A Critique On Piagetian Theories Of Cognitive Development

A Critique On Piagetian Theories Of Cognitive Development


1.1              INTRODUCTION

Generally speaking, one of the earliest observations we make in life is that the desire to explore the unknown to further our knowledge and understanding is a fundamental characteristic of being human.  Thus, to boldly go into the unknown is also what each of us does in the course of our development.




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Psychological studies have found out that human development is both the most fascinating and most complex science we have. No wonder then, Piaget pointed out that “… life is a continuous creation of increasingly complex forms with the environment”[1] This complex forms provided a ground for the contemporary research on human development to consistently emphasize the multidisciplinary approach needed to describe and explain how people change (and how they remain the same)

over time. More still, Kail asserts that another way to approach development is to focus on thought processes and the construction of knowledge[2], which shows that interest in cognitive development, is a relatively recent phenomenon.  Hence, developmentalists, who have been operating mainly within the framework of either psychoanalytic or learning theories now, discover a new aspect of development to explore – a new framework for their thinking.

According to Hilgard (1964), “Probably, the best way to view cognitive psychology is to look at it as trend of humanism and behaviorism, with an emphasis on thought processes, reasoning and problem solving.”[3]  By this, we mean the process of becoming aware, or coming to know a perceptual image.  In Piaget’s own view, cognitive development centers on the movement of a child through succeeding stages of cognitive organization, whereby this progress is accomplished by means of assimilation and accommodation.  As the child encounters new experiences he/she both reacts to them in terms of what the child already knows (assimilation) and revises his/her worldview as a result of the new information (accommodation). Thus, Cognition is in a process of constant change and reorganization. Piaget believes that “at certain points in development, these reorganizations are so momentous and fundamental that they represent a whole new way of understanding the world”4.

When such a transformation happens, for him, (Piaget), a new stage of cognitive development is reached.  The major stages he proposed are the sensorimotor, preoperational, concrete operational, and formal operational periods. I have set out to counteract in line with the contemporary researchers, some of the underestimated views of cognitive development of infants and young children and then give it a positive position as will be seen in the chapters that follow.


The fact of a child’s stages of growth constitutes the current understanding of cognitive development, which is based upon conclusions drawn by scientists who formulate questions and device methodologies by which their questions can be answered. For instance, it is said that, “Swiss developmental Psychologist, Jean Piaget was so often asked by American audience, “what should we do to foster a child’s cognitive development…?5

It is by understanding clearly the true humanistic nature of this process that Jean Piaget set forth to offer the world his cognitive developmental theories. However, “we should remember that no particular theory which provides such a comprehensive  explanation of  development, can be  expected  to  withstand  the  tests of  further  investigations  without  undergoing  some criticisms  said,  Beilin, 1989, 1990’ Daehler & Bukatko, 1985; Halford, 1989, 1990.”6 There are:

  1. In his (Piaget) child’s developmental theories, he underestimated the cognitive capabilities of children. For instance, the kinds of memory, which researchers now find in babies at 6 months of age, were not found by Piaget until babies were 18 months old.
  2. The concept of stage has also encountered many objections: for example, that it gives the false impression that development proceeds by a series of abrupt jerks rather than smoothly; that intellectual functioning at any one age shows more fluctuation than the concept of stage would suggests; that cross-cultural variability limits the usefulness of the concept; that environment is more influential than Piaget allows; and so on.
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Of course, Piaget did not have many of the methods that are now available to scholars, including equipment and procedures to measure the electrical activity of the brain.  These and various others, which we shall see later constitute a great problem about his theories and therefore needs to be carefully examined in order to clarify matters not well presented. A proper examination into Piagetian theories of cognitive development, as well as critically analyzing the theories, is what this writer set out to explore in this research work.


The aim of this work is to make a proper study into the Piagetian theories of cognitive development, as well as placing them side-by-side with other cognitive theories, with a view to eliciting from them the positive views and criticizing others that seem vague to the contemporary mind.


The main area this research work covers

he method is expository, analytic, and prescriptive. As this is a philosophical work fideistic arguments are carefully avoided.


