Piaget’s Theory Of Child Development Research Paper

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Jean Piaget’s (1896–1980) theory counts as one of the most influential and enduring theories of cognitive development, and is firmly grounded in biology and epistemology. Although the focus of this research paper is on the child developmental aspect of his work, it is therefore important to review some of the key epistemological concepts that Piaget adopted. Unsolved issues as well as present and future developments of Piaget’s theory are also briefly reviewed.

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1. The Epistemology Of Piaget

Piaget, who trained as a biologist, had as a primary objective to understand the development of knowledge in the human species, rather than to understand why and how children develop. His first originality was to address philosophical questions (such as the origin or the development of knowledge) by empirical means, in particular by relying on the study of child development (supposed to be, at the beginning of his career, a mere ‘detour’ of some years). He established the discipline of genetic epistemology (the term ‘genetic’ referring to the concept of genesis or evolution, as proposed by Baldwin), with the aim ‘to study the roots of the various sorts of knowledge from their most elementary forms on and to follow their development in ulterior levels including scientific thinking,’ and by grounding it in both historico-critical and psychogenetic approaches. Piaget’s epistemology is constructivist, in the sense that knowledge is neither a mere reflection of the external world (realism), nor a projection of pre-existing structures of the mind (nativism), and the origins of knowledge are to be found in the practical and cognitive activity of the subject. Piaget’s epistemology is also fundamentally interdisciplinary.

His primary hypothesis was that intelligence is a form of biological adaptation (e.g., Piaget 1967), that is, intellectual or cognitive behaviors are the products of an organism, in interaction with its environment, and the end point of biological evolution. This is not to say that psychological phenomena can be reduced to biological ones, as Piaget always opposed biological reductionism; intelligence is an organizing activity whose functioning transcends biological organization, by elaborating new structures. The main characteristic common to knowledge and to living organisms is their adaptive character. Adaptation itself, whether biological or cognitive, relies on two mechanisms, defined very early in Piaget’s work, namely assimilation (incorporation of new information into an existing system) and accommodation (modification of existing schemes or structures by newly assimilated elements, so as to respond to the demands of the environment). By so doing, actions and operations become coordinated with one another; such coordinations define a new entity, which in turn constitutes a new object for thought and action. This is the process that Piaget labeled equilibration. Contrarily to frequent, but too simplistic interpretations, equilibration does not correspond to a stable (even if only temporary) state of equilibrium, but is the process of coordination in itself.

As a consequence of the functional continuity that Piaget postulated between biological and psychological entities, a given level of knowledge is always considered to result from a reorganization of the preceding one. Reconstruction means more than a mere addition of elements of a lower type in order to attain a higher level, but implies a total reorganization and a change in scale. One direct consequence of a constructivist perspective is that an epistemologist or a psychologist studying any level of development will ask what characterized the preceding level and will stress developmental progression towards higher levels. An essential mechanism for this reconstruction is reflecting abstraction, that is, a process by which the subject extracts characteristics or coordinations from actions or operations; it is called ‘reflecting’ both because it consists of a mental reorganization and because it implies a reflection or a transfer onto a higher level of what was established at a lower level. Reflecting abstraction is contrasted with empirical or simple abstraction, which bears mainly on observable characteristics of objects or classes of objects.

2. The Psychology Of Jean Piaget

Piaget’s psychology of intelligence is the most universally known part of his work, even though he himself did not consider it the main part (e.g., Piaget 1947, 1970, Piaget and Inhelder 1966). His theory transformed the field of developmental psychology by providing it with a new vision of the development of the child, to the extent that almost every developmental study has some connection with a question Piaget raised. Intelligence is defined as the most general form of coordination of the actions and operations that characterize the various developmental levels, and not as a mental faculty or an entity in itself; it develops through a succession of general stages, defined by overall structures (‘structures d’ensemble’). Piaget was not interested in individual or task-specific performances, but in the generic behavior of subjects in classes of situations.

