Critically evaluate the empirical support for Piaget's theory of the stages of cognitive development. - Essay Prowess

Critically evaluate the empirical support for Piaget’s theory of the stages of cognitive development.


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Critically evaluate the empirical support for Piaget’s theory of the stages of cognitive development.

The Cognitive Development theory formulated by the Swiss born psychologist, Jean Piaget is based on the precept that cognitive development is dependent on the specific skills and information (schema) critical for the enhancement of development of and individual from birth, childhood all the way through to adulthood (Piaget 1983, p78-127). Jean Piaget outlined four stages of development in an effort to explain cognitive development in each stage of growth. The theory also seeks to outline how every set of schema determines a child’s life and perception of the world as a whole through the stages of development (Freeman 1989, p57-87).

For birth to the age of two is the initial stage of Jean Piaget’s theory of cognitive development. An infant’s learning process is limited to simple, instinctive and basic actions such as reaching, touching and continued observations of  the surrounding environment (Dore & Goulet 1998, p57-72). An infant’s senses are the fundamental means with which a child understands the world that it lives in. The perception of objects bearing some degree of permanence is according to Piaget developed at the tender age of nine months (Freeman 1989, p57-87). The stage that follows thereafter is reasoning. This stage was referred to by Piaget as the Sensori-Motor stage (Dore & Goulet 1998, p57-72). At this stage infants begin to engage their basic motoring abilities on a daily basis nurtured during play (Piaget 1983, p78-127). Jean Piaget encouraged this as a period at which books and other educational tools can help challenge a child’s interest in a wide range of subjects and the sensory skill reaction times (Freeman 1989, p57-87).

The second stage of cognitive development theory as formulated by Piaget is the preoperational stage. This is a time at which a child’s age is between two to seven years (Dore & Goulet 1998, p57-72). During this stage, a child begins to practice verbal communication and more so exhibits semi-independent reasoning. During this age a child gains the ability to recognize and match numbers, letters, colours and shapes (Piaget 1983, p78-127). Knowledge of self begins to manifest itself at this age and this knowledge of self is important to the decision he or she makes (Freeman 1989, p57-87). Piaget noted that at this stage a child will protect issues and physical attributes dear to him or her. At this stage children also tend to plan on future events and even meals. Parents are encouraged to ensure physical exercise, recognition exercises and the use of symbols and signs (Piaget 1983, p78-127). Board games, toys and books that encourage reading and arithmetic exercises are crucial for a healthy development of cognitive skills at this stage (Dore & Goulet 1998, p57-72).

The third stage in cognitive development according to Piaget is during the age of seven to eleven years. At this stage a child begins to foster relationships outside the nuclear and extended family circles. The child begins to accept and understand the concepts of cause and effect. Organisational skills and the maxims of conservation are observed as they develop better cognitive skills (Dore & Goulet 1998, p57-72). Changes in a child’s thought processes are exhibited clearly in this stage and the level of concentration is greatly enhanced being both natural and concrete. Development oriented practices suitable for this age group include laboratory exercises, learning games, and hand on exercises and activities (Dore & Goulet 1998, p57-72). As such, a successful transition to the next stage can be enhanced through learning and educational resources offered in accordance with the level of cognitive development (Piaget 1983, p78-127).

As from age twelve through adolescence to adulthood, the stage is referred to as the formal operations stage (Dore & Goulet 1998, p57-72). In this stage, individuals exhibit clear and abstract reasoning abilities. At this point in life, logical thinking, decision making skills, and theoretical forecasts begin to take on complexities in preparation for advance educational endeavours(Piaget 1983, p78-127).

Critics however fault Jean Piaget’s theory on Cognitive Development citing its incomplete nature. However, his contribution to education had a profound effect on the quality of education (Dore & Goulet 1998, p57-72). Piaget was of the view that education should be dynamic and as such should not be a repetition of tasks over and over again. His theory has been used to formulate educational programs that enable children in various stages of cognitive development are taught accordingly (Piaget 1983, p78-127). His theory has been used to offer learning environments that are conducive for various stages of cognitive development, application of social interaction techniques, peer to peer teaching as well streamlining children’s’ train of thought relative to the degree of cognitive development (Dore & Goulet 1998, p57-72).


