Piaget's Theory of Cognitive Development

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Piaget's (1936) theory of cognitive development explains how a child constructs a mental model of the world. He disagreed with the idea that intelligence was a fixed trait, and regarded cognitive development as a process which occurs due to biological maturation and interaction with the environment.

Piaget was employed at the Binet Institute in the 1920s, where his job was to develop French versions of questions on English intelligence tests.

He became intrigued with the reasons children gave for their wrong answers on the questions that required logical thinking. Piaget believed that these incorrect answers revealed important differences between the thinking of adults and children.

Piaget (1936) was the first psychologist to make a systematic study of cognitive development. His contributions include a stage theory of cognitive child development, detailed observational studies of cognition in children, and a series of simple but ingenious tests to reveal different cognitive abilities.

Before Piaget’s work, the common assumption in psychology was that children are merely less competent thinkers than adults. Piaget showed that young children think in strikingly different ways compared to adults.

Piaget's Theory Differs From Others In Several Ways::

▪ It is concerned with children, rather than all learners.

▪ It focuses on development, rather than learning per se, so it does not address learning of information or specific behaviors.

▪ It proposes discrete stages of development, marked by qualitative differences, rather than a gradual increase in number and complexity of behaviors, concepts, ideas, etc.

The goal of the theory is to explain the mechanisms and processes by which the infant, and then the child, develops into an individual who can reason and think using hypotheses. 

To Piaget, cognitive development was a progressive reorganization of mental processes as a result of biological maturation and environmental experience. Children construct an understanding of the world around them, then experience discrepancies between what they already know and what they discover in their environment.

There Are Three Basic Components To Piaget's Cognitive Theory:

  1. Schemas
  2. (building blocks of knowledge).

  3. Adaptation processes that enable the transition from one stage to another (equilibrium, assimilation and  accommodation).

  4. Stages of  Development:


Piaget (1952) defined a schema as:

'a cohesive, repeatable action sequence possessing component actions that are tightly interconnected and governed by a core meaning'.

In more simple terms Piaget called the schema the basic building block of intelligent behavior – a way of organizing knowledge.

Indeed, it is useful to think of schemas as “units” of knowledge, each relating to one aspect of the world, including objects, actions and abstract (i.e. theoretical) concepts.

Wadsworth (2004) suggests that schemata (the plural of schema) be though of as 'index cards' filed in the brain, each one telling an individual how to react to incoming stimuli or information.

When Piaget talked about the development of a person's mental processes, he was referring to increases in the number and complexity of the schemata that a person had learned.

When a child's existing schemas are capable of explaining what it can perceive around it, it is said to be in a state of equilibrium, i.e. a state of cognitive (i.e. mental) balance. Piaget emphasized the importance of schemas in cognitive development, and described how they were developed or acquired.

A schema can be defined as a set of linked mental representations of the world, which we use both to understand and to respond to situations. The assumption is that we store these mental representations and apply them when needed.

Piaget believed that newborn babies have a small number of innate schemas - even before they have had much opportunity to experience the world.  These neonatal schemas are the cognitive structures underlying innate reflexes. These reflexes are genetically programmed into us.

For example babies have a sucking reflex, which is triggered by something touching the baby's lips.  A baby will suck a nipple, a comforter (dummy), or a person's finger.  Piaget therefore assumed that the baby has a 'sucking schema'.

Similarly the grasping reflex which is elicited when something touches the palm of a baby's hand, or the rooting reflex, in which a baby will turn its head towards something which touches its cheek, are innate schemas.

Shaking a rattle would be the combination of two schemas, grasping and shaking.

Assimilation and Accommodation

Jean Piaget (1952; see also Wadsworth, 2004) viewed intellectual growth as a process of adaptation (adjustment) to the world. This happens through:

Jean Piaget's concept of adaptation

Example of Assimilation

A 2 year old child sees a man who is bald on top of his head and has long frizzy hair on the sides. To his father’s horror, the toddler shouts “Clown, clown” (Siegler et al., 2003).

Example of Accommodation

In the “clown” incident, the boy’s father explained to his son that the man was not a clown and that even though his hair was like a clown’s, he wasn’t wearing a funny costume and wasn’t doing silly things to make people laugh

With this new knowledge, the boy was able to change his schema of “clown” and make this idea fit better to a standard concept of “clown”.

Stages of Development

Piaget proposed four stages of cognitive development which reflect the increasing sophistication of children's thought:

1. Sensorimotor stage (birth to age 2)

2. Pre-operational stage (from age 2 to age 7)

3. Concrete operational stage (from age 7 to age 11)

4. Formal operational stage (age 11+ - adolescence and adulthood).

Each child goes through the stages in the same order and child development is determined by biological maturation and interaction with the environment. Although no stage can be missed out there are individual differences in the rate at which children progress through stages, and some individuals may never attain the later stages.

