Cognitive Development

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Although there is no general theory of cognitive development, the most historically influential theory was developed by Jean Piaget, a Swiss Psychologist (1896-1980). His theory provided many central concepts in the field of developmental psychology. His theory concerned the growth of intelligence, which for Piaget meant the ability to more accurately represent the world, and perform logical operations on representations of concepts grounded in the world. His theory concerns the emergence and acquisition of schemata-schemes of how one perceives the world-in " developmental stages," times when children are acquiring new ways of mentally representing information. His theory is considered "constructivist," meaning that, unlike nativist theories (which describe cognitive development as the unfolding of innate knowledge and abilities) or empiricist theories (which describe cognitive development as the gradual acquisition of knowledge through experience), asserts that we construct our cognitive abilities through self-motivated action in the world. For his development of the theory, Piaget was awarded the Erasmus Prize.

Piaget divided schemes that children use to understand the world through four main stages, roughly correlated with and becoming increasingly sophisticated with age:

  • Sensorimotor stage (years 0-2)
  • Preoperational stage (years 2-7)
  • Concrete operational stage (years 7-11)
  • Formal operational stage (years 11-adulthood)


Sensorimotor stage

According to Piaget, this child is in the sensorimotor stage and primarily explores the world with senses rather than through mental operations.

Infants are born with a set of congenital reflexes, according to Piaget, as well as a drive to explore their world. Their initial schemes are formed through differentiation of the congenital reflexes (see assimilation and accommodation, below).

The sensorimotor stage is the first of the four stages. According to Piaget, this stage marks the development of essential spatial abilities and understanding of the world in six sub-stages:

  • The first sub-stage occurs from birth to six weeks and is associated primarily with the development of reflexes. Three primary reflexes are described by Piaget: sucking of objects in the mouth, following moving or interesting objects with the eyes, and closing of the hand when an object makes contact with the palm ( palmar grasp). Over these first six weeks of life, these reflexes begin to become voluntary actions; for example, the palmar reflex becomes intentional grasping. (Gruber and Vaneche, 1977).
  • The second sub-stage occurs from six weeks to four months and is associated primarily with the development of habits. Primary circular reactions or repeating of an action involving only ones own body begin. An example of this type of reaction would involve something like an infant repeating the motion of passing their hand before their face. Also at this phase, passive reactions, caused by classical or operant conditioning, can begin (Gruber et al., 1977).
  • The third sub-stage occurs from four to nine months and is associated primarily with the development of coordination between vision and prehension. Three new abilities occur at this stage: intentional grasping for a desired object, secondary circular reactions, and differentiations between ends and means. At this stage, infants will intentionally grasp the air in the direction of a desired object, often to the amusement of friends and family. Secondary circular reactions, or the repetition of an action involving an external object begin; for example, moving a switch to turn on a light repeatedly. The differentiation between means also occurs. This is perhaps one of the most important stages of a child's growth as it signifies the dawn of logic (Gruber et al., 1977). Towards the late part of this sub-stage infants begin to have a sense of object permanence, passing the A-not-B error test.
  • The fourth sub-stage occurs from nine to twelve months and is associated primarily with the development of logic and the coordination between means and ends. This is an extremely important stage of development, holding what Piaget calls the "first proper intelligence." Also, this stage marks the beginning of goal orientation, the deliberate planning of steps to meet an objective (Gruber et al. 1977).
  • The fifth sub-stage occurs from twelve to eighteen months and is associated primarily with the discovery of new means to meet goals. Piaget describes the child at this juncture as the "young scientist," conducting pseudo-experiments to discover new methods of meeting challenges (Gruber et al. 1977).
  • The sixth sub-stage is associated primarily with the beginnings of insight, or true creativity. This marks the passage into the preoperational stage.

The role of imitation

Piaget postulated that imitative activity is the forerunner of mental symbolism. [1] Bodily activity, imitating the action of perceived phenomena, actually build bodily/behavioral signifiers that stand for the phenomena in a comparable way to that by which mental symbols will later stand for these phenomena. Such imitative formations provide the basis upon which mental symbolic activity can later build. The symbol is, according to Piaget, an internalized imitation.

For Piaget, even perception of an object is an imitative activity; the eye tracing the shape of an object is forming a pre-symbolic concept of the object. Piaget suggests that the motions experienced here may be repeated by the child in an abbreviated fashion when recalling the object; this bodily image symbolizes the object that was perceived earlier. [2]

Preoperational stage

The Preoperational stage is the second of four stages of cognitive development. By observing sequences of play, Piaget was able to demonstrate that towards the end of the second year a qualitatively quite new kind of psychological functioning occurs. Operation in Piagetian theory is any procedure for mentally acting on objects. The hallmark of the preoperational stage is sparse and logically inadequate mental operations.

According to Piaget, the Sensorimotor stage of development is followed by this stage (2-7 years), which includes the following processes:

Symbolic functioning - is characterised by the use of mental symbols words or pictures which the child uses to represent something which is not physically present.

Centration - is characterized by a child focusing or attending to only one aspect of a stimulus or situation. For example, in pouring a quantity of liquid from a narrow beaker into a shallow dish, a preschool child might judge the quantity of liquid to have decreased, because it is "lower"--that is, the child attends to the height of the water, but not to the compensating increase in the diameter of the container.

Intuitive thought - occurs when the child is able to believe in something without knowing why she or he believes it.

Egocentrism - a version of centration, this denotes a tendency of child to only think from their own point of view.