Piaget has been greatly criticised as to the research methods that he applied during the development of the theory on Cognitive Development (Cummins 1998, p42). He made the observations based on the growth of his three children from infancy to adulthood (Iran-Nejad 200, p26). His research sample only included his three children and highly educated citizens with a sigh degree of social and economic class (Geary & Bjorklund 2000, p62). It has been greatly argued that the small size of his sample and the consequent limitation in the population size is detrimental to the empirical strength of the same results being repeated when finding from a large population as in urban areas are generalised along the same theory (Geary & Bjorklund 2000, p62).

As much as Piaget’s cognitive development theory clearly has its strengths in gauging the level of cognitive development in adolescents (Iran-Nejad 200, p17). Constructivists argue that an assumption should be held as true as to the inherent motivating factor that could be reason for a particular attitude towards academic developments (Iran-Nejad 200, p17). Some individuals argue Piaget’s concept bears no empirical proof and as such cognitive developments in some stage are a matter of secondary bioloical abilities (Ormrod 2003, p108). Thus culturally accepted and determined through abilities that are culturally the accepted norm(Jarvis & Chandler 2001, p146).  However insights provided by Piaget have helped researchers in all fields from medicine to psychology to better understand with some degree of predictability regarding the cognitive development of children’s cognition abilities (Ormrod 2003, p108). As such children from various cultures tend to successfully carry out tasks at roughly the same age set and in the sequence first predicted by the Jean Piaget (Iran-Nejad 200, p22).

Piaget was an ardent student of evolutionary psychology and thus most of his basis for the formulation of the theory were indeed natural (Morra 2008, p2-3). To him, the bigger picture of the evolutionary model was ideal for understanding the development of cognitive skills as children grow to adulthood (Pulaski 1971, p205). His Cognitive Development theory tends to support the fact that brains develop and evolve with the aim of solving energing social and enviromental challenges (Iran-Nejad 200, p17).

The lack of evidence to support a universal attainment of a formalised form of operational degree of the development of cognitive skills implying that the role of education has a vital role to play in the development of cognitive skills (Freeman 1989, p208). The absence of this perception in the initial stages of Piaget’s Cognitive Development Theory supported by research findings, such that every individual in the average range of intelligence successfullly reaches the third stage of concrete operations. However, the individual losses the momentum as a  to attain areasonable curicullum goal (Morra 2008, p2-3).


Jarvis, M & Chandler, E 2001, ‘Angles on Child Psychology’’ Nelson Thornes, Cheltenham.

Cole, M & Cole, S 1989, ‘The development of children’,Scientific American Books, New York.

Cummins, D 1998, ‘Social norms and other minds, The evolutionary roots of higher cognition In Cummins, D & Allen, C Eds, The evolution of mind, pp. 30 – 50.

Dore, F & Goulet, S 1998, The comparative analysis of object knowledge, In Langer, J & Killen, M Eds, Piaget, evolution, and development,pp. 55 – 72.

Geary, DC & Bjorklund, DF 2000’ Evolutionary developmental psychology. Child Development, 7: pp. 57 – 65.

Iran-Nejad, A 2001, Constructivism as Substitute for Memorization in Learning: Meaning is Created by the Learner. Education, 116: pp. 16 – 31.

Ormrod, JE 2003, ‘Educational psychology: Developing learner’, Upper Saddle River, Merrill Prentice-Hall, New Jersy.

Freeman, AM 1989,’Comprehensive handbook of cognitive therapy,’Springer, NewYork.

Morra, S 2008, ‘Cognitive development: neo-Piagetian perspectives’, Taylor & Francis, New York.

Piaget, J 1983, ,Piaget’s theory’, In Mussen, P ed, ‘Handbook of Child Psychology’, 4th edition, Vol. 1, Wiley, New York.