Piagets Theory Of Cognitive Development Education Essay

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Jean Piaget was a Swiss development psychologist who was known for his work on epistemological studies. He is known for his major theory in the area of cognitive development. Cognitive development is a field of studies that emphasised on the neuroscience and psychology aspects of an individual. Development can be seen as process that takes part in every living human starting from bodily level up to cognitive level. The Webster's Dictionary defines "development" as the series of changes which an organism undergoes in passing from an embryonic state to maturity. It is continuous process of expanding or becoming more advance in pursuit of new purposes. Cognitive best can be described as a process involved thinking, acquisition and storage of knowledge at the mental level of a brain. According to Piaget theory, our thinking process changes radically, because we constantly strive to make sense of the world through our senses, perception and experiences in life. (Woolfolk, 2011)

According to Khanna (20l0), development in wider context is a progressive change to a greater maturity supported by physiological capacities and psychological capabilities. These changes can be further subcategorised into physical, emotional and intellectual.

There are few general principles of development that occurs in all normal individuals.

Development occurs at different rates in different individuals.

This can be seen quite clearly during the infancy stage. There are cases where some babies start walking later that the expected age of 12 months. This normally can be seen in male babies and I personally can vouch for this statement as my own son; Pratham started walking only when he was 14 months old.

Development is a continuous process.

Development is continuous process as a child acquired new skills, these skills are added to the pre existence skills in a child and there is no stopping for further acquisition of skills as the child grows. This finding is best describes by the developmental stages theory of Piaget's. During sensorimotor stage, a child learns by touching, association and imitation. This phenomenon can be seen clearly when a child repeats patterns in his play such as putting or taking an objects inside or outside a containers. This finding is further supported from a research that was done by Arnold Cath (2003) on a child named Harry.

Development occurs in sequence of predictable and orderly stages.

It is a known fact that human life is divided into few predicable and orderly stages which is expected of every normal individual in social settings. Robert Havighurst, an American educationalist introduced "developmental tasks" that characterise six development life stages from infancy and early childhood to later maturity. Another interesting theory of development was coined by Erik Erikson, popularly knows as "Psychosocial Development". The main element of his theory emphasis psychosocial process, that development is subject to internal psychological factors and external social factors. This theory looks at eight stages of human life also knows as "eight ages of man". According to Sugarman (2004), Erikson theory centre specific issues to resolve by an individual at given stage before moving to the higher stages per below table.

Approximate age

Issues centre around

Important Event in Life

0 - 1 year



1 - 6 years


Toilet training

6 - 10 years



10 - 14 years



14 - 20 years


Peer relationship

20 - 35 years


Love relationship

35 - 65 years



65 years above


Reflection and acceptance of one's life

Development is influenced by heredity

Each of us begin life at the moment of conception and hereditary traits are passed from parent to offspring through strings of microscopically small particles knows as genes. Therefore we are different from each other and development of individual is contributed largely by hereditary. According to Blackburn (2000), hereditary traits are transmitted by dominant genes over the weaker ones; an example of a disease that can be transmitted through hereditary is Diabetes.

Development is influence by environment

There is no denying; environment plays a very big role in human development process. Environment in this context covers social setting, cultural setting and language setting. Vygotsky's believed that human activities take place in cultural settings and has a great influence on cognitive development. Vytosky assumed that cultural development appears twice, first on social level (interpsychological) and later on individual level (intrapsychological). For example an Indian child who is born in United States will have different perspective of things compare to an Indian child born in India due to differences in culture and social settings.

Indeed, Piaget's theory of cognitive development to certain extent has helped teachers to design or tailor made teaching materials to suit learner's level of cognitive development but there are others factors too determine effectiveness of learning such as students readiness or motivation level. Piaget proposed theory can be divided into four stages: Sensorimotor, Preoperational, Concrete operational and Formal operational. Piaget emphasised more of the biological maturation of cognitive abilities for each stages. In order for us to understand better, Piaget stage development theory, we need to look closely at changes that happen in various stages proposed by Piaget.

Sensorimotor stage

The earliest period is called the sensorimotor and begins from birth to two years old. According to Richardson K (2010), infants enter the world with set of simple coordination which we called "reflexes". One example of this is the sucking reflex when a child nurses from the mother. Later, when the infant is growing up, his reflex actions will be translated to goal-directed actions through several repetition activities. At this stage, a child develops object permanence, the understanding that objects exist whether they perceive them or not. During this time also, a child learns through imitation from his pre-exist surrounding.

Preoperational stage

This second stage of the theory is known as the preoperational stage spanning from the period of two to seven years old. According to Axelrod (1999), children are able to manipulate environment symbolically through inner representation by using word, gestures, images and signs. There is drastic development in language and thinking skills. Piaget believed at this stage a child is moving toward mastery but has not fully mastered the mental operations. Another unique characteristics developed during this stage is Egocentrism. The concept of egocentrism means children see the world from their viewpoint and not able to consider other people's viewpoint.

