Now known as one of the trailblazers of developmental psychology, Jean Piaget initially worked in a wide range of fields. Early in his career Piaget studied the human biological processes. These processes intrigued Piaget so much that he began to study the realm of human knowledge. From this study he was determined to uncover the secrets of cognitive growth in humans. Jean Piaget’s research on the growth of the human mind eventually lead to the formation of the cognitive development theory which consists of three main components: schemes, assimilation and accommodation, and the stage model. The theory is best known for Piaget’s construction of the discontinuous stage model which was based on his study of children and how the processes and products of their minds develop over time. According to this stage model, there are four levels of cognitive growth: sensorimotor, preoperational, concrete operational, and formal operational. While a substantial amount of psychologists presently choose to adhere to the constructs of the information processing approach, Piaget’s ground breaking cognitive development view is still a valuable asset to the branch of developmental psychology. Whether or not Piaget uncovered any answers to the mysteries of human knowledge is disputable, but one belief that few dispute is that Jean Piaget did indeed lay a strong foundation for future developmental psychologists.
In 1896 the summer in Switzerland was just an ordinary, uneventful three months. However, during this ordinary and uneventful span of time, a child was born who would become an extraordinary developmental psychologist and fulfill the future with ground breaking events in the field of cognitive psychology. He was the son of an intelligent man and a stern, smart religious woman, and the godchild of respected epistemologist Samuel Cornut. With such scholarly surroundings, there is little surprise that Jean Piaget developed into such an intelligent individual.
At age eleven, young Piaget wrote a paper on albino sparrows and got it published. This publishing provided him with the opportunity to meet a man who would turn out to be very influential, Paul Godet, the curator at the local museum. Young Piaget also benefited highly from his prestigious high school in Neuchatel, along with the aforementioned godfather Samuel Cornut who introduced him to one of the two fields he would grow to love, epistemology, and the most of all Jean Piaget’s parents who not only instilled an academic home environment but also provided a solid religious background.
Another big moment came in the from of a book. Piaget names Henry Bergson’s L’Evolution Creatrice as the most influential piece of writing he has ever read in his adult life. From this book Piaget developed a desire for biology to go along with his existing interest in philosophy, epistemology to be exact. Piaget stated in his first two books that he had ambitions of constructing a structure that addressed the basic questions of epistemology. However, Piaget’s strong initial interest in philosophy declined somewhat when he discovered that the philosophers did not really know any factual answers to questions that have plagued humanity. Piaget now became equally interested in biology and epistemology. This dual interest attracted him to psychology, yet he still was unsure of what direction he should take in his career.
It was not until Piaget traveled to Paris to hear his favorite writer of the time, Bergson, that he began to get an idea of what he wanted to do. There Piaget met James M. Baldwin who would motivate him and teach him the importance of imitation and of reversible operations. Both of these qualities would play a key role in the formation of Piaget’s development theory. However, Piaget’s major turning point came when the co-worker of the late Alfred Binet, Dr. Simon, requested that he standardize an intelligence test. Piaget flourished in the role of answering complex philosophical questions. Yet, Piaget did not go along with the traditional epistemologists who simply laid back and tried to conjure up answers. Piaget opted for the more biological-type of experiments with epistemology topics. This method of biological experimentation with epistemology gave Piaget the motivation to begin testing children and to do what he felt he was destined to do, determine how the mid grows. His result was the cognitive development theory.
The cognitive development theory is Jean Piaget’s attempt to explain how the human mind develops. A common description of Piaget’s view of the mind is that it is and active biological system that uses environmental information to fit with or adjust to its own existing mental structures. Now, to describe how this biological system develops, Piaget breaks the development process down into three main components: schemes, assimilation and accommodation, and the stage model of cognitive growth.
Schemes are the structure or organizations of actions as they are transferred by repetition in similar or analogous circumstances. In simple terms, schemes guide thoughts based on prior experiences, thus, serving as the building blocks of cognitive growth. Except, with simple schemes, which are the first schemes to develop in a child’s life, the child has very little, if any, past experiences to guide his or her thoughts. Therefore, early thoughts depend almost entirely on the new born child’s reflexes to senses. These basic schemes later combine with each other in order to develop more complex schemes that are more capable of guiding the child than reflexes. However, the complexity of the schemes depend upon how well and how much an individual either assimilates or accommodates information that is new to the mind. If schemes are considered building blocks, then the assimilation and accommodation processes can best be describes as the construction crews. These two processes aid in cognitive growth by arranging the new information with schemes that are already present in the individual’s mind. The more new information the child assimilates or accommodates, the less his or her schemes will have to rely on physical objects to create cognitive operations. Of course, according to Piaget’s stage model, this reliance on physical objects will not decrease until the latter stages of the child’s cognitive growth.
