Jean Piagets Theory

Custom Student Mr. Teacher ENG 1001-04 9 November 2016

Jean Piagets Theory

Piaget’s theory is based on stages, whereby each stage represents a qualitatively different type of thinking. Children in stage one cannot think the same as children in stage 2, 3 or 4 etc. Transitions from one stage to another are generally very fast, and the stages always follow an invariant sequence. Another important characteristic of his stage theory is that they are universal; the stages will work for everyone in the world regardless of their differences (except their age, of course, which is what the stages are based on!) Piaget acknowledged that there is an interaction between a child and the environment, and this is a focal point for his theory.

He believed a child cannot learn unless they are constantly interacting with their environment, making mistakes and then learning from them. He defined children as “lone scientists”; he did not identify any need for teachers or adults in cognitive development. Children have all the cognitive mechanisms to learn on their own, and the interaction with their environment allows them to do so. To put this in perspective, another theory by Lev Vygotsky suggested that the interaction is not important at all; the child will learn when encouraged to with an adult’s assistance. I will be explaining then contrasting Vygotsky’s theory to Piaget’s in my next post – so be sure to check back for that! With the background of his theory explained, let’s look at

– The Key Concepts of Piaget’s theory:

Before explaining the main part of Piaget’s theory (the four stages), it’s very important to look at some of the underlying principles behind it. Rather than write a stupidly long paragraph explaining it all, I will write the key terms in bold, then explain them in bullet points – just to keep things simple! •Schema (pl. Schemata, although some say “Schemas” for the plural) Possibly one of the most important concepts put forward by Piaget, Schemata help individuals understand the world they inhabit. They are cognitive structures that represent a certain aspect of the world, and can be seen as categories which have certain pre-conceived ideas in them. For example, my schema for Christmas includes: Christmas trees, presents, giving, money, green, red, gold, winter, Santa Claus etc. Someone else may have an entirely different schema, such as Jesus, birth, Church, holiday, Christianity etc.

Of course, there are schemata for all kinds of things – yourself (self schemata), other people (people schemata), events/situations (event schemata) and roles/occupations (role schemata). With regards to Piaget’s theory, a child might have a pre-conceived schema for a dog. If the household has a small West Highland White Terrier as a dog, the schema might be “small, furry, four legs, white”. When the child interacts with a new dog – perhaps a Labrador, it will change to incorporate the new information, such as “big, golden, smooth etc.” This is known as:


Simply the process of incorporating new information into a pre-existing schema. So with the “dog” example, the child assimilated the Labrador’s information into the old dog schema. Assimilation is essentially fitting new information into schemata we already have in place. Unfortunately, this can lead to stereotyping. For example, if an old lady sees a teenager mug another person, she might assimilate “violence” or “crime” into her teenage schema. Next time she sees a teenager, her schema will be applied to them – and although they may be a kind person, she will probably show prejudice. Assimilation is normally a simple process, as new information already fits the pre-exisiting categories.


When coming across a new object for the first time, a child will attempt to apply an old schema to the object. For consistency, let’s use the dog example again. The child may have “four legs, furry” in their dog schema. When coming across another similar animal, such as a cat, they might say “Look, a dog!” – that’s assimilation. However, when told that it’s actually a cat – not a dog – they will accommodate the new information into another schema. They will now form a “cat” schema; “not all four legged furry animals are dogs – some are cats too!”. They have accommodated the new information. The process just mentioned – of assimilation then accommodation is known as –


Assimilation and accommodation are the two parts of adaptation – which is simply what it says – adapting our schemata to make an accurate (enough) model of the world we live in. It is a form of learning, but an entirely different form to the kind you’d see in behaviourist psychology for example (such as operant/classical conditioning).


Piaget suggested that humans naturally strive to achieve a cognitive balance; there must be a balance between applying prior knowledge (assimilation) and changing schemata to account for new information (accommodation). Piaget suggested that when a child has a schema which doesn’t fit reality, there is tension in the mind. By balancing the use of assimilation and accommodation, this tension is reduced and we can proceed to higher levels of thought and learning (equilibration).

QUICK SUMMARY: Children have schemata (cognitive structures that contain pre-existing ideas of the world), which are constantly changing. Schemata constantly undergo adaptation, through the processes of assimilation and accommodation. When seeing new objects there is a state of tension, and a child will attempt to assimilate the information to see if it fits into prior schemata. If this fails, the information must be accommodated by either adding new schemata or modifying the existing ones to accommodate the information. By balancing the use of assimilation and accommodation, an equilibrium is created, reducing cognitive tension (equilibration).

Vygotsky’s theories stress the fundamental role of social interaction in the development of cognition Vygotsky, 1978), as he believed strongly that community plays a central role in the process of “making meaning.” Unlike Piaget’s notion that children’s’ development must necessarily precede their learning, Vygotsky argued, “learning is a necessary and universal aspect of the process of developing culturally organized, specifically human psychological function” (1978, p. 90). In other words, social learning tends to precede (i.e. come before) development. Vygotsky has developed a socio-cultural approach to cognitive development. He developed his theories at around the same time as Jean Piaget was starting to develop his theories (1920’s and 30’s), but he died at the age of 38 and so his theories are incomplete – although some of his writings are still being translated from Russian. No single principle (such as Piaget’s equilibration) can account for development.