Concrete Operational stage

This stage spans from the age of seven to eleven years old. At this age, a child has developed mental operations that allowed them to see and treat the physical world in logical and systematic order. A child at this age is able to provide justification by mastering conservation. According to Mitchell (2004), Piaget had indentified three important operations in conservation process:

i) Compensation: Changes in one direction can be compensated by changes in another direction.

ii) Identity: If nothing is taken away or added, the material remains the same.

iii) Inversion: If the entire process is reversed, the quantity of the materials remains the same.

At this point, a child is able making an orderly and sequential arrangement of an object based on size, weight or volume. This process is known as seriation which enable a child to construct logical series such as arranging object from small to large or vice-versa.

Formal Operation stage

This is the last stage of Piaget's developmental theory. This stage ranges from eleven years to adulthood. According to Mitchell (2004) "formal" as used by Piaget mean well-mannered etiquette. Children at this stage, capable of systematic reasoning about things which take hypothetical form without having to see concrete objects. Students at this level are able to solve science experiments such as the "pendulum problems". They are also able to solve algebra problems by using deduction method to derive at certain value. Adolescent at this age, exhibit a phenomena known as adolescent egocentrism. According to Stuart-Hamilton (2006), study conducted by Piaget examined, egocentrism does not refer to selfishness, rather a child's immaturity that whatever he or she can see is the viewpoint of everyone else as well. This is the feeling that they are the centre of attraction and leads to false sense of security, eventually increasing risk taking behaviour like participating in illegal racing, experimenting with drugs and having unprotected sex.

For teachers to fully understand and incorporate Piaget theory into teaching methodology, a teacher need to accept cognition is a process of adaption. According to Meadows (1986) based on Piaget theory, a child actively trying to make sense of the world by adapting to its environment. It proceeds via twin functional invariants of assimilation and accommodation. Before discussing further on assimilation and accommodation, ones need to understand schema first.

Schema is a Greek word which means frame. Piaget's believes schemas are the basic building blocks of thinking. It is representation of perception and experience of organized systems translates through action. Schemas can be very small or specific, for example cooking pasta.

According to Roeckelein (2010), assimilation from Piaget's theoretical viewpoint means incorporating new or modified ideas and concepts into a child's existing cognitive structure. Accommodation refer to the child's modification of ideas or concepts of the world in response to new experience that are inconsistent with previous knows idea or concepts. In another word, a person must change existing schema to respond to new situation.

Every child in learning process strives to achieve state of equilibration. According to Woolfolk (2010) based on Piaget work, assimilation and accommodation can be viewed as a balancing act. Once the child is able to understand and registered new information in his schema, he achieved the equilibrium stage. Disequilibrium happen when current ways of thinking not working in solving a particular problem, thus the act "out of balance" occurred.

In order for me, to plan an activity that promotes assimilation and accommodation, first I need to do some homework regarding the student I'm going to teach. I need to find out their age and prior learning knowledge. For this activity, I'm going to device an activity targeted for form one student (13 years old) conducting a lesson on compass direction (geography). It is easier for me to access their prior knowledge, as I have taught them at primary six during Kajian Tempatan period. The students already have basis knowledge of main compass direction (East, West, North and South)- Cardinal direction.

Keeping in mind that my students are at formal operational stage which requires plenty usage of visual aids. Therefore in my lesson planning, I will have illustration of slides, diagram and video clipping when presenting new material. I will normally start my lesson by showing a short video clip about a sailor lost at deep sea. This is my normal practice for breaking the ice with students and gauges their interest in the lesson. Randomly I will pick up few students to analyze the video clipping. At this point, many of the students will be able to give the answer I'm looking as students at this level are able to think hypothetically.

Then I will ask them about their previous learning on this matter, which is compass direction. I will call a student to draw basic direction diagram on the board. In this way I'm refreshing their memory to what they have learned during the primary years. Then I will show them a new power point slide on additional compass direction. (North East, South East, South West, North West) - Ordinal direction. Compass direction is the schema already exists in student mind. Here, assimilation happen when students fit new information into existing information. Existing information is prior knowledge, which is cardinal direction and new information is ordinal direction (red colour). If you look at the below model, the students did not change their existing schema, rather incorporated new learning to prior learning experiences.

Assimilation model

























Teaching the same students, from understanding basic compass direction, the next higher level of learning will be measuring degrees using protractor. Based on their prior learning, protractor was used in their mathematic subjects to find certain angels values. Here the student will faced certain degree of disequilibrium as current way of thinking, using protractor the mathematical ways will not solved problems in geography lesson. This required student to change existing schemas to respond to new situation, thus accommodation is taking place in students learning. In Mathematic, students are required to place the protractor horizontal ways to find value of angel, but in Geography students are required to place protractor the vertical ways to find degrees value. If you look at below model, the students have to change existing schemas to accommodate new learning.

Accommodation model


Mathematical way


Geographical way

Piaget's development theory to certain extent can assist teachers to design teaching in delivering lesson but how effective the learning took parts would be another major concern for teachers. Piaget theory only proposed that learning occurs after development, but in certain cases, children are able to learn at earlier developmental stages. Piaget theory also fails to look at learner motivation which I personally believe is a very big factor in effective learning. Teachers as an educator plays the role of facilitator in imparting information, students on the other hand need to be more accountable of their own learning. There need to be a paradigm shift from teacher centric learning to student learning centric at school level in order to produce world class student.