Jean Piagets theory of Cognitive Development

Paul Main

What is Jean Piaget's theory of Cognitive Development and what are the implications for creating active classrooms?

What is Piaget's Theory of Cognitive Development?

The Theory of Cognitive Development by Jean Piaget, the Swiss psychologist, suggests that children's intelligence undergoes changes as they grow. Cognitive development in children is not only related to acquiring knowledge, children need to build or develop a mental model of their surrounding world (Miller, 2011). His work is regarded as the cornerstone in the field of developmental psychology. In this article, we examine the implications his work has for the intellectual development of children in classrooms.

In the 1920s, Piaget was working at the Binet Institute and his main responsibility was to translate questions written in English intelligence tests into French. He became interested to find out why children gave incorrect answers to the questions needing logical thinking (Meadows, 2019).

Piaget believed that these wrong answers revealed significant differences between the thinking of children and adults. Piaget proposed a new set of assumptions about the intelligence of children:

  • Children think differently and see the world differently from adults.
  • Children are not passive learners, they actively build up their knowledge about the surrounding.
  • The most effective way to understand children’s reasoning is to think from children's point of view.

Piaget did not want to measure how well children can spell, count or solve problems to check their I.Q. He was more intrigued to find out how the fundamental concepts such as the very idea of time, number, justice, quantity and so on emerged (Greenfield, 2019).

Piaget used observations and clinical interviews of older children who were able to hold conversations and understand questions. He also made controlled observation, and used naturalistic observation of his own three children and developed diary description with charts of children's development.
Use the Universal Thinking Framework for promoting cognitive development

Who exactly was Jean Piaget?

He was born in 1896 in Neuchâtel, Switzerland. After finishing high school he went to study medicine but soon changed course to philosophy and sociology. During World War 1, he worked as an army doctor. When war ended, he started studying law and then switched again to philosophy and sociology. At the age of 30, he published his first book “Genetic Epistemology” which received critical acclaim. This led him to become one of the leading psychologists of his generation. The Jean Piaget Society is named after him.

His research interests included child development, logic, mathematics, linguistics, social sciences and education.

His major works include "Logic", "Reasoning and Judgment" and "Constructionism". Jean Piaget's work is important because it provides us with insights into cognitive processes during childhood. It helps teachers identify what needs to be taught and when. The following sections will explore some of the key ideas behind Piagetian theories. Piaget influenced the field of developmental psychology because he showed that learning takes place through stages rather than just being acquired all at once. Anyone exploring a career in child psychology will no doubt come across his influential work. In recent years, it has come into some criticism but the importance of his contribution to developmental psychology cannot be denied.

- He was one of the first people to study children's development and he developed the theory that children develop through stages.

- He also studied how children learn and he found out that they learn by doing things and not just listening or reading about them.

- He also discovered that children have their own ways of learning and that they don't always follow the same rules as adults do.

- He also found out that children are very creative and imaginative and that they like to play and explore.

- He also believed that children should be allowed to make mistakes and that they shouldn't be punished for making them.

Stages of Cognitive Development

According to Jean Piaget, stages of development takes place via the interaction between natural capacities and environmental happenings, and children experience a series of stages (Wellman, 2011).  The sequence of these stages remains same across cultures. Each child goes through the same stages of cognitive development in life but with a different rate. The following are Piaget's stages of intellectual development:

  1. From birth to 18-24 months: Sensorimotor stage (Object permanence)

The infants use their actions and senses to explore and learn about their surrounding environment.

A variety of cognitive abilities develop at this stage; which mainly include representational play, object permanence, deferred imitation and self-recognition.

At this stage, infants live only in present. They do not have anything related to this world stored in their memory. At age of 8 months, the infant will understand different objects' permanence and they will search for them when they are not present.

Towards the endpoint of this stage, infants' general symbolic function starts to appear and they can use two objects to stand for each other. Language begins to appear when they realise that they can use  words to represent feelings and objects. The child starts to store information he knows about the world, label it and recall it.

Childhood to adolescence
Cognitive development in early years

  1. From 2 to 7 years: Preoperational stage (Symbolic thought)

Young children and Toddlers gain the ability to represent the world internally through mental imagery and language.

At this stage, children symbolically think about things. They are able to make one thing, for example, an object or a word, stand for another thing different from itself.

A child mostly thinks about how the world appears, not how it is. At the preoperational stage, children do not show problem-solving or logical thinking.

Infants in this age also show animism, which means that they think that toys and other non-living objects have feelings and live like a person.

By an age of 2 years, toddlers can detach their thought process from the physical world. But, they are still not yet able to develop operational or logical thinking skills of later stages.

Their thinking is still egocentric (centred on their own world view) and intuitive (based on children's subjective judgements about events).

Building Schemas in the Mind
Building Schemas in the Mind

  1. 7 to 11 years: Concrete operational stage (Logical thought)

At this stage, children start to show logical thinking about concrete events.

