Jean Piaget, a Swiss developmental psychologist, developed his Piaget theory in the 1930s. His theory helps us better understand the cognitive development of children. The theory is so important that it is still used in schools throughout the world nearly a full century later. In this article, we will discuss what Piaget’s theory was and how it’s used in the real world today.
What are the Four Stages of Piaget’s Cognitive Development?
In total, Piaget theorized that there are four stages of brain development in children and adolescents. Along with these four stages, Piaget also made several different assumptions about children while developing the theory. For example, children build their own knowledge based on their experiences, they learn things on their own without influence from adults, and they are motivated to learn by nature. They don’t need rewards as motivation. Here are the four stages of Piaget’s cognitive development:
This is the first stage and it occurs from birth to about 18-24 months old. During this stage, all things learned are based on experiences or trial and error. Children will use their motor activity without the use of symbols to learn and process things from their surroundings. For example, children will learn how to walk and crawl during this stage using trial and error.
During this stage, children will go through a dramatic period of growth and learning. As they continue to interact with their environment, they will continually make new discoveries about how the world works. 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.
This is the second stage and it occurs from 2 years of age to 7 years of age. The foundations of language development are laid during the sensorimotor stage of development, but the emergence of language is one of the major parts of the preoperational stage. During this stage, children begin to develop a better understanding of the world around them but they will still struggle with logic and taking the point of view of other people.
Children will still have a difficult time understanding the idea of constancy. A popular example is that of a researcher presenting a child with two different sets of clay, both the same size. However, one is crumpled up into a ball while the other is laid out flat. Children in this stage will almost always choose the flat clay because it looks larger than the ball.
The Concrete Operational Stage
This is the third stage of Piaget’s brain development and it occurs in children between the ages of 7 and 11 years. During this stage, children become much more adept at using logic. Children will begin to develop a better understanding of other people’s point of view, losing that sense of egocentrism that is prevalent in young children.
An important note is that children in this stage will begin to understand that the things they think and feel are unique to them. Not everyone else shares the same thoughts, feelings, and opinions that they do. Children begin using inductive logic, or reasoning from specific information to a general principle.
The Formal Operational Stage
This is the fourth and final stage of Piaget’s brain development and takes place from ages 12 and up. During this stage, children will develop an increase in logic and will develop the ability to use deductive reasoning. They will also be able to better understand abstract ideas that may seem foreign to them.
The ability to think about abstract ideas and situations is the key hallmark of the formal operational stage of cognitive development. The ability to systematically plan for the future and reason about hypothetical situations are also critical abilities that emerge during this stage.
Why is Piaget’s Theory Important in Education?
Even though the theory is approaching 100 years in age, the Piaget theory still plays a major role in how our children are taught in schools. This is because it has led to schools shifting their focus towards student-centered discovery and an emphasis on personalized learning. Remember, Piaget believed that children learn through discovery and trial and error.
This means - in theory - that the best way to teach children in school is to make sure they are trying the tasks themselves. Many school systems that follow the Piaget theory believe in collaborative work. By implementing this into their lesson plans, children are able to learn and retain information through discovery, trial and error, and collaboration.
How is Piaget’s Theory Used Today?
As we discussed earlier in the article, Piaget’s theory is used in classrooms all over the world to help better the student’s learning experience. Furthermore, school districts often lean on this theory when they are developing lesson plans. We use his theory to predict the capabilities of what a child can or cannot understand depending on their stage of development. Here are some of the learning techniques used in classrooms today that are inspired by Piaget’s theory:
- Anchored instruction - Developed to help children learn through thinking about situations critically
- Micro Words - Students use a computer-based environment to learn
- Symbol Pads - Manipulations of symbols and language; word-processors, drawing programs, index cards
With a better understanding of cognitive development thanks in large part due to the findings of Piaget, educators can develop lesson plans built around the student and not the test result. This, 9 times out of 10, results in students better understanding and retaining information.
What is an Example of the Preoperational Stage?
Remember, the Piaget preoperational stage is the second of four stages and comes after the sensorimotor stage. This stage occurs in children between the age of 2 until the age of 7. During this stage, a child will begin to build up their experiences of the world around them, moving towards the stage where they can use logic to imagine things.
An example of this stage is ‘pretend play’. A child will begin to pretend as if they’re an airplane pilot, or they will use their imagination to pretend they’re playing with an imaginary friend. They will also begin to let others play with them. By the time the child is about 7 years old, they can use their imagination and play make-believe.
What is an Example of the Concrete Operational Stage?
Going back to the start of the article, you may recall that the concrete operational stage is the third stage of the Piaget brain development theory. This stage typically takes place in children between the age of 7 and 11 years. During this stage, children become much more adept at using logic. Children will begin to develop a better understanding of other people’s point of view, losing that sense of egocentrism that is prevalent in young children.
While kids at earlier stages of development are egocentric, those in the concrete operational stage become more socio-centric. In other words, they are able to understand that other people have their own thoughts. Kids at this point are aware that other people have unique perspectives, but they might not yet be able to guess exactly how or what that other person is experiencing (1).
What is Piaget’s Theory of Cognitive Development?
The idea behind the Piaget theory of cognitive development is to better understand how children develop as they get older. By better understanding this, we can better understand why children behave the way they do. We can also better predict the development of children, allowing educators and parents to know where their child should be in the developmental cycle.
Much of Piaget's interest in the cognitive development of children was inspired by his observations of his own nephew and daughter. These observations reinforced his budding hypothesis that children's minds were not merely smaller versions of adult minds. Instead, he proposed, intelligence is something that grows and develops through a series of stages. Older children do not just think more quickly than younger children, he suggested. Instead, there are both qualitative and quantitative differences between the thinking of young children versus older children (2).
How Does Piaget’s Theory Impact Learning?
Perhaps the biggest influence the Piaget play theory has had on the world is the shift it caused in the educational sphere. Before, educators believed that children were molded from the outside, allowing teachers to heavily influence their development. This theory led to an abandonment of the behaviorist viewpoint, which ignored the cognitive process that children go through, viewing them like empty vessels to be filled.
A Piaget influenced curricula, upholds the belief that children need to explore, to experiment, (and something close to my heart), to question. It advocates that children should be provided with opportunities to discuss and debate with each other, with teachers acting as guides and facilitators. Moreover, children should be able to make mistakes and learn from them.
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