This research is sectionalized into four chapters for a better apprehension. Chapter one explicates the background, problem of the study, purpose of the study, scope, method of research and division of work. Chapter two is devoted to the Piagetian Ideology. It traces his historical background as well as presents a general orientation to his theories. Chapter three comprises of the Piagetian theories of cognitive development in comparison with other cognitive theories. Finally, the evaluation of the whole work is conveyed in chapter four. Hence, chapter four represents my contribution to the academic world.

                            CHAPTER TWO



Jean Piaget was born to a distinguished and academic family on August 6, 1896 in Neuchatel, Switzerland.  He was the eldest child of his parents Arthur Piaget and Rebecca Jackson. Piaget describes his father, a historian devoted to medieval literature, as “a man of a painstaking and critical mind, who dislikes hastily improvised generalizations and is not afraid of starting a fight when he finds historic truth twisted to fit respectable tradition”.1  On the other hand, his mother he says was intelligent, energetic and kind, but with a neurotic temperament that drove her to both imitate his father and escape to what Piaget called a “private and nonfictitous world” (a world of serious work).

Piaget acknowledged that the turbulent family situation aroused his interest right from the stage of his childhood in the observation of animals such as seashells, birds and fossils. This led to his first publication. Though, it was a page article about albino-sparrow he had observed in a park.  This achievement came at the age of 11. Piaget’s interest in the exhibits of the local natural history museum led to an invitation to assist the director with his mollusk (shellfish) collections. In this way he (Piaget) entered the field of malacology (the study of mollusks), which captivated him all along his life.  He was offered the curatorship of mollusks at a natural history museum in Geneva because of his publications on mollusks, which attracted notice among natural historians. However, he later rejected the offer due to the fact that he was still on the secondary cadre of his education.

During this educational period, Piaget did not escape the typical philosophical and social crises of adolescence. That is why conflicts between his religious and scientific teachings stimulated him to study more deeply through the following scholars: Comte, Durkheim and Kant, among others. Piaget was lured towards the study of epistemology due to this philosophical turmoil. Thereby publishing a philosophical novel in 1917.  He continued his formal studies in the natural sciences and took his doctoral degree with a thesis on Mollusks at the University of Neuchatel in 1918 at the age of 21.

Then, after visiting psychological laboratories in Zurich and exploring psychoanalytic theory briefly, he was introduced to Freudian psychoanalytic theory with particular interest in child psychology. There at the Sorbonne, Piaget spent two years studying psychology and philosophy. Eventually, he left Switzerland to France, where he met Theodore Simon, a pioneer in the development of intelligence tests. Simon, who had at his disposal Alfred Binet’s laboratory at a grade school in Paris, suggested that Piaget should standardize Binet’s reasoning tests on Parisian children. Without hesitation, he began the work though with little enthusiasm. However, his (Piaget) interest was aroused when he began questioning children about the reasons underlying both their correct and incorrect answers. He became fascinated with the thought processes that appeared to lead to the answers. Piaget used psychiatric techniques in these conversations, which he learned while interviewing mental patients for his courses at the Sorbonne. Meanwhile, he continued for 2 years without Simon’s knowledge and came out with the following experience:

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At last I had found my field of research. First of all it became clear to me that the theory of the relations between the whole and part can be studied experimentally through analysis of the psychological processes underlying local operations. This marked the end of my “Theoretical” period and the start of an inductive and experimental era in the psychological domain which I always had wanted to enter, but for which until then I had not found the suitable problems… my aim of discovering a sort of embryology of intelligence fit in with my biological training; from the start of my theoretical thinking I was certain that the problem of the relation between the organism and environment extended also into the realm of knowledge, appearing here as the problem of the relation between the acting or thinking subject and the objects of his experience. Now I had the chance of studying this problem in terms of psychogenetic development2.

