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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,


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

prepositional structionalism.

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

coordination. Greenfield's

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.