Jean Piaget had always been a scholar, even as a youth, and this characteristic was key to his goals and works through out his life. At the early age 10 of he managed his first publication, and by the age of 15 Piaget had decided to direct his work toward a biological stand point which is clearly reflected in his later work as being the core of his beliefs and interests.
Piaget received his baccalaureate at the age of 18 from the University of Neuchatel and also his doctorate in the natural sciences from that same school three years later. It was at this point that his work became more philosophical and Piaget began to study mollusks. The adaptation of the mollusks to one environment to the other intrigued Piaget, so much in fact that he published several professional papers on mollusks and was considered to be one of the world’s experts on them.
It was from his early work in biology he came to believe that not only are biological acts adaptations to the environment but also that the mental activity or cognitive development can apply to the same laws that biological activity can. He perceived cognitive acts as adaptations to the environment. This idea does not however imply that mental behavior can be totally accredited to biological function but that the factors are related and can be used to understand the concepts of cognitive development better.
Piaget’s ideas on identifying the stages of cognitive development carry more information pertaining to intelligence, knowledge, and the interaction of a learner and their environment. He found through experimentation that the development of children’s intelligence could be seen in stages. Piaget tested children, even his own children, in order to examine the development of their thought.
The theory is based on three assumptions, the first being that knowledge is a process that is constantly changing and being altered from the interactions between the individual and the environment. This idea can be applied to everyday life in that people learn from their mistakes and therefore change their actions for the next time that situation occurs.
The second part of this theory pertains to the assumption that intelligence is acquired through building upon information already gained and producing new structures of data. This idea can be associated with Jerome Bruner’s belief in the spiral curriculum technique of teaching, which entails using knowledge that the students already have and adding new information or abstract ideas to it.
The third assumption is that maturation, social influences, physical environment, and self-regulation are all factors that effect cognitive development. Each of these factors are essential for cognitive development, however, the entire process of development is regulated by the self-regulation. It is this self-correcting process that in essence maintains the internal equilibrium of the person throughout their development.
Through his experiments and studies Piaget uncovered a pattern of stages that humans progress from during the maturation process. These stages were divided into four major sections which he assumes cognitive structures pass through.
The first stage, the sensorimotor period, begins at birth and continues on until about 1+ or 2 years of age. During this stage Piaget described it as a time for infants to gain knowledge from all the new stimuli and their reactions to it. The development of motor skills is also a part of this stage while the infant is learning to crawl and walk.
During the second stage, lasting roughly from 2-7 years of age, the child has acquired the concept of object permanence and realizes that things continue to exist even when they are not within immediate perception. This stage is referred to as the pre-operational stage. There are some indications of language and logical reasoning, which appear to develop rapidly, but are not fully represented.
The third stage of concrete operations lasts up until the age of 11 or 12. It is during this time that the child develops logical reasoning and is now able to associate objects with symbols. This level of development enables the child not only to think about objects but to mentally manipulate them as well.
From the age of 11 or so the child then enters the formal operational stage which allows them to think abstractly and this is considered to be the greatest level of development. The child can apply reasoning and logic to a wide variety of problems. It is in this stage that the child is able to think on their own and reflect on things other than strictly concrete objects.
One aspect of this stage theory that must be taken into consideration is the fact that each stage cannot be single down to one particular time period even though they are traditionally associated with age. Piaget believed that any child or person can exhibit the characteristics of other levels because they are not set in stone. The characteristics of these stages are not to be taken literally but rather were intended to establish a base of typical behaviors for each age group.
Piaget also believed that if a person was not in the appropriate cognitive stage, they could be caught in a state of disequilibrium when faced with new or inconceivable information. The person may be trying to learn the information but is unable to integrate it into their existing schemes or rather it is difficult for them to reorganize their scheme in adjusting to the new data presented.
This state of disequilibrium is the precise reason why it is so important for a teacher to be aware of their students developmental stage. Piaget’s theory suggests that by using teaching methods and materials consistent with the student’s level of development that the child can and will adjust to the presented material faster and with greater ease. In addition, being aware of the students mental activities will enable the instructor to create a more varied classroom curriculum and in turn will produce a more comfortable or enjoyable learning environment for the child.
It is also advisable for a teacher to pay careful attention to the interaction of the students and the independent learning which takes place aside from regular instruction. After all, the key to cognitive development in the classroom falls into the maturation, social influences, interactions with the physical environment, and equilibration. By letting the students develop their own concepts and ideas, within their cognitive stage of course, it allows a creative and independent role to be placed on the students themselves and could also lead to a greater understanding of the subject at hand.
As a teaching professional it is almost imperative that the understanding of the cognitive stages be used to assess and properly instruct the students accordingly. Piaget’s theory was not developed for the purpose of enrichment in the classroom by the facilitation of cognitive development but none the less it has and should be taken into consideration for the benefit of the students.
Gredler, Margaret D. Learning and Instruction: Theory into Practice, 2nd edition
(New York, N.Y.; Macmillan Publishing Company, 1992.)
Small, Melinda Y. Cognitive Development
(Orlando, F.L.; Harcourt Brace Jonvanovich Publishers, 1990)
Wadsworth, Barry J. Piaget’s Theory of Cognitive and Affective Development, 4th edition
(New York, N.Y.; Longman Incorporated, 1989.)