Piaget’s Cognitive Development Theory

There are two key aspects of Jean Piaget’s developmental theory. The first is the aspect of knowing and the second is the aspect of acquiring more knowledge. Piaget as a biologist was interested in how organisms adapt. According to Piaget, mental organizations or schemes, as he referred to them, control the behavior of an organism (Learning, 17th June 2008). He further defines the behavior of an organism as the organism’s adaptation to the environment. He goes on to argue that the adaptation is as a result of the biological need for balance between mental organization and the environment.

In his cognitive development theory, Piaget argues that children are born with reflexes, which naturally would affect their behavior as organisms but in humans these reflexes are replaced by acquired behavior. The cognitive development theory further describes two processes, assimilation and accommodation, that are used by humans in their attempt to adapt. Piaget defines assimilation as the process by which humans use or transform the environment to fit into the existing cognitive structures. In his theory, accommodation is defined as the process by which cognitive structures are changed in order to fit into the environment. The theory further defines structures as a complicated behavior. Piaget’s theory suggests that structure also has a tendency to become complicated. Therefore, there is a need to organize them in a hierarchical manner from general to specific structures.

The cognitive development theory by Piaget divides the development cycle into four stages. These stages are infancy, toddler and early childhood, elementary and early adolescent, and adolescent an adulthood (TIP, 15th June 2008). The first stage of infancy or sensorimotor, divided into six sub-stages, is characterized by the use of symbols to show intelligence. Knowledge is limited and is generally based on interaction. The memory ability is developed by the age of seven months. The second stage is the pre-operational or early childhood stage where the use of symbols, language maturity, imagination and memory development are measures of a child’s intelligence. The child in this stage thinks in a self-centered, irreversible and illogical manner. The third is the concrete operational stage, also known as the elementary adolescent stage. In this stage intelligence is viewed through the individual’s ability to manipulate symbols and relate them to abstract objects. The self centered approach to thinking diminishes and is replaced by a more operational way of thinking. The fourth stage is the formal operational stage which contains individuals in their adolescent and adulthood. Initially this stage is characterized by the reappearance of self centered thoughts. Use of logical symbols and the ability to relate them to complex systems is the key manner in which intelligence is quantified.

According to Piaget, not all adults attain this formal operational level as most adults don’t think as prescribed by the stage but think rather “informally”. Piaget further stresses that it is important to model the education system to fit the given theory by putting more emphasis on constructive and discovery learning.

By Shirley J. Caruso, M.A., Human Resource Development


Learning (2008) Piaget’s developmental theory Retrieved on 17 Jun 2008 from

TIP (2007) genetics Epistemology. Retrieved on 15 Jun 2008 from