Course: Postgraduate Certificate - Tertiary Level Teaching
Module: How Students Learn - A Review of Some of the Main Theories
Page: 4b - Piaget's model of cognitive development

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Piaget's model of cognitive development

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Jean Piaget

In 1969, the Swiss developmental psychologist Jean Piaget presented a somewhat different model of learning, analysing it in terms of the various stages of human development rather than in terms of basic types of learning. According to Piaget, a child goes through four distinct intellectual stages between birth and adulthood, as shown in Figure 2.

Figure 2 : Piaget's model of cognitive development

Let us now look at these various stages in more detail.

1. Sensorimotor stage. This is the stage when babies learn to differentiate between themselves and objects outside their bodies. They learn that external objects exist, even though they are not continuously recorded by the senses, and eventually develop an awareness that a familiar object (such as a rattle) remains 'the same object' regardless of changes of location and orientation. They also start to develop basic ideas about cause and effect (eg, that their rattle makes a pleasing noise whenever they hold it and move their hand). Piaget calls these first ideas which babies develop about how to deal with their world action schemas. Throughout the sensorimotor stage, the baby remains totally egocentric, being completely incapable of taking anyone else's needs or interests into account.

2. Pre-operational stage. During the first two years or so of this stage, the child remains highly egocentric, being intrinsically incapable of looking at situations from other people's points of view. It also tends to classify objects in terms of a single dominant feature, so that if A is like B in one respect, it must also be like B in other respects too. From about four upwards, the child starts to be able to think in terms of classes, to see relationships between objects, and to handle basic number concepts, but remains essentially intuitive, since it may not be aware of what the classification and ordering systems involve. During the later years of this stage, the child progressively develops the concepts of conservation of mass (by about 5), weight (by about 6) and volume (by about 7). The child also starts to become progressively less egocentric - a process known as decentring -and to develop a sense of right and wrong, although it tends to believe that its way of thinking what is right and what is wrong will automatically be shared by everyone else.

3. Concrete operational stage. During this stage, the child develops the ability to classify objects by several features and to think logically about objects and events. It must, however, be exposed to practical examples in order to understand the differences between such objects and classes, since it cannot yet think in abstract terms. During this stage, the child progressively acquires the ability to use logical operations such as reversibility (in arithmetic), classification (organising objects into hierarchies of classes) and seriation (organising objects into ordered series, such as increasing size). The child also continues to become progressively less egocentric, and to develop a progressively more sophisticated sense of right and wrong.

4. Formal operational stage. From around puberty, children become progressively more adult-like in both their behaviour and their ways of thinking. They develop the ability to think conceptually and abstractly, so that they can work out things in their heads, without having to see or handle the actual objects. They also acquire the ability to formulate and test hypotheses, and develop a progressively more adult world view and sense of morals.

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