Piaget, Constructivism, and Theories of Cognitive Development

From: Child Development 101 for the Developers of Interactive Media
First edition, 1996. Revised January 6, 2006 by Ellen Wolock, Ed.D, Ann Orr, Ed.D. and Warren Buckleitner, Ph.D.
© 2006 Active Learning Associates. All rights reserved.

The research and writings of Jean Piaget (1896-1980), the Swiss psychologist, have had an enormous impact on the field of cognitive development. Piaget’s observations and theories have helped us better understand the way children think and learn. Piaget’s theories can be divided into two parts: his description of a set of discreet stages through which children proceed, and his explanation of a set of processes that help move a child from one stage to the next. A basic understanding of Piaget’s theories can help the software designer create more developmentally appropriate software. Note that students of educational psychology have successful refuted some of Piagetian theory. However, the big ideas are valuable and commonly used in the design of educational activities.

Defining Constructivism

How do children move from one stage to the next? Piaget argued that children “build” knowledge via a cycle of repeated and expanded interactions with their environment. Piaget described this process as having two mechanisms. One, he referred to as assimilation. When encountering something new in our environment (which is the prerequisite to learning), humans first try to incorporate that new thing into our existing mental framework. Accommodation is the complement to assimilation. Accommodation occurs when we have to adjust our existing mental framework in order to make room for that new “thing”. Piaget said that these two processes are occurring all the time, back and forth as we experience (learn) new things in our environment. When children encounter something new, they are slightly off balance, experiencing what Piaget called disequilibration. The child naturally seeks equilibration, or a balance between interacting factors inside and outside the child.

Real world examples are easy to find. Learning a difficult sport, such as golf (trying to sink a putt, or hit a drive down a fairway), water skiing or snow boarding all have definable moments of assimilation, accommodation and equilibration.

Software developers can use the tenets of Piagetian theory when they design new activities and programs. How? By gently nudging the child from equilibration to disequilibration to equilibration again.

Sensorimotor, birth to 2 1/2 years (a period of sensory input and physical actions)

Piaget described the ages of 0 to 2 years as the Sensorimotor Stage. All learning is done via physical exploration of the environment. As the child interacts with people and things, pleasing reactions are eventually noted, making the action more likely to be repeated. In the later portion of this period, the child begins to actively experiment, trying out various actions and reactions in a more purposeful manner. By the end of this period, the child has acquired an initial set of concepts dealing with space, objects and causality.

  • Babies initially think that objects out of sight aren’t there, but later understand that the object doesn’t really disappear (like in peek-a-boo).
  • Children learn through the direct manipulation of objects, using all senses (touch, taste, sound)
  • Children learn through the repetition of actions and imitation.
  • Children understand simple cause and effect.

Preoperational, ages 2 1/2-7 (a period of representational, prelogical thought)

From approximately age 2 to age 7, Piaget described the child as being in the Preoperational Stage. Language acquisition is a major goal, as is “object permanence” or the idea that objects continue to exist even when they are out of sight. This is the first building block of memory and higher order thinking skills. Piaget also believed that children at this age fail to understand that the mass of an object is unchanged even when something is done to it. For example, if you take a short glass of milk and pour it into a taller, narrower glass, children in the Preoperational Stage will think that the taller glass contains more milk.

  • Children begin to represent experiences through play and communications.
  • Children are generally egocentric, less able to take another’s perspective.
  • Children consider the current condition of what they see. For instance, a small banana cut into lots of little pieces is “more” than a big banana cut into just a few pieces.
  • In the early period of this stage, expressions may be taken literally, e.g. keep an eye on the ball.

Concrete-Operational Stage, ages 7-12.

(a period of focused logical thought)

From about 7 to 12 years, the child is described as being in the Concrete-Operational Stage, a period characterized by a more mature understanding of the world and objects around them. They understand that you can do things that change appearance of an object, without changing the essence of the object. For instance, children at this age understand that a certain amount of liquid has the same volume regardless of how it looks, or a ball of clay has the same mass even after you smash it into a patty. This kind of thinking forms the basis for scientific exploration and thought (kids at this age love science), but they still rely upon concrete objects and experiments to form their ideas.

  • Children are tied to their direct experiences, but can consider and coordinate more than one dimension.
  • Children understand time, space and number. Children can conserve, understanding that objects are the same if their original state was equal, e.g. a small banana is smaller than a large banana, no matter how it is sliced.
  • Children can take another’s perspective.
  • Children in this period still learn best through concrete experiences.

The Formal-Operational Stage, ages 12-17

(a period of unlimited, logical thought)
Formal-Operational thinking is said to begin around age 12. Here, the adolescent begins to use abstract logic, and no longer relies on concrete objects to form his thinking. Learning can occur through verbal reasoning, and by taking the perspective of others. Pre-teens/teens in this period formulate their own hypotheses about causes and solutions. They are now able rely on abstract symbols to learn.

  • Preteens/teens can rely on symbols to understand and learn.
  • Preteens/teens understand complex concepts like density.
  • Egocentrism may disappear completely with the capacity to think and reason beyond own beliefs.
  • A sense of fairness and equality supersedes adult authority.