Jean Piaget and the Theory of Cognitive Development

By: Mackenzie Browne

Jean Piaget was a very influential person in understanding the development of the brain in children.  He proposed his Theory of Cognitive Development, an extremely helpful guideline when attempting to understand the brain and how it develops. 

The Theory of Cognitive Development has four stages:

Sensory Motor Stage: 
This is the first stage beginning from birth and ends from 18 months to 2 years of age.  This stage is where the infant first starts to understand existence around them.  Physical development such as moving limbs happens at this stage too.  Memory develops at around 6-7 months as well as some development in the understanding of language.  Lastly, the child starts to understand that objects and people around them are constantly in existence.  This means that they start, “to understand that when mom leaves the room, she will eventually return, resulting in an increased sense of safety and security”(Allpsych Online, 2009).

Preoperational Stage: 
This stage happens from the end of the Sensory Motor stage until early childhood (approximately ages 2 to 6).  The child will quickly gain an understanding of language, and will start to interact with other objects and people around them.  Children at this age usually believe that everyone perceives the world as they do.  Lastly, children in this stage have a hard time understanding,  “conservation, which is the ability to understand that quantity does not change if the shape changes. In other words, if a short and wide glass of water is poured into a tall and thin glass. Children in this stage will perceive the taller glass as having more water due only because of it’s height” (Allpsych Online, 2009).

During early childhood, it is important as an educator to make sure the child's brain is continuing to develop.  Understanding the Preoperational Stage will allow you to make sure your students are understanding language.  Assessment of basic reading, writing and speaking skills is an essential way to make sure the child's brain is developing properly.  This can be as easy as asking students to read a book at their level of reading.  This can test their reading and speaking skills.  Writing skills can be tested by asking the student to write sentences or even just words depending on their level of writing.  If a student is having trouble keeping pace with other students, this could be indication of a complication in cognitive development and should not be ignored.

Concrete Operations Stage: 
Between ages 7 and 12, children enter the concrete operations stage.  This stage is all about the child starting to understand the big picture instead of just a single part.  Before in the Preoperational Stage, the child would believe that different shapes of taller or shorter glasses hold different amounts of water.  This is not always the case.  In the concrete operations stage, the will be able to consider the width and height at the same time to see that glasses of different heights may still hold the same volume.  The child also starts to understand the concept of grouping different objects into a bigger picture.  For example, the child may now understand that different cars and trucks are all vehicles.   However, “imagined objects or those they have not seen, heard, or touched, continue to remain somewhat mystical to these children, and abstract thinking has yet to develop” (Allpsych Online, 2009).

As an educator, it is important to teach new concepts and ways of thinking to a student at every step of development.  Now that the child has the ability to understand conservation between shapes, it is important to broaden the students knowledge of this concept through thinking and  practice.  This is likely why in most curriculum, students start learning about area and perimeter in grades 3 or 4.  During earlier parts of the concrete operations stage, it is important to get students to practice and build their ability to categorize different ideas or objects into groups.  An easy way to do this is to actually have students group different objects such as animals or people.  Also, asking students “what doesn't belong?” is a good way to build their skills at identifying when something has been misplaced when grouping.

Formal Operations Stage:
From adolescents to adulthood is the Formal Operations stage.  This involves the ability to perform logical and abstract though.  By teenage years, a student should be able to develop their own theories and ideas on the world.  However, not all people may reach this stage.  If the stage hasn't been reached by early adulthood, there is a chance that the person may never completely reach it at all.  There is also a chance of partially meeting this stage.

When teaching adolescents and teens, try to get your students to reach this level of thinking.  In science classes, lab reports require you to form a hypothesis.  This in a way is abstract thought, because you are making a prediction.  When the lab is done, analyze the results to form conclusions.  In Math classes,  logic and algebra are both good ways to stimulate the Formal Operations Stage. In other classes such as history and geography, create scenarios or case studies for students to work out that involve predictions of what will happen next..  Lastly in all classrooms, ask challenging questions that will actually make your students think.  Group discussions about deep issues will also provide opportunities to strengthen Formal Operation thinking. 

The next two stages are the developmental stages that most educators will be mainly working with.  However, it is still very important to understand all of the stages in the Theory of Cognitive Development.  If a problem occurs during any of the earlier stages, it may delay the later stages.

The following is a video summarizing Piaget's Life and Work --


AllPsych Online. (2003). Psychology 101. Heffner Media Group, Inc.

Child Development Info ( 2008).  Stages of intellectual development.  Child Development Institute.

Davidson Films. (2006). Jean Piaget.