Learning And Cognition Essay Samples

Type of paper: Essay

Topic: Children, Jean Piaget, Psychology, Development, Brain, Theory, Family, Education

Pages: 6

Words: 1650

Published: 2021/02/09


The scientific understanding of man’s learning process or how the mind acquires knowledge is of utmost importance to psychologists especially those whose concern is on child growth and development. For the same reason, several studies have been conducted in order to increase scientific knowledge on this area. Among the most influential theorists in cognitive learning is the Swiss psychologist, Jean Piaget. According to Piaget, children are born with a basic mental structure that enables them to make various responses. As Piaget observed, the cognition process starts with simple responses and develops into a complex processes as the child grows older. For Piaget, as individuals grow older, they undergo cognitive development stages that influence the way they think and respond to their environment. On the other hand, the individual also learns from his environment and experiences; developing his mental structure during the process. Piaget’s work on cognitive development was a turning point in understanding a child’s mental development. For the same reason, this paper would like to investigate, Jean Piaget’s work on cognitive development and how it influenced the modern understanding of child psychology and its applicability in education.

Learning Theories Prior to Piaget’s Cognitive Development Theory

The idea that children undergo a certain process of cognitive development is not a new concept. In fact, in the early human societies, children are understood to be incapable of thinking as that of an adult. This belief is evidently reflected in early European societies where the doctrine of ‘doli incapax’ or the belief that a child is incapable of committing a crime dominates most of their legal systems since 7th century . Among the first philosophers to study how children acquire knowledge is the English philosopher, John Locke who lived around the 17th century. According to Locke, the mind of a child is a ‘tabula rasa’ or blank sheet. But despite his theoretical assumption that the mind is blank, Locke believed that it has an inherent capability to receive and manipulate the information that it receives. In the 18th century, a French philosopher, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, also stipulated that children are born innately good but they are somehow influenced by their environment as they grow older. For the same reason, Rousseau suggests that the child should be protected from undesirable environmental influence. The famous English lawyer, William Blackstone, also stated in his commentary that a child can be considered as an infant until a certain age, wherein he draws the line at 7 years old. While there is a consensus that children undergoes a certain stage of development where they are considered as children per see, people in this early period believe that a child reaches maturity early. As a result, a child’s childhood days are cut short and he is engaged in adult activities and labor at an early age. Child labor, for example, has been documented in England’s sweatshops and factories during the industrial revolution. However, in the 20th century, the treatment of children has gradually improved. Among the major developments in children psychology have been derived from the behavioral theories of John Watson, Shaw and McKay and B.F. Skinner. John Watson theorized that children behavior is influenced by environmental factors. Watson believed that an infant can be brought up or trained into whatever he would like the infant to be when it grows old. Accordingly, he can train doctors, lawyers and other profession given several infants to train (Bolhuis, & Giraldeau, n.d.). Shaw and McKay, on the other hand, developed the theory of social disorganization, which relates the environmental impact to the delinquent behavior of a child. Furthermore, Skinner, theorized that human behavior is influenced through the process of reinforcement, or what he refers as operant conditioning.

Jean Piaget and His Theory on Cognitive Development

Despite the prevalence of behavioral theories, Jean Piaget ignored behaviorism and sought to understand the nature of a child’s cognitive development by conducting his own experimental studies. While behaviorism implies stimulus-reaction determinism, Piaget’s cognitive development theory focused on analyzing the diversity of a child’s thinking. Piaget was born on August 9, 1896 in Switzerland and was known to be a prodigy. At the age of 10, Piaget has already published a scientific observation of an albino sparrow and at 21; he has already published more than 20 articles (Green, & Peal, 2010). Piaget has a doctorate in biology but he is also equally interested in psychology where he, later on, gave his greatest contribution. Piaget’s interest in child development grew out of his association with Alfred Binet who commissioned his assistance in conducting intelligence tests on children. While working for Binet, Piaget noticed that some children have wrong answers. This intrigued Piaget and he set out to find the answer by conducting several studies on children’s understanding of space, time, God, objects, causality, morality, dreams, number, being alive, and more (Samet, & Zaitchik, 2014). Unlike behaviorism that implies a stimulus-reaction or causal-reaction effect, Piaget’s study focused on understanding the diversity and complexity of the human brain and on how it can process information. This, according to Piaget, forms the basis of learning. His approach is known as ‘constructivism’ as it recognizes the role of the child’s mental development to his learning abilities.

