Piaget stages: Do they accurately describe the way the human brain develops?

Last Updated December 20th, 2021

An overview

It is a hypothesis of cognitive development explaining how a child builds a psychological representation of the world.  Piaget (1936) was a psychologist who made a systematic study of cognitive development.  He was against the concept that intellect was a fixed attribute and believed that cognitive development occurs with biological maturation as well as communication with the surroundings.

Due to this, he made various experiments of cognition in children by performing some inventive tests to determine different cognitive abilities.  He wanted to study the fundamental concepts of time, number, causality, quantity, and justice by measuring how accurately children could spell a word, count numbers, or solve problems.  He used these measurements to grade the I.Q. of a child.

A common assumption was that children are not as much of knowledgeable thinkers as compared to adults, but this was refuted by Piaget as he found strikingly advanced thinking in children who are exposed to real life instances.  Piaget’s theory is known to differ from others and some of the highlights from his theory include:

  • The theory mainly focuses on children and not all learners.
  • Another main concept of this theory includes focusing on cognitive growth and not on learning. It does not concentrate on learning any information or learning any specific behaviors.
  • The theory puts forward the different stages of progress focusing on qualitative differences. It does not focus on the number, ideas, or difficulty of behaviors.

The theory explains how a child builds a perceptive of the world surrounding him or her.  Later, the child would experience a mismatch between what they already know and what they find in their surroundings.

Piaget’s Cognitive Theory

The theory contains three basic points and include:

  • Schemas (known as the construction of information).
  • Adaptation (includes equilibrium, assimilation, and accommodation). The adaptation process involves the conversion from one phase to another.
  • Phases of cognitive improvement (includes sensorimotor, preoperational, concrete operational, and formal operational).


This is considered to be the building block to organize knowledge.  It is nothing but sections of knowledge that are interconnected and include actions, objects, as well as an abstract.  According to Piaget, the improvement of a child’s cognitive ability rises with the amount and difficulty of the schemata.  A mental balance or equilibrium is achieved when a person’s active schemas are able to explain what they can understand around it.

Piaget theory explains the significance of schemas with respect to cognitive development as well as how it is gained by a child.  Schema can be understood from a simple example where a person is about to buy a meal from a restaurant.  Here, the schema is the plan where a person is about to buy a meal.  Next, this schema is stored in the mind following a model of behavior such as going through the menu, ordering the food, eating, and paying the bill.  This schema is stored in the form of “script.”  Later, when the person is at the restaurant, this schema is retrieved from the memory and applied in that scenario.

The schemas in the case of infants are much simpler.  According to Piaget, schemas turn into more copious and elaborate as the child grows older.  It is believed that an infant is born with certain schemas that are built-in even before experiencing it in the real world.  These are neonatal schemas with primary natural reflexes that are genetically planned within the infant.  One of the examples of the neonatal schema is the sucking reflex.  Once the baby’s lip is touched with nipple or even a finger, the baby tries to suck on it.  This is because of the neonatal schema that is already programmed in the baby.  Another example is grasp reflex.  This occurs when the baby is touched with a finger.  The baby immediately grasps the finger displaying grasping schema.  Similarly, rooting reflex is experienced when the baby will move the head in the direction of the object that touches its cheek.


This is a phase involving intellectual growth which includes adapting to the surroundings.  This is achieved with the following:

Assimilation:  This involves using an active schema in order to manage a situation.  An example of assimilation would be like; a toddler might come across a bald man with spiked hair on the sides.  The toddler mistakes the bald man for a clown and addresses him as a clown.

Accommodation:  A scenario where an existing schema does not work for a particular situation and needs to be altered or changed with respect to the situation.  An example of accommodation would be like, as discussed in the assimilation, the toddler mistakes a bald man for a clown.  Now, the father of the toddler explains that although the hair of the bald man was funny, the man did not do anything silly.  This information was grasped by the toddler and the concept of clown was updated for a more meaningful concept and changing the schema for a clown.


It is a mental balance that drives cognitive development.  According to Piaget, cognitive development does not occur at a steady rate but rather in leaps and bounds.  This equilibrium or mental balance is achieved when the new information is dealt with existing schemas whereas disequilibrium can occur if the new information cannot fit with the present schemas.

Cognitive Development

This phase involves four stages and varies according to the growing sophistication and these include sensorimotor stage (involving age group between child birth and two years of age), preoperational stage (between 2 years and 7 years of age), concrete operational stage (between 7 years and 11 years of age), and finally formal operational stage (11 years and above).