The successive stages or levels are general structures, which appear in a fixed order of succession, but are not necessarily tied to a given age, and which are such that a given structure n integrates, as a substructure, the preceding structure n 1. The number of stages defined in Piaget’s publications varied from three to five. Most often, he referred to four stages: (i) the sensorimotor stage (approximately the first two years), itself consisting of six substages, or three periods, in which practical schemes develop, among which is the scheme of object permanence (operationalized by the study of the search for hidden objects), one of the most studied domains in present day infancy research; (ii) the preoperational stage from approximately 2 to 6 years of age, also labeled representative (prerelational and intuitive, or prelogical) period, made possible by the emergence and the development of the symbolic function; (iii) the concrete operational stage (7 to 12 years) during which invariants (conservation), logical classes and relations, the concept of number, as well as different concepts of space develop, all of which are marked by reversibility; and (iv) the formal operational stage, during which adolescents develop hypothetic deductive reasoning (i.e., beyond concrete objects and actions), and experimental schemata. Piaget used abstract algebra to formalize the underlying structures: a group of displacements for the sensorimotor stage, groupings for the concrete operational stage, and a group of four operations (INRC group) for the formal operational stage. He also attempted to formalize the pre-operational stage by means of the logic of functions. Other cognitive activities such as mental imagery, perception, memory, and language were always dealt with by Piaget in relation to the development of operational structures. They were termed ‘figurative’ because they attempt to represent reality as it appears. Figurative activities are contrasted with (and subordinated to) ‘operative’ activities which attempt to transform reality (e.g., Piaget and Inhelder 1966b).

Although Piaget grew less and less interested in the description of these general stages, this is probably the feature of his theory that has been most often retained and criticized. In particular, the generality of the stages was questioned by the existence of ‘decalages,’ that is, temporal lags between acquisition of concepts supposed to pertain to the same level. Readers of Piaget have often overestimated the necessity of synchronism in acquisitions across situations as implied by the theory. It should be stressed that Piaget did not postulate that the generality of structures meant strict synchronism, even though some of his writings were admittedly ambiguous with respect to this issue (e.g., Chapman 1988).

3. Factors Of Development

Piaget described four factors of development: (i) organic growth, and maturation of the nervous and endocrine systems; (ii) experience, which Piaget further decomposed into a factor of physical experience (actions exerted upon objects in order to extract their properties by simple abstraction) and a factor of logico-mathematical experience (extraction of knowledge by reflecting upon actions, whether effective or mental); (iii) social interactions and transmission; and (iv) equilibration. This last factor was undoubtedly the most important for Piaget; whereas he often paid little more than lip-service to the first three factors, he spent considerable time in demonstrating the necessity of equilibration, which he considered to account for the ‘vection’ or direction of development (Piaget 1975). Majoring equilibration (‘equilibration majorante’) is seen as the causal mechanism underlying the progression of cognitive development. It is a dynamic sequence of states of disequilibrium–equilibrium and embodies the organism’s strive toward a more general equilibrium. Equilibration is the only mechanism, according to Piaget, that can account for the emergence of novel behavior, even though more recent work has disputed the idea that Piaget’s theory can really account for the emergence of novel behaviors. Cognitive structures are put into disequilibrium by perturbations which resist the assimilatory process and lead to errors or failures of action. Re-equilibration is made possible by regulations, which entail the modification of an action as a function of feedback regarding its previous outcomes, ultimately leading to compensatory reconstructions. Equilibration is thus necessary when contradictions and cognitive conflicts arise, hence the importance given by Piaget to cognitive conflict as a source of cognitive development.

4. Unsolved Issues In The Piagetian Theory

Piagetian theory has been subjected to numerous criticisms (probably proportional to his production) on the part of developmental psychologists, only some of which are summarized here; most critics addressed, however, only isolated elements of the theory or failed to take into account the fact that Piaget’s project was essentially epistemological. First, numerous decalages, which could not be predicted by the theory, have been observed between concepts supposed to belong to the same structural level; between-task correlations are relatively low, implying that all tasks do not measure the same construct. This led a number of researchers to claim that development is domain specific. Moreover, the concept of overall logico-mathematical structure proved very difficult to operationalize. Second, Piaget’s portrait of the child appeared too universal and focused on the subject, independently of his/her cultural environment. Third, the theory placed too much emphasis on the development of logic mathematical thinking, as contrasted with other forms of thinking. Fourth, Piagetian theory did not provide sufficient information on learning mechanisms and on the effects of training. Consistent with his epistemological project, Piaget was indeed interested in demonstrating the commonalities, in terms of general mechanisms, between learning and development rather than in focusing on the specificities of learning. Linked to this is the difficulty for the Piagetian theory to account for the appearance of novel behaviors. Finally, like many other, general psychological theories, Piaget did not take into consideration individual differences; however, it has been shown that the variability in performance, whether intra-or inter-individual, is much larger than could at first be suspected and constitutes a fundamental phenomenon rather than mere noise.