Individual development cannot be understood without reference to the social and cultural context within which it is embedded. Higher mental processes in the individual have their origin in social processes. Vygotsky’s theory differs from that of Piaget in a number of important ways: 1: Vygotsky places more emphasis on culture affecting/shaping cognitive development – this contradicts Piaget’s view of universal stages and content of development. (Vygotsky does not refer to stages in the way that Piaget does). 2: Vygotsky places considerably more emphasis on social factors contributing to cognitive development (Piaget is criticised for underestimating this). 3: Vygotsky places more (and different) emphasis on the role of language in cognitive development (again Piaget is criticised for lack of emphasis on this).

Effects of Culture: – Tools of intellectual adaptation

Like Piaget, Vygotsky claimed that infants are born with the basic materials/abilities for intellectual development – Piaget focuses on motor reflexes and sensory abilities. Vygotsky refers to Elementary Mental Functions –

o Attention
o Sensation
o Perception
o Memory

Eventually, through interaction within the socio-cultural environment, these are developed into more sophisticated and effective mental processes/strategies which he refers to as Higher Mental Functions. For example, memory in young children this is limited by biological factors. However, culture determines the type of memory strategy we develop. E.g., in our culture we learn note-taking to aid memory, but in pre-literate societies other strategies must be developed, such as tying knots in string to remember, or carrying pebbles, or repetition of the names of ancestors until large numbers can be repeated.

Vygotsky refers to tools of intellectual adaptation – these allow children to use the basic mental functions more effectively/adaptively, and these are culturally determined (e.g. memory mnemonics, mind maps). Vygotsky therefore sees cognitive functions, even those carried out alone, as affected by the beliefs, values and tools of intellectual adaptation of the culture in which a person develops and therefore socio-culturally determined. The tools of intellectual adaptation therefore vary from culture to culture – as in the memory example

Social Influences on Cognitive Development

Like Piaget, Vygotsky believes that young children are curious and actively involved in their own learning and the discovery and development of new understandings/schema. However, Vygotsky placed more emphasis on social contributions to the process of development, whereas Piaget emphasised self-initiated discovery. According to Vygotsky (1978), much important learning by the child occurs through social interaction with a skillful tutor. The tutor may model behaviours and/or provide verbal instructions for the child. Vygotsky refers to this as co-operative or collaborative dialogue. The child seeks to understand the actions or instructions provided by the tutor (often the parent or teacher) then internalizes the information, using it to guide or regulate their own performance. Shaffer (1996) gives the example of a young girl who is given her first jigsaw.

Alone, she performs poorly in attempting to solve the puzzle. The father then sits with her and describes or demonstrates some basic strategies, such as finding all the comer/edge pieces and provides a couple of pieces for the child to put together herself and offers encouragement when she does so. As the child becomes more competent, the father allows the child to work more independently. According to Vygotsky, this type of social interaction involving co-operative or collaborative dialogue promotes cognitive development. In order to gain an understanding of Vygotsky’s theories on cognitive development, one must understand two of the main principles of Vygotsky’s work: the More Knowledgeable Other (MKO) and the Zone of Proximal Development (ZPD).

More Knowledgeable Other

The more knowledgeable other (MKO) is somewhat self-explanatory; it refers to someone who has a better understanding or a higher ability level than the learner, with respect to a particular task, process, or concept. Although the implication is that the MKO is a teacher or an older adult, this is not necessarily the case. Many times, a child’s peers or an adult’s children may be the individuals with more knowledge or experience. For example, who is more likely to know more about the newest teen-age music groups, how to win at the most recent PlayStation game, or how to correctly perform the newest dance craze – a child or their parents? In fact, the MKO need not be a person at all.

Some companies, to support employees in their learning process, are now using electronic performance support systems. Electronic tutors have also been used in educational settings to facilitate and guide students through the learning process. The key to MKOs is that they must have (or be programmed with) more knowledge about the topic being learned than the learner does.

Zone of Proximal Development

The concept of the More Knowledgeable Other is integrally related to the second important principle of Vygotsky’s work, the Zone of Proximal Development. This is an important concept that relates to the difference between what a child can achieve independently and what a child can achieve with guidance and encouragement from a skilled partner. For example, the child could not solve the jigsaw puzzle (in the example above) by itself and would have taken a long time to do so (if at all), but was able to solve it following interaction with the father, and has developed competence at this skill that will be applied to future jigsaws.

Vygotsky (1978) sees the Zone of Proximal Development as the area where the most sensitive instruction or guidance should be given – allowing the child to develop skills they will then use on their own – developing higher mental functions. Vygotsky also views interaction with peers as an effective way of developing skills and strategies. He suggests that teachers use cooperative learning exercises where less competent children develop with help from more skillful peers – within the zone of proximal development.


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  • University/College: University of California

  • Type of paper: Thesis/Dissertation Chapter

  • Date: 9 November 2016

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