Piaget and Cognitive Development

Jean Piaget was a Swiss Psychologist who was instrumental in developmental psychology, as well as a significant contributor to the way education has been developed and delivered. The names Piaget and Cognitive Development became synonymous in the 1960’s when his theories gained world wide attention.  This post will cover 3 important components of Piaget’s theory, the first is an understanding of how we process information and the development of schemas.  The second (which is what Piaget is most known for) is his 4 stage model of development. And finally Piaget’s theory of moral development.

PiagetThe concept of Cognitive Development and the work of Piaget falls under the category of Growth and Lifespan Development and is weighted at 12%. There is a little basic memorization necessary to understand the stages of development as well as a few specific terms. The study tips page can give you some advice on how to go about learning this material. This information is meant to be supplemented with the information you have already been taught in your degrees, your previous notes or textbooks, and additional study tools as needed.  In order top have the best possible chance of being successful on the EPPP, please take a look at the product reviews page for a variety of additional study tools available.

How we Process Information

Before getting into the stages of development, it is helpful to understand Piaget’s basic assumptions of how we process information.  This is broken down into 2 topics; schemas and adaptation.

Schemas: This refers to the way we organize our knowledge.  In order to process the sheer amount of stimulus we come into contact with, we need to create a mental representation to integrate and understand what we have experienced.  As we develop and get older this mental representation gets more complex and is made up of interconnected schemata, which is what guides our behavior.  Think of schemata like index cards, and there are thousands of index cards each with a particular category on it.  When we experience something we categorize it on a specific index card (or schemata) and this index card guides our choice of behavior.shcemata

Adaptation: When we come into contact with new information, we have choices on how we add it to our schemata.

  • Assimilation: Adding a new experience to an existing schemata (or index card), such as when a child calls every elderly man he sees “Papa”.
  • Accomodation: When there is no existing schemata to deal with the new information, then the schemata (or index card) is changed or added to.
  • Equilibration: This describes the process of choosing between assimilation or accomodation.  Basically people strive for equilibrium, and if a new situation can not be assimilated into an existing shcemata the individual is in a state of disequilibrium.  Therefore the individual will move towards accomodation to achieve equilibrium again.

Sensorimotor Stage: Birth-2 Years

This stage lasts basically until significant language development, and is characterized by when children learn to control their motor function through interaction with the environment.  This involves using all 5 senses and manipulating the world around them and building on previously learned behaviors.  There are 2 important developmental milestones:

  • Object Permanence: This occurs anywhere between the ages of 3 -8 months, and it is the ability to know that an object exists outside of the child’s direct involvement with them.  For example, knowing that their mother still exists even if the child can not visibly see her.
  • Symbolic Representation: Language is a form of symbolic representation, as each sound represents an object or feeling.  As language develops so does symbolic representation.  In children mute or deaf, this is often accomplished through gestures or sign language.

Preoperational Stage: 2-7 Years

This extends on the sensorimotor stage specifically around the concept of symbolic representation, and is important in the continued schema development.  There are a few specific phenomenon in this stage of development:

  • Centration: The tendency for children in this stage to only focus on one topic or situation at a time. Children may not be able to see 2 different sides to one problem, or 2 different representations of the same object.  For example if there are 2 plates with 10 peas, the plate with the peas spread out more will seem like more than the plate with the peas all bunched together.  So a child who dislikes peas may think if they are bunched together there is actually less they have to eat.
  • Egocentrism: Children are unable to see the problem or situation from another persons point of view. The concept of sharing and waiting your turn are difficult because they are not yet developed.
  • Animism: Children believe that inanimate objects have feeling and intentions, or other psychological attributes.  Children may believe that dolly loves them, or that the toy puppy is hungry.
  • Irreversibility: The child can not imagine reversing or undoing a sequence of events.  If a child loses their backpack, they would be unable to retrace their steps backwards to find it. Going back to the start and retracing their steps forward may be easier.
  • Intuitive Thinking: Rather than thinking logically children think intuitively.  They will not understand that ice cream before supper will ruin their appetite, they just know they want to eat ice cream.
  • Symbolic Play: Children will often play “pretend” initially on their own and beside another child, but through development will play with the other child.  When pretending with other children their are often rules that are developed in within the game.
  • Phenomenalistic Causality: The belief that if events occur together they must have caused one another. For example when a child tells a story they may include details that are not relevant, but they believe they had a connection.