5. The Heritage Of Piaget

Despite the criticisms addressed to the theory, Piaget’s theory leaves an enormous heritage, some of which is no longer even acknowledged, because it has been incorporated into developmental psychology, almost as truisms. First, the constructivist view of development that Piaget defended is presently widely held by cognitive developmentalists, as well as by educational and cognitive psychologists. Likewise, the concepts of assimilation and accommodation, even though probably too general, are adopted by a large number of theoreticians. The view of children as active thinkers has also been generally adopted. Second, although there was a period in the 1960s and 1970s during which a large number of developmental researchers argued for domain specificity in development and against the existence of general stages, there is a growing consensus that the characterization of human cognitive development needs something more general than a long list of specific concepts, even if less general than the cognitive structures defined by Piaget. In any case, most developmentalists see the need for structural analyses that transcend any particular cognitive task. Similarly, the concept of scheme (defined as an invariant abstracted across several actions, to which new actions or objects can be assimilated and which allows for generalizations) has been retained and is close to other concepts such as schemas or scripts proposed in cognitive psychology. Third, although the construct of equilibration has been criticized for being too fuzzy, similar conceptualizations are now being proposed, whether by dynamic systems theoreticians, or by neo-Piagetians.

Last, but not least, Piaget contributed enormously to the research methods used in developmental psychology, even though he was criticized for not using a standard, quantifiable methodology. He pioneered the use of a clinical method (later to be called critical method), in which the researcher probes for the child’s understanding through repeated questioning. Piaget insisted that the child’s incorrect responses reflect a complex, underlying cognitive system, and should not be merely recorded as failures. Also, Piaget’s work was and still is a source of very ingenious empirical techniques, in many different fields; Piagetian measures such as conservation, class inclusion, spatial representation, perspective taking, object permanence, moral judgment, transitive inference, and many others, have each produced countless studies by researchers around the world. Most of these tasks were very productive, because they produced data that were both counterintuitive and generative of hypotheses about the way children think.

6. Beyond Piaget’s Theory

As mentioned in the previous section, the Piagetian theory is still very active, not only in developmental psychology, but in neighboring fields too; many researchers around the world continue working with Piagetian tasks, even if they do not always acknowledge it, or even know it. Also from an empirical perspective, a flourishing new direction, which is very much in the spirit of Piaget’s theory, is that of the ‘theory of mind.’ From a theoretical point of view, the core part of the theory has been retained while giving rise to new developments, as should be the case with any sound theory. Only some concepts were really abandoned, the best example of which is the logicization of overall structures. Without pretending to be exhaustive, two directions, at present, appear to be very close to Piaget’s proposals, and promising for the future, namely the neo-Piagetian models, and the application of dynamic systems modeling to developmental psychology.

The objective of the neo-Piagetian models, initiated by Pascaul-Leone and exemplified by scholars such as Robbie Case, Kurt Fischer, Graeme Halford, and Robert Siegler (e.g., Case 1992, Case and Edelstein 1993, Pascual-Leone 1987) was to provide a response to some of the questions left open in Piagetian theory, while preserving most of its core postulates. These models have in common the search for isomorphisms or invariants across different classes of situations. As a consequence, they have maintained or rehabilitated (after the emphasis on domain specificity mentioned above) the notion of general stage; however, the structuralist features are quite different from those postulated by Piaget. First, the hypothesis of a unique, general, logical structure underlying the organization of all behaviors at a given moment of development was abandoned, and replaced by more local ones, thereby granting more importance to context. Second, isomorphisms across domains are considered to result from common constraints or ‘strictures’ rather than from a common structure: general limits in processing resources or attentional capacity impose a ceiling on cognitive performances while allowing for situational and individual variability. Third, the importance given to context has as corollary a much stronger emphasis on task analysis, that is, on an analysis of the characteristics of external situations together with an analysis of the strategies that children adopt when confronted with these situations and of the processing load that these strategies entail. The challenge now is to understand under which conditions characteristic forms of reasoning are most likely to emerge, and why they do not despite the presence of sufficient general resources. Fourth, some neo-Piagetians also assign a more fundamental status to individual differences; consequently, they claim that there may exist different developmental paths for different types of subjects. This implies that development is no longer led by a single, dominant general mechanism such as equilibration, but that several general mechanisms may interact to produce development, leading to a postulate of multidimensionality and multidirectionality in development (Reuchlin et al. 1990; Rieben et al. 1990). Such a postulate has long been adopted by lifespan developmentalists (e.g., Baltes et al. 1998), but took longer to be envisioned by child developmentalists.

A new, promising way of theorization is provided by nonlinear dynamic systems theories. Such models can be used to detect, and then model, developmental transitions, that is, changes from one stable mode to another one. The emphasis is on self-organization, which can be linked to Piaget’s concept of equilibration. Although some scholars have begun to use nonlinear dynamics to build specific models of processes of development, particularly in the field of motor development or in conservation tasks (e.g., Thelen and Smith 1994, Van Geert 1994), these are only the preliminaries, and are still to be taken as metaphors; moreover, they require heavy methodological designs. Nevertheless, such attempts, which may help uncover discontinuities, i.e. stages, under what appears to be continuous change, could help bring explicit modeling into developmental psychology.


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