Jean Piaget’s Theory of Cognitive Development

Piaget’s theory of cognitive development argues that we have to conquer 4 stages of cognitive development: Sensori-Motor Stage, Pre-Operational, Concrete Operational and Formal Operational Stage. Only once we have gone through all the stages, at what age can vary, are we able to reach full human intelligence.  

Piaget was among the first to claim that rather than being “small adults” who simply lack life knowledge, children’s view of the world and the way they process the input from it is fundamentally different from adults and also varies across different ages.

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Piaget Cognitive Development - Sprouts Psychology

Piaget’s theory argues that we have to conquer 4 stages of cognitive development. Only once we have gone through all the stages, each at our own pace, can we reach full human intelligence.   

Sensori-Motor Stage (Age 0-2)
Sensori Motor Stage Piaget Cognitive Development - Sprouts Psychology

In the sensorimotor stage, we develop through experiences and movement our five senses: our brain wants to see, hear, smell, taste, and touch as much as possible. First, we start with simple reflexes, and soon after we develop our first habits. From four months old, we become aware of things beyond our own body, and then as we get older, we learn to do things intentionally. A key milestone in the development of working memory, or in Piaget‘s terms, is our realization of object permanence. Before that, our mom can show and then hide a teddy, and we would think it’s gone. After we master object permanence, we understand that objects continue to exist, even when we can’t see them.

Sensori Motor Stage Piaget Cognitive Development - Sprouts Psychology

We start becoming curious about everything! We want to smell flowers, taste food, listen to sounds, and talk to strangers. To explore more, we move; we learn to sit, crawl, stand, walk, and even run. This increased physical mobility consequently leads to increased cognitive development. But we remain egocentric, meaning we can perceive the world only from our own point of view.

Pre-Operational Stage (Age 2-7)
Preoperational Stage Piaget Cognitive Development - Sprouts Psychology

Our thinking is mainly categorized through Symbolic Functions and Intuitive Thoughts. We have lots of fantasies and believe objects are alive. As we are not able to apply specific cognitive operations, Piaget called this stage preoperational. We learn to speak and understand that words, images, and gestures are symbols for something else. When we draw our family, we are not concerned about drawing each person to scale, but rather with their symbolic meanings. We love to play pretend, which allows us to experience something new and learn a lot.   

Preoperational Stage Piaget Cognitive Development - Sprouts Psychology

At around age four, most of us become very curious and ask many questions – we want to know everything. We can call it the birth of primitive reasoning. Piaget called it the ‘intuitive’ age because while we realize that we have a vast amount of knowledge, we have no idea how we acquired it. Our thinking in this stage is still pretty egocentric. We think others see the world like we do, and the idea of it being any different remains alien to us.  

Concrete Operational Stage (Age 7-11)
Concrete Operational Stage Piaget Cognitive Development - Sprouts Psychology

We finally discover logic and we develop concrete cognitive operations, such as sorting objects in a certain order. One example of this is inductive reasoning: if we see someone eating a cookie and smiling, we can draw a conclusion that cookies make people happy and then make a generalization that sweet things help us feel good. We now also get the concept of ‘conservation’. We understand that if we pour orange juice from a normal glass to a taller one, the amount stays the same. Our younger sister will pick the taller glass, thinking she gets more. By the same logic, we only now can understand that if 3+5 = 8, then 8-3 must equal 5. 

Concrete Operational Stage Piaget Cognitive Development - Sprouts Psychology

Our brain learns to rearrange our thoughts, to classify and build concrete operational mental structures. For example, we now know that we can reverse action by doing the opposite. Excited by our new mental abilities, we apply them in conversations, activities, when we learn to write, and in school. As a result, we get to know ourselves better. We begin to understand that our thoughts and feelings are unique and not necessarily those of others. That means that we learn to put ourselves in someone else’s shoes.

Formal Operational Stage (Age 12 up)
Formal Operational Stage Piaget Cognitive Development - Sprouts Psychology

Once we become teenagers, we become formally operational. We now have the ability to “think more rationally about abstract concepts and hypothetical events”. Our advanced cognitive abilities allow us to understand abstract concepts such as success and failure, love, and hate. We form a deeper understanding of our own identity and morality. We now also think that we understand why people behave the way they behave and as a result can become more compassionate.  Our brain can now do deductive reasoning, which means we can compare two statements and reach a logical generalization. Our new mental skills allow us to plan our life systemically and prioritize our needs over our desires. We can even make assumptions about events that have no necessary relation to reality, philosophize, and just think about thinking itself. 

Formal Operational Stage Piaget Cognitive Development - Sprouts Psychology

Our newly discovered identity now also creates altruistic thoughts, as opposed to our previously egocentric mindset, and some start to see an imaginary audience watching them all the time. We start fine tuning our actions and beliefs to the reactions of that audience. Piaget believed in lifelong learning but insisted that the formal operational stage is the final stage of our cognitive development. 

Piaget Cognitive Development - Sprouts Psychology

Jean Piaget’s first interests were animals and he published his first scientific paper on albino sparrows in 1907 when he was just 11 years old. In 1920, he began working with standardized intelligence tests. He realized that younger children consistently make types of mistakes that older children do not. He concluded that they must think differently and spent the rest of his life studying the intellectual development of children. 

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Classroom activity

Piaget believed that education is the tool of progress. Get inspired to implement activities corresponding to Piaget’s proposed stages of cognitive development in your classroom! Follow the link below for some great ideas:

Classroom Activities That Relate to Piaget’s Theory of Cognitive Development – from the Classroom forum and blog.

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