Jean Piagets Theory Of Cognitive Development Psychology Essay

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What is cognitive development. For a fundamental understanding of cognitive development there are two questions that we can ask and think which are "how do children enthusiastically build their thinking?" and "How does thinking alter from one point in development to another?". Cognition simply stand for "knowing", in another way cognition means the mental act or process by which knowledge is obtained.

Cognitive approach psychologists handles with mental processes like memory and problem solving. By giving emphasis to mental processes, it places itself in disagreement to behaviourism, which mainly ignores mental processes. But, in the early decades of the 20th century, cognitive approach is entwined with the behaviourist approach. For example, Edwin Tolman called himself a behaviourist although he also works on cognitive, such as his work called "cognitive maps" in rats which made him a cognitive pioneer too. Today, the cognitive approach is widely accepted and popular which lead to cognitive approach overtaking behaviourism and became the dominant approaches in modern psychology.

The cognitive approach in psychology is a comparatively modern approach to human behaviour that centres on how human think, believing that such thought processes affect on our behaviours. Cognitive psychology concentrates on ways individual process information, looking at how we handles information that comes in to the individual, and how this handling leads to reactions. In other words, they are interested in the variables that act as a go-between between stimulus and response. Cognitive psychologists study internal processes including perception, attention, language, memory and thinking.

There are many approaches to cognitive and in this essay we will be discussing on two approaches which are Jean Piaget's and Vygotsky's approaches to cognitive development.


Piaget's theory of cognitive development is a broad theory about the nature and development of human intelligence. Although it is commonly known as a developmental stage theory, it also engages with the nature of knowledge itself and how individuals get to acquire, construct, and use the knowledge obtained. Piaget state that cognitive development is an advancing reorganization of mental processes as a result of biological maturation and experiences experienced in the individual environment. Children build an perception of the world around them, then experience differences between what they have known and what they find out in their surroundings. Apart from that Piaget argues that the concept that cognitive development is at the center of human organism and language is dependent on cognitive development. Piaget states that operative intelligence frames how the world is understood and it changes if understanding is not successful. He state that there are five processes children use to build their knowledge of the world which are schemes, assimilation, accommodation, organization, equilibration. Schemas are mental illustration that sort out knowledge. For example baby's schemes are sucking, looking and grasping while elderly children's schemes are planning and problem solving. Assimilation explains how individuals observe and adjust to new information. It is the process of taking one's surroundings and new information and adjusting them into current existing cognitive schemas. Assimilation happens when individuals confront with new or different information and refer to earlier learned information in order to make sense of it. Accommodation is the process of taking one's surroundings and new information, and changing one's previous existing schemas in order to adapt in the new information. Piaget believes that it is through assimilation that accommodation is obtained. Organization is grouping or arranging of elements into categories into more smoothly functioning cognitive system. Equilibration is how children alter from one stage of thought into the next. Shift happens as children experience cognitive clash in trying to understand the world. When conflict is resolved, they reach a balance or equilibrium of thought.

There are four stages of cognitive development outline by Jean Piaget. He emphasize that the way children reason at one stage is different from the way they reason at another stage . The first stage, is called the sensorimotor stage which extends from birth to age about two. In this stage, infants build an understanding of the world by integrating with experiences such as seeing and hearing with physical, motoric actions. Infants obtain knowledge of the world from the physical actions they carry out on it. Piaget's divide sensorimotor stage into six-sub stages. The first stage is simple reflexes which happens first month after birth, here infants learn rooting and sucking reflexes. The second stage called first habits and primary circular reactions occurs during one to four months of age. Infants creates habits resulting in repetitive action of an action. The third stage is primary circular reactions, infants try to reconstruct an experience that initially occurred by chance. Here infant's own body is center of attention and there's no outward pull by environmental events. The fourth stage is secondary circular reactions which occur from 4-8 months of age. Infant becomes more object-object oriented. However, infant's schemes are not intentional or goal-directed. The fourth stage is coordination of secondary circular reactions which happens about 8-12 months of age. Here, infant coordinates vision and touch which uses hands and eyes. Actions are more outwardly directed, infants combine previously learned schemes in coordinated way and occur presence of intentionality. The fifth stage is tertiary circular reactions, novelty & curiosity which happen during 12-18 months of age. Infants intrigued by the many properties of objects, and it's their starting point for human curiosity and interest in novelty. The last stage, internalization of schemes occurring at 18-24 months of age and Infant at this stage develops ability to use primitive symbols. By the end of the Sensorimotor stage, objects are separate from the self and permanent. Object permanence, the understanding that objects and events continue to exist even when they are not seen, heard or touched is accomplished.

The second stage is called the preoperational stage during a child 2-7 years. The cognitive world of the preschool child are creative, free and fanciful. Concrete operational thought emphasizes that the child does not yet perform internalized sets of actions that allow children to do mentally what before they had done physically and also reversible mental actions. For example mentally adding and subtracting numbers. At this stage, children begin to represent the world with words, images and drawings. Preoperational stage is divided into 2 sub stages. The first is symbolic function substage when children are 2-4 years of age. Young child gains the ability to represent mentally an object that is not present. Although young children make great progress during this sub stage, their thought has limitations which are egocentrism and animism. Egocentrism is aninability to distinguish between one's own and someone else's perspective while animism is the belief that inanimate objects have "lifelike" qualities and are capable of action. The second sub-stage is called intuitive thought, children at this stage are 4-7 years of age. Children just want to know the answers to all questions. The limitations of

preoperational stage are centration and conservation. Centration is focusing attention on one characteristic to the exclusion of all others. It is clearly seen that young children's lack of conservation, the concept that an amount stays the same regardless of how its container changes.

