Jean Piaget's Genetic Epistemological
Theory of Development
Jean Piaget was a native of Switzerland. He had a background in the natural sciences—biology. He was primarily interested in how knowledge developed through biology.
Piaget created and was director of the International Center for Genetic Epistemology from 1955 until his death. He also started the School of Sciences at the University of Geneva.
He was also active in UNESCO, serving as a Swiss delegate. He is the author of over 50 books and 100 articles, some of which were written with colleagues. He is considered one of the most influential developmental theorists of the 20th century, as founder of the Geneva School of psychology.
Basic Constructs of Piaget’s Theory
Genetic epistemology is the study of how knowledge (I.e., intelligence) develops.
Piaget specifically wanted to know:
How does knowledge grow; that is, how is intelligence created?
According to Piaget, Knowledge development is a progressive construction of logical structures, each of which leads to higher and more powerful adult structures. His early studies convinced him that children’s thinking is qualitatively different from that of adults. He reported that it progresses through four stages: sensorimotor, preoperational, concrete operational, and formal operational (Bergen, 2008, p. 94).
His later theories focused more on the functions of thought rather than its structures and on specific cognitive abilities such as memory; he saw functions as invariant across life, whereas structures varied as knowledge developed (Bergen, 2008, p. 94).
According to Piaget, knowledge construction is built overtime through the dynamic process of active engagement with the environment. “It occurs through the exploration of the objects (and later, the ideas) in the environment; using existing schema (organized action and mental connections). (Bergen, p.95).
In older children, these develop into cognitive schema.
Knowledge construction is a biologically based process, necessary for human survival (p.95).
Constant Components of Knowledge Construction
- the internal component of knowledge. Comes from biological structures and biologically based functions. How knowledge is internalized. Knowledge develops through the interaction between biological maturation and environmental experiences.
Adaptation-the change in behavior or thought that makes evident the organization that has occurred. Adaptation is furthered by 2 processes:
--Assimilation—learning to associate knowledge and use it (constructing understanding).
(Occurs with a new object (or idea) is incorporated into an existing schema).
--Accommodation—reorganizing knowledge to build on the previous knowledge learned.
(Occurs when an existing schema cannot incorporate the new object (or idea)
but must be changed to accommodate the new).
—the ongoing interaction between the acquisition of knowledge, how
to use it and formulation of schemas or a conceptual framework. (The dynamic interplay between assimilation and accommodation, which drives the adaptation process. When equilibrium occurs, there is a balance between the structures of the mind and environmental experiences.)
disparity in levels of logical reasoning for different tasks; occurs because equilibrium may not be reached across all knowledge domains at the same time.
thinking processes from lower states that reoccur at higher stages, is evidence of invariant aspects of knowledge construction.
Sources of Knowledge
According to Piaget, knowledge is constructed from 3 sources, all of which are facilitated through the equilibrium process:
--interaction with the physical world (physical knowledge);
--comparisons of relationships among objects/ideas (logico-mathematical knowledge); &
--knowledge that must be transmitted by other humans (social arbitrary knowledge).
Piaget’s Stages of Knowledge Progress (Cognitive Development)
Sensorimotor Stage (Birth to age 2): During this period, infants use their senses and
motor abilities to gain knowledge about the world.
There are six sub stages of this period:
(Stage 1: birth to 6 weeks): Infants use their reflexive actions such as sucking to interact with the environment.
Primary Circular Reactions
(Stage 2: 1 to 4 or 5 months): Infants repeat over and over reflexive actions such as thumb sucking, mouthing every object, etc.
Secondary Circular Reactions
(Stage 3: 4 to 10 months): Infants act on the objects in the environment to get responses, such as squeezing a toy to get a noise. They may search for an object if it is partially visible.
Coordination of Secondary Schemes (Stage 4: 8 to 12 months):
By this age, infants can coordinate a number of schemes to reach a goal. For example, if an object is out of reach, they may use another object to pull it closer. They also begin to anticipate events and begin to show object permanence.
Tertiary Circular Reactions (Stage 5:
12 to 18 months):Toddlers act on objects to get a response and then continue to elaborate the action to get different responses, such as using a stick first to hit a drum, then a block, then the table, etc.
Invention of New Means by Mental Combinations (Stage 6:
18 to 24 months): Toddlers can symbolize mentally, using language, pretend play, deferred imitation, and mental combinations to solve problems, such as opening a door to drive a toy car through or finding a cup to feed a doll. Their action schemas are differentiated in relation to their increased social knowledge, such as making a doll walk and a car drive with the accompanying vocal noises. The appearance of language and pretend play are strong indicators of the ability to engage in symbolic thought. These abilities signal the end of the sensorimotor period and demonstrate the beginnings of symbolic representation.