Three Basic Elements of Cognitive Development

Piaget identifies three basic elements in the cognitive learning process and these are the schemas or schemata; the adaptation process and the four stages of cognitive development. Discussed below are how these three elements becomes interconnected in Piaget’s cognitive development theory.
The schema or schemata is an important concept in Piaget’s cognitive learning theory. Accordingly, schemas are “building blocks of thinking” or a way of organizing things (Ey, & Green, n.d.; McLeod, 2012). The child can identify things through schemata by developing patterns. If introduced to something new, a child’s mind tries to find a particular mental pattern based on similar experiences or scenarios. This enables the child to conclude or act according to what he conceives the experience or scenario to be. According to Piaget, as the child grows older, his schemas become more complex, numerous and elaborate.
Adaptation is another important concept in Piaget’s cognitive development theory. This concept is further characterized by a cycle of activities that happens in the child’s learning process. These activities are assimilation, accommodation and equilibration. Below is a diagram of how the adaptation process takes place. Based on this diagram, at first contact with the stimulus, the child undergoes assimilation where he uses his schema to deal with the information. If his existing schema works, the child undergoes equilibrium. However, if the child’s existing schema does not fit in with the stimulus, in order to achieve equilibrium, accommodate the new information by modifying his existing schema or by creating a new one (Ey, & Green, n.d.).
Figure 1. Piaget’s adaptation process diagram
The Four Stages of Cognitive Development has been developed by Piaget based on his extensive experiments on children. Using the schema and adaptation processes, Piaget believe that a child undergoes four stages of cognitive development, which he identifies as:
Sensorimotor (From birth to 2 years old) – At this stage, the child is observed to extensively use his senses and motor skills to experience his surroundings (Green, & Peal, 2010). Piaget believes that the child has little knowledge during this stage, which is similar to Locke’s assumption of ‘tabula rasa’ or blank sheet. Accordingly, infants learn through trial and error process since at this stage, they could not yet predict reactions (Grossniklaus, Smith, & Wood, 2011).
Preoperational Stage (2 to 7 years old) – At this stage, a child begins to develop his language, memory and imagination (Grossniklaus, Smith, & Wood, 2011). And though the child starts to understand and recognize things and experiences, his intelligence are still limited and he may not be able to know the consequence of his actions. As observed, “More complex concepts, such as cause and effect relationships, have not been learned. Intelligence is egocentric and intuitive, not logical” (Grossniklaus, Smith, & Wood, 2011).
Concrete Operational (7 to 11 years old) – Piaget believe that logical thinking starts at this stage. Accordingly, children at this stage are already aware of their actions as well as comprehend the potential outcomes or consequences (Green, & Peal, 2010). Children begin to problem-solve through reason and spatial concepts are also being developed at this stage (Green, & Peal, 2010).

Criticisms of Piaget’s Cognitive Development Theory

Some scholars are skeptical of Piaget’s cognitive development theory. According to opponents of Piaget’s theory, Piaget failed to recognize that children development is a continuous process and could not be classified in stages. Piaget was also criticized for not incorporating the effects of society and culture to cognitive development. Most of Piaget’s skeptics are implying that he may have underestimated the capabilities of children. If this assumption is correct, then applying Piaget’s cognitive development stages might not work on children with advanced mental capacities. It should be noted though that these concerns, however, can easily be mitigated by establishing special curriculums for children with slow or advanced learning potential.

Applicability of Piaget’s Cognitive Development Theory to Education

Piaget did not explicitly specify that his theory is meant for educational purposes. Even so, Piaget’s cognitive development theory has vast implications in educational management and learning. Using Piaget’s development theory, an educational program for children can be patterned according to their mental capabilities. Instructional materials will be designed so that it would fit to the stages of cognitive development that the child is under. Mental readiness is another aspect that applies to educational management. According to McLeod, Piaget’s cognitive development theory is strongly recognized in the United Kingdom and forms as an important basis of their curriculum. In one way or another, most educational system may have adopted Piaget’s scheme of identifying stages in child development since most educational institution has separate preschool, primary and secondary educational approaches and curriculum. Evidently, Piaget’s cognitive development theory brings to mind how educational institutions can develop an educational system that would fit to the cognitive needs and readiness of a child.


Piaget’s cognitive development theory provides a plausible explanation of how children develop their learning skills from infancy to adulthood. So far, this theory has been the most accepted and recognized theory regarding and related to childhood development. As observed by Piaget, children from birth already possesses learning capabilities. Initially, the child learns through experience by trial and error and in the process increases his knowledge or schema. As the child grows, his schema develops as well until he learns how to solve problems and formulate various mental tasks. The significance of Piaget’s theory is that it has varied practical applications. Aside from social and criminological applications, Piaget’s cognitive development theory can be extensively applied in the field of education and instructional management. Among its applications in educational setting are instructional materials preparations, curriculum planning, academic readiness assessment and many others.


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