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Cognitive psychology

Critically discuss what psychologists have found out about cognitive

In order to address this question we will focus solely on Jean Piaget who was known as a cognitive developmental psychologist and whose theories contributed greatly to the progression of cognitive psychology. The initial part of this essay will examine his views that cognitive development is constructed into four stages. This paper will then look at each stage individually spending a little more time on the second (Pre-operational) stage, which is regarded as the biggest stage. Next, we will evaluate Piaget’s theories by exploring some of the major criticisms and supporting views. Before finally concluding with what influence cognitive development has had in terms of general psychology and contemporary education.

Starting firstly with a brief overview of the origins of Jean Piaget (1896 - 1980) he originally trained as a zoologist, but early experiences in Binet’s Paris Laboratory lead him to further develop his interest in human intelligence. He believed that animals adapted to their environment and a similar process of adaptation was present in humans. Piaget’s view was that there were 4 main stages of development.

1.            Sensory-Motor (0-2years)

2.            Pre-Operational (2-7years)

3.            Concrete Operational (7-11years)

4.            Formal Operational (11-15years)

Each stage of development is characterised by an overall structure and a sequence of development that occurs within this structure. According to Piagetian theory, these structures consist of "schemas", which are essentially, a way of organising experience. Schemas, (as Piaget believed) are the primary component of intelligent behaviour. These schemas adapt through a continuous process of "assimilation" and "accommodation," in an endeavour to attain "equilibrium". Which is essentially balance. Assimilation is the process of adapting new experiences to fit into existing schemas. Accommodation is the process of adapting existing schemas to fit new experiences. (Gross 1999: 628)



New experiences that existing
schemes cannot deal with


Development of

Fig 1

The first of Piaget’s stages of cognitive development is the "sensory-motor stage". This stage occurs from 0-2 years. It is essentially a stage of practical discovery, which occurs by interaction with the environment through the senses and by utilising motor skills. A baby accommodates and assimilates information, which it encounters into schemas, such as feeding from a bottle, picking up a toy etc.

Piaget contends that a baby is born with no sense of "object permanence". This is the understanding that objects continue to exist in their own right, when they are not visible. Piaget conducted an experiment to demonstrate the failure of object permanence, for this he used his own daughter. The experiment involved trying to locate a rattle under a bed cover. He concluded from his observations of infants that it is during the first 2 years of a baby’s life that it acquires object permanence. (Piaget 1963).

The other major progression in the sensory motor stage is the development of what Gleitman calls "the beginnings of representational thought." (Gleitman 1995). This term refers to the acquisition of language; make believe play and deferred imitation. Deferred imitation is the imitation of an action, which has occurred sometime in the past.

The second of Piaget’s stages is the "pre-operational stage". This stage lasts from 2 - 7 years and is sub-divided into 1). Pre-conceptual (2-4years), where the child can only sort things of a single attribute. 2). Intuitive (4-7years), where the child fails to understand the relationship between the super ordinate and subordinate classes which is the understanding, more advanced than simple classification, that some classes or sets of objects are also sub-sets of a larger class. (E.g. there is a class of objects called dogs. There is also a class called animals. But all dogs are also animals, so the class of animals includes that of dogs)  (

Piaget contended that at this pre-operational stage a child fails to "conserve". This is basically the understanding that things remain constant in terms of number, quantity and volume regardless of changes in appearance. In experiments to test number conservation, Piaget showed the child two sets of counters, which had exactly the same quantity. He then re-arranged one of the sets, keeping the same amount of counters in it, so that it was only different in appearance. In Piaget’s findings the children in this stage of development believed that the sets were in fact of different quantity. Piaget argued that this occurred because the child is unable to conserve previous information. (Piaget 1952).

Another classification of the pre-operational stage is that of "egocentrism." This is the child’s inability to see the world from another’s perspective. Piaget observed this in his "Swiss Mountain Scene" experiment (Piaget 1956). In this experiment the child was sat on one side of a model of three mountains, with a teddy sat at the opposite side. The child was asked to choose a picture that depicted the scene that the teddy was able to see. Piaget discovered that until the age of seven, a child is unable to perceive a different viewpoint, from its own and is therefore said to be egocentric. Piaget saw many of the problems of the pre-operational stage child emanating from this inability to "de-centre". (Gross 1999:634).

