Piaget’s Stages of Cognitive Change – The Evolution of Our Processes of Thinking

Dr. Donna L. Roberts
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Swiss psychologist Jean Piaget is credited with constructing the first comprehensive stage theory of cognitive development in which mental processing structures become increasingly abstract and sophisticated. He posited that universally children formulate their conclusions about the world by actively engaging in manipulation of objects in their environment and from this interaction, learn basic principles in a step-wise manner. Piaget posited four cumulative age-related stages of qualitative cognitive change characterized by very distinct ways of thinking. Furthermore, he surmised that the fundamental processes of assimilation and accommodation guide the progression through these stages and help the child adapt to his/her environment (Santrock, 2002; DeHart, Sroufe & Cooper, 2004).

According to Piaget, as development progresses, children acquire cognitive structures - mental representations and rules of operation that are used to facilitate understanding and solve problems. Schemata (plural of schema) are mental representations that define a particular category of behavior (i.e., how a behavior is executed and under what conditions). Infants acquire these schemata through interaction with their environment. Assimilation refers to the process by which new information is modified to fit existing schemata (Santrock, 2002; DeHart, Sroufe & Cooper, 2004).

Conversely, accommodation refers to the process through which old schemata are changed by exposure to new experiences and involves the production of new schemata or the alteration of existing ones (Santrock, 2002; DeHart, Sroufe & Cooper, 2004). For example, if a young child has three categories composing his/her schemata for animal – dog, cat and cow – he/she will probably try to assimilate a new encounter into one of these categories (i.e., upon encountering a horse he/she might call it a dog). However, if the child is corrected and taught the new word – horse - he/she will accommodate the animal concept to include the new category.
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Piaget’s stages of cognitive development and their characteristics are outlined as follows:

1. Sensorimotor Period – ages birth – 2 years – characterized by a progression from simple reflexes to symbolic thinking where cognition is tied to experiences of external stimulation of the sensory organs; includes the development of object permanence – the understanding that objects do not disappear simply because they are removed from the direct line of sight; includes the beginning of deferred imitation whereby infants form mental representations of observed actions and can later reenact these observations

a. Simple Reflex Substage – 1st month

b. First Habits and Primary Circular Reactions Substage – 1-4 months

c. Secondary Circular Reactions Substage – 4-8 months

d. Coordination of Secondary Circular Reactions Substage – 8-12 months

e. Tertiary Circular Reactions, Novelty and Curiosity Substage – 12-18 months

f. Internalizations of Schemes Substage – 18-24 months

2. Preoperational Period – ages 2 – 7 years – characterized by the development of the ability to think logically as well as symbolically through the formation of stable concepts, rapid development of language ability, beginning ability to classify and categorize objects and to manipulate numbers; centration – focusing upon a single characteristics to the exclusion of all others; lack an understanding of conservation – the notion that a transformed object (i.e., water poured into differently shaped containers) retains its original properties (i.e., quantity, volume); inability to perform operation 0 internalized mental manipulation of physical activity; thinking dominated by egocentrism – the child’s innate belief that others see the world from his/her perspective and animism – the projection of human qualities, characteristics and capabilities onto inanimate objects (i.e., “the chair pushed me” when the child trips and falls)

a. Symbolic Function Substage – age 2-4

b. Intuitive Thought Substage – age 4-7

3. Concrete Operational Period – ages 7 – 11 years – characterized by an understanding of the aforementioned conservation principle and emergence of the ability to perform logical analysis; increased ability to empathize and understand the feelings of others; increased ability to understand more complex cause and effect relationships; ability to perform seriation – ordering objects along a quantitative dimension; increased skill in the use of symbolic thought; reasoning with respect to concrete objects, but not yet able to reason with hypothetical situations

4. Formal Operational Period – appearing between the ages of 11 – 15 – characterized by the capability to perform abstract reasoning, including hypothetical objects and events; understanding of variations in circumstances and consequences; ability to reason in the “scientific method” manner of deduction and hypothesis generation; stage not reached by all individuals or present in all cultures (Santrock, 2002; DeHart, Sroufe & Cooper, 2004).

Piaget’s theory was revolutionary because it described children as participants in the active construction of a system for understanding their world, rather than as passive recipients of new information. Additionally, his theory argued that children’s understanding of the world was limited by their developmental phase and the cognitive structures operating at that stage. While some subsequent researchers have criticized certain aspects of his categorization or his observational techniques, Piaget’s theories remain the cornerstone of conceptualizing the process of cognitive development.
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DeHart, G. B., Sroufe, L. A. & Cooper, R. G. (2004). Child development: Its nature and course, 5e. Boston, MA: McGraw-Hill.

Santrock, J. W. (2002). Life-span development, 8e. Boston, MA: McGraw-Hill.

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Writer and university professor researching media psych, generational studies, addiction psychology, human and animal rights, and the intersection of art and psychology.


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