Piaget’s theory of cognitive development:
His early work:
Piaget started working under Binet, studying how to identify children with special learning needs. Their method included asking children questions that got progressively harder, they would link the levels of difficulty of these questions with different age boundaries. The child’s mental age would be associated with the answers they got correct on a particular level of difficulty. This is how most intelligence testing is done today.
Piaget was not interested in why the children got these answers wrong, but why they tend to get the answers wrong in the same manner. Their answers may have been incorrect, but from a child’s point of view they could sometimes make sense. Piaget theorised that children are not mini adults (as previously established in the 19th Century) but completely different thinkers, both quantitatively and qualitatively.
Piaget established 5 key principles:
- Constructivism – Children take an active role in their own development, (they construct themselves) pretending to be explorers or scientists as they learn about the world around them.
- Children think qualitatively in a very different manner from us, they will even make very different assumptions about the world from us.
- Structuralism – A schema is a cognitive structure. It can be defined as an organised set of knowledge. Schemas are how we respond to situations. At an early age they are simple reflexes e.g. sucking. Schemas become more complex as we get older. These will change/accomodate to knowledge we gain as we get older.
- Biological basis – development is innate, it begins with simple reflexes and these are the building blocks that help us move forward of the adaption process. This is what leads to our more complex actions.
- Intelligences is adaptive. This is all about how children will change their schemas alongside their ever-changing environment. Adaption is a two part process, first the children assimilate new information, then their schemas will accommodate the new information in order for them to adapt to the new situation.
-When a child encounters something that they have not yet accommodated to, they are at a point of disequilibrium, this is what encourages the accommodation and adaptation which will leave them in a state of equilibrium.
e.g. When a child encounters new information or a new experience such as seeing a horse for the first time after being used to dogs and primarily categorising dogs as four legged animals, making them classify a horse as a large dog. When told otherwise this knowledge will not fit into any pre-existing schemas they have, putting them in a state of disequilibrium. They will then accommodate this new information (dogs are not the only animals with four legs and a tail, horses are like large dogs). This new categorisation is still incredibly basic but will inevitably undergo many many repetitions of this same process.
Sequence of progression:
Piaget proposed a number of separate stages leading to the final development of ‘formal operational thought. Piaget claimed that the sequences was not going to change and that everyone would always go through them in the given particular order. Piaget also claimed that the following stages were biologically predetermined.
Sensorimotor Stage (0-2 years):
An infant will deal with the world using solely their sensory and motor skills, they will actively explore their environment while they do so. They will have no sense of being apart from other people and also no concept of object permanence. (When an object is hidden from their view they believe that it simply ceases to exist anymore) Piaget found that only at the age of four months will children show an awareness of an object still existing beyond their own point of view, but will become uninterested in it. Between 9-12 months he found that children will search where they last saw an object but do not fully understand why or even simply that an object is in the place it disappeared last.
This is known as the ‘A not B’ error.
As language development starts later on into this stage, Piaget found that children start demonstrating the ability to recognise symbolic representations as they begin make-believe play. (e.g. cardboard box as a house)
Preoperational stage (2-7 years old):
During this stage the child will be fully capable of symbolic thought. This stage was the stage most thoroughly studied by Piaget. For most of his research here he used Clinical interviews and found that there were several limitations to children’s thinking at this early stage.
Children in the early period of this stage (PRECONCEPTUAL) demonstrate animism (The belief that inanimate objects have feelings and personalities).
There is also an abundance of egocentrism during this stage. Children at this stage are often unable to see anything from another’s point of view. Piaget and Inhelder carried out the famous three mountains study. Objects were placed around a large model mountain that the child could walk around the model and see what models were placed around it. When they were standing in a single place, only able to some of the models, they were asked what they were able to see, then what someone on another side of the table was able to see:
–Four year olds were almost completely unable to see from another’s point of view and would naturally assume that the other person/point of view would see the same objects as themselves.
–Six year olds tended to show some awareness of another point of view.
–Nine year olds realised what the correct answer and were able to describe what the other point of view would see.
