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Jean Piaget and Cognitive Development
Jean Piaget was a Swiss psychologist who developed a theory of cognitive development that attempted to go beyond the simple measure of mental capacity, which is the IQ, and achieve a deeper understanding of a child’s mental capacity. In the 1930s, it was widely believed that children were simply worse thinkers than adults. However, through a series of intelligence tests, Piaget (1936) proved that children think in completely different ways than adults and, moreover, their ability to make connections so that one form of logic leads to improved versions as the child develops. Piaget’s theory had four stages of cognitive development.
sensorimotor – The sensorimotor stage lasts from birth to about two years of age. This is the discovery stage for the child. The child begins to examine the relationships between actions and the consequences of those actions. For example, a child begins to learn that if he pushes the spoon to the edge of the table, it will fall. The child also begins to develop a self-concept. The child learns that they are separate from the outside world and that the hand is part of themselves, but the spoon is not. In addition, the child learns that he is capable of taking actions and manipulating the environment around him. They become more object-oriented and can be played with a rattle or set of keys, for example, for enjoyment. During this stage, the child learns object permanence, which is the understanding that when an object is out of sight it does not cease to exist. Piaget tested this by placing objects under a cloth in front of the child. An 8-month-old will stop and lose interest almost immediately, but a 1-year-old will actively seek out the object. At this point the child understands that the object continues to exist and has a mental image of the object. This is the first sign that the child has developed short-term memory.
Before surgery – This phase lasts from 2 years to 7 years and represents the phase in which children develop language. At this stage children are able to think symbolically. For example, during play you may see a child pretending that a stick is a sword or a gun. A child’s speech also demonstrates their ability to think symbolically. However, while a child’s mind can think symbolically, it has trouble thinking logically and cannot manipulate information in the mind. Piaget (1936) proved this through conservation experiments. There were two types: conservation of mass and conservation of number.
Conservation of mass – This experiment may involve giving the child two glasses with equal amounts of liquid inside. The experimenter will then pour one of the glasses into a longer child’s font-shaped glass without adding liquid. The child will then be asked which contains more liquid and, at this stage, will respond that the larger container has more, even though nothing has been added. In addition, the same experiment can be carried out with two clay balls of the same size. The experimenter will roll one into a cylinder, and the child will then identify the cylindrical one as the larger one.
Number Preservation – This experiment involves a child being shown two rows of coins that contain the same amount. The child will identify them as the same. However, after the experimenter spreads one of the lines, the child will identify that line as the one with more.
Concrete Operational – This phase lasts from the age of 7 to 12. By this stage the child has mastered conservation and becomes far less self-centered. The child now uses some logic and abstract thought, but only in realistic terms that relate to their own experience. It is still difficult for them to understand higher abstract thought.
Formal Operations – This is the final stage and begins around age 12. During this stage, the child improves his ability to think symbolically. They begin to consider abstract ideas such as morality or the future. A huge leap in the curriculum of education at this stage shows this increase in mental capacity.
Piaget (1952) developed the idea of schemas according to the cognitive development of children. Piaget (1952) defined schemas as “a cohesive, repeatable sequence of actions that has component actions that are tightly interrelated and guided by an underlying meaning.” That is, it is a way of organizing knowledge into mental plans based on the child’s daily experiences. For example, when a person goes to the cinema, he accesses the behavior of buying a ticket, popcorn, finding a seat and enjoying the movie and follows this pattern every time he goes to the cinema.
He identified three types of schemas: behavioral schemas related to objects and physical experiences, symbolic schemas, used to represent abstract aspects of experience, and operational schemas, used for mental activities using thought such as mathematics. Piaget believed that children’s schemas develop and become more advanced as the child grows older. In addition, the child will assimilate new information from the environment and add this knowledge to his existing schemas. However, if the child encounters something with the same properties as an existing schema, he must adapt it by creating a new schema. For example, a child develops a schema for a car, but does not know the difference between a car and a truck, so he must create a new schema to distinguish between them. When a child’s existing schema is sufficient to describe their current experiences, it is said to be in balance.
Some criticisms of Piaget’s theory of cognitive development are:
Piaget may have underestimated the role of individual differences in children’s cognitive abilities
No controls were set during the experiment so there is nothing to measure
The age limits of stage theories may not be consistent with the cognitive abilities of all children. Moreover, age groups can shift due to the Flynn effect
Piaget, J. (1936). The origin of intelligence in a child. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul.
Piaget, J., & Cook, MT (1952). The origin of intelligence in children. New York, NY: International University Press.
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