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Piaget's Theory of Cognitive Development
During the 1920s, a biologist named Jean Piaget proposed a theory of
cognitive development of children. He caused a new revolution in thinking
about how thinking develops. In 1984, Piaget observed that children
understand concepts and reason differently at different stages. Piaget
stated children's cognitive strategies which are used to solve problems,
reflect an interaction BETWEEN THE CHILD'S CURRENT DEVELOPMENTAL STAGE AND
experience in the world.
Research on cognitive development has provided science educators with
constructive information regarding student capacities for meeting science
curricular goals. Students which demonstrate concrete operational
thinking on Piagetian tasks seem to function only at that level and not at
the formal operational level in science. Students which give evidence of
formal operational thinking on Piagetian tasks often function at the
concrete operational level in science, thus leading researchers to
conclude that the majority of adolescents function at the concrete
operational level on their understanding of science subject matter. In a
study by the National Foundation of subjects in Piaget's Balance Task were
rated as being operational with respect to proportional thought
development. In addition, seventy-one percent of subjects did not achieve
complete understanding of the material studied in a laboratory unit
related to chemical solubility. The unit delt with primary ratios and
proportions, and when overall physical science achievement was considered,
about forty-three percent of the formal operational studies were not able
to give simple examples of the problem that were correctly solved on the
paper and pencil exam (Inhelder & Piaget, 1958, p. 104).
Piaget was primarily concerned with the developmental factors that
characterize the changes in the child's explanations of the world around
him or her. Piaget's early research showed
three parallel lines of development. First, from an initial adualism or
confusion of result of the
subject's own activity with objective changes to reality to a
differentiation between subject and object. Second, from a
phenomenological interpretation of the world to one which is based on
objective causality. Third, from a unconscious focusing on one's own
point of view to a decentration which allocates the subject a place in the
world alongside other persons and objects. In functional terms, these
concepts are termed assimilation and accommodation in reference to
interaction with the physical world, and socialization in reference to
interaction with other people (Inhelder & Sinclair, 1974, p.22).
Piaget's states many secondary level science courses taught in the past at
the have been too abstract for most students since they are taught in
lecture or reception learning format. Thus, students who only have
concrete operational structures available for their reasoning will not be
successful with these types of curricula. Programs using concrete and
self-pacing instruction are better suited to the majority of students and
the only stumbling block may be teachers who cannot understand the
programs or regard them as too simplistic. Since the teacher is a very
important variable regarding the outcome of the science, the concern level
of the teacher will determine to what extent science instruction is
translated in a cognitively relevant manner in the classroom.
Educators who prefer to have children learn to make a scientific
interpretation rather than a mythological interpretation of natural
phenomena, and one way to introduce scientific interpretations is to
analyze any change as evidence of interaction. One way in which this
teaching device can function is if there is an instructional period of
several class sessions in which the students are engaged in "play" with
new of familiar materials; followed by is a suggestion of a way to think
about observations; lastly there is a further extermination in which the
students can explore the consequences of using their discoveries .
Through the process of guided discovery, the student
goes from observation at the beginning to interpretations at the end
(Athey & Rubadeau, 1970, p. 245).
In Piaget's study of the operations that underlie the system of scientific
concepts related to number, measurement, physical quantities, and logical
classes and relations, structural models were needed to explain the
processes involved in the formation of these concepts (Inhelder &
Sinclair, 1974, p. 23). The grouping of classes and relations describe
the characteristics of the end product of process of growth as a
particular system of mental operations. The logical and infralogical
systems of concrete thought prolong the action structures of the
sensorimotor period, but because they are subsytems of extensive
higher-order structure, they pave the way for the mathematical group
structures of the period of formal thought.
Piaget proposes ( Piaget & Inhelder, 1971, p. 387) that knowing the object
means acting upon it in order to transform it and discover its properties
through its transformations, with the aim being to get at the object.
