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Piaget’s Theory of Cognitive Development

Piaget’s Theory of Cognitive Development

The term ‘cognitive‘ is related to a person’s consciousness of his mind, which makes him active. Cognition includes activities like thinking and reasoning. Piaget observed the intellectual abilities of children and adolescents, and found that children think in a very different way from adults. He enlisted three components of his theory known as Piaget’s theory, which are listed below:


A schema is a systematic pattern of thought or behaviour. For instance, while solving a puzzle or problem involving logical reasoning, a child will organise its knowledge and past experience with its thinking to solve it. The ideas that occur to the child during the process of solving the problem are known as schemas.

Piaget defined a schema as a “cohesive, repeatable action sequence possessing component actions that are tightly interconnected and governed by a core meaning”. He said that a schema helps the child to understand any situation and respond to it.

Stages of Adaptation

Adaptation is a process of getting familiarised with the world. The stages of adaptation are the stages of intellectual development which occur due to this adaptation process. These stages are as follows

  1. Assimilation– This means absorbing something into the present schemas.
  2. Accommodation- This means changing the ways of thinking and actions for managing objects.
  3. Equilibration / Disequilibration- Equilibration takes place when a child’s schemas can deal successfully with the present information given through assimilation. This provides motivation for the child’s development. However, a disequilibration occurs if new information cannot be dealt with successfully with the existing schemas. Such a new situation will cause disequilibrium.

Stages of Development

Piaget suggested that children understand the world around them by adjusting their ideas when they find differences between what they know and what they discover. This means that cognitive development of the child comes before learning takes place. He stated that children go through the following four stages of cognitive development.

(i) Sensori-Motor Stage (birth – 2 years)

  • Infants and toddlers acquire knowledge through sensory experiences and manipulation of objects, not through thinking. At this point in development, a child’s intelligence consists of its basic motor (Le due to movement) and sensory (i.e. through eyes, ears, mouth, nose and touch) explorations of the world.
  • Piaget said that developing the understanding that objects continue to exist even when they cannot be seen, was an important element at this point of development of a child. This concept is called ‘object permanence‘.
  • By learning that objects are separate and distinct entities and that they have an existence of their own outside of individual perception, children are then able to begin to attach names and words to objects,

(ii) Pre-Operational Stage (2 years – 7 years)

  • Children learn through pretence and play but are still not logical thinkers. For instance, an adult might take a lump of clay, divide it into two equal pieces with different shapes and then give a child at this stage of cognitive development a choice between which piece to play with.
  • The adult has rolled one piece of clay into a compact ball while the other is flattened into the shape of a chapati. Since the chapati shape looks larger, the child will most likely choose that piece, even though the two pieces are exactly the same overall size. In this stage, children remember objects and happenings and their thinking becomes more imaginative and centered on themselves. Concepts formed are crude, but not easily changed afterwards.
  • Their vocabulary increases from about 200 words at 2 years to about 2000 words at 7 years. They also believe that inanimate objects like toys (dolls, for instance) have feelings and emotions.

(iii) Concrete Operational Stage (7 years – 11 years)

  • Children begin to think more logically, but their thinking may be very rigid. They tend to struggle with abstract and hypothetical concepts. At this point, children also become less centred on themselves and begin to think about how other people might think and feel. They also start exploring and wandering now.
  • They also begin to understand that their thoughts are unique to them and that others need to share their thoughts, feelings and opinions. They start solving mathematical problems by using, for instance, building blocks, their fingers etc.
  • They solve visual problems better than verbal ones. They realise that objects remain the same even when they are turned around or their appearance is changed. This concept is known as “conservation”. Imagination of the previous stage is replaced with actual facts. Experimentation for learning in the previous stage is replaced by wanting to use rules for learning.

(iv) Formal Operations Stage (11 years – 15 years and above)

  • This final stage of development involves an increase in logic, the ability to use deductive reasoning and an understanding of abstract ideas. At this point, children become capable of seeing more than one potential solution to the same problem and think more scientifically and logically about the world around them.
  • They can do mathematical calculations and think creatively. They start introspecting (i.e. examining their own thoughts and feelings) and thinking about their roles in society.
  • Piaget considered that children’s intellectual development is a process in which they do not just add more information and knowledge to their existing knowledge as they get older, but that there is a qualitative change in how children think as they gradually progress through these four stages. Thus, a child at age seven doesn’t just have more information about the world than he did at age two; there is also a fundamental change in how he thinks about the world.

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