Concrete Operational Stage: 7-11 Years

logical thoughtThis stage is defined by the child’s ability to act on concrete ideas and objects, either real or imagined.  There are 2 major developmental milestones:

  • Operational Thought: This is the ability to think logically.  A child is also able to pay attention to more than one piece of information at a time, and they have the ability to follow rule and organize objects and ideas in more than one category.
  • Conservation: Children are now able to understand and recognize that even though an object may change in shape it still has the same characteristics.  For example a whole apple and an apple cut up are still the same apple.

Formal Operational Stage: 11 Years and Up

This is when the ability to understand abstract concepts and how to apply ideas is developed.  Schooling at this age changes in that more abstract math concepts are introduced, as well as the use of hypothesis and deductive reasoning.

  • Metacognition: This is developed in the formal operational stage and is the ability to think about thinking, or to self reflect and explore personal values and identify how they are similar or different from others.  This stage varies significantly as to when people enter this stage, with the belief that some people never develop a strong metacognition.

Moral Development

Piaget also developed a theory of moral development which is linked to his theory of cognitive development.  He believed that morality develops as the ability to see things from someone else’s perspective develops (empathy).  he divided this into 2 stages:disobey

  • Heteronomous Morality (Ages 5-10): This is a very concrete and black and white way of looking at morality.  Children can not see more than one way of looking at a conflict or problem, believe rules come from authority figures, and must be followed completely.  Children at this stage are often preoccupied with fairness, may become offended if punishments are not administered (unless they are the ones being punished).
  • Autonomous Morality (Ages 10+): This stage involves more flexibility and comes about as children have had the opportunity to interact with more people and seen different world views.  They move away from black and white thinking and see rules and punishment as being more flexible, and can take into account the rule breakers intent behind their actions.


There are a few criticisms of Piaget’s theory. One is that he underestimated children’s ability and the ages attached to the stages are not correct, and that children are capable of learning a variety of concepts before the ages Piaget identified.  Another criticism is that these stages are more fluid than Piaget identified, rather than accomplishing a stage and moving on children move back and forth between stages. Also that this theory may not take into account certain cultural or societal impacts.  Despite these criticisms, over and over again Piaget stages of development have been confirmed and expanded upon.

***Based on this information how do you think school can utilize this theory when developing education curriculum?  Can you see how schools may already utilize some of these theories?  If you are a parent, does this change anything about the way you parent your child?  Are there any components of Piaget’s theory that you strongly disagree with?  Please engage in discussion in the comments below!

The information on this site may not be enough to help you feel confident about your ability to pass the exam, and because of that there are a variety of study aids and varying prices that can help you have the best chance possible of passing. Also if this information seems overwhelming to you it does NOT mean you will fail the exam, but you may require a little more in depth material than is offered here. That is why there is a Product Reviews page which will give you a variety of additional options, as well as practice exam questions which I highly recommend as explained on the Study Tips page.

4 thoughts on “Piaget and Cognitive Development

  1. A one stop shop for anyone with a desire to pass the EPPP (The Examination for Professional Practice of Psychology). I particularly liked the biological sections and I now know the difference between the nervous and the endocrine systems. Logically set out with a good reference section and a product review of additional best practice products to guarantee you pass. I advise anyone taking the EPPP to visit this site.

    1. Thanks so much for your personal endorsement, I’m glad you found the site easy to follow. Best of luck to you as you prepare to take the exam, make sure you read the study tips page!

  2. Interesting topic! I am actually currently taking a developmental psychology class and our 2nd exam is exactly on what you wrote about. It is interesting to see how humans grow to be adults and a big part of it is through adaptation. This is really good, I might just use this to study for my test!


    1. I’m so glad you found this useful, if you want to pursue becoming a psychologist you may be interested to read through the site and find out what other topics psychologists know about. I don’t think I really appreciated developmental psychology when I took it in school, but as a practicing psychologist I definitely see how incredibly important it is to understand.

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