According to Piaget’s theory, every child undergoes these stages.  The cognitive development is mainly dependent on biological maturation as well as the communication with the surroundings.  It should be noted that the order of the stage is similar to all the children but the progress may vary from one individual to another.  In certain conditions, a child may never reach the later phases.  It is not compulsory that the child should attain a stage at a particular age, but an approximate estimate that the child should progress.

Preoperational stage (two to seven years):  This is a stage when the child thinks of something symbolically.  During this phase, the child would come up with a new word or an object representing the same in a different manner.  During this phase, the child finds it difficult to accept other opinions.

Concrete operational stage (7 to 11 years):  Logical and operational thoughts are highlighted in this phase.  It is considered to be one of the major turning points in the child’s cognitive improvement.  During this phase, the child starts imagining and working things out within the head with little to no physical experience in the outside world.

Formal operational stage (11 years and higher):  Abstract and logical thinking is enriched during this phase.  This phase begins at just about 11 years of age and extends into adulthood.

Educational Implications of Piaget’s theory

It should be noted that Piaget’s theory was not related to education.  Researchers later have come up with findings where Piaget’s theory is also implemented in the field of education.  As a matter of fact, Piaget’s theory has been particularly significant in formulating various educational policies.  Discovery learning was the concept inducted into the curriculum of primary education based on Piaget’s theory.  This concept of actively exploring the surroundings was implemented, which was thought to be the best way a child could learn.

According to the theory, readiness is one of the important factors of learning.  As discussed earlier, Piaget’s theory has two factors namely biological maturation as well as the phases, so it is important to be ready to learn something new.  According to the theory, it is advised that children cannot be taught particular concepts unless they have achieved a certain cognitive developmental stage.  According to the theory, assimilation and accommodation can be achieved only when there is an active learner.  It should be noted that analytical skills are better learned when they are discovered and cannot be taught.  Some of the concepts that need to be implemented by teachers in the classroom include:

  • It is important to concentrate on the learning process and not the final product.
  • Active methods should be implemented to rediscover and reconstruct the truth.
  • Both individual and collaborative activities should be implemented so that the child gets a better chance to learn new things.
  • Creating problematic situations such as disequilibrium that are useful to teach real-life instances.
  • Evaluate the developmental stage of the child and set suitable tasks accordingly.

Critical Evaluation of Piaget’s theory

The evaluation of Piaget’s theory is based on two categories namely support and criticism.  Many researchers have supported the theory as well as implemented it in various forms of life whereas others have criticized several aspects of this theory.


Piaget’s ideas have played an important role in the field of developmental psychology.  It has opened a new chapter on how we viewed a child’s world.  There has been a huge amount of research studying the concepts of this theory and implementing it in various aspects of life.  It has opened a new door on how to understand the cognitive development in children particularly with respect to education.  Several educational institutions have implemented it in their curriculum and have been successful in doing so.


Many theorists have also criticized this theory to be not realistic.  According to Vygotsky and Bruner, they consider development to be a uninterrupted process and do not believe in stages.  On the other hand, several theorists suspect the range of these phases.  Many believe that development to the formal operational phase may not be guaranteed.  According to Keating, around 60% of the college going students are unsuccessful at formal operational tasks.  Similarly, Dasen has indicated that formal operational stage is reached only by one-third of individuals.  This criticism can be debated since Piaget concentrated mainly on worldwide stages of cognitive improvement and biological maturation.  He did not consider the effects caused by community setting and culture on cognitive improvement.

According to Dasen’s studies, it was determined that the ability to safeguard came only between the ages of 10 and 13 whereas it is between 5 and 7, with Piaget’s theory.  Vygotsky stressed the importance of social interaction for cognitive improvement.  As per Vygotsky, the child’s cognitive development takes place in a community context with a more skillful individual.  It is believed that the social context can also provide language learning opportunities.

Final Thoughts

It should be noted that the information collected by Piaget was his own personal understanding of events and could have been reliable if the observations were conducted with the help of another researcher.  According to Hughes, Piaget seems to have underestimated what children are capable of due to his confusing theory.  Hughes believed that Piaget was not successful to differentiate between competence and performance and hence might have not completely understood the cognitive abilities of the children.  It should be noted that the sample collected by Piaget was small and belonged to European children from families of high socio-economic status.



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