Piaget’s model of development

Piaget’s model of cognitive development

One of the main findings of Piaget’s work for which he is widely acclaimed is the idea of critical points of development when learning can most effectively take place. He describes four particular stages of cognitive development, a sort of quantum leap in mental growth, which he claimed to be universal to all

The first stage which occurs from birth to eighteen months is called the sensorimotor stage.  It is concerned with learning about physical objects and gaining motor control. During this time the child is concerned with exploring the senses and how things move- from the taste of a wooden spoon to the movement of a mobile.  For many months these objects and the simple causal relationships that exist between them only occupy the infants attention when seen or sensed.  When they are no longer in sight it is as though they do not exist.

The transition to the second stage occurs as the child comes to have a sense that objects have an existence independent of her particular actions on them at a given moment. In the next preoperational stage which occurs between ages two and seven years, the child is able to name objects even in their absence. She becomes preoccupied with acquiring verbal skills and can begin to group similar objects. The child can recognise a set of objects but this does not include a quantitative aspect.  For instance, a child at this stage faced with two lines of smarties each containing the same number of sweets but with one of the lines more spaced out, will assume that the longer line contains the greater number of sweets. The child at this stage may be able to count by rote and touch certain objects as she does so but she does not understand that the final number said also stands for the totality of objects.

It is only on entering the third stage that the child is able to compare the totals in two sets of objects rather than being misled by density or spatial extension. This third stage which occurs about six or seven  years of age is called the concrete operational stage. Now that the child has an accurate method of assessing quantity with the use of number she is able to begin to master more complex operations such as addition, subtraction, multiplication and division. As well as relating these operations to physical objects, during this time the child begins to discover that such operations can also be conducted mentally, inside her head.  After a time the actions become internalised. Throughout this period the actions internalised refer to operations that could be enacted on physical objects.  It is for this reason that Piaget called it the concrete operational stage.

Between the ages of twelve and sixteen years the child enters the final formal operational stage. The child can now operate not only on concrete objects or his mental images of them but she can also use abstract concepts. She is now ready to tackle tasks such as algebra and is able to understand and formulate hypotheses.

(extract from MA dissertation, T. Waters, 1999)


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