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Jean Piaget’s Developmental-Cognitive Position


Jean Piaget’s Developmental-Cognitive Theory of Learning focuses on the observation and examination of a child’s cognitive development and its stages. It also includes five main concepts that provide a detailed explanation of cognitive development in children: assimilation, accommodation, equilibration, play, and imitation. Paget’s theory about stages of cognitive development is based on the following stages: sensorimotor, pre-operational, concrete operational, and formal stage (Lefrancois, 2012).

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Key Concepts

According to Piaget (2013), the development of a person’s intelligence occurs via adaptation, which, in turn, consists of assimilation and accommodation. The process of assimilation can be characterized as the child’s decision to add new knowledge to their schemas. Schemas or schemata are specific behaviors that newborns and infants have, which, together with the neurological structures related to this behavior, create a behavioral framework (e.g., sucking schema, looking schema, etc.). A child’s view of the world might be inadequate at first, and the changes that the child brings to his or her schemata are the parts of accommodation (Ültanir, 2012). Assimilation is a reaction based on previously acquired learning and understanding, whereas accommodation is transformed understanding.

A balance between assimilation and accommodation is called equilibration. Equilibration is possible due to three factors of development, namely biological maturation, physical experience, and social interaction (language) (Lourenço, 2016). Without equilibration, the learning process would be much more difficult or even impossible, since too much assimilation would result in a lack of learning, and too much accommodation would lead to chaotic behavior in a child. If there is no equilibration, no dynamic of cognitive change can be present too. If a person is capable of equilibration, there is a higher chance that they will also better cope with perturbations caused by internal or external factors.

Play and imitation are activities that accurately illustrate assimilation and accommodation. During the play, children assimilate the objects of play but pay little attention to discrepancies between the chosen object and the activity (Lefrancois, 2012). It is also important to remember that depending on the child’s age, they can perceive rules differently. While 3 to 5-year-olds understand that rules come from a higher authority, they continue to modify and change them; after 11, children acquire a complete understanding of the rules and change them with mutual consent.

Imitation is evident through child’s ability to form mental representations of others and their behaviors and copy or repeat those several hours or even days after these behaviors were performed. Imitation can be understood as accommodation because, during it, children constantly transform their behavior with regard to demands imposed on them. Imitation helps children create new schemata that eventually become internalized or transform into parts of their behavior. Internalization occurs when the child can create mental images of external activities and events and form mental concepts (Lefrancois, 2012). Without internalization, cognitive learning is impaired or practically impossible because the child will not be able to repeat the behaviors later.

Imitation can also be divided into three stages: absence of imitation, sporadic imitation, and the beginning of systematic imitation. During the first stage, child’s reflexes are stimulated by the external or internal stimuli, which will later result in repetition. During the second stage, additional parts are added to the reflex schema (e.g. thumb sucking) (Piaget, 2013). In the third stage, imitation becomes more systematic, but it is still rather conservative in nature because the child still cannot coordinate secondary schemas with one another.

It is important to understand, however, that the child sometimes might use sounds and actions used in imitations to influence others (e.g. attract attention by repeating the noises he or she heard two days ago from their parent). The child’s actions are in this case intentional, which suggests that it might be intentional assimilation rather than accommodation (Piaget, 2013).

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The Stage Theory

Piaget (2013) argued that the child’s development process consists of four main periods or stages: sensorimotor stage, pre-operational stage, concrete operational stage, and formal operational stage.

Sensorimotor stage, from birth to two years, can be characterized through child’s discovery of the environment by his or her own senses and physical activity. The concept of object permanence (the object is still here even if the child does not see it), concepts of space and time, and their interconnection are formed. At the beginning of this stage, the child will think that the object has disappeared if a parent hides it behind his or her back. Later, the child will be able to understand that the object is still there, although hidden.

During the pre-operational stage (two to seven years), children develop the symbolic function (Ültanir, 2012). They understand how to depict some of the images or objects symbolically (as other objects). Language development is also rapid during this stage because children learn to understand symbols (letters) as other objects (sounds). Despite the fact that children cannot yet use logical thinking during this stage, they recognize the symbolic play and actively engage in it. As an example, one can remember children and toddlers that pretend to be someone else during the play (drivers, doctors, firefighters, animals, etc.). In this case, they understand the symbolism of the play and the fact that they pretend to be someone (something) else.

Concrete operational stage begins when children are from seven to eleven years old. In this stage, children learn to use logical thinking and replace intuitive thinking with it. One of the primary abilities of children is conservation of substance or even area (more relevant to 10 or 11-year-olds). Children realize that the actions can be reversible and understand logical consequences of such actions. For example, the rule of identity is recognized when a child knows that even if water is poured from one container to another, nothing is changed (Lefrancois, 2012). When compensation occurs, the child learns to think about different dimensions (if water is poured from glass to a vase, the amount of water remains the same, despite the change in the container and dimensions).

Formal operational stage (from eleven years to adulthood) begins to develop when a child can form hypothetical thoughts about other persons and objects (Ültanir, 2012). In this stage, children understand how to solve some mathematical tasks, and they can predict outcomes of an action without performing it first (making it concrete). For example, the child can form abstract thoughts about their future: “if my parents see that I have the best grades in class, they might buy me a dog/cat for my birthday”. Normally, in this stage children do not need to draw or write about objects to solve a task because they can do it verbally or even silently by using abstract thoughts and hypotheses.


Lefrancois, G. (2012). Theories of human learning. What the professor said. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth, Cengage Learning.

Lourenço, O. M. (2016). Developmental stages, Piagetian stages in particular: A critical review. New Ideas in Psychology, 40(2), 123-137.

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Piaget, J. (2013). Play, dreams and imitation in childhood. London, England: Routledge.

Ültanir, E. (2012). An epistemological glance at the constructivist approach: Constructivist learning in Dewey, Piaget, and Montessori. International Journal of Instruction, 5(2), 196-212.

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