Piaget’s Cognitive Development Theory Application


Piaget investigated how children add up knowledge. The theory of cognitive development has two sides. First, are the key concepts of the theory, and second, are the stages of development of cognition. The criticism directed to this theory was mainly its build-up on qualitative research; however, the implications of Piaget’s theory in learning are many. This thesis briefly reviews Piaget’s cognitive development theory, support and criticism, and implications in the classroom.

Jean Piaget’s chief interest was how humans add up knowledge and the idea that what characterizes humans is the competence to grasp, intellectually, emblematic representative logical thinking (Huitt and Hummel, 2003). This thesis aims to; briefly, review Piaget’s cognitive development theory, its key concepts, support, and criticism, and how teachers can apply it in the classrooms. Piaget’s cognitive theory has two principle sides:

First is the process of cognition (key concepts of Piaget’s theory): Piaget assumed that schemas (Schemes) are pictures in the mind of a collection of impressions, concepts, and actions, which act together to adjust to the environment. These schemes control behavior and Piaget assumed that infants are born with these schemes in a primitive form, called reflexes. As the infant grows, constructed schemes replace these reflexes and as they become more complex, they turn into structures arranged in a ranked manner (responsible for more complex behavior). Thus, a scheme is both the mental and physical processes used to acquire knowledge, and it is a class of knowledge that aids humans to adapt to the environment. Assimilation and accommodation; in Piaget’s view, are mechanisms of adaptation to the environment. Assimilation is a subjective process that means integrating knowledge into a pre-existing schema. On the other hand, accommodation is the flexible adjustment of a schema in response to new knowledge. Equilibration as Piaget called is the balance between the knowledge assimilated and that accommodated. The ultimatum is building up more schema structures (Philips, 2004).

Second are the stages of cognitive development (Huitt and Hummel (2003): Piaget recognized four stages in cognitive development. From birth to two years old, sensorimotor stage: The infant builds up a collection of simple ideas about all that exists and happens through physical collaboration and reciprocal actions with the surroundings. In this stage, knowledge is limited yet developing, and the infant acquires awareness of objects (object permanence). Toddler and early childhood (2-7 years), preoperational stage: when the child is not yet able to imagine non-presentational ideas and still needs real physical situations. Early adolescence (7-11 years), concrete operational stage: the process of working something related especially to volume, weight, length, or number develops. The notion of the child is the center of everything around diminishes. Adolescence and adulthood (starting at 11-15 years), Formal operational stage: In this stage, the cognitive structure is near or the same as that of an adult and is characterized by abstract theoretical logic (Huitt and Hummel, 2003).

Criticism of Piaget’s cognitive theory focused on three main points first is Piaget’s research methods were only descriptive case studies. Second, is the disagreement that all children instinctively go from one stage to the next particularly in the formal operational stage. The third criticism is the theory undervalues some children’s competence at the age of 4-7 years when they may show some complex schema (Huitt and Hummel, 2003). On the other hand, Lourenco and Machado, 1996, defended Piaget’s theory and claimed that criticism comes from a misunderstanding of the theory, and ignoring Piaget’s modifications of the theory after 1970. They also claimed that whoever criticized Piaget’s theory did not consider the discussion of the case studies, despite being theoretical. Lourenco and Machado, 1996, assumed that although discussions around Piaget’s theory may not end in the future, yet there are important viewpoints in theory that have not been properly integrated by psychologists.

According to the key concepts and stages of Piaget’s theory, disclosing inventive learning and supporting the child’s growing abilities and attentions are the two main teaching techniques required. The implications of Piaget’s theory for learning are many, the most important of which are four issues as suggested by Webb, 1980. Stage-based teaching: The classroom environment settings are structured to support student’s thinking instead of focusing on certain learning assignments. In this context, a variety of teaching settings may be used; for example, using words or language as opposed to pictorial representation or opposed to physical action. Webb, 1980 also suggested mental exercises for the acquisition of knowledge and separation of assignments to components as stage-based teaching techniques. This applies to the first three stages of cognitive development, however, in the fourth stage (formal operational stage); the quality and type of teaching processes are decisive. The reason for this, according to Webb 1980, is formal operational thinking does not exist as an undivided unit that applies to all ranges of thinking. Moreover theoretical conceptual thinking appears dependent on experience in behavioral, figurative thinking, and areas of thinking related to word meanings.

Second is the distinctiveness of individual learning and conceptual development before language: Knowledge and intelligence growth occur when the child is practicing thinking at a high level as related to the child’s stage of development. Too high a level results in frustration while too low level leads to disinterest. The teacher has to recall that language use, development of the concept and semantic use of verbs are not the same for every child. This is of special importance in dealing with language-disabled children (Webb, 1980). The third issue is experience-involving action: A look at the key concepts of Piaget’s cognitive development theory reveals the notion that every learning leads to a restructuring of the cognitive schemes.

Therefore, teachers should not view learning as just an increase of knowledge but the child needs active participation to develop knowledge. Finally,, is the need for social interaction: Piaget considered social interaction important for cognitive development because of the following reasons. A) Children are likely to attribute significance to activities considered important to their classmates. B) Classmates and colleagues can have the role of skill models yet to develop. Their enlightenments can reach others more easily than those of teachers, being at or near the cognitive stage. C) When students of different cognitive stages discuss issues; the expected result is that less advanced children acquire a more clear perception and perhaps better self-awareness (Webb, 1980).

Huitt, 1997, designed application examples of teaching based on stages of cognitive development. For the second stage preoperational child, Huitt suggested the use of visual aids, relatively short instructions, giving these children a chance for physical practice, support to handling objects. Huitt also suggested the provision of chances to explore the world (discussions on what they watched on TV, field trips…etc). For third stage children (middle childhood), Huitt suggested to continue giving children chances to handle objects and continue the use of visual aids. In addition, better organization of lectures; use often-encountered examples to explain complex concepts and present problems, which require reasoning. For adolescents, Huitt suggested constantly ask students how they solved their problems and whenever feasible, explain broader ideas and not just facts.

Although Piaget did not apply his theory to education, yet, the theory has an impact on learning. Many educational programs are centered on the notion that a child should learn at the level he or she is developmentally prepared. Learning strategies deduced from Piaget’s theory a class environment should support cognition development and the role of classmates and colleagues is important in teaching to make use of social interaction in acquiring better perception and self-awareness.


Huitt, W., and Hummel, J. (2003). Piaget’s theory of cognitive development. Educational Psychology Interactive. Valdosta, GA: Valdosta State University. Web.

Philips, D. C. (2004). Perspectives on Learning (4th Ed). New York: Columbia University Press.

Lourenqo O. and Machado, A. (1996). In Defense of Piaget’s Theory: A Reply to 10 Common Criticisms. Psychological Review, 103 (1), 143-164.

Webb, P. K. (1980). Piaget: Implications for Teaching. Theory into Practice, 19 (2), 93-97.

Huitt, W. (1997). Cognitive development: Applications. Educational Psychology Interactive. Valdosta, GA: Valdosta State University. Web.

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