Jean Piaget is one of the most influential theorists in the history of developmental psychology. The most famous of his works introduced the concept of definable stages in human development. Despite having a background in biology, Piaget’s stages are largely based upon the cognitive model and demonstrate that the researcher did not subscribe to the purely behaviorist perspective that was popular in the field at the time (Blake & Pope, 2008). This framework allowed Piaget to include abstract cognitive structures like conservation and intention as markers of development rather than relying upon the measurement of purely objective stimuli-response relationships. Learning, attention, memory, and problem solving skills are among the cognitions that play important roles in the stages of development, allowing for the theory to have important implications for the study of educational guidance.
Of Piaget’s four stages of development, the first is most coherent with the biological behaviorist perspective because it involves the acquisition and honing of simple reflexes, instincts, and reactions to objects/stimuli. The sensorimotor stage is divided into six subcategories that describe the common sequence of developments in these areas until the stage is completed with the internalization of schemas that have been acquired. The final three sub-stages begin to introduce cognitive concepts with the understanding of object permanence between eight and twelve months of age. The entire developmental stage takes place from birth until age two when the preoperational stage begins, lasting until age seven. During the second period of cognitive development motor skills and fantastical thoughts take focus, while the egocentric perspective undergoes a quick strengthening near the beginning of the stage before weakening toward the end. The concrete operational period is the third of Piaget’s stages and covers the ages of seven to eleven. This stage of development is marked by gains in logical thinking and conservation of consistency, though not always without aid. The final of Piaget’s stages is the formal operational stage and continues the evolution of logic and conservation until it is easily achieved within the mind. These changes occur between the ages of eleven and sixteen, while abstract thought skills continue to be developed throughout this stage and into adulthood.
While Piaget’s theories have inspired and continue to inspire countless research efforts there remains a serious deficit in the approach that has become evident over time. Primarily, Piaget greatly ignores the influence of others on the cognitive development of a human being. The four stages of cognitive development are designed from a cognitive-behavioral perspective and therefore place most of the focus upon the biological and psychological determinants of development. Piaget has inspired ample content that may be used to aid in classroom guidance, but failed to provide a framework that can address the process of learning from alternative areas of influence. Lev Vygotsky, a contemporary of Piaget, compiled an approach to the development of learning that was heavily based in the sociological perspective (Lourenço, 2012). He proposed various “zones” of learning that were defined based upon the need for social interactions to gain knowledge during each stage. The primary difference between these theorists is that Piaget’s work focused on the role of the individual in their own cognitive development, whereas Vygotsky took the opposite approach by emphasizing the influence of other people. As is common in academia, there are situations in which each theory may have priority over the other, but it is vital to be aware of as many potentially valid perspectives as possible in order to efficiently craft the available research into practical guidance skills in educational settings.
Piaget’s stages of cognitive development can be used in several ways to guide the learning process for students of all ages. Perhaps the most important benefit is the understanding that instructors can gain about the cognitive development of their students. This would require the professional to become familiar with the concepts rather than simply using a tool derived from them. An especially important component of Piaget’s approach is the limitations on development that are imposed during each temporal stage. For example, according to this theory a six year old would not be able to achieve a consistently high level of logic with any amount of instruction because the capability does not become available until the next stage of cognitive development which begins at age seven. A teacher who understands this aspect of the theory could potentially avoid wasting the time of a child or even an entire class of students with material for which they are simply not yet biologically enabled to comprehend. This would not only free space for more appropriate material, but would also prevent the chance of negative self-perspectives by students who are presented with tasks beyond their learning abilities.
Developmental psychologists have made many significant findings and have created a wealth of theories that can be successfully integrated into real teaching and other guidance situations. Jean Piaget’s stages of cognitive development remain extremely relevant in such endeavors despite being written over half a century ago. The popularity of this model is largely due to the clearly defined nature of each stage and the many examples of learning limitations imposed at each level. The stages can also be interpreted positively as signifiers of optimal periods for certain types of learning to take place. Piaget’s theories are concerned with cognitive development as it is influenced by the individual doing the learning but do not allow for the potentially substantial impact of social stimuli. Therefore, it is advisable to take multiple developmental perspectives into account when guiding educational processes.
Blake, B. & Pope, T. (2008). Developmental psychology: Incorporating Piaget’s and Vygotsky’s theories in classrooms. Journal of Cross-Disciplinary Perspectives in Education, 1(1), 59-67.
Lourenço, O. (2012). Piaget and Vygotsky: Many resemblances, and a crucial difference. New Ideas in Psychology, 30(3), 281-295.