They start to grasp the concept of conservation. They understand that, even if things change in appearance but some properties still remain the same.

Children at this stage can reverse things mentally. They start to think about other people's feelings and thinking and they also become less egocentric.

This stage is also known as concrete as children begin to think logically. According to Piaget, this stage is a significant turning point of a child's cognitive development because it marks the starting point of operational or logical thinking. At this stage, a child is capable of internally working things out in their head (rather than trying things out in reality).

Children at this stage may become overwhelmed or they may make mistakes when they are asked to reason about hypothetical or abstract problems. Conservation means that the child understands that even if some things change in appearance but their properties may remain the same. At age 6 children are able to conserve number, at age 7 they can conserve mass and at age 9 they can conserve weight. But logical thinking is only used if children ask to reason about physically present materials.

Developing scientific Schemas
Building Scientific Schemas

  1. age 12 and above: Formal operational stage (Symbolic reasoning)

At this stage, individuals perform concrete operations on things and they perform formal operations on ideas. Formal logical thinking is totally free from perceptual and physical barriers.

At this stage, adolescents can understand abstract concepts. They are able to follow any specific kind of argument without thinking about any particular examples.

Adolescents are capable of dealing with hypothetical problems with several possible outcomes.

This stage allows the emergence of scientific reasoning, formulating hypotheses and abstract theories as and whenever needed.

Piaget's Theory of Cognitive Development made no claims about any specific age-associated with any of the particular stage but his description provides an indication of the age at which an average child would reach a certain stage.

How is Piaget's Theory Different from others?

Piaget's Theory is different from other theorists in several ways:
  1. Jean Piaget vs Vygotsky: Vygotsky claims that cognitive development is led by social interactions and children are social beings. Whereas, Piaget believes that a child's development is led by his own self-centred and focused activities as he is more independent.
  2. Piaget vs Kohlberg: For Piaget, moral development is a construction process, and the interplay of thought and action creates moral concepts. Whereas, Kohlberg believes that process of exploring universal moral principles is called development.
  3. Piaget vs Erikson: The main difference between Erikson and Piaget is that Erikson focused on the understanding of development during the entire life of a person. Whereas, Piaget mainly emphasized life events that occur from infancy to the late teenage years. Also, Piaget's most work is on the topic of cognitive development; whereas, Erikson was more interested in the area of emotional development.

 concrete experiences enable children to understand abstract concepts
Concrete experiences enable children to understand abstract concepts

Key Concepts Relating to Piaget's Schema Theory

  1. Schemas – A schema indicates both the physical and mental actions involved in knowing and understanding. Schemas represent the categories of knowledge that help people to understand and interpret the world. A current schema can be built on and and become more complex. In many ways, this is the very nature of learning and teaching. Schema in psychology is a term that is used a lot, we think that schools and teachers need to turn their attention to this concept. If we talk about learning as something that needs to be built then the idea of cognitive schemas makes perfect sense. These hidden worlds of the learner are what we as educators are trying to develop. In many ways our ability to build on our schemas is a fundamental aspect of intelligence. This could be where metacognition plays a central role.

Piaget believes that a schema involves a category of knowledge and the procedure to obtain that knowledge. As individuals gain new experiences, the new information is modified, and gets added to, or alter pre-existing schemas.

A child may have a schema about cats. For example: if his only experience has been with small cats, the child may believe that all cats are small. If this kid encounters a large cat, he would take in this new knowledge, altering the old schema to incorporate this new piece of information.

  1. Adaptation- Adaptation is a type of schema that explains how persons understand and learn new information. According to Piaget's theory, There are two ways in which adaptation can occur.
  • Adaptation through Assimilation – When new information is taken from the outside world and is incorporated into a previously existing schema, it is called assimilation. This process is thought to be subjective, as people tend to modify information or experience that should match with their pre-existing beliefs. In Schema's example, seeing a cat and labelling it “cat” is an example of assimilating an animal into the child’s cat schema.
  • Adaptation through Accommodation – Accommodation occurs when persons process new information by altering their psychological representations to fit the new information. It is an additional constituent of adaptation that includes altering people's current schemas to suit the new information, this process is called accommodation. In accommodation, people change their existing ideas or schemas, due to a new experience or new information. These processes may give rise to the development of new schemas.
  1. Equilibration – According to Piaget, each child tries to create a balance between accommodation and assimilation, which is only possible by implementing a mechanism called equilibration. As children grow through each stage of cognitive development, it becomes essential to uphold a balance between the application of past knowledge (assimilation) and altering attitude to acquire new knowledge (accommodation). Equilibration assists and demonstrates how children must move from one stage of thinking into the next stage.

Assimilating new knowledge using our blocks

Educational Implications of Piaget's Cognitive Development Theory

Although, later researchers have demonstrated how Piaget's theory is applicable for learning and teaching but Piaget (1952) does not clearly relate his theory to learning.