Inability to Conserve - Through Piaget's conservation experiments (conservation of mass, volume and number) Piaget concluded that children in the preoperational stage lack perception of conservation of mass, volume, and number after the original form has changed. For example, a child in this phase will believe that a string of beads set up in a "O-O-O-O-O" pattern will have the same number of beads as a string which has a "OO-O-OO-O" pattern, because they are the same length, or that a tall, thin 8-ounce cup has more liquid in it than a wide, fat 8-ounce cup (see also centration, above).

Concrete Operational stage

The concrete operational stage is the third of four stages of cognitive development in Piaget's theory. This stage, which follows the Preoperational stage and occurs from the ages of 7 to 11, is characterized by the appropriate use of logic. Important processes during this stage are:

Decentering - where the child takes into account multiple aspects of a problem to solve it. For example, the child will no longer perceive an exceptionally wide but short cup to contain less than a normally-wide, taller cup.

Reversibility - where the child understands that numbers or objects can be changed, then returned to their original state. For this reason, a child will be able to rapidly determine that 4+4 which they can answer to be 8, minus 4 will equal four, the original quantity.

Conservation - understanding that quantity, length or number of items is unrelated to the arrangement or appearance of the object or items. For instance, when a child is presented with two equally-sized, full cups they will be able to discern that if water is transferred to a pitcher it will conserve the quantity and be equal to the other filled cup.

Serialisation - the ability to arrange objects in an order according to size, shape, or any other characteristic. For example, if given different-shaded objects they may make a colour gradient.

Classification - the ability to name and identify sets of objects according to appearance, size or other characteristic, including the idea that one set of objects can include another. A child is no longer subject to the illogical limitations of animism (the belief that all objects are animals and therefore have feelings).

Elimination of Egocentrism - the ability to view things from another's perspective (even if they think incorrectly). For instance, show a child a comic in which Jane puts a doll under a box, leaves the room, and then Jill moves the doll to a drawer, and Jane comes back. A child in this stage will say that Jane will still think it's under the box even though the child knows it is in the drawer.

Formal Operational stage

The formal operational stage is the fourth and final of the stages of cognitive development of Piaget's theory. This stage, which follows the Concrete Operational stage, commences at around 11 years of age (puberty) and continues into adulthood. It is characterized by acquisition of the ability to think abstractly and draw conclusions from the information available. During this stage the young adult functions in a cognitively normal manner and therefore is able to understand such things as love, "shades of gray", and values. Lucidly, biological factors may be traced to this stage as it occurs during puberty and marks the entering into adulthood in physiologically, cognitive, moral (Kohlberg), psychosexual (Freud), and social development (Erikson). Many people do not successfully complete this stage, but mostly remain in concrete operations.

General Information regarding the stages

These four stages have been found to have the following characteristics:

  • Although the timing may vary, the sequence of the stages does not.
  • Universal (not culturally specific)
  • Generalizable: the representational and logical operations available to the child should extend to all kinds of concepts and content knowledge
  • Stages are logically organized wholes
  • Hierarchical nature of stage sequences (each successive stage incorporates elements of previous stages, but is more differentiated and integrated)
  • Stages represent qualitative differences in modes of thinking, not merely quantitative differences

Challenges to Piagetian Stage Theory

Piagetian accounts of development have been challenged on several grounds. First, as Piaget himself noted, development does not always progress in the smooth manner his theory seems to predict. 'Decalage', or unpredicted gaps in the developmental progression, suggest that the stage model is at best a useful approximation. More broadly, Piaget's theory is 'domain general', predicting that cognitive maturation occurs concurrently across different domains of knowledge (such as mathematics, logic, understanding of physics, of language, etc). However, more recent cognitive developmentalists have been much influenced by trends in cognitive science away from domain generality and towards domain specificity or modularity of mind, under which different cognitive faculties may be largely independent of one another and thus develop according to quite different time-tables. In this vein, many current cognitive developmentalists argue that rather than being domain general learners, children come equipped with domain specific theories, sometimes referred to as 'core knowledge', which allows them to break into learning within that domain. For example, even young infants appear to understand some basic principles of physics (e.g. that one object cannot pass through another) and human intentionality (e.g. that a hand repeatedly reaching for an object has that object, not just a particular path of motion, as its goal). These basic assumptions may be the building blocks out of which more elaborated knowledge is constructed.

Piagetian and post-Piagetian stage theories

  • Michael Barnes' stages of religious and scientific thinking
  • Kieran Egan's stages of understanding
  • Christopher Hallpike's stages of moral understanding
  • James W. Fowler's stages of faith development
  • Suzy Gablik's stages of art history
  • Lawrence Kohlberg's stages of moral development
  • Don Lepan's theory of the origins of modern thought and drama
  • Charles Raddings theory of the medieval intellectual development
  • R.J. Robinson's stages of history and theory of the origins of intelligence

Other stage theories of development

  • Erik Erikson's stages of psychosocial development
  • Jane Loevinger's stages of ego development


  • Gruber, Howard, & Vaneche, J. (1977). The Essential Piaget
  • Piaget, J. (1983). "Piaget's theory". In P. Mussen (ed). Handbook of Child Psychology. 4th edition. Vol. 1. New York: Wiley.
  • Piaget, J. (1995). Sociological Studies. London: Routledge.
  • Piaget, J. (2000). "Commentary on Vygotsky". New Ideas in Psychology, 18, 241-59.
  • Piaget, J. (2001). Studies in Reflecting Abstraction. Hove, UK: Psychology Press.



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