Hughes and Donaldson (PEWS AND DOLLS) conducted a similar study which involved a model brick wall in the shape of a cross and three dolls which the children were asked to position into particular places so that they could or couldn’t see one another. They found that young children are able to accomplish a task which involves being able to see from the view of another, Hughes and Donaldson (PEWS AND DOLLS) claimed this was probably due to how much simpler the task was. One could argue it’s also due to how the child’s own view wasn’t involved and therefore could not influence the rest of the test.
Also at this stage a child’s ability is blocked by centration (the ability to only focus on one thing in the environment at a time). This is supported by Piaget’s experiments into conservation.
For example Piaget would present a child with two identical glasses filled with the same amount of liquid and would ask the children if they both had the same amount of liquid in. The child would inevitably say yes to which Piaget would respond by placing the liquids in different glasses (one tall and thin the other short and fat) and ask the same question. The children were often unable to understand that the amount of the liquid had not changed. This shows centrationbecause they were only able to focus on the shape of the liquid and glass while unable to understand how the amount had not changed.
Concrete operational stage:
Children at this stage will become capable of performing what is known as an operation which is a mental process such as working out a mathematical calculation in your head. Two other features of the concrete operational stage include:
- Reversible thinking – The ability to add and subtract, understanding that subtracting is the reverse of adding.
- Decentration – The children should now be able to perform the conservation tasks correctly, there is less of an egocentric state of mind in the children.
Piaget states that children will be able to conserve things in a particular order, number coming first and volume coming last. This stage is called concrete because of the way children need to use real objects in order to start using logic and mental processes to work things out. They are unable to have operations on something that they have not physically experienced, they cannot just imagine a new situation and then proceed to work it out at this early age.
Formal operational stage:
Children at this stage will begin to reason and perform operations without any physical representations. They will develop the ability to:
- Follow an argument without reference to it’s content, being able to reason and make sense of the principles.
- Think hypothetically about situations that they have never experienced. This supports the idea that there is further decentration present. Teens may start to think more about ideas and beliefs such as religion, or becoming a vegetarian because of not wanting to harm animals.
- They are able to test ideas bit by bit. Piaget gave children weights and a length of string, having them test what affects the swing of a pendulum. Children at the stage of formal operational thinking were able to test the weights then the length of the string, making sure all the possibilities have been explored.
Evaluation of Piaget:
- Piaget’s stage theory concept has been heavily criticised, even he himself has stated that perhaps cognitive development can be better thought of as a continuous process rather than a step by step one. Many state that given evidence does not support the stage theory, perhaps Piaget was simply influenced by other leading psychologists of the time who used stages such as Freud’s stages of Psychosexual development.
- The methodology of Piaget arguable relied too much on the process of the clinical interview. This was a process made up of question and answer unstructured interviews making it nigh on impossible to effectively compare data. This is due to how the questions or tasks would have been different for each child, experimenter bias was a possibility. His data was more qualitative than quantitative and not much was released regarding his sampling methods.
- It is also commonly believed that Piaget underestimated the cognitive abilities of children for example Bower (BOWSER: SEEK THE PRINCESS) challenged his ideas that children under the age of 8 months had no idea of object permanence. Bower (BOWSER: SEEK THE PRINCESS) showed that children as young as 6 weeks were able to show some indication that they were aware that objects did not disappear once out of their view. While a child was reaching for an object the lights were turned out and an infra red camera showed that they continued to reach for the object.
Again, Hughes and Donaldson (PEWS AND DOLLS) showed that by performing some of the tasks in a more understandable manner for the young children they were able to show more developed cognitive abilities.
Another thing to note is how all children of course develop at different rates, yet Piaget barely touched upon this, only that there is a fixed sequence of cognitive development.
Despite all of this Piaget remains one of the key figures in developmental psychology, mostly due to his emphasis on constructivist views, the views that children construct their own cognitive ability by taking parts of their environment and adding them on to their own experience.
- Children respond to information in a manner dependent on their stage in cognitive development.
- Key processes include conservation, centration, egocentrism and class inclusion.
- Key studies include sleeping cows (ARE THERE MORE BLACK COWS OR SLEEPING ONES?), three mountains and conservation.
- Recent studies have shown that children are capable of higher cognitive abilities earlier than Piaget believed.
- Donaldson worked to prove this.
- Highlighted two limitations of children at a young age, egocentrism and centration.
- Rarely discussed how social processes affect development.