The following paper presents a sociological critique of Piaget’s sensorimotor stage of cognitive development. Jean Piaget was a Swiss psychologist who spent the beginning stages of his career working for a French psychologist Alfred Binet, developing intelligence testing that led to him concluding that children’s thinking is different from that of adults. In practice, Piaget’s model is used by tutors to create a good understanding of their students’ thoughts. The observation of thinking disparities between adults and children triggered his interest in understanding how knowledge grows throughout childhood; however, a critique of his work is underestimating children’s abilities. Through his theory, parents understand schemas and can build on them to promote learning and development through the stages.
Overview of the Experiment
When applying these tests to younger children, Piaget believed the importance of understanding how children think was not in the right or wrong responses. He argued that it is important to realize “how they arrived at their answers” (Holt et al., 2015, p.515). Expanding his interest in cognition, Piaget determined a theory of cognitive development resulting from the brain’s biological maturation combined with individual experience and interactions. He accepted that insight changes as a child develops, and a child’s mental advancement is not just about procuring information but fostering a mental model of the world. The philosophical rationale that arises from Piaget’s experiment is the psychophysiology parallelism of every psychological fact relating to a physical one (Moessinger, 2000). Meanwhile, the theoretical rationale arising from his theory is that individuals can understand the mechanism through which a child develops into a person with an ability to think.
Critique of the Experiment
The concept of cause and effect is essential in realizing object permanence, which is characteristic of the first stage of development as identified by Piaget. A vital hallmark of the sensorimotor is that children learn the concept of causality. They try to understand the cause and effect of things in their environment. Children understand causality once they realize they can manipulate objects such as toys with their hands. Moreover, they learn how their physical actions affect their environment. Through such an exploration of their immediate environment, they can learn more about it, conceptualize it, and learn various practical competencies.
Practical competence can be defined as an ability to perform various actions as well as an understanding of the reasoning behind different actions. Children are curious individuals with a passion for exploring and asking many questions. Described by Piaget as natural-born scientists,” as an infant begins exploring the world around them, everything is interpreted through sensory and motor reflexes (Holt et al., 2015, p.516). Nevertheless, as an infant grasps the moving and destruction of objects, the significant aspect of this stage, Piaget argued, was the infant’s comprehension of a concept known as ‘object permanence,’ which means children understand that an object still exists even if it exists; it is hidden.
Piaget examined an infant’s response toward a toy they were playing with, being removed or hidden from sight from three months to eight. Due to the infant’s lack of response by searching for the toy, he inferred the object only existed to the infant when in plain sight. Observing a change in the eight-month, as the object was removed from view by Piaget, the infant would seek and retrieve the toy or object. Thus, demonstrating that the object existed outside the child’s visual field (Holt et al., 2015). At the same time, so many physical aspects, such as balance and crawling, are learned in a short period. Through this understanding, objects become distinct and separate entities of existence, allowing children to associate and assign words and names to the objects around them (Holt et al., 2015). Developing object permanence is the primary goal of the sensorimotor stage.
Simultaneously, removing the object or putting it in the child’s sight gives them cause to react and perform a simple action such as crawling or reaching for the object. These competencies are further developed in later stages, particularly during the concrete operational stage. According to Babakr, Mohamedamin, and Kakamad (2019), children learn to understand concrete things and objects and begin to solve complex problems that require logical thinking. Thus, the development of the mind and the body assimilate and adapt to each other because for children to perform complex practical tasks, they should be able to apply their minds.
Social competencies relate to the ability to understand and evaluate social situations as well as function within them. It should be noted that Piaget ignored cultural influences on cognitive development. Culture is the social aspect of a society since it represents an individual’s way of life. Piaget believed that there is a similarity between the equilibration of mental designs and the equilibration of interpersonal participation (Byrnes, 2020). As early mentioned, the children for his experiment were from a high socioeconomic class. They grew up in Geneva in a westernized culture where they attended school and received training on particular forms of thinking. Piaget ignored cultural influence and attributed children’s cognitive reactions to the environment.