While both the assimilation and accommodation processes are responsible for establishing a perfect cognitive fit between the scheme and the information, each completes the process in different manners, hence the need for two different terms. Assimilation reconfigures the new data to fit with existing schemes, and the accommodation process restructures a child’s schemes to accommodate the new environmental information. As Piaget states, “Accommodation is the adjustment of the scheme to the particular situation.” He goes on to give an example of the two processes: An infant who’s just discovered ha can grasp what he sees (will then assimilate) everything he sees to the schemes of prehension, that is, it becomes an object to grasp as well as an object to look at or an object to suck on. But if it’s a large object for which he needs both hands he will (accommodate) the scheme of prehension.
The main component of Jean Piaget’s development theory has been addressed somewhat, but a factor of this importance requires much more attention. The key component is the stage model of cognitive growth. Piaget makes it clear that these stages are not determined by age, but cognitive development in this very brief explanation of the model, “The stages are an order of succession. The development isn’t according to the average age.” He goes on to describe the model as a “sequential order” of cognitive growth. The stage model is made of four stages and as one may infer from the statements form Piaget, these stages are discontinuous.
The first stage the child goes through is the sensorimotor. During this stage there is “the existence of an intelligence before language.” While age does not determine the stage of growth, the average age of children in this stage is birth to two years old. Piaget’s conclusion on this stage is that “the child is tied to the immediate environment and motor-action schemes, lacking the cognitive ability to represent objects symbolically.” The main task during the sensorimotor stage is for the child to control and coordinate his or her body. While in the second year, most children begin, “to form mental representation of absent objects.” Finally, at the end of the sensorimotor stage the child moves rather easily, can identify family members, has developed an understandable language level, yet the child is still “illogical, egocentric, and unaware of his self.”
The next stage is the pre-operational which ahas an approximate range of age from two to seven years old. During this time, unfortunately, the child still can not carry out logical operations. However, to reach this stage the child must increase the speed of his or her manipulations, and become involved with more complex tasks. The child also creates mental symbols for physical objects during this phase. Most importantly, though, are the three features that preoccupy the mid during this stage: egocentrism – focus revolves around themselves and no one else; animistic thinking – believing inanimate objects have life and that they think; and there is centration – in which the child is often too focused on one characteristic of the perception, thus, the child is prevented form understanding the entire perception. Jean Piaget also notes that by the end of this stage the child develops, “language, symbolic play, and mental images (which) permit the representation of thought, but it is a preoperational thought.”
The approximate age for the third phase of cognitive development is seven to eleven years of age. The child can not think in abstracts during the concrete operational stage, but can maintain mental operations which allows them to solve problems that are concrete such as addition and subtraction. During this stage, the child has a general knowledge of the requirements and guidelines for a complex task but the child can not complete the task because he or she can not visualize any possibilities. This is because all possibilities are represented by abstractions and the child can only represent objects in the concrete form. However, the child does begin to focus on the entire perception, slowly breaking away from the centration feature that is prevalent during the preoperational stage. Also, the egocentrism that was so obvious during the preoperational stage is usually left behind at that stage. One last improvement in the child’s cognitive development is that the child now understands the idea of matter conservation.
The last stage of cognitive growth according to Jean Piaget is the formal operational which usually consists of individuals on the average of eleven years old. The child’s cognitive formal operations, “no longer related directly to objects.” The child can now think in abstracts and he or she realizes that their reality is not the only one that exists. The child also has “all the mental structures needed to go from being na?ve thinkers to experts.” Piaget described this stage best when he said that “The great novelty of this stage is that the adolescent becomes capable of reasoning correctly.”
Overall, the schemes, the assimilation and accommodation processes, and the stage model all are constructs that not only support Piaget’s brilliant theory, but they themselves are innovative theoretical components.
Impact on Society
Jean Piaget was the leaning experimental epistemologist, thanks in some part to Simon and Binet’s work, but he set the standard that would not be accepted by the ethnocentric Americans until they were desperate during the Cold War and decided to open their eyes and accept his findings. Once they did this, they implemented Piaget’s theory into many American school systems which would have had a much more beneficial outcome had the powers that be implemented the great man’s work more carefully. Yet Piaget and his theory have survived and he is labeled as “the dominant force in shaping the cognitive-field and perceptual-field theories.” His theory was strong because he placed intellectual development over the child’s emotional, social, and moral development because he viewed the intellect as having influence over these other developing entities. In conclusion, Piaget summarized the cognitive development theory best in this statement: “My secret ambition is that the hypotheses one could oppose to my own ill finally be seen not to contradict them but to result from a normal process of differentiation.”