years old were more aware of other viewpoints but still tended to choose the wrong one. This shows egocentrism as the child assumed that the doll “saw” the mountains as he did

Class Inclusion

Moreover, the child has difficulties with class inclusion; he can classify objects but cannot include objects in sub-sets.

Class inclusion is the ability to classify objects as belonging to two or more categories simultaneously. For example, Piaget (1965) presented children with a number of brown and white wooden beads then asked “are there more brown beads or wooden beads?”.

Children, before the age of 7, would answer “more brown beads” because they were unable to form a hierarchy of the categories e.g. they are wooden beads and some of them are brown.

Concrete Operational Stage
(7-11 years)

By the beginning of this stage, the child can use operations ( a set of logical rules) so he can conserve quantities, he realises that people see the world in a different way than he does (decentring) and he has improved in inclusion tasks. Children still have difficulties with abstract thinking.

Formal Operational Stage
(11+ years)

The formal operational period begins at about age 11. As adolescents enter this stage, they gain the ability to think in an abstract manner, the ability to combine and classify items in a more sophisticated way, and the capacity for higher-order reasoning.

Adolescents can think systematically and reason about what might be as well as what is (not everyone achieves this stage).. This allows them to understand politics, ethics, and science fiction, as well as to engage in scientific reasoning.

Adolescents can deal with abstract ideas: e.g. they can understand division and fractions without having to actually divide things up. Solve hypothetical (imaginary) problems.

Applying Piaget's Theory to the Classroom

Think of old black and white films that you’ve seen in which children sat in rows at desks, with ink wells, would learn by rote, all chanting in unison in response to questions set by an authoritarian old biddy like Matilda!

Children who were unable to keep up were seen as slacking and would be punished by variations on the theme of corporal punishment. Yes, it really did happen and in some parts of the world still does today. Piaget is partly responsible for the change that occurred in the 1960s and for your relatively pleasurable and pain free school days!

'Children should be able to do their own experimenting and their own research. Teachers, of course, can guide them by providing appropriate materials, but the essential thing is that in order for a child to understand something, he must construct it himself, he must re-invent it. Every time we teach a child something, we keep him from inventing it himself. On the other hand that which we allow him to discover by himself will remain with him visibly'.

Plowden Report

In the 1960s the Plowden Committee investigated the deficiencies in education and decided to incorporate many of Piaget’s ideas in to its final report published in 1967, even though Piaget’s work was not really designed for education. The report makes three Piaget-associated recommendations:

  1. Children should be given individual attention and it should be realised that they need to be treated differently.
  2. Children should only be taught things that they are capable of learning
  3. Children mature at different rates and the teacher needs to be aware of the stage of development of each child so teaching can be tailored to their individual needs.

How to teach

  • Educational programmes should be designed to correspond to Piaget's stages of development. Children in the concrete operational stage should be given concrete means to learn new concepts e.g. tokens for counting.
  • Instead of checking if children have the right answer, the teacher should focus on the student's understanding and the processes they used to get to the answer.
  • Child-centred approach. Learning must be active (discovery learning). Children should be encouraged to discover for themselves and to interact with the material instead of being given ready-made knowledge.
  • Accepting that children develop at different rate so arrange activities for individual children or small groups rather than assume that all the children can cope with a particular activity.

Role of the Teacher

  • Adapt lessons to suit the needs of the individual child (i.e. differentiated teaching).
  • Be aware of the child’s stage of development (testing).
  • Teach only when the child is ready. i.e. has the child reached the appropriate stage.
  • Providing support for the "spontaneous research" of the child.
  • Using collaborative, as well as individual activities.
  • Devising situations that present useful problems, and create disequilibrium in the child.

Curriculum Development

According to Piaget children cognitive development is determined by a process of maturation which cannot be altered by tuition so education should be stage-specific. For example, a child in the concrete operational stage should not be taught abstract concepts and should be given concrete aid such as tokens to count with.

According to Piaget children learn through the process of accommodation and assimilation so the role of the teacher should be to provide opportunities for these processes to occur such as new material and experiences which challenge the children’s existing schemas. Furthermore, according to this theory, children should be encouraged to discover for themselves and to interact with the material instead of being given ready-made knowledge.

Curricula need to be developed that take into account the age and stage of thinking of the child. For example there is no point in teaching abstract concepts such as algebra or atomic structure to children in primary school. Curricula also need to be sufficiently flexible to allow for variations in ability of different students of the same age. In Britain the National Curriculum and Key Stages broadly reflect the stages that Piaget laid down.

For example, egocentricism dominates a child’s thinking in the sensori-motor and preoperational stages. Piaget would therefore predict that using group activities would not be appropriate since children are not capable of understanding the views of others.