Based on Piaget’s theory, children develop deferred imitation to learn from interaction with others during the sensorimotor stage of development. According to Byrnes (2020), they develop an ability to imitate others at ages 18 and 24 months which is a practical application of the theory, but it is repeated behavior that had occurred earlier. Instead of imitating what is occurring, children opt to repeat actions that they saw first. Deferred imitation is based on the understanding that children and infants have limited capacity to hold memories of actions in their memory and remember them later. Therefore, they develop the ability to mentally represent the action in their mind, and repetition is imminent. Thus, children learn how to act in social situations through imitation.
In particular, children learn from their environment by imitating significant others. Piaget suggested that deferred imitation occurred between 18 and 24 months since he found no evidence of such at six months (Babakr, Mohamedamin, and Kakamad, 2019). On the contrary, new philosophical motivated accounts claim it occurs as early as the first six months of life. According to Slater and Quinn (2020), infants develop the ability to imitate their parents as young as six months. At this stage, infants can imitate their caregiver’s facial expressions. Piaget describes behavior in ‘thin’ terms, which can likewise be depicted in ‘thick’ terms. This would be essential in eliminating the deception that the line between the unobservable and observable should be defined along the boundary of thin portrayals.
Linguistic competencies relate to the linguistic knowledge held by an individual. Children utilize inborn skills such as listening and grasping to foster their understanding of the environment from an early age. Through assimilation and accommodations, experiences are formed into structures and change or are consolidated with new information (Holt et al., 2015). Thus, for a child to understand the world around them, patterns, thoughts, and actions are organized into frameworks known as schemata or schemas. For example, a child might have schemata about a dog. Assuming their experience has been with a little dog, they might trust that all dogs are little.
Furthermore, Piaget believed that development fails to follow a smooth and predictable pattern. Building on this theory, Piaget began to outline a concept involving four phases of mental development in kids, sensorimotor, pre-operational, concrete operational, and formal operational. Each stage has characteristics identified and essential in recognizing the level of understanding the child has developed (Holt et al., 2015). The paper focuses on the sensorimotor stage, which Piaget named since children understand the environment through their senses.
In his experiment, Piaget observed that at 18 months of age, toddlers exhibit a limited use of vocabulary. At the age of two, they have an increased capacity to express short and meaningful sentences. He believed that children needed to be developmentally first before acquiring linguistic competencies. Therefore, children create schemas from which they develop a language. Children learn and acquire the latter through assimilation and accommodation, which refers to changing one’s schemata to adjust to the new environment. Assimilation changes a person’s current circumstance to put new data into a current thought. There is no requirement for developing a hypothesis of the mind when kids figure out how to talk. According to Coulter and Sharrock (2004), the theory of the mind is profoundly subject to various suppositions from the contemporary way of thinking. However, McHoul and Rapley (2006) suggest that people confine themselves to a certain part of mind-boggling position on mental predicates. The theory of mind solves an issue that is an antique of suppositions in wording that is evoked.
Metaphysically Motivated Accounts
Piaget’s understanding of childhood development can be viewed from the point of view of different metaphysical accounts. Applying a philosophical line of questioning to the sensorimotor stage of development, Ryle’s illustrations of the ‘category mistake’ discuss it in terms of a university, a military division, and a cricket team (Ryle, 1949). These terms are used as analogies that convey Aristotle’s observation “that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts” (Ryle, 1949). This statement advocates for the recognition that a human child is more than just a mind and body. However, Descartes’s widely known declaration of “I think; therefore, I am” requires cognition to prove existence (Ryle, 1949). Therefore, it is essential to understand whether the stage of sensorimotor development is a precursor for the birth of the mind or not.
Piaget’s observations within his experiments are constructed on the assumption of the infants’ cognitive understanding of both the objects and the world around them. Descartes’s dualism maintains that the body and mind are separate entities and argues for a two-way interaction between mental and physical substances (Ryle, 1949). The career of the mind is private since its workings are not witnessable by other observers; therefore, its operations are not subject to mechanical laws.
Piaget underestimated children’s abilities since most researchers believe children possess various abilities earlier than he had speculated. His experiment was based on observing children’s behavior related to their mental processes. The theory of the mind suggests that a more significant percentage of children have a sophisticated understanding of their and others’ mental processes (Anstey and Braddon-Mitchel, 2021). For instance, two-year-old children can take another person’s perspective, implying they are less selfish than Piaget believed. On the contrary, the theory of mind suggests that mental states are abstract and unobservable suppositions that predict observable human behavior. According to Coulter and Sharrock (2004), the theory of mind is either a vernacular idea or, in all likelihood, a build-up of Cartesian dualism, a calculated reification. Thus, as per the Cartesian dualistic view, the mind, or the mental foundation, can exist beyond the body, while the body or physical foundation cannot perform cognitive functions. However, it is a misconception, and one can discern another’s state of mind in most instances by observing their behavior. This contradicts the concept of Cartesian dualism that such mental states are not observable.
