Of all mammals, human beings require the longest period of maturation and learning (Atkinson, Atkinson, Smith, Bem, & Hoeksema, 2000). Therefore the study of how human functioning develops across the life span is an important part of the science of psychology. Cognitive development is one of the major branches of recent developmental psychology, and cognitive developmental psychologists focus on the ways in which children’s thinking and understanding change (Cardwell, Clark, & Meldrum, 1996).
Jean Piaget (1896-1980) is widely recognised as the most known cognitive developmental psychologist. He is a pioneer who focused on the interaction between the biological maturity of mental structure with age and environmental interactions. Piaget had a variety of background, such as Biology and Philosophy, and concepts from these disciplines influenced his research. He was primarily interested in how knowledge developed in human organisms. Therefore he referred his general theoretical framework to “genetic epistemology” (Hill, 2001).
His theory has great impacts and stimulated many researchers’ interest. No one denied Piaget’s great achievements in developmental psychology, however, not all his conclusions have been accepted and some objections have been raised. This essay will discuss Piaget’s theory of cognitive development. First, it will outline Piaget’s stage theory of development. Second, it will explore the mechanisms of development in Piaget’s theory. Finally, it will evaluate the pros and cons of Piaget’s theory.
The concept of cognitive structure seems to be central to Piaget’s theory. Cognitive structures are sets of physical or mental operations that underlie specific acts of intelligence and correspond to stages of child development (Smith, Cowie, & Blades, 2003). These are called schemas. Schemas develop from the child’s own interactions with the environment. There are four primary cognitive structures (i.e., development stages), which are sensorimotor, preoperations, concrete operations, and formal operations. These four stages are described below.
Piaget labeled the first two years of life as the sensorimotor stage. During this time, a child at this stage is busy discovering the relationships between their actions and the consequences of those actions. They learn to generalise their activities to a wider range of situations and coordinate them into increasingly lengthy chains of behaviour (Atkinson et al., 2000). The preoperational stage comes to the next stage. By about one and half to two years of age, children have begun to use symbols and acquired representational skills in the areas mental imagery, and especially language (Atkinson et al., 2000). They are very self-oriented, and have an egocentric view; that is, preoperational children can use these representational skills only to view the world form their own perspectives (Encyclopedia of Psychology, 2002).
Between the ages of six or seven to eleven or twelve, as opposed to preoperational children, children are able to take another’s point of view and take into account more than one perspective simultaneously (Atkinson et al., 2000). This stage is called as the concrete operational stage. They can also represent transformations as well as static situations. Although they can understand abstract problems, Piaget would argue that they can perform on only concrete problems (Atkinson et al., 2000). At the age of eleven or twelve, Children, who attain the formal operational stage, are capable of thinking logically and abstract. They can also reason purely theoretically (Atkinson et al., 2000).
According to Atkinson et al. (2000), Piaget considered this the final stage of development, and stated that although the children have to revise their knowledge base, their way of thinking was as powerful as it would get. Thus, children develop their schemas through these four stages. It can be said several aspects of reality that children can understand are differences in each stages (Miller, 2002). Besides, in general conclusions, although all children progress their schemas in this fixed order, the age given may vary in each child and not all children reach at the final stage (e.g. Smith, 2003).
Piaget stressed that it was also important to explain how and why children develop through cognitive stages (miller, 2002). In Piaget’s concepts, there are some functional invariants which are unchanging aspects of thought at the all ages (Smith, 2003). These are the organization of schemas and their adaptation through assimilation and accommodation. Organization is referred by Piaget to the inborn ability to coordinate existing cognitive structures or schemas, and combine them into more complex systems. In other word, through organization the child can combine each separate operation into a new action that is more complex than each part of action and their schemas grow to be more elaborate (Smith, 2003).
Another basic functional invariant, which called cognitive adaptation, relates to interaction between the organism and the environment. Assimilation involves the interpretation of events by using existing schemas whereas accommodation refers to adjust an existing schema to fit in with the environment (Smith, 2003). Cognitive development consists of a constant effort to adapt to the environment through the complementary processes of assimilation and accommodation.