The basics of Piaget’s four stages of cognitive development

A greater percentage of teacher’s activities in the class depend on the cognitive abilities of the students. In other words, teacher devotes most of his time towards ensuring that the students have mentally understood the new information passed to them. To understand and enhance this student-teacher relationship, Jean Piaget, a child psychologist, has described four stages of cognitive development and related them to a learner’s ability to understand and assimilate new information. Understanding these stages will help tremendously in the teacher’s job of helping the learner to navigate learning.

These four (4) stages are:

1. Sensorimotor: (from birth to about age 2)

During this stage, the child learns about himself and his environment through motor and reflex actions. Thought is driven from sensation and movement. The child learns that he is separate from his environment and that aspects of his environment — his parents or favourite toys — continue to exist even though they may be outside the reach of his senses.

Teaching for a child in this stage should be geared to the sensorimotor system. You can modify behaviour by using the senses: a frown, a stern or soothing voice — all serve as appropriate techniques. Therefore, intelligence is demonstrated through motor activity without the use of symbols. Knowledge of the world is limited (but developing) because it’s based on physical interactions/experiences. Children acquire object permanence at about 7 months of age (memory). Physical development (mobility) allows the child to begin developing new intellectual abilities. Some symbolic (language) abilities are developed at the end of this stage.

2. Preoperational: (begins about the time the child starts to talk to about age 7)

Applying his new knowledge of language, the child begins to use symbols to represent objects. Early in this stage he also personifies objects. He is now better able to think about things and events that are not immediately present.

Oriented to the present, the child has difficulty conceptualizing time. His thinking is influenced by fantasy — the way he would like things to be — and he assumes that others see situations from his viewpoint. He takes in information and then changes it in his mind to fit his ideas.

Therefore, teaching, at this stage, must take into account the child’s vivid fantasies and undeveloped sense of time. Using neutral words, body outlines and equipment a child can touch gives him an active role in learning. Intelligence is mainly demonstrated through the use of symbols; language use matures, and memory and imagination are developed, but thinking is done in a non-logical, non-reversible manner. Egocentric thinking predominates.

3. Concrete: (about first grade to early adolescence)

During this stage, accommodation increases. The child develops abilities to think abstractly and to make rational judgement about concrete or observable phenomena, which in the past he needed to manipulate physically to understand.

When teaching a child at this stage, giving him the opportunity to ask questions and to explain things back to a teacher allows him to mentally manipulate information. Therefore, at this stage (characterized by 7 types of conservation: number, length, liquid, mass, weight, area, volume), intelligence is demonstrated through logical and systematic manipulation of symbols related to concrete objects. Operational thinking develops (mental actions that are reversible). Egocentric thought diminishes.

4. Formal Operations: (adolescence and adulthood)

This stage brings cognition to its final form. The learner no longer requires concrete objects to make rational judgement. At this point, he is capable of hypothetical and deductive reasoning.

Teaching for the adolescent may be wide-ranging because he will be able to consider many possibilities from several perspectives.  At this stage, intelligence is demonstrated through the logical use of symbols related to abstract concepts. Early in the period there is a return to egocentric thought. Only 35% of high school graduates in industrialized countries obtain formal operations; many people do not think formally during adulthood.

In summary, it can be said that many pre-school and primary school programs are modeled on Piaget’s theory, which, as stated previously, provides part of the foundation for constructivist learning. Discovery learning and supporting the developing interests of the child are two primary instructional techniques. It is recommended that parents and teachers challenge the child’s abilities, but NOT present materials or information that is too far beyond the child’s level. It is also recommended that teachers use a wide variety of concrete experiences to help the child learn (e.g., use of manipulative, working in groups to get experience seeing from another’s perspective, field trips, etc).

8 thoughts on “The basics of Piaget’s four stages of cognitive development

  1. So true! I loved learning about this recently at uni- it really makes you understand the growth and changes students go through. Even the later stages after schooling are interesting to look at in terms of development over one’s lifespan.

    1. Hello Katrina, thanks a lot for your comments. Of course, such theories greatly help not only in class but also at home. All the best

  2. Thanks for the reminder.

    Piaget’s and Erickson’s works were instrumental in the development of my own theory of personal development. I discovered that I had to have one theory to unify development of the child and evolution of the species in order for the theory to be correct.

    Peace, Ik

    1. Hello sir Erik, that’s great. I’d love to read your work. I’ll check if it’s available online. Do you also have it on print? Please, what’s the title?

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