1.2.3 Constructivism 1: Piaget and Cognitive Development Theory
Learning objectives for this chapter
By the end of this chapter, you should be able to:
- Understand and explain clearly what Constructivism means
- Understand and explain clearly what Piaget's Cognitive Development Theory is
- Explain how this theory is applied to education
- Critically evaluate and discuss the strengths and limitations of this theory
- Link this theory to educational practice
What is Piaget's Cognitive Development Theory?
Jean Piaget (1896-1980) was a Swiss psychologist who investigated the way children develop. His background was in natural sciences and so he started with an emphasis on biological processes, including the genetic inheritance of the child. In this chapter, we will focus on his study of the way a child learns to think, i.e. the cognitive development of the child. Piaget also studied moral and social development, but we will concentrate on his most famous theory with its emphasis on cognition.
Piaget conducted a series of experiments to measure children's progress in different areas, including their cognitive and social skills. He wrote many books, and taken altogether, his work constitutes the first major theory of cognitive development. A key element in Piaget's research is the idea that children, like other animals, are born with reflexes that control behaviour, which are called "schemes" or "schemas". Piaget was influenced by a wider theoretical notion called "Constructivism". It derives from the idea that knowledge is not something fixed and stable, but rather it is constructed step by step, and it is frequently changed, as individuals and groups continually try to make sense of the complex world around them. After completing a long series of observations, Piaget concluded that children's cognitive development follows a common pattern that is linear and cumulative in nature: in other words, one step leads into the next (Piaget, 1964). This pattern was described in a series of four stages: the sensorimotor, preoperational, concrete operational and formal operational.
Stage one:Sensorimotor. This lasts from birth until the age of 18-24 months. The child's body develops very fast in this stage, and as the body matures, the mind also grows with it. Initially, the child can only understand what it experiences directly through its senses. Gradually, it becomes aware of its own existence, and understands the boundary between the self and 'other'. Through experimentation, the child learns to understand the connections between things. Towards the very end of this stage, the infant starts to develop language.
Stage two:Preoperational. This stage starts at the time when the toddler learns to use language. It occurs between the ages of 18 months and 24 months. and lasts until the age of 7 years. The child can refer to both real objects and symbols, using words, and images, and there is some use of memory and imagination. The child is egocentric, which means he or she is focused on his or her own view, and has trouble imagining the point of view of other people. The child engages in different kinds of play, including pretend play and the use of symbols. This stage is divided into several sub-stages. During the preconceptual thinking stage (age 2-4 years), the child can make mental representations of objects and recognise similarities between objects, such as size and colour, for example. During the intuitive stage (age 4-7 years), children ask a lot of questions, such as "Why …?" This shows that the child is aware of what he or she knows, but not aware of how they have gained this knowledge.
Stage three:Concrete operational. This stage lasts between the ages of 7 and 11 years. The child starts to develop a deeper understanding of the world, using abstract concepts such as number, length, weight, area etc. There is now an ability to classify objects, describe things in terms of a series and use measurements, as well as engage in thought experiments that are reversible. As one critic explains: "Thinking now is more flexible and abstract. Actions are still the main source of knowledge, but the actions now are mental" (Miller, 2014, p. 652).
Stage four:Formal operational. This stage starts at 12 years and lasts throughout adolescence and into adulthood. There is now an ability to use abstract concepts and to think logically, although not everyone wholly achieves this and applies these abilities in adulthood. The learner at this stage can form hypotheses based on rational thinking, and then test them out by thinking about them.
How does Cognitive Development Theory apply to Education?
This theory has had a significant impact on the way education has evolved in the last hundred years or so. The major stages described by Piaget map very well onto the UK school education system, so that for example the sensorimotor stage equates to nursery, the preoperational stage equates to Early Years (with a distinction between pre-school and reception matching the pre-conceptual and intuitive sub-stages), the concrete operational stage equates to primary or junior school, and the formal operational covers everything from secondary school level onwards, including further and higher education.
Piaget's theory focuses attention on the needs of the child, and encourages educators to allow children space to engage in concrete experiences and explore the world around them. It has been noted that "Piaget's work can be seen to provide a rationale for play as an effective way for children to learn and develop" (Neaum, 2016, p. 122). Piaget himself, with his emphasis on cognition, sees play as the mechanism through which children acquire concepts, and as an important opportunity for the child's psychological development. This theory also has major implications for teaching styles. Piaget's model assumes that learning takes place from the "inside out", based on these innate developmental stages (Rose, 2005, p. 140). In Victorian schools, for example, education was highly disciplined and very much led by the teacher, or in other words, was based on an "outside in" type of learning. This direct teaching style, which remains popular in many parts of the world today, requires children to listen passively and follow instructions. This teaching and learning style often has classrooms were arranged with the focus on the front of the room, where the teacher stands, while the children are all lined up in rows facing the front. Piaget's theory, however, implies that children learn best in a multi-sensory environment, and that they need to engage with the world, with each other, and with the teacher in a variety of different ways.