The third stage is concrete operational stage, children at their 7-11 years of age. At this stage, logical reasoning replaces intuitive reasoning and children can start perform operations. Children can now understand the interrelationships among sets and subsets, seriation, and transitivity.

The last and final stage is formal operational stage, where children are between 11-15 years of age. They begin to think in abstract and logical ways, develop images of ideal circumstances and use logical reasoning to solve problems. Abstract thinking is evident in the verbal problem solving ability, while another indication is the ability to think about thought itself. Adolescents engage in extended speculation about ideal characteristics and compare themselves to others based on those standards.


Vygotsky held that children's thinking is influenced by their knowledge of the social community. He also emphasizes that language is the most important instrument for the acquisition of the social knowledge. Vygotsky defined intelligence as "the capacity to learn from instruction".

Vygotsky states that the cognitive development of children and adolescents is improved when they work in their Zone of Proximal Development. To reach the Zone of Proximal Development, children need the assistance of adolescents or more capable individuals to aid or scaffold them as they are learning new stuff. The Zone of Proximal Development defines as the skills and capabilities that are in the process of developing. The Zone of Proximal Development is the range of tasks that one cannot yet perform alone, but can be achieved with the help of a more experienced individual. For example, a child might unable to walk across a balance beam independently , but she can do so while holding her mother's hand. Since children are always learning new things, the Zone of Proximal Development changes as new skills are accomplished. The mother acted as a scaffold when she gives assistance to the child to walk across the beam. Scaffolding is the assistance of a more knowledgeable person, is used as an aid for construction of new skills or information, and then removed once they are learned. There are many different ways of scaffolding, including breaking the exercises down into smaller steps, giving motivation and feedback about the child or individual progresses. Slowly, the adult will constantly regulate the amount of support they provide in response to the child's level of performance. For example, as the child becomes more confident in her balance, her mother can go from holding both hands, to eventually holding one hand, and eventually she can stop holding her hand. The child will soon be able to walk unassisted. Therefore, scaffolding instils the skills necessary for independent problem solving in the future.

Lastly, Vygotsky looked at the role of egocentric/private speech. This is, for example, when a child will sit on their own and speak their thoughts out loud as they play. He suggested a child is regulating and planning their behaviour at this point and the child becomes a "verbal thinker". This verbal thinking forms the basis for higher level, more abstract thinking such as planning, reasoning, memorization and evaluation.


Challenge, readiness, and social interaction are central to the theories of both Piaget and Vygotsky. However, the two perspectives differ on the role of language in cognitive development, the relative value of free exploration versus more structured and guided activities, the relative importance of interactions with peers versus adults, and the influence of culture. Below is a table which compare and contrast Vygotsky's and Piaget's theory of cognitive development.



Sociocultural Context

Rarely Emphasize

Emphasizes strongly


cognitive constructivist

social constructivist


- Strongly emphasize on stages

-Emphasised universal cognitive change.

- no general stages of development proposed

- theory can be applied to all ages (not a stage theory) and emphasised individual development.

Key Processes

schema, assimilation, accommodation, operations, conservation, classification, hypothetical-deductive reasoning

zone of proximal development, language, dialogue, tools of the culture

Role of Language

language has a minimal role

cognition primarily directs language

a major role

language plays a powerful role in shaping thought

View on Education

education merely refines the child's cognitive skills that have already emerged

education plays a central role, helping children learn the tools of the culture

Teaching Implications

advocated for discovery learning with little teacher intervention

teacher is a facilitator and guide, not a director; establish many opportunities for children to learn with the teacher and more-skilled peers

promoted guided discovery in the classroom with the help of a MKO.

Source of cognitive development

believed that the most important source of cognition is the children themselves. Piaget emphasised the role of an inbuilt (biological) tendency to adapt to the environment, by a process of self-discovery and play.

emphasised the role of culture and experience. Vygotsky believed that what drives cognitive development is social interaction - a child's experience with other people. Culture shapes cognition.


There are many limitations to Piaget's theory and here are some outlined. Piaget used naturalistic observations on his own children when they were only a few weeks old. He observed and made notes alone resulting in the tendencies to make biased observations and his theories are too generalized based. Criticizer of Vygotsky's theory questions on the similarity of the width of a child zone of proximal development across all aspects of learning, the stability of the theory, is the teacher's support to be such an extensive state and the relevance of his theory. 

Overall, weaknesses of cognitive models have been accused of being over simplistic as they ignores the huge complexity of human functioning compared to computer functioning. Apart that, coginitive models are criticized to be unrealistic and over hypothetical as they ignores the biological influences and grounding of mental processes.


In conclusion, Piaget emphasized universal cognitive change and Vygotsky's theory leads us to expect highly variable development , depending on the child's cultural experiences to the environment. Piaget's theory emphasized the natural line, while Vygotsky favored the cultural line of development. A child's cognitive development during early childhood, which includes building skills such as pre-reading, language, vocabulary, and numeracy, begins from the moment a child is born. Implicating both of their theories in early childhood centres and primary school is crucial for children's cognitive development.