Jean Piaget (1896-1980) was a biologist who originally studied
molluscs (publishing twenty scientific papers on them by the
time he was 21) but moved into the study of the development
of children's understanding, through observing them and talking
and listening to them while they worked on exercises he set.
"Piaget's work on children's
intellectual development owed much to his early studies
of water snails"
His view of how children's minds work and develop has been
enormously influential, particularly in educational theory.
His particular insight was the role of maturation
(simply growing up) in children's increasing
capacity to understand their world: they cannot
undertake certain tasks until they are psychologically
mature enough to do so. His research has spawned
a great deal more, much of which has undermined
the detail of his own, but like many other original
his importance comes from his overall vision.
He proposed that children's thinking does not develop
entirely smoothly: instead, there are certain points at
which it "takes off" and moves into completely
new areas and capabilities. He saw these transitions as
taking place at about 18 months, 7 years and 11 or 12 years.
This has been taken to mean that before these ages children
are not capable (no matter how bright) of understanding
things in certain ways, and has been used as the basis for
scheduling the school curriculum. More
||What it says: adapting
to the world through
||The process by which
a person takes material into their mind from
the environment, which may mean changing the
evidence of their senses to make it fit.
||The difference made
to one's mind or concepts by the process of
Note that assimilation
and accommodation go together: you can't have
one without the other.
||The ability to group
objects together on the basis of common features.
more advanced than simple classification, that
some classes or sets of objects are also sub-sets
of a larger class. (E.g. there is a class of
objects called dogs. There is also a class called
animals. But all dogs are also animals, so the
class of animals includes that of dogs)
that objects or sets of objects stay the same
even when they are changed about or made to
The ability to move away from one system
of classification to another one as appropriate.
||The belief that
you are the centre of the universe and everything
revolves around you: the corresponding inability
to see the world as someone else does and adapt
to it. Not moral "selfishness", just
an early stage of psychological development.
||The process of working
something out in your head. Young children (in
the sensorimotor and pre-operational stages)
have to act, and try things out in the real
world, to work things out (like count on fingers):
older children and adults can do more in their
|Schema (or scheme)
in the mind of a set of perceptions, ideas,
and/or actions, which go together.
||A period in a child's
development in which he or she is capable of
understanding some things but not others
Stages of Cognitive Development
self from objects
Recognises self as agent of
action and begins to act intentionally: e.g.
pulls a string to set mobile in motion or shakes
a rattle to make a noise
Achieves object permanence:
realises that things continue to exist even
when no longer present to the sense (pace Bishop
to use language and to represent objects by
images and words
Thinking is still egocentric:
has difficulty taking the viewpoint of others
Classifies objects by a single
feature: e.g. groups together all the red blocks
regardless of shape or all the square blocks
regardless of colour
think logically about objects and events
Achieves conservation of number
(age 6), mass (age 7), and weight (age 9)
Classifies objects according
to several features and can order them in series
along a single dimension such as size.
(11 years and up)
think logically about abstract propositions
and test hypotheses systematically
Becomes concerned with the
hypothetical, the future, and ideological problems
The accumulating evidence is that this scheme
is too rigid: many children manage concrete
operations earlier than he thought, and some
people never attain formal operations (or at
least are not called upon to use them).
Piaget's approach is central
to the school of cognitive theory known as "cognitive
constructionism": others, known as "social
constructivists", such as
and Bruner, have laid more emphasis on the part
played by language and other people in enabling
children to learn.
This brief overview is here more for completeness
than its direct relevance to teaching post-16 learners, but
some of the ideas are explored in
DONALDSON M (1984)
Children's Minds London Fontana (readable and critical)
D (1987) "Piaget and Education" in R L Gregory (ed.)
The Oxford Companion to the Mind Oxford, Oxford University
WOOD D (1998) How Children Think and Learn
(2nd edition) Oxford; Blackwell Publishing.
Original content updated and hosted at