Piaget did not claim that a particular stage was reached at a certain age - although descriptions of the stages often include an indication of the age at which the average child would reach each stage.

Sensorimotor Stage (Birth-2 yrs)

The main achievement during this stage is object permanence - knowing that an object still exists, even if it is hidden.

It requires the ability to form a mental representation (i.e. a schema) of the object.

Preoperational Stage (2-7 years)

During this stage, young children are able to think about things symbolically.

This is the ability to make one thing - a word or an object - stand for something other than itself.

Thinking is still egocentric, and the infant has difficulty taking the viewpoint of others.

Concrete Operational Stage (7-11 years)

Piaget considered the concrete stage a major turning point in the child's cognitive development, because it marks the beginning of logical or operational thought.

This means the child can work things out internally in their head (rather than physically try things out in the real world).

Children can conserve number (age 6), mass (age 7), and weight (age 9).

Conservation is the understanding that something stays the same in quantity even though its appearance changes

Formal Operational Stage (11 years and over)

The formal operational stage begins at approximately age eleven and lasts into adulthood.

During this time, people develop the ability to think about abstract concepts, and logically test hypotheses.

Each child goes through the stages in the same order, and no stage can be missed out - although some individuals may never attain the later stages.

There are individual differences in the rate at which children progress through stages.

Piaget did not claim that a particular stage was reached at a certain age - although descriptions of the stages often include an indication of the age at which the average child would reach each stage.

Educational Implications

Piaget (1952) did not explicitly relate his theory to education, although later researchers have explained how features of Piaget's theory can be applied to teaching and learning.

Piaget has been extremely influential in developing educational policy and teaching. For example, a review of primary education by the UK government in 1966 was based strongly on Piaget’s theory. The result of this review led to the publication of the Plowden report (1967).

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

'The report's recurring themes are individual learning, flexibility in the curriculum, the centrality of play in children's learning, the use of the environment, learning by discovery and the importance of the evaluation of children's progress - teachers should 'not assume that only what is measurable is valuable.'

Because Piaget's theory is based upon biological maturation and stages the notion of 'readiness' is important. Readiness concerns when certain information or concepts should be taught.

According to Piaget's theory children should not be taught certain concepts until they have reached the appropriate stage of cognitive development.

According to Piaget (1958), assimilation and accommodation require an active learner, not a passive one, because problem-solving skills cannot be taught, they must be discovered.

Within the classroom learning should be student centered a accomplished through active discovery learning. The role of the teacher is to facilitate learning, rather than direct tuition.

Therefore teachers should encourage the following within the classroom:

o Focus on the process of learning, rather than the end product of it.

o Using active methods that require rediscovering or reconstructing "truths".

o Using collaborative, as well as individual activities (so children can learn from each other).

o Devising situations that present useful problems, and create disequilibrium in the child.

o Evaluate the level of the child's development, so suitable tasks can be set.

Critical Evaluation




Baillargeon, R., & DeVos, J. (1991). Object permanence in young infants: Further evidence. Child development, 1227-1246.

Bruner, J. S. (1966). Toward a theory of instruction. Cambridge, Mass.: Belkapp Press.

Central Advisory Council for Education (1967). Children and their Primary Schools ('The Plowden Report'), London: HMSO.

Dasen, P. (1994). Culture and cognitive development from a Piagetian perspective. In W .J. Lonner & R.S. Malpass (Eds.), Psychology and culture. Boston: Allyn and Bacon.

Hughes , M. (1975). Egocentrism in preschool children. Unpublished doctoral dissertation. Edinburgh University.

Keating, D. (1979). Adolescent thinking. In J. Adelson (Ed.), Handbook of adolescent psychology, pp. 211-246. New York: Wiley.

Piaget, J. (1932). The moral judgment of the child. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul.

Piaget, J. (1936). Origins of intelligence in the child. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul.

Piaget, J. (1945). Play, dreams and imitation in childhood. London: Heinemann.

Piaget, J. (1957). Construction of reality in the child. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul.

Piaget, J. (1958). The growth of logical thinking from childhood to adolescence. AMC, 10, 12.

Piaget, J., & Cook, M. T. (1952). The origins of intelligence in children. New York, NY: International University Press.

Siegler, R. S., DeLoache, J. S., & Eisenberg, N. (2003). How children develop. New York: Worth.

Vygotsky, L. S. (1978). Mind in society: The development of higher psychological processes. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Wadsworth, B. J. (2004). Piaget's theory of cognitive and affective development: Foundations of constructivism. Longman Publishing.

How to cite this article:

(2015). Jean Piaget. Retrieved from

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