Jean Piaget introduced the theory of cognitive development, which focuses on a child’s development as dependent upon maturity, experience, culture, and aptitude. Therefore, the theory places more emphasis on external factors.
Prior to behaviorism, much of the discussion about learning focused on intelligence quotient (IQ) testing. Research in behaviorism (e.g., the findings associated with Skinner and Watson) prompted academics and psychologists to consider how learning could occur (and be improved) through the use of reinforcers. This point of view conflicted with the underpinnings of IQ testing, which relied on numerical information to identify if students were on target level, under the target, or above the target level (i.e., gifted students). It was even common to use IQ tests to align a child with a specific mental age or to suggest that intelligence was part of a child’s personality (Hussain, Jamil, Saraji, & Maroof, 2012). As cognition became the greater focus of the academic community, however, new ideas about behavior and learning emerged.
Jean Piaget, a leading psychologist during this period, had confidence in the idea suggested by behaviorism that children reacted to their environments. But after many years of observing children, including his own, Piaget also believed that children participated in learning in a more active way. Thus in 1936, Piaget’s theory of cognitive development was introduced to the academic community, placing increased attention on the child’s ability to successfully construct schema (to review schema construction, see section 2.3). The model suggests that although the child’s age is an important factor, age does not definitively determine when a child will move through each stage of development. Rather, the theory proposes that each stage is also dependent upon maturity, experience, culture, and the child’s aptitude (Papalia, Olds, & Freeman, 2005). This dependency on external variables places the theory of cognitive development within the purview of social cognition, although some researchers categorize Piaget’s work as purely cognitive.
The excerpts in this section are from DeWolfe (2016). DeWolfe discusses the four stages of cognitive development, illustrates each stage, and assesses some of the implications that Piaget’s theory has in education. As you read, consider how each stage of development supports an individual’s ability to form and modify knowledge and to learn new information.
Excerpts from “Jean Piaget’s Theory of Cognitive Development”
By T. E. DeWolfe
Overview of Piaget’s Theory
Jean Piaget, a Swiss psychologist, generated the 20th century’s most influential and comprehensive theory of cognitive development. Piaget’s theory of cognitive development describes how the maturing child’s interactions with the environment result in predictable sequences of changes in certain crucial understandings of the world about him or her. Such changes occur in the child’s comprehension of time and space, quantitative relationships, cause and effect, and even right and wrong. Children are always treated as an actor in their own development. Advances result from the active desire to develop concepts or schemata that are sufficiently similar to the real world that this real world can be fitted or assimilated into these schemata. Schemata can be defined as any process of interpreting an object or event, including habitual responses, symbols, or mental manipulations. When a schema (“Cats smell nice”) is sufficiently discrepant from reality (“That cat stinks”), the schema itself must be accommodated or altered (“That catlike creature is a skunk”). For children everywhere, neurologically based advances in mental capacity introduce new perceptions that make the old ways of construing reality unsatisfactory and compel a fundamentally new construction of reality—a new stage of development.