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3: Cognitive Development - Piaget. Outline What is cognition? Piaget’s Theory Features of the theory Sensorimotor stage Preoperational stage Concrete operations stage Formal operations stage Problems with the theory Learning Outcomes. What is cognition?.

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3 cognitive development piaget
3: Cognitive Development - Piaget

  • Outline

    • What is cognition?

    • Piaget’s Theory

      • Features of the theory

      • Sensorimotor stage

      • Preoperational stage

      • Concrete operations stage

      • Formal operations stage

    • Problems with the theory

    • Learning Outcomes

What is cognition
What is cognition?

  • Virtually everything we do involves thinking or cognitive functioning

    • Recalling a phone number

    • Remembering a list

    • Following directions

    • Reading your watch (how much time until…?)

  • How do children become able to do all these things?

  • Why are some better at some tasks?

  • Why are some quicker to develop?

A constructivist approach
A Constructivist Approach

  • Jean Piaget’s theory remains the standard against which all other theories are judged

    • Often labeled constructivist because it depicts children as constructing knowledge for themselves

  • Children are seen as

    • Active

    • Learning many important lessons on their own

    • Intrinsically motivated to learn

Nature and nurture
Nature and Nurture

  • Piaget believed that nature and nurture interact to yield cognitive development

    • Adaptation: The tendency to respond to the demands of the environment to meet one’s goals

    • Organization: The tendency to integrate particular observations into coherent knowledge

Sources of continuity
Sources of Continuity

  • Three processes work together from birth to propel development forward

    • Assimilation: The process by which people translate incoming information into a form they can understand

    • Accommodation: The process by which people adapt current knowledge structures in response to new experiences

    • Equilibration: The process by which people balance assimilation and accommodation to create stable understanding


  • The discontinuous aspects of Piaget’s theory are distinct, hierarchical stages

  • Central properties of Piaget’s stage theory:

    • Qualitative change

    • Broad applicability across topics and contexts

    • Brief transitions

    • Invariant sequence

  • Hypothesized that children progress through four stages of cognitive development, each building on the previous one

Object permanence
Object permanence

  • Objects are tied to infant’s awareness of them

    • “out of sight, out of mind”

  • Hidden toy experiment

    • 4 months: no attempt to search for hidden object

    • 4-9 months: visual search for object

    • 9 months: search for and retrieve hidden object

  • A-not-B task (Diamond, 1985)

    • 9 months: A/B error after 1/2 second delay

    • 12 months: 10 second delay needed to produce error

Preoperational stage
Preoperational Stage

  • A mix of impressive cognitive acquisitions and equally impressive limitations

    • A notable acquisition is symbolic representation, the use of one object to stand for another, which makes a variety of new behaviors possible

    • A major limitation is egocentrism, the tendency to perceive the world solely from one’s own point of view

    • A related limitation is centration, the tendency to focus on a single, perceptually striking feature of an object or event

    • Preoperational children also lack of understanding of the conservation concept, the idea that merely changing the appearance of objects does not change their key properties

Concrete operational stage
Concrete Operational Stage

  • Children begin to reason logically about the world

  • They can solve conservation problems, but their successful reasoning is largely limited to concrete situations

  • Thinking systematically remains difficult

Inhelder and piaget s pendulum problem
Inhelder and Piaget’s Pendulum Problem

  • The task is to compare the motions of longer and shorter strings, with lighter and heavier weights attached, in order to determine the influence of weight, string length, and dropping point on the time it takes for the pendulum to swing back and forth

  • Children below age 12 usually perform unsystematic experiments and draw incorrect conclusions

Formal operational stage
Formal Operational Stage

  • Cognitive development culminates in the ability to think abstractly and to reason hypothetically

  • Individuals can imagine alternative worlds and reason systematically about all possible outcomes of a situation

  • Piaget believed that the attainment of the formal operations stage, in contrast to the other stages, is not universal

Implications for education
Implications for Education

  • Piaget’s view of children’s cognitive development suggests that children’s distinctive ways of thinking at different ages need to be considered in deciding how best to teach them

  • In addition, because children learn by mentally and physically interacting with the environment, relevant physical activities, accompanied by questions that call attention to the lessons of the activities, are important in educational practice

Critique of piaget s theory
Critique of Piaget’s Theory

  • Although Piaget’s theory remains highly influential, some weaknesses are now apparent

    • The stage model depicts children’s thinking as being more consistent than it is

    • Infants and young children are more cognitively competent than Piaget recognized

      • Object permanence in 3-month-olds (Bower, 1974)

      • Number conservation in 4 year olds (McGarrigle & Donaldson, 1974)

Critique of piaget s theory1
Critique of Piaget’s Theory

  • Piaget’s theory understates the contribution of the social world to cognitive development

    • Piaget’s tasks are culturally biased

    • Schooling and literacy affect rates of development

      • e.g. Greenfield’s study of the Wolof

    • Formal operational thinking is not universal

      • e.g. Gladwin’s study of the Polynesian islanders

  • Piaget’s theory is vague about the cognitive processes that give rise to children’s thinking and about the mechanisms that produce cognitive growth

Learning outcomes
Learning outcomes

  • Demonstrate an understanding of Piaget’s theory.

  • Be familiar with the experiments carried out by Piaget

  • Show an awareness of the strengths and weaknesses of the theory.


  • Siegler, Deloache & Eisenberg, Chapter 4

  • See .pdf handout for further reading