Overview on jean piagets theory of cognitive development

23 Mar 2015

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Jean Piaget theory of cognitive development originated firstly through his interested in animals, and how they were equipped to cope with their environment and have the ability to survive. He became fascinated with this evolution, which took him on to look at the ways the animals learn about their environment. Through this and working under Dr T. Simon, who was one of the first inventers of the intelligence test, and analysing the results of tests carried out on children, gave Piaget the motivation on finding out what views of the world and how their thinking changed as they got older. (Hayes, Orrell 1987)

With this in mind he set out to do some clinical interviews, where he asked children varying questions on god, the moon, the sun and their ideas about justice. From these interviews he came to the conclusion that it was not the amount of knowledge that separates the younger and older child, but their difference in thought. Piaget liked this intelligence to that of an animal, and its ability to change and adapt to its environment. This intelligence was not there all at once, but progressed in set stages. Piaget believed that these stages were the same for each child and that each one had to be passed in sequence. (Hayes, Orrell 1987)

Piaget saw as the child learned or mastered new skills, which were through the process of interaction with the environment, developed the cognitive structures known as the schemata. These are what we use in everyday life, they determine the way we learn and interact with our environment. 'Schemas are what we use to guide and direct our behaviour when we are dealing with the world' (Hayes 1994 pg 110 1-2). The schema can develop and modify, if something doesn't fit into our existing schema's then it could cause disequilibrium, a mental state of imbalance. Piaget thought we would try to adjust this lack of balance through equilibration, by means of modifying schemata through two processes known as assimilation and accommodation. These processes would happen together, where assimilation would extend the existing schema to cope with the new information, accommodation would modify the schema or create a new one, if one didn't already exist. Sometimes an existing schema divides into several different schemas.

Piaget theorised that all children went through four stages in the cognitive development; these are known as the sensori-motor, the pre-operational, the concrete operational and the formal operational. The sensori-motor is the very first stage in which a child, between the age of new-born and two years old, learns through its sensory organs such as touch and sounds. During this time it is understood for the child to develop the body- schema, which is what the infant would understand the ideas of what was them, what was there all the time, and what was not them and present some times. Piaget also believed that during this stage the child is totally egocentric, in that they believe everything is an addition to themselves.

'From the moment that is first born, Piaget thought, the child is totally egocentric. This means that it is unable to comprehend a world outside of itself, seeing the whole universe as simply an extension of its own being' (Hayes, Orrell 1987 pg 446 1-4)

The pre-operations stage, aged between two and seven years old, which a child can use words and images to make sense of things. 'Piaget subdivided this stage into two, the pre-conceptual, age two to four and the intuitive sub stages aged four two seven' (Gross 2001 pg 493 para 4 8-9). It is believed egocentricity is still present, but slowly starts reducing. Piaget and Inhelder's swiss mountain scene was made to test the egocentricity of the child at this stage. Selected children were shown round a papier-mâché model of some mountains, one had snow on top, another had a red cross and the last a house, there was a doll placed at the side of the model. The child was shown ten images taken from different viewpoint of the model, the child was asked to choose the one that represents when the doll can see. Four year olds where completely unable to point out the correct viewpoint of the doll, only their own. Were as six year olds shown some awareness and seven and eight year olds chose the correct image. This shown that egocentricity gradually reduced. (Gross 2001, Hayes & Orrell 1987)

Piaget's third stage is the concrete operational stage aged between seven and eleven. This is understood to be where the child thinks more adult like, but only in the presence of actual objects, so a problem could not be solved by thought alone, but the need of an object to see what they are try to achieve. During this stage the child becomes more aware and makes sense of their environment and their accommodation increases.

Finally the formal operational stage the child's thinking is that very much like and adults, they were able to think of logical theories about the world and try them out.

'it can now handle abstract logic, develop hypotheses about the world and test them out' (Hayes, Orrell 1987 pg 449 17-18). Piaget understood that this was the highest form of thought; he believed that the knowledge could be further obtained by the child as they were not tied down with egocentricity and other barriers. (Hayes, Orrell 1987)

Another of Piage's theories is the moral development theory. This is what the child thinks is right and wrong, and the ability to distinguish between them. His major contribution to this was in his book, The Moral Judgment of a Child (1932), which looked at the child's attitudes towards rules, their judgment on certain crimes and their ideas about justice. Piaget believed that the cognitive development happened through interaction with the environment and would only develop if the child was genetically ready for it. This was similar to his theory of moral development,

'all development emerges from action; that is to say, individuals construct and reconstruct their knowledge of the world as a result of interactions with the environment' (Nucci 2008 pg 1 12-13).

Piagets theories had a massive impact on our understanding of how a child learns, and was used as an influence to others, but as pointed out

'like all theories of great reach and significance… it had problems that gradually come to light as years and years of thinking and research get done on it. Thus, some of now think that the theory may in varying degrees be unclear, incorrect and incomplete' (Flavell 1982)

When looking at Piagets theory of development, some critics thought that he did not take into account the social factors of the child, also the involvement of social interaction and the influence of an adult. The Russian psychologist Lev Vvgotsky has a different view to Piaget's lone child theories, this was that we are all social beings and have the ability to interact and communicate with each other. Vvgotsky focused on social influences and how teachers, adults and other children aided with the process of cognitive development,

'cognitive development involves an active internalisation of problem solving process that takes place as a result of mutual interaction between children and those whom they have regular social contact' (Gross 2001 pg 498 para 4 11-13)

From these people, the scaffolding, they can form a basis to which the child can learn from actions of others, mimicking words and sounds. As something becomes more familiar with the child the scaffold can gradually be removed, enabling the child to develop and build on their existing schemas. Vvgotsky also believed that culture had an influence on development, that the both are interrelated, and do not develop alone. He also believed that intellectual development was always evolving and that some functions are developing, the child's potential, this known as the Zone of Proximal Development (ZPD), which is the way the child can achieve through the guidance of others. (Hayes 1994)Though Vvgotsky was critical of Piagets theory, he realised the importance of the information and despite this, his educational theories where built on the strengths of Piaget.

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