The next stage is the "concrete operational" stage, which lasts from 7 - 11 years. In this stage, children can perform operations requiring logic such as conservation. But this ability only holds for what he terms as concrete situations. That is, the child is only able to perform mental actions on actual objects and not in abstract terms. In the concrete operational stage, the child is no longer egocentric and now has the ability to de-centre.

Beyond 11 years the child is said to enter the final stage in cognitive development, which is the "formal operational" stage. In this period the child is able to think and reason hypothetically. The child is also able to imagine and manipulate ideas and propositions that may have never actually been encountered. (Gross: Chapter 25)

Piaget’s theories and findings have been widely challenged. Many modern psychologists, for example, Meadows (1988), suggest that Piaget underestimated the cognitive abilities of children. Meadows also contended that Piaget ignored individual differences in his studies. Also In an experiment carried out by McGarrigle "Naughty Teddy" (1974) she showed that children had an increased ability to conserve by using a third party (in the form of a flying teddy bear) to move pre-set counters and she therefore disputed Piaget's theory.

Similar criticisms have been put forward of Piaget’s theory of egocentrism. It has been argued that Piaget’s egocentrism experiments, like the Swiss Mountain Scene, confused the child as it was not clear what was being asked. Donaldson (1978 cited in Gross), said that Hughes experiments were much easier to understand as they were much more readily related to the world of the child. In this experiment a toy doll was hidden out of the view of a toy policeman. Ninety percent of three and a half to five year olds could see the other toys point of view. Even sixty percent of three year olds answered correctly. It has not however, generally been disputed that egocentrism exists at all, but simply at what age it occurs. (See Fig 2).

Fig 2

In this experiment Hughes asks the children to hide the doll so that the policeman doll cannot see him. Piaget would have predicted that the outcome of this would be that the children would hide the boy doll from themselves, whereas in fact the results of Hughes experiment showed that this was not the case at all.

According to Piaget, it should not be possible to accelerate the cognitive development process through the various stages. Meadows (1988), argues to the contrary that training does in fact produce performance enhancement which can be quite notable and long lasting. For example, pre-school age children have been successfully taught to perform concrete operational tasks up to three and four years ahead of their time.

Moving on to Piaget’s contribution to psychology. It is notable that Piaget’s work has had an enormous impact on education. Brainerd (1983) believed that Piaget’s theory had an impact on education particularly pre-school and primary education in 3 main areas, (Gross

1999: 642) these areas are listed below –

1.            The concept of readiness

2.            Curriculum (what to teach)

3.            Teaching Methods (how to teach)

However in evaluating Piaget’s contribution to education, Ginsberg (1981) claimed that Piaget had ignored the individual differences between children and that the emphasis was placed on discovery learning rather than academic knowledge.

In conclusion, having evaluated Piaget’s theory of cognitive development during childhood, which was (and still is) regarded as the major paradigm in psychology (which to understand the complex procedure of mental progression through different levels of thinking and understanding). It has both been challenged and embraced by many.

Challenged in that Piaget's methodology may have underestimated many of the child's abilities, and additional considerations such as

·         Complicated language.

·         Unfamiliar materials.

·         Lack of context.

·         Children misinterpreting experimenter's intention.

May have adversely affected a child’s response. Such factors call into question the reliability of Piaget's findings. It may be that some of his tasks were easier and some harder, but for relatively trivial reasons (e.g. the child misunderstands the experimenter's intention).

However it has been embraced in the field of education and for many years teachers have revised their approach in the classroom and applied Piagetian principles. In those terms he has made a substantial contribution to our understanding and appreciation of this complex subject area. As we have seen, much of his theory has been directly applied and accepted in modern education. Undoubtedly though its impact upon child psychology has been tremendous.

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