Piaget believed that understanding that objects still exist even when they are absent in the child’s vicinity was essential in cognitive development. He suggested that early representational thought erupts at two years (DeRobertis, 2021, p.503). However, the theory of the mind has contrary suggestions and postulates. For instance, it hypothesizes the cognitive development precursors as a pretense, understanding the consequences of people’s emotions, likes, and dislikes. According to the theory of the mind, skills such as pretending to be someone else, like a doctor, and understanding the causes and consequences of emotions are critical to cognitive development (Coulter and Sharrock, 2004). Piaget suggests the latter occurs at two years, while the theory of the mind hypothesizes at four or five years.
A theoretical critique of Piaget’s experiment is his research methodology. He used the observation method to collect information, which was biased since he used his own three children (Byrnes, 2020). Moreover, the sample size was small enough; hence challenging to create a generalization of the entire population. The samples lacked representativeness since he selected a sample from high education individuals from a high socioeconomic class. He rarely detailed how participant selection was conducted, and his work has little statistical detail on how he made his conclusions. Piaget’s work lacked apparent operationally characterized factors; analysts need to have explicit meanings of factors to reproduce the perceptions and equitably measure how one variable prompts a change in the other. One critique stated by Carlson and Buskist regards Piaget’s terminology (Hayat et al., 2021, p.128). It is a necessity for terms to be defined by the researcher on any topic. Since his work lacked operational definitions, it is difficult for researchers to replicate.
From a sociological perspective, it may be contended that the observation or perception cannot truly quantify theory of mind or other observations of mental capacity. However, within the psychological view, if such questions were not investigated or developed upon, it is unclear if knowledge of childhood development would be at the point it is today. Similarly, to those who may deem the idea of schema to be useless, they are only unproductive if the framework is restricted to only one perceptual view. However, neither two perceptions can be precisely the same, nor can two schemas.
Anstey, P. R., and Braddon-Mitchell, D. (2021) ‘A materialist theory of the mind in context,’ Armstrong’s Materialist Theory of Mind, 9–23.
Babakr, Z.H., Mohamedamin, P. and Kakamad, K. (2019) ‘Piaget’s cognitive developmental theory: critical review,’ Education Quarterly Reviews, 2(3), pp.517–524.
Byrnes, J. P. (2020) ‘Piaget’s cognitive-developmental theory,’ Encyclopedia of Infant and Early Childhood Development, 532–539.
Coulter, J. and Sharrock, W.W. (2007) ‘Neural metaphysics’, in Jeff, C. and Wes, S. (eds.) Brain, mind, and human behavior in contemporary cognitive science: critical assessments of the philosophy of psychology. Edwin Mellen Press, pp. 1–33.
DeRobertis, E. M. (2021) ‘Piaget and Husserl: comparisons, contrasts, and challenges for future research,’ The Humanistic Psychologist, 49(4), 496–518.
Hayat, F. and Hussain, I.A. (2021) ‘Building conceptual understanding of primary school students in science through 5E instructional model at public sector in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, Pakistan,’ Research Journal of Social Sciences and Economics Review, 2(3), pp.126–135.
Holt, N. L., Lee, H., Millar, C. A., & Spence, J. C. (2015) ‘Eyes on where children play’: a retrospective study of active free play,’ Children’s Geographies, 13(1), 73–88.
McHoul, A. and Rapley, M. (2006) ‘Clarifying the point: A brief response to Sharrock and Coulter,’ Theory & Psychology, 16(2), pp.277–279.
Moessinger, P. (2000) ‘Piaget: From biology to sociology’, New Ideas in Psychology, 18(2–3), pp. 171–176.
Ryle, G. (1949) The concept of the mind. New York: Barnes & Noble.
Slater, A. M., & Quinn, P. C. (2020). Developmental psychology: Revisiting the classic studies. SAGE.