Cognition is not based only on the object, but also on the exchange or
interactions between subject and object resulting from the action and
reaction of the two. Actions are coordinated in accordance with
operational structures which in the first place are constituted precisely
as a function of the manipulation of objects. The instrumentality of
operational structures make possible the processes of relating,
corresponding, ordinal estimation, measurement, classification, and
In a liquid conservation problem, (Inhelder & Sinclair, 1974, p.129)
Inheler proposed that because the child became able to regard the results
of pouring as the final state of a continuous process of change, he can
integrate all aspects of the situation and make fewer references to the
dimensions as such because he has understood the nature of their
results with this procedure using subjects from eleven to thirteen years
of age, indicated operatory solutions different form tests with eight year
old. Considered in the context of the subject's reactions to various
conservation problems, if they are used to back up a non-conservation
answer, it shows a stage of reasoning based on the possibility of an
empirical return to the initial state, and that he is not compensating for
reciprocal variations of the dimensions. On the other hand, if the
subject uses the same arguments to back up a conservation answer, he has
understood the concepts of compensation and true reversibility. The third
substage of the concrete operations period is called the concrete
operations substage and lasts from about the seventh year to the eleventh
year. To Piaget, an operation is defined as perceptual action or movement
which can return to its starting point and can be integrated with other
actions also possessing the feature of reversibility (Athey, 1970, p.
231). A concrete operation is therefore the coordination and
internalization of perceptual actions that have been made on a concrete
Piaget also found that the ability to use formal operations sometimes
develops without instruction, but it is not adequate to encompass the
results, thinking, or attitudes of modern science. There develops a kind
of "common sense" that does not enable them to recognize the type of
relationship one has to recognize when one makes a scientific study. In
science instruction, a qualitative change in learning can occur if one
develops in the student's thinking about natural phenomena, a hierarchical
structure of concepts that later becomes increasingly sophisticated. Each
topic in the science program should represent an application of previous
elements and at the same time lays a foundation for subsequent elements of
study (Piaget, 1973, p.31).
Teachers must understand that Piaget is primarily concerned with
instruction that goes beyond memorized facts or skills. With a
comprehensive knowledge of characteristics of concrete
and formal operational thought, teachers will recognize various levels of
student thinking within the broad range of mental development. One method
which will provide students with activities that require logical thinking
is to allow them to choose their own investigations. Initially,
investigations would be simple, using tangible and uncomplicated
equipment. Features like cloud chambers and voltmeters may obscure
learning because of their complexity, and less sophisticated experiments
will allow students to control variables, collect data, and draw
conclusions based on their data. Constructive experiments may include:
does cold water freeze faster than hot, must seeds be soaked in water
before they germinate, does the rate of evaporation of water depend on the
temperature alone (Philips, Feb. 1976, p.31)?
Piaget believed that traditional schools have failed to train students in
experimentation, such as the variation of one factor when the other have
been neutralized. Future teaching methods will have to give increasingly
greater scope to the activity and grouping of students as well as to the
spontaneous handling of devices to confirm or refute a hypothesis for a
phenomenon. If there is any area which active methods will become
imperative, it is that in which experimental procedures are learned. The
basic principle of active methods may be expressed to understand is to
discover; or reconstruct by discovery. These conditions must be met with
if future students are formed who are capable of production and
creativity, and not simply repetition (Piaget, 1973, p.19).
Teachers will increasingly have to focus on student learning at the
secondary level of if the goals of science education are going to be
achieved to a greater extent than at the present. Science teachers who
are chiefly concerned about themselves in relation to their teaching role
or about their adequacy as a teacher, will be unable to focus on the
intellectual capabilities of their students, in spite of the importance
and impact which this has been proven to have on student's learning.
Therefore, it can be stated that Piaget's theories of cognitive
development have, and will continue to have a great effect on the manner
in which teaching is done.
Athey, I., & Rubandeau, D. (1970). Educational implications of piaget's
theory. Waltham, Mass.: Ginn-Blaisdell.
Inhelder, B., & Piaget, J. (1958). The growth of logical thinking from
childhood to adolescence. New York: Basic Books.
Inhelder, B., & Piaget, J. (1971). Mental imagery in the child. London:
Routledge and Kegan Paul.
Inhelder, B., & Sinclair, H. (1974). Learning and development of
cognition. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press.
Philips, D. (1976, February). Piagetian perspectives on science teaching.
The science teacher. vol. 43, No. 2.
Piaget, J. (1973). To understand is to invent: the future of education.
New York: Grossman Publication.