The theory of cognitive development, formed by the Swiss psychologist Jean Piaget, in its time introduced a large number of new ideas into psychology. His was to describe the evolution of mental processes such as memory, imagination, and logic within a given individual. According to the scientist, child development consists of four main stages: sensorimotor, preoperational, concrete operations, and formal operations (Sanghvi, 2020). Piaget’s ideas differed significantly from the previously existing nativist and empirical concepts. Therefore, the doctrine attracted considerable attention and found its application in education. However, such a solid theory could not do without shortcomings, among which is the neglect of cultural and social factors.
Main Principles and Problems of the Theory
Stages of Cognitive Development According to Piaget
The basis of the theory of cognitive development is the emergence and construction of so-called schemas divided into stages of development. Piaget believed that all individuals experience four main periods, regardless of environmental conditions or cultural characteristics. Quantitative changes occur within each stage, and qualitative ones occur during the transition between them (Babakr et al., 2019). Each of these periods determines the moment when the person gains access to a fundamentally new way of organizing information.
The Sensorimotor Stage lasts from birth to two years. At this time, the child perceives information using its basic senses. It absorbs all the knowledge about the surrounding world obtained through visual, auditory, and tactile sensations. The second stage, Preoperative, lasts from two to seven years. During this period, the child develops symbolic thinking – the ability to form imaginary depictions of ideas or events. The mind begins to rely less on direct sensory information and more on internal concepts associated with certain things. For example, a toddler begins to understand that the amount of liquid in a vessel does not change, regardless of the change in its shape (Sanghvi, 2020). The Concrete Operational Stage lasts from seven to eleven years. At this moment, logical thinking and understanding of cause-and-effect relationships arise. Children develop concepts of reversibility or irreversibility of certain events. In adolescence comes the Formal Operational Stage, the main feature of which is the ability to think abstractly. From this age, teenagers can use a deductive and inductive approach and conduct experiments to establish the nature of the phenomenon.
External Environment and Cognitive Development
Piaget believed that the transition to new stages occurs due to interaction with objects in the surrounding world. In his experiments, he used various household items typical of European culture. All the children who participated in his experiments also received a classical Western education (Sanghvi, 2020). The development of children growing up in other cultural conditions is different. For example, toddlers whose families lead a nomadic or tribal lifestyle have problems with numbers and conservation principles (Babakr et al., 2019). If a child’s community does not have literacy or visual arts, movement to symbolic and abstract thinking takes more time. In some societies, people do not go to the Formal Operational Stage at all (Babakr et al., 2019). Piaget’s theory ignores the fact that culture significantly affects cognitive development.
Growing up, children face not only physical objects but also other people. Parents’ behavior and attention to the child affect the formation of its cognitive functions. Communication plays a crucial role in the emergence of symbolic and abstract thinking. The mind can develop some concepts, such as friendship or mutual aid, only when interacting with other minds. Children who did not receive enough attention at an early age show a delayed transition to higher stages of cognitive development (Babakr et al., 2019). The theory does not pay attention to the environment’s influence on the stages’ duration and completeness.
Piaget’s theory has several shortcomings from the point of view of purely scientific methodology. The first of them is the limitation of the sample – mainly, the scientist studied his own children and the children of his relatives (Babakr et al., 2019). The possibility of extrapolation of the obtained data to the whole of humanity is doubtful. The second drawback is the approach to collecting information – Piaget studied the subjects individually, so he conducted different experiments with them and asked different questions (Babakr et al., 2019). The unification of research methods for all objects is a generally accepted scientific norm of psychology. The theory uses vague wording, making it difficult to understand whether the author is expressing his assumptions or citing experimental results. In addition, other researchers note a significant lack of statistical data processing. Piaget was contemptuous of mathematics, emphasizing the sufficiency of only observations for a “good specialist” (Babakr et al., 2019). The inadequacy of the scientific approach significantly reduces the credibility of all his conclusions.
Science never stands still, and any scientific theory always has its flaws. Piaget’s theory of cognitive development is no exception. It does not describe the influence of culture and environment on the change of stages, apart from several methodological problems. Despite its imperfection, this concept became a new point of view on the formation of intelligence. Taking into account its shortcomings leads to a more detailed study of aspects affecting the development of cognitive functions.
Babakr, Z., Mohamedamin, P., & Kakamad, K. (2019). Piaget’s cognitive developmental theory: Critical review. Education Quarterly Reviews, 2(3), 517-524.
Sanghvi, P. (2020). Piaget’s theory of cognitive development: a review. Indian Journal of Mental Health, 7(2), 90-96.