There are some dangers in applying this theory in an extreme way. It often happens that individual children appear to fall out of the expected pattern of development. If education is perceived as a rigid system that channels all children through the same development process, there are bound to be some children who progress faster, and some who are much slower, or who progress only in some areas, and not others. The challenge for educators is to find strategies to encourage all children, while at the same time dealing appropriately with different needs. This is not just an issue that is traditionally defined as "Special Needs" is education. Each child is unique, and there are many factors that affect children's cognitive development, including the home environment and individual attributes of each child including personality, confidence, past experiences, social connections, etc.
What are the strengths and limitations of this theory?
The main strength of Piaget's theory is that it provides a framework which allows educational professionals to map and measure children's attainment in a consistent way. This is important for planning a curriculum that has clear goals and a logical progression, and which fits with the natural learning of the child. In the Nursery and Early Years levels especially, the ideas and frameworks that Piaget presents are very useful. They explain why, at particular ages, young children prefer different types of activities. They offer some guidance on designing specific learning activities to help develop the cognitive skills that are considered appropriate for each stage.
There are some quite important limitations in Piaget's theory. Some educationalists agree with the idea of a cumulative progression in child cognitive development, but they think Piaget's supposedly universal stages are too rigid, and that children's development occurs in a modular rather than a linear pattern (Wood, 1998). This means that educators should not assume that there are fixed milestones which apply to every child. Instead, there should be an expectation that children will develop in different directions, some prioritising one type of development while others prioritise a different type. An element of variability can even occur in the same child, since researchers have noted that a child can demonstrate a certain competence on one particular day, but not necessarily on another. All of this suggests that judgements about stages of cognitive development based on observation and experiments against a very fixed framework may not be reliable (Miller, 2014). It is also quite difficult to work out precisely what is going on in the mind of a child, and educators may easily jump to incorrect conclusions about young learners if they are too focused on Piaget's supposedly universal, linear view of child development.
Finally, it has been suggested that there might be some misreading of Piaget's theory that introduces bias in the way child development is understood. Piaget's theory of cognitive development can be misinterpreted as a focus on individual experimentation with little attention to social interaction (DeVries, 1997). In fact, however, the quality of social interactions is a key part of Piaget's view of education, and one of the factors that helps children move from one stage to the next.
How can this theory be linked to practice?
We saw above how the insights reported by Piaget have helped educational professionals to design learning environments and teaching styles that allow the younger child to experiment with objects, play in different environments, and have contact with other children and adults. This may be the most obvious and direct implication of this theory of cognitive development which is linked with teaching practice today.
It should always be remembered that constructivist theory assumes an element of progression. It is not sufficient just to fill a nursery with toys and let the children run around doing whatever they like all the time: there is a role for educators, parents and carers, in making sure that the opportunities on offer to the child are pitched at the right level to encourage the assimilation and accommodation process. There is also a need to engage in conversation with learners, asking questions, checking the child's understanding and offering new information or alternative perspectives so that the child constantly has the opportunity to construct his or her own schemas and revise them.
Most of this chapter has dealt with cognitive development in Early Years and at Primary levels, but how does Piaget's theory link in with secondary education? Piaget's concept of disequilibrium or cognitive conflict still applies at this level. At secondary level, there is often a high amount of information that teachers try to impart to learners, but this material may be either too close to what the learners already know, or too far from what they already know. If it is too close, there is no incongruity to encourage new concept forming, but if it is too far, then students may not be able to even start the process of assimilation and accommodation. Finding the right balance for all learners is therefore the key to encouraging cognitive development at secondary level.
This chapter has introduced Constructivism, and Piaget's theory of cognitive development in children particularly. It has focused mainly on the earlier years of education, which is where this theory has had the greatest influence. You should be able to observe how a number of key insights from this theory are still being used to underpin education today, particularly at pre-school and early primary levels. Such theories are useful because they help to explain why things are done in the way that they are, and they can help you to unpack some of the challenges that you and your learners face every day in school or college. We have noted the strengths of this theory, and its weaknesses, including some objections that have arisen due to later understandings of the brain and the way it processes information.
DeVries, R. (1997) Piaget's social theory. Educational Researcher 26, pp. 4-17.
DfE (2014) Statutory Framework for the early years foundation stage: Setting the standards for learning, development and care for children from birth to five. London: Department for Education. Available at: https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/early-years-foundation-stage-framework--2 [Accessed 16 October 2016].
Egan, K. (2012) Primary Understanding: Education in Early Childhood. Abingdon: Routledge.
Miller, P. H. (2014) Piaget's theory: Past, Present and Future. In U. Goswami (Ed.), The Wiley-Blackwell Handbook of Childhood Cognitive Development. Chichester/Oxford: Wiley/Blackwell, pp. 649-672.
Neaum, S. (2016) Child Development for Early Years Students and Practitioners. Third edition. London: Sage.
Piaget, J. (1964) The Early Growth of Logic in the Child. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul.
Piaget, J. (2000) The Psychology of the Child. [Originally 1966, in French]. London: Basic Books.
Rose, D. (2005) Democratising the classroom: a literacy pedagogy for the new generation. Journal of Education 37, pp. 131-167.
Schaffer, D. R. and Kipp, K. (2014) Developmental Psychology: Childhood & Adolescence. Ninth edition. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth Cengage Learning
Schunk, D. H. (2012) Learning Theories: An Educational Perspective. Sixth edition. Boston. MA: Pearson.
Wood, D. (1998) How Children Think and Learn. Second edition. Oxford: Blackwell.
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