does Piagets theory relate to children today

Piaget was a developmental psychologist who looked into how children acquire knowledge, he is the most influential however many others have put forward theories more recently that may be more relevant to children today. 

Piaget liked to understand acquiring knowledge through three processes. Assimilation, accommodation and equilibrium. Assimilation is transforming incoming information to fit existing thinking, it uses existing mental structures when avalaibke making it a functional process. For children this process is limited by knowledge: children have few mental structures to base their thinking upon making it a longer and harder process than adults go through. Accommodation is adapting thoughts to new experiences, in simpler terms this is learning through experience what thoughts are right and wrong. Equilibration is the process of integrating pieces of knowledge to a unified whole, these three processes allow correct knowledge to be acquired by children. Piaget would argue that children have a completely different, independent, mental system than adults, as seen through Piagets suggestion of stages. 

These stages were divided into four large sections which were divided into smaller sections:

  1. Sensorimotor 
  • Modification of reflexes
  • Primary circular reactions 
  • Secondary circular reactions 
  • Co-ordination of circular reactions 
  • Tertiary circular reactions 
  • Representational thought 
  • A not B task – two ‘hiding’ places for a toy which is put in place A repeatedly but when put in place B it is recorded where they look/ go to
  • This is a problem seen in the early sensorimotor stage and is resolved before the change to pre-operational 
  • The stages 1-2 show infants unable to understand that objects exist when you can’t see them
  • Stage 3 infants look longer at the place the object is out and anticipate it being there 
  • Stage 4 infants look in A not B even when it is seen to be put there 
  • Stage 5 no longer an error but still hesitation 
  • Stage 6 look in the right place 

2. Pre-operational

  • Symbolic capacities 
  • Language and mental imagery skills 


  • Early symbolic representation 
  • Becoming allocentric (thinking of others)
  • Not until 9 years old do they stop categorising by salient features and more in depth (thoughtful) features

3. Concrete operational

  • Transformations 
  • Can’t think of all the possibilities 
  • Group over two dimensions 
  • 9-10 years – class and relation in right order 
  • Conservation task
  • Tests 5,6,7,8 year olds
  • Through number, mass and volume 
  • Shown two beakers of the same volume asked which one holds more (both the same)
  • One poured into a thinner container – asked the same questions 
  • Same method used with number and mass
  • 5,6 and 7 years olds say that on the second presentation the volumes are different 
  • 8 year olds pass this test
  • All provide explanations 
  • This backs up Piagets thoughts of assimilation – children fit the new information into their already formed mental systems 

    4. Formal operational

    • Another task is used to test when children are at the formal operation stage 
    • Chemical combinations problem
    • Children were shown a chemical and 4 bottles that made this chemical
    • Thyey were asked to make it again themselves 
    • Children in the Concrete operational stage tried all one by one maybe not knowing why a certain solution made the chemical
    • Formal operational children tried the solutions systematically and mostly understood why one worked over the other 
    • Group among relations – classes of classes 

    What did Piaget overlook with his stage theory 

    Although Piaget is the most influential researcher into children’s knowledge it seems that he largely underestimated what a child is actually able to do. This is largely seen by children who can outperform the stages. Piaget believed the stages were set at a maximum so would agree with children underperformance however those who can formally operationalise before 11 years would be impossible to Piaget. The Flynn effect (the nation getting more intelligent through the generations) clearly highlights that if we are getting more intelligent then it would be easy to perform tasks earlier than Piaget has suggested. 

    Furthermore Piaget argues that the A not B task is due to a lack of knowledge about object permanent and so is not fully developed until 8 months however researchers such as Baillergeon have seen it in many infants looking for objects when they are not in eye sight – they understand object permanence. Perhaps it is due to a memory overload for young children that makes them fail this task as if it is made simpler:

    • Big rabbit behind a screen
    • Screen has a cut out at the top
    • Can’t see ears – older infants are surprised by this (longer time looking) as it defies there concept of this object

    Another assumption of Piaget is the fact that cognition and language go hand in hand. We only gain language when we are cognitively ready. Therefore our cognition so are too basic to exist before language acquisition. This asks the question- do we have cognitive capacities that are innate before language acquisition. Many researchers such as Siegler would say yes.

    What did Piaget ignore in the conservation task 

    • Overall – Should we have stages – stages suggest that we change suddenly and can only move to the next stage once we’ve grasped all concepts in the stage we are in. Learning is not like this, we acquire knowledge gradually this is clearly demonstrated in the conservation task. Piaget included three concepts – number, mass and volume to demonstrate that concrete operational children can tell that the same amount of material is one container even when the soze of that container changes. However, concrete operational children still struggle with volume which is not fully conserved until the age of 10. Therefore this could highlight that in fact children do learn gradually and harder cone let’s take longer to embed within perk own knowledge and a concept is not learnt all at once. 
    • Number – I focus on this material specifically due to Piaget being particularly skeptical about how well children can think. The conservation task does not allow for a full understanding of a children knowledge of number to be assessed. If a different test is presented such as a real life story – how many teddies are in a line – childrn become much better at this task. 
    • A further way to test number is how much they know about the concept. Starkey, spelke and Gelman habituated 6-9 month old babies to three objects, babies were bored of looking at three objects do would look longer of differently grouped objects. Another example is by Wynn, they show a lion behind a screen and then this turning into two when the screen drops. Infants spend longer looking at this display (shocked – not expected in line with a known concept) in comparison to just 1 lion being shown. Therefore young infants are able to tell differences between number – obviously this is limited to a small unit of number the limit being 4-5 objects.
    • Another thing that Piaget did not consider is the fact that these abilities may not be universal. For example children in China have a mush easier number system and so it seems they acquire number much quicker than western children however is this just a reflection of the simpler system to be integrated into simpler mental structures in comparison to English children for example.

    Overall Piagets theory is very influential as it provides qualitative data about children acquire knowledge. However, it boxes children into very tight boxes of which many children exceed. Furthermor epiahet did not consider the effects of training and how these children could progress in the stages with this help. Furthermore Piaget notes knowledge as a concept of nurture, we learn along the way and only progress when we are cognitively ready. Whether these abilities are actually seen to be innate is a different question – one for next time.

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