However, Smith et al. (1998), point out that some children develop earlier than Piaget predicted and that by using group work children can learn to appreciate the views of others in preparation for the concrete operational stage. The national curriculum emphasises the need for using concrete examples in the primary classroom.

Shayer (1997), reported that abstract thought was necessary for success in secondary school (and co-developed the CASE system of teaching science). Recently the National curriculum has been updated to encourage the teaching of some abstract concepts towards the end of primary education, in preparation for secondary courses. (DfEE, 1999).

Child-centred teaching is regarded by some as a child of the ‘liberal sixties.’ In the 1980s the Thatcher government introduced the National Curriculum in an attempt to move away from this and bring more central government control into the teaching of children.

So, although the British National Curriculum in some ways supports the work of Piaget, (in that it dictates the order of teaching), it can also be seen as prescriptive to the point where it counters Piaget’s child-oriented approach. However, it does still allow for flexibility in teaching methods, allowing teachers to tailor lessons to the needs of their students.

Critical Evaluation of Piaget’s Theory

  • Piaget neglects the influence of culture and other people in fostering cognitive development but, according to Vygotsky (1978), this is crucial to cognitive development and he also over emphasizes the role of the individual in their own cognitive development.
  • According to Piaget the rate of cognitive development cannot be accelerated as it is based on biological processes however, direct tuition can speed up the development which suggests that it is not entirely based on biological factors.
  • Piaget claimed that language development was a reflection of cognitive development however Bruner (1966) argued that language development was the cause of cognitive development.
  • This theory is descriptive rather than explanatory; it describes the processes by which development occurs but it does not explain how these processes operate.
  • Piaget combines nature (biological maturation) with nurture (the child's experiences)
  • Practical application: Piaget's theory has been applied across education. According to Piaget's theory, educational programmes should be designed to correspond to the stages of development. For example, children in the concrete operational stage should be given concrete means to learn new concepts e.g. tokens for counting. The teacher should focus on the student's understanding and the processes they used to get to the answer instead of checking if children have the right answer. Children should be encouraged to discover for themselves and to interact with the material instead of being given ready-made knowledge. Education should accept and plan for individual children as they develop at different rate so arrange activities for individual children or small groups rather than assume that all the children can cope with a particular activity.

Critical Evaluation of the Stages of Cognitive Development

A number of issues have been identified in Piaget’s methodology.

  • Bower and Wihart (1974) found that one month old babies showed surprise when objects disappeared, this raises the possibility that in fact the children did not look for the hidden objects because they did not have the motor abilities to do so rather because they lacked object permanence. This is supported by Baillargeon’s studies on violation of expectations.
  • A further difficulty is the way the questions were asked to the children during the conservation tasks studies, it is argued that when children are asked the same question twice (which beaker has the most water?) they assume that their first answer was wrong so they answer differently which means that the results could be influenced by the way the children were questioned rather than a lack of conservation. Furthermore, the conservation of numbers (using tokens) was replicated by McGarrigle and Donalson (1974) with 6 years old children, but this time a “naughty teddy” messed up the counters. Once the teddy was back in his box, the children were asked if the number of counters had changed. 62% of the children said that the number of tokens was the same showing that they could conserve numbers. McGarrigle and Donalson argued that, in the original condition, the researchers appeared to the child as if they were intending to alter the number of counters to the child, or that they are asking a trick question.
  • Hughes (1975) argued that the three mountains task did not make sense to children (although it is worth remembering that Piaget carried out the task with Swiss children so they were used to mountains). He carried out a study with a more everyday like situation and found that 90% of the children had lost their egocentrism by the age of 4.
  • Cross-cultural studies show that the stages of development (except the formal operational stage) occur in the same order in all cultures suggesting that cognitive development is a product of a biological process of maturation. However the age at which the stages are reached varies between cultures and individuals which suggests that social and cultural factors and individual differences influence cognitive development. For example, Dasen (1994) found that Australian Aborigines developed conservation later than Europeans counterparts (between 10-13 years old) but their spatial awareness abilities developed earlier.
  • The fact that the formal operational stage is not reached in all cultures and not all individuals within cultures suggests that it might not be biologically based.
About the Author

Saul Mcleod is a qualified psychology teacher with over 17 years' experience of working in further and higher education. He has recently worked as a psychology teaching assistant for The University of Manchester, Division of Neuroscience & Experimental Psychology

He previously worked for Wigan and Leigh College, where he was a psychology lecturer for ten years, primarily teaching A-level psychology and sociology.

Cite this Article (APA Style)

Mcleod, S. (2021, Dec 01). Jean Piaget's theory of cognitive development. Teacher Support Network.


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