Subsequent publication of three articles based on this research in Bitnet’s laboratory led to an offer in 1921 to become the director of studies at Jean Jacques Rousseau institute in Geneva at the request of Sir Ed. Claparede and P. Bovet. Piaget met Valentine Chatenay whom he

eventually married in 1923. They were blessed with three children, Jacqueline, Incienne, and Laurent, whose intellectual development from infancy to language was studied by Piaget.3  In the following few years, however, he continued his research at the Institute of Rousseau, where he taught philosophy at the university of Neuchatel, learned about gestalt psychology, and even performed some research on mollusks in his free time. Thus, the following remarks were made about him:

From 1929 to 1945, he occupied several academic and administrative positions at the university of Geneva, as well as international posts, such as president of Swiss commission of UNESCO… Professor of psychology at the University of Geneva and Sorbonne; Director of the institute des sciences de l’ education; and Director of the Bereau international de L’ Education4.

Adding to these, he founded the center d’ Epitemologie Genetique, a meeting ground for philosophers and psychologists. This crowned him a communal Award by the American psychological Association “for his revolutionary perspective on the nature of human knowledge and biological intelligence”.5 He was the first European to receive this award. He constantly occupied himself with children’s thinking until his death on September 16, 1980, at the age of 84.


Considering the contributions of Piaget in the field of psychology, it is good to note some of his works, since he was a prolific writer, and had many works to his credit. These numerous works have actually become difficult for one to note all of them. This has made Patricia H. Miller to state thus:

Infact, one cannot help but be struck by Piaget’s amazing productivity. A conservative estimate of his writings is over 40 books and more than 100 articles on child psychology alone.  Adding publications in philosophy and education swells these numbers even more.6

His love for writing began in the early age of his life. He began his writing with pamphlet written in pencil because he was not yet allowed

to write in ink. He published this first work (though, it was a page article about albino sparrow he observed while in a park) at the age of 11. At the course of his studies in child psychology, five books were published: The language and thought of the child (1923), The Judgment and reasoning in the child (1924), the child’s conception of the world (1926), the child’s conception of physical causality (1927), and the moral Judgment of the child (1932).

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However, around 1936, after observing the day by day development of his children, the following books were published: The origin of intelligence in children, The Reconstruction of Reality in the child, and play, Dreams and Imitation in childhood. Subsequently, around 1940, with the collaboration of Szeminska and Inhelder, he published: The child’s conception of Number and Development de quantites physiques. He published also; Relations et nombres (1942), Traite de logique (1949), and les Mecanismes perceptifs (1961).



Piaget’s journey to developmental psychology brings us to what is called “genetic epistemology”, genetic, referring to ‘emergence’ or ‘development’. Whereas, epistemology, as Piaget defines it, “Is the problem of the relation between the thinking (acting) subject and the objects of his experience”7. Piaget felt that by studying the developmental changes in the organization of knowledge, he could find answers to what philosophers considered the basic categories of thought, such as: time, space, causality, and quantity.

Thus, his solutions to these epistemological problems involved the simple but revolutionary claim that knowledge is a process rather than a state, which deals with a relationship between the knower and the known. For instance, a child understands (knows) a ball by acting on it either physically or mentally. Hence, children’s knowledge of the world changes as their cognitive system develops.


Beginning with the early childhood interest in birds, shells and mollusks, Piaget’s thinking has been firmly rooted in biology. In mollusks, he discovered general principles of how living organisms both adjust themselves to the environment and actively assimilate it in ways allowed by their biological structure. And this he felt can be applicable to human thought. Hence, just as human and non-human organisms adapt physically to the environment, so does thought adapt to the environment at a psychological level. Viewing it also in biological perspective, Piaget proposed that cognitive   growth is much likely to embryological growth whereby an organized structure becomes more and more differentiated over time. No wonder Piaget sometimes refers to cognitive development as “Mental embryology”.


The structuralists are known for looking at the organizational properties of what ever they studied. Thus, in line with other luminaries, Piaget belongs to that of structuralism. In other words, they look at how parts are organized into a whole, and they abstract patterns of change. For instance, the thinking of younger and older children has similar elements, but these elements are combined in different ways to form the organized whole of thought. An infant’s cognitive structures are labeled ‘schemes’. Schemes- referring to an organized pattern of behaviour, which reflects a particular way of interacting with the environment. According to Piaget’s own word, a scheme is whatever that is repeatable and generalizable in an action. For example, the sucking scheme of children described how they put various objects into their mouths and suck them. On the contrary, that of the older children shows how their abstract mental operations are organized as in mathematical systems.


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