Understanding Jean Piaget’s Theory of Cognitive Development

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July 13, 2019
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Jean Piaget’s theory of cognitive development (1935) describes how a child creates a mental model of the world. Piaget rejected the concept of intelligence as a fixed trait and considered cognitive development a process that results from biological maturation and interaction with the environment.

Piaget’s perspective on learning, viewed as a change in the state of knowledge, fits seamlessly with his Piagetian research on intelligence development.

Piaget's Intentions

Piaget’s objective was not to evaluate children’s intelligence by measuring their ability to count, spell, or solve problems. Instead, he was intrigued by how basic concepts such as number, time, quantity, causality, justice, etc., developed in children. Prior to Piaget’s research, the prevailing belief in psychology was that children were less skilled thinkers than adults. However, Piaget demonstrated that young children have distinct thought processes from adults.

According to Piaget (buy his books from Amazon), children are born with a very basic mental structure (genetically inherited and evolved) on which all subsequent learning and knowledge are based.

The Cognitive Theory

There are three basic components to Piaget’s cognitive theory:

1. Schemas – Building blocks of knowledge

2. Adaptation processes that enable the transition from one stage to another:

  • Equilibrium
  • Assimilation
  • Accomodation
3. Stages of Cognitive Development:
  • Sensorimotor
  • Preoperational
  • Concrete operational
  • Formal operational


Imagine what it would be like if you did not have a mental model of your world. It would mean that you would not be able to make so much use of information from your past experience or to plan future actions.

Schemas are the basic building blocks of such cognitive models, and enable us to form a mental representation of the world. Piaget (1952) defined a schema as:

Piaget referred to the schema as the fundamental component of intelligent behavior, serving as a means of organizing knowledge. Schemas may be viewed as knowledge units, with each one pertaining to a specific aspect of the world, including objects, actions, and abstract concepts (such as theory). Wadsworth (2004) likens schemata (plural of schema) to index cards stored in the brain, with each one guiding an individual’s response to incoming stimuli or information.

When Piaget (buy his books from Amazon) talked about the development of a person’s mental processes, he was referring to increases in the number and complexity of the schemata that a person had learned.

Adaptation Processes

According to Piaget, intelligence involves the ability to adapt. He views intelligence as a gradual development that depends on both internal factors (an individual’s specific capabilities) and external factors (the characteristics of the environment in which the person develops).

Jean Piaget (1952) viewed intellectual growth as a process of adaptation (adjustment) to the world. This happens through:

Defined by using an existing schema to deal with a new object or situation.
This happens when the existing schema (knowledge) does not work, and needs to be changed to deal with a new object or situation.

This is the force which moves development along. Piaget believed that cognitive development did not progress at a steady rate, but rather in leaps and bounds.

Equilibrium occurs when a child’s schemas can deal with most new information through assimilation. However, an unpleasant state of disequilibrium occurs when new information cannot be fitted into existing schemas (assimilation).

Equilibration is the force which drives the learning process as we do not like to be frustrated and will seek to restore balance by mastering the new challenge (accommodation). Once the new information is acquired the process of assimilation with the new schema will continue until the next time we need to make an adjustment to it.

Stages of Cognitive Development

Period: 0/18 months – 2 years old

The child’s intelligence is rooted in action and perception. He is absorbing all the information through sensing. in the course of this period decentering occurs. The main aquisition of the child is object permanence – the child’s capacity of representing objects even in their absence.

Period: 2 – 7/8 years old
  • Substage of symbolic and preconceptual thinking
  • Substage of intuitive thinking

In the substage of symbolic and preconceptual thinking a fundamental function is installed, which consists of the possibility to represent a “significant” using a symbol.

In the substage of intuitive thinking we can observe a progressive coordination of representational links. The level of conceptualisation constantly grows. The main limitations of thinking specific to the preoperational period are:
  • Egocentrism – prisoner of his own perspective
  • Centering – orienting to a single characteristics and ignoring the others
  • The mixing of reality with imaginary fantasies
  • Ireversibility – the inability to reverse mental operations
Reversibility is considered by Piaget to be the main characteristic of human thought and expresses the capacity of mentally executing an action in both ways.

Period: 7/8 – 11/12 years old

The child gradually observes the conservation of substance, weight and volume. Operational groupings are illustrated by logical-mathematical equations, of classifications, constructing numbers, all of them being named concrete operations.

Period: 11/12 – 15/16 years old

In this period, the thinking of the child will liberate itself of the concrete. Formal thinking is a hypotethical-deductive reasoning which allows for the examination of consequences which derive from:

  • liberating relations from order and series;
  • liberating classifications of their concrete, intuitive links.
The operational structures develop, becoming more mobile and more flexible. The substitution of real of imagined manipulation of objects with their verbal enunciations means superpositioning a new logic, the logic of sentences, over the ones of classes and relations. This determines a growth in the number of possible operations.


The Piagetian theory has the significant advantage of demonstrating how intelligence develops and originates from sensorimotor interactions with the environment, even before the acquisition of language. The operational structures of intelligence are not innate; they are developed and refined until the end of the first two decades of life.

The theory is both constructivist and genetical, dealing with the steps required for intelligence to develop and, also, explaining the genesis and evolution of the cognitive processes.

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