Piaget was very influential in creating teaching practices and educational policy. For instance, in 1966 a primary education review by the UK government was based upon Piaget’s theory. Also, the outcome of this review provided the foundation for publishing Plowden report (1967).

Discovery learning – the concept that children learn best through actively exploring and doing - was viewed as central to the primary school curriculum transformation.

Piaget believes that children must not be taught certain concepts until reaching the appropriate cognitive development stage. Also, accommodation and assimilation are requirements of an active learner only, because problem-solving skills must only be discovered they cannot be taught. The learning inside the classrooms must be student-centred and performed via active discovery learning. The primary role of an instructor is to facilitate learning, rather than direct teaching. Hence, teachers need to ensure the following practices within the classroom:

  1. Pay more attention to the learning process, rather than focusing on the end product of it.
  2. Use active teaching involving reconstructing or rediscovering "truths." (See Universal Thinking Framework).
  3. Use individual and collaborative activities (to allow children to learn from one another, see our blog post on dialogic pedagogy).
  4. Devise situations that offer useful problems, and develop disequilibrium in children (see this post on critical thinking).
  5. Assess a child's development level so appropriate tasks can be created.

Cognitive development using 'blocks of knowledge'

After having revisited some of this theory you can hopefully see the implications for the development of knowledge using our 'Writers Block'. Our earlier stages of developing this tool started with the idea of using concrete objects to represent abstract concepts. Children could start with their pre-existing schema and build from there. You can read more about this active process of learning on the mental modelling page. Beginning an activity by asking a child the question 'What do I already know?' gives the pupil something to build on when starting an academic task. These cognitive structures serve as a platform for mental development. No one likes starting with a blank piece of paper and having previous knowledge visualised enables even the most reluctant of learner to 'get going'. 

Cognitive development
Promote cognitive development using our block building method

Critical Evaluation of Piaget's Theory

  1. Support

Piaget’s ideas have enormous influence on developmental psychology. His theories changed methods of teaching and changed people's perceptions about a child’s world.

Piaget (1936) was the foremost psychologist whose ideas enhanced people's understanding of cognitive development. His concepts have been of practical use in communicating with and understanding children, specially in the field of education (Discovery Learning).

Piaget's main contributions include thorough observational studies of cognition in children, stage theory of children's cognitive development, and a series of ingenious but simple tests to evaluate multiple cognitive abilities.

  1. Criticisms

Do stages really exist? Critiques of Formal Operation Thinking believe that the final stage of formal operations does not provide correct explanation of cognitive development. Not every person is capable of abstract reasoning and many adults do not even reach level of formal operations. For instance, Dasen (1994) mentioned that only less than half of adults ever reach the stage of formal operation. Maybe they are not distinct stages?

Piaget was extremely focused on the universal stages of biological maturation and cognitive development that he failed to address the effect of culture and social setting on cognitive development.

A contemporary of Piaget, Vygotsky argued that social interaction is essential for cognitive development. Vygotsky believes that a child's learning always takes place in a social context involving co-operation of someone more knowledgeable (MKO). This kind od social interaction offers language opportunities and according to Vygotksy language provides the basis of thought.

Hughes (1975) believes that Piaget underestimated children's abilities as his tests were frequently unclear and hard to understand.

Vygotsky (1978) and Bruner (1966) were against the concept of schema. Behaviorism also disapproves Piaget’s schema theory as it is an internal phenomenon which cannot be observed directly. Due to this, they would claim schema cannot be measured objectively.



  • Bruner (1966). Toward a theory of instruction. Cambridge.: Belkapp Press.
  • (1994). Culture and cognitive development from a Piagetian perspective. Psychology and culture (pp. 145–149). Boston, MA: Allyn and Bacon.
  • Greenfield, P. M., & Cole, M. (2019). C. Cross-cultural research and Piagetian theory: Paradox and progress. In The developing individual in a changing world, Teil 1: Historical and cultural issues (pp. 322-333).
  • Hughes , M. (1975). Egocentrism in preschool children. Unpublished doctoral dissertation. Edinburgh University.
  • Meadows, S. (2019). Cognitive development. In Companion encyclopedia of psychology (pp. 699-715). Routledge.
  • Miller, P. H. (2011). Piaget's theory: Past, present, and future.
  • Piaget, J. (1936). Origins of intelligence in the child. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul.
  • Piaget, J., & Cook, M. T. (1952). The origins of intelligence in children. New York, NY: International University Press.
  • Plowden (1967). Children and their primary schools: A report (Research and Surveys). London, England: HM Stationery Office.
  • Vygotsky, L. S. (1978). Mind in society: The development of higher psychological processes. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
  • Wellman, H. M. (2011). Reinvigorating explanations for the study of early cognitive development. Child Development Perspectives, 5(1), 33-38.