Running head: JEAN PIAGET
September 30, 2013
Children love talking to the Swiss genetic epistemologist Jean Piaget (1896-1980) because he
listened to their incorrect explanations. With a child-like curiosity his concern with the nature of
knowledge flourished. After discovering the importance of a child’s incorrect answer on the
Binet Intelligence test, Piaget (1932) discovered the qualitative relevance of incorrect answers of
children in various stages of development. As a result, Piaget initiated the clinical method with
open-ended questions, paying special attention to a child’s answer of interest. Subsequently, his
curiosity with qualitative age difference answers prompted his scientific search for the variables
influencing the test performance of children (Huitt & Hammel, 2003).
Equating into a revolutionary view of intelligence, Piaget began with a unique explanation of
learning. Accordingly, the concept of equilibration provides a nativist component theorizing the
basis of all intellectual growth. Specifically, the innate drive toward harmony between the
internal and external environment develops in a more continual complex manner through
Piaget’s two-step process: assimilation and accommodation (Olsen & Hergenhahn, 2013). In
short, limited cognitive representation depends on a changing cognitive structure. Equally
important, Jean Piaget loved to study how children gain knowledge within their various cognitive
and biological stages. For this purpose, people’s thoughts, experience, and cognitive processes
always affect behavior within four major periods, or stages: sensorimotor (birth – 2),
preoperational (2 – 7), concrete operational (7 – 12) and formal operational (12 – adult)
(Browne, 2001)(Browne, 2001).As a result of Piaget’s devoted scientific research, an emerging
progressive educational system blossomed with Piaget’s enthusiasm, for a child’s unique
cognitive eagerness for expansion. Presently, child-centered programs such as Montessori and
the Reggio Emilia Approach stress children’s development and growth resulting in a child’s
individual pride and accomplishment with many literacy related tasks (Huitt & Hammel, 2003).
According to Piaget, l development emerges from action. Specifically, individuals construct
and reconstruct their knowledge of the world as a result of interactions with the environment.
There are two major aspects of his theory: the process of coming to know and the stages we
move through as we gradually acquire this ability. As a biologist, Piaget was interested in how an
organism adapts to its environment (Piaget described as intelligence). Behavior (adaption to the
environment is controlled through mental organizations called schemes that the individual uses
to present schemes and the environment (equilibration) (Cicchetti & Toth, 2009).
Piaget hypothesized that infants are born with schemes operating at birth that he called
“reflexes.”. In other animals these reflexes control behavior throughout life. However, in human
beings as the infant uses these reflexes to adapt to the environment, these reflexes are quickly
replaced with constructed schemes. Schema refers to a general potential to perform a class of
behaviors, and content describes the conditions that prevail during any particular manifestation
of that general potential. Covert manifestations of a schema can be roughly be equated with
thinking (Olsen & Hergenhahn, 2013). As an illustration, responsible for more complex
behaviors, schemes become increasingly more complex. As one’s structures become more
complex, they are organized from general to specific in a hierarchical manner (Bae, 1999).
Piaget described two processes used by the individual in its attempt to adapt: assimilation
and accommodation. Both of these processes are used throughout life as the person increasingly
adapts to the environment in a more complex manner. Assimilation is the process of using or
transforming the environment to place in preexisting cognitive structures. Accommodation is the
process of changing cognitive structures to accept something from the environment. Both
processes are used simultaneously, and alternately throughout life. An example of assimilation
would be when an infant uses a sucking scheme that was developed by sucking on a small bottle
when attempting to such on a larger bottle. Subsequently, assimilation and accommodation are
referred to as functional variants because they occur at all levels of intellectual development
(Huitt & Hammel, 2003).
More important, the driving force behind intellectual growth is Piaget’s concept of
equilibration. When discrepancies between the environment and mental structures occur, one of
two things happen. Either the perception of the environment can be changed in order for new
information to be matched with existing structures through assimilation, or the cognitive
structures themselves can change as a result of the interaction through assimilation. In either case
the individual adapts to his or her environment by way of interaction. It is clear that Piaget
believed that cognition is grounded in the interface between mind and environment. The result of
the interplay is the achievement or working toward a balance between mental schemes and the
requirements of the environment. Along with the driving force of equilibration, the duel
mechanisms of assimilation and accommodation provide for slow but steady intellectual growth
(Olsen & Hergenhahn, 2013).