Preoperational Stage (2 to 7 years): While children do not display logical thought through mental operations they can use mental representations to manipulate symbols.
In solving a problem, children will focus on one characteristic, but not take into account related characteristics. (e.g., children can see height but not width.)
They are more likely to accept what they see rather than using logical thought.
They have difficulty mentally reversing an action.
They have difficulty distinguishing between living and nonliving things. If it moves or acts, it may be judged as alive (such as clouds).
They are not able to see objects from another’s visual perspective; they think their perceptual view is the same as that of a person standing on the opposite side of an object. They use egocentric speech. They believe others have the same beliefs they have. They also leave out important detail that another might need to know. They get upset when they are not understood, even though they may not have stated their wishes clearly.
Concrete Operations Stage (7 to 11 years). Children can use logical mental operations to solve problems. They can use symbols and manipulate symbols logically. They can
only do this in concrete situations and are not able to see things abstractly.
They can consider more than one characteristic of an object or event when making decisions.
They understand that a quantity remains the same even if its appearance changes, as long as nothing has been added or taken away.
They understand that logical actions may be reversed. For example, taking the volume from one container and placing it into a different-size container.
They can order objects according to length, width, and other dimensions. This ability also is necessary for mathematical thinking— such as, ordering and counting
They can categorize according to more than one dimension such as color and size and can begin to do hierarchical classification or class inclusion (e.g., category of birds includes robins, pigeons, etc.).
Formal Operations (12 years to adult): They can apply logical mental operations to
abstract problems. This is a primary mode of thinking in adolescence. It is reported
that although adults have the capability of formal operational reasoning they usually
do not use such reasoning in all areas of life, but use it primarily in “scientific” or logical reasoning situations.
They can think of many possible solutions to problems and test each of these systematically. This reasoning does not necessarily have to be related to actual facts or ideas. For example, they can explore such questions as, “What if coals were black, the world was flat, etc.
They can use properties of logical reasoning to solve abstract problems (such as proportional reasoning and transitivity to solve abstract problems).
If they reason incorrectly, they can become aware of inconsistencies and mistakes in reasoning and use mental checks and balances to rethink problems and change their answers.
They can establish long-range goals and complete detailed projects, without being distracted by immediate concrete experiences.
Role of Play in Knowledge Construction
Piaget believed that children use play to construct their knowledge of the world by trying to relate their new experiences to their existing cognitive schema. By watching children’s play, Piaget believed that adults could gain great insight into children’s thinking.
For the ages 6 months to 3 years
, the most prominent type of play is practice play,
which involves repeating similar play actions on toys or other objects to master their use, with gradual elaboration of these actions. As actions are mastered, the child continues to change the play making it more difficult or adding new elements.
By the final sensorimotor stage
, pretense play
becomes the major mode and continues through the ages 4 to 7 years
. Pretense play often begins with adult facilitation but extends into very elaborate social pretense with peers (socio-dramatic or fantasy play) through the preschool and early elementary years.
nvolves many cognitive processes such as role and perspective taking, social comparison, language narration, and social script knowledge.
In pretense play
, children can create worlds that make sense to them. Adults can understand much about their understandings and misunderstandings by observing their pretense.
It is reported that children with developmental problems may have difficulty taking appropriate roles and understanding scripts because of the cognitive requirements of pretense (Bergen, p. 101).
The third type of play is Games with rules.
This is evident in one-rule games (e.g., social turn taking) at the toddler and preschool age. This type of play becomes predominant in the concrete operations stage of cognitive development. In this mode of play the children are in charge of the rule making, and the rules change as they negotiate to make the game sensible as well as enjoyable for a range of players with varied skill levels. Much of the time is spent in discussing the rules and changing them to be “fair” and adapting rules to make the game more fun for the players.
Role of Language in Knowledge Construction
For Piaget, language has both a nature and nurture component, and language development is an essential ingredient in the development of mental operations. He saw the transition from the sensorimotor stage to mental representation states as being signaled by three events: object permanence, language, and pretend play, all of which require the ability to engage in symbolic thought.
Moral Development as Knowledge Construction
Piaget believes that through peer play in games with rules, children begin to move to higher stages of moral development because they must discuss rules and decide issues of justice (fair play) to have the game continue.
Piaget also developed his own theory about moral judgment which included three levels: heteronomous/moral realism (ages 5 to 10); intermediate (ages 8 to 12) and autonomous/moral cooperation (ages 11+).
Source: Bergen, Doris. (2008). Human development: Traditional and contemporary theories. New Jersey: Pearson-Prentice Hall.
Related Learning Links
Is a depository of information on Jean Piaget, his biography, theories and writings.
This site is dedicated to the work of Jean Piaget and states that it is a "society for the study of knowledge and development." See the resources for students and links. Site also includes a biography of Jean Piaget.
About the life and contributions of Piaget.