Cognitive Development

     There are two classical theories of cognitive development. The one that I will
focus on is Piagetís theory of cognitive development. Jean Piaget, a Swiss,
educated, mollusk biologist lived from 1896 to 1980. He hypothesized that
learning is a physical, biological function of dealing with successfully with
the environment. (Phillips, 1998) This is the basis for his theory. Looking at

Piagetís theory of cognitive development in more detail we find that he based
it on two biological tendencies. The two tendencies are organization, and
adaption. Organization as Piaget saw it said that humans are designed to
organize their observations and experiences into coherent sets of meanings. (

Eggen, 1999) This organization of observation makes the thinking process more
efficient. If a person can put the things they observe in some sort of order the
easier it is to remember and apply their observations. If we did not organize
our observations and experiences we would have little bits of information
floating around in our brains with no connection between them. Adaption is
according to Piagetís theory is the tendency to adjust to the environment.

Adaption is a process by which we create matches between our original
observations and new ones that might not exactly fit together. Our original
observations and conceptions are called our schemas. To adapt to new
observations and experiences into our schemas we use one of two techniques. We
can assimilate that information by putting it together with old schemas or
conceptions. If the observations donít fit nicely into our existing schemas we
use the second of the adaption techniques. We accommodate or change our schema
to fit our observation. Piaget never said that our schemas had to be right or
wrong. Our schemas are based on our own observations and experiences. ( Eggen,

1999) We adapt to things because we are driven by the urge to have things "fit
together" or to be in what Piaget calls equilibrium. As we use our adaption
and organization we constantly get things to fit together. There is other
biological functions that also help in cognitive development. Normal growth of a
person helps a person to adapt and perceive things better. Social interaction is
also a biotic factor in cognitive development. Humans use other humans to check
their own schemas with others. We learn to use others thought relationships to
help them fit their schemas together better. Piaget used the two biological
tendencies and other biological functions of humans to come up with four stages
of cognitive development .( Eggen, 1999) Piaget said that each developing human
must go through each stage in order. The first stage is the sensory-motor stage.

The approximate age of the humans in this stage is birth to 2 years. Piaget says
that children learn through manipulating concrete materials. Half-way through
this stage the child has the ability to know that when an object leaves their
view they donít cease to exist they still are part of the physical world. This
is the concept of object permanence. It also allows the child to hold a concept
in their mind. The Second stage of Piagetís cognitive development is the
pre-operational stage. This stage occurs from 2 - 7 years of age and in it
children master many symbols and concrete concepts. In this stage the child is
also very egocentric. They have a hard time looking at more than one
characteristic of the object their experiencing. In the third stage called the
concrete-operational stage, children age 7- 11 start to think logically, learn
about the law of conservation, and serial ordering. Conservation is the concept
that matter is always the same despite the change in shape of an object. Serial
ordering is being able to recognize that things can be put in order. The forth
and final stage is the formal-operational stage. From age 12 to adult, learners
are able to think abstractly about real objects. They also use reasoning and
logic to think abstractly about those objects. In this highest of the stage of
development learners start to use complex language forms such as metaphors and
the like. There are some weak points of Piagetís theory. The first is that

Piaget underestimated childrenís capabilities. Most children mover through the
first two stages much faster than Piaget said they would. On the other hand the
last two stages Piaget overestimated the abilities of humans to master the
stage. We must realize that because of the other biological factors each child
will go through each stage in their own time, so at a given age not all children
are at the same cognitive stage.( Eggen, 1999) To apply Piagetís theory in the
classroom, we should remember the students developmental level and gear our
teaching toward that. To have 2nd graders thing abstractly is an impossibility.

They would never completely understand the concept because they are not ready
developmentally. Since Piagetís theory revolves around the biological adaption
to environment we need to teach so that students can see relationships between
concepts. One way to do that in elementary schools is to teach with thematic
units. This lets the students relate all subject together through the main


Eggen, P. Educational Psychology, New Jersey: Merrill-Prentice Hall, 1999

Phillips, D.C. Perspectives on Learning, New York: Teachers College Press, 1998