Thereafter, the increased tendency to rely more on mental operations in adjusting to the
environment as the cognitive structure becomes more articulated is an operation referred to as an
interiorized action. It is an adaptive response that occurs mentally rather than overtly. In this
case, rather than manipulating the environment directly, the child can do so mentally through the
use of internal covert actions operations. Operations can be thought of as interiorized actions
Eventually Piaget differentiated three types of knowledge that must be present at all stages of
cognitive development: physical, logical-mathematical, and social. Physical knowledge is gained
through hands-on interaction with the environment. It deals directly with experience and
perception of objects and is very concrete. This type of knowledge can be gained only from
personal, direct contact with environmental elements (Browne, 2001). Logical –mathematical
knowledge is an abstract reasoning that is applicable beyond physical interaction with multiple
objects in multiple settings in order for mental structures to be modified and created. Here, it is
the manipulation of objects in different patterns and contexts that provides for generalizations
and abstractions to be created. Likewise, social knowledge can be gained only through
interaction with others. This type of knowledge is culture specific and its acquisition is based on
actions rather than physical perceptions of objects (DeVries & Zan, 1994). These types of
knowledge are at work at all stages of cognitive development and are not necessarily
hierarchical, as are Piaget’s proposed stages of development (Huitt & Hammel, 2003).
The first stage suggested by Piaget is the sensorimotor stage. In general, this stage lasts from
birth to about two. . At this point, intelligence is based on physical and motor activity, but
excludes the use of symbols. One important milestone is the development of object performance.
Beginning at about seven months infants start to understand the concept that objects continue to
exist even though they cannot be seen (Olsen & Hergenhahn, 2013).
The second stage, labeled pre-operational, lasts from about two until approximately seven. It
is marked by the demonstration of intelligence through the use of symbols, especially the
maturation of language. Children in this stage can represent objects and events mentally.
Additionally, memory and imagination are developed, but thinking is done in a nonlogical,
nonreversible manner. Egocentric thinking predominates (Browne, 2001).
Again, expanding on Erickson’s thoughts of cognitive development, Piaget offered his third
stage (Concrete Operational Period) for elementary and early adolescence. In this stage
(characterized by seven types of conservation: number, length, mass, weight, area, volume),
intelligence is demonstrated through logical and systematic manipulation of symbols related to
concrete objects (Browne, 2001). Operarational thinking develops mental actions that are
reversible. Egocentric thoughts diminish. The child becomes aware of social equality and
reciprocity that carries with it the concepts of fairness, justice, and exact compensation for
damage done in punishment (Olsen & Hergenhahn, 2013).
Last, Piaget’s final stage of cognitive development (Formal Operational Period) continues
throughout life. In this stage, intelligence is demonstrated through the logical use of symbols
related to abstract concepts. This is the point where the adolescent is can affectively adapt to a
variety of problems, and where he or she has the capacity to think and reason beyond his or her
own realistic beliefs. Adolescents can use an imaginary audience as an internal sounding board
to try mentally various behaviors and attitudes, which allows them to analyze their in spite of
processes to gain insight into themselves and the behaviors and intentions of others (Huitt &
Many pre-school and primary programs are modeled on Piaget’s theory, which provides part
of the foundation for constructivist learning. Discovery learning and supporting the developing
interests for the child are two primary instructional techniques. It is recommended that parents
and teachers challenge the child’s abilities, but not present material or information far beyond the
child’s level. Additionally, teachers use a wide variety of concrete experiences to help the child
learn. As an illustration, Piaget believes that teachers could have a greater impact on their
students implementing mildly challenging experiences for the learner so the dual process of
assimilation and accommodation can provide intellectual growth. Continue intellectual
development by carefully designing lessons to induce cognitive disequilibrium (DeVries & Zan,
Jean Piaget was the outstanding developmental psychologist of the 20th century. The results
of his work have appeared in close to 100 books, and thousands of research articles and book
chapters. The impact of his work upon social science and his contribution to our knowledge of
human development are enormous. His work alone has contributed to the rapid growth of
developmental and experimental child psychology (DeVries & Zan, 1994).
Increasingly, in education his work has an impact upon the curriculum and educational
practice, all of which as of the present time reflect Piaget's concept of mental development. At
the heart of that contribution are two basic conceptions. One of these is, that human intelligence
always grows in a series of stages which are related to age and which cannot be hurried. The
other is that human knowledge is always a creation (Cicchetti & Toth, 2009). Knowledge
always reflects both the child's mental activity and information coming from the environment.
Knowledge is never simply a copy of the external world, nor simply a projection of our inner
world. Learning about the world is a creative activity, and all knowledge is a creation. Recent
curricular reforms and elementary math, reading, and writing programs are beginning to take
account of the creative role of children in the learning process. Unfortunately, however, much of
our contemporary educational system is still grounded on obsolete learning theories. It will be
the next century before we fully realize the magnificent legacy of Jean Piaget (Browne, 2001).
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Psychiatry, 50(1-2), 16-25.
DeVries, R., & Zan, B. (1994). Moral children: Constructing a Constructivist atmosphere in
early education. New York, NY: Teachers College Press.
Huitt, W., & Hammel, J. (2003). Piaget's theory of cognitive development. Valdosta, GA:
Valdosta State University.
Olsen, M., & Hergenhahn, B. (2013). An introduction to theories of learning (9th ed.). Upper
Saddle River, NJ: Pearson.
Trevor, B. (2001). Human development theories. Futuristics 25, 1(2), pp. 50-71.