Jean Piaget: Theory And Stages Of Cognitive Development

All about Piaget’s cognitive learning theory, child development stages, and constructivism.
Everything that you've wanted to know about Jean Piaget's theory and stages of cognitive development.

The Swiss psychologist Jean Piaget used the constructivist theory, a learning theory that explains stages of cognitive development in depth, to propose different child development 'stages' or 'phases' in the field of psychology.

In the following article, we explain everything you need to know about the constructivist theory related to the learning process, and we describe Piaget's stages: sensorimotor, pre-operational, concrete operational, and finally, the formal operational stage from 12 years to adulthood.

Jean Piaget: the pioneer behind child development stages

Jean Piaget was born August 9, 1896, in Neuchatel, Switzerland, and died on September 16, 1980, in Genova. He first became interested in studying animals (mostly mollusks), but later, he studied philosophy and finally, psychology.

Once he became a psychologist, he focused mainly on epistemology -a theory of knowledge- and experimental psychology.

Soon after, Piaget began working in primary schools, and he found what he observed very interesting: the thought processes that the children developed differed from their development stages, as well as the mistakes that they made.

Thanks to this interest, in 1955, Piaget created the International Center for Genetic Epistemology in Genova. Right after creating it, this Swiss psychologist was the first to use expressions like 'constructivist epistemologies,' or in other words, 'constructivist learning theories.'

Besides, he had a genetic focus: his proposal states that there is a natural preestablished 'calendar' for each child's reasoning capabilities. This calendar is made up of four main stages of development.

That said, Jean Piaget is known as the first psychologist to carry out systemized studies on how children acquire knowledge, and he's also known as one of the most influential intellectual figures of the 20th century.

Constructivism: A cognitive theory

The word 'cognitive' refers to the processes related to acquiring knowledge. This word comes from 'cognition,' derived from the Latin word cognoscere 'to know.'

For a long time (even centuries), the question, how do we know?; meaning, how does cognitive development work, has had a strong presence in human societies. And there have been many answers, especially coming from a philosophical lens.

For example, a traditional rationalist would say that knowledge is possible thanks to the internal capacities of human beings, which can act independently from the external environment.

On the other hand, empiricism said that more than internal capacities, knowledge was possible thanks to experiences. In other words, this is accessed via the senses and only through the effects that the outside world provokes on the subject.

Meanwhile, the constructivism theory asserts that knowledge occurs within the subject, but not passively (within the same subject), but rather through contact with the external environment.

The constructivist learning theory

So, based on constructivism, learning is the result of the consolidation and application of different types of knowledge. To that end, knowledge is a process which is built; which is why this philosophical current is called 'constructivism.'

This building process occurs via internal processes within the subject, but always as a result of activities carried out in the external environment. For example, by experimenting with situations and objects, and most of all, by transforming them.

As with almost all philosophical debates, constructivism gradually moved towards studies and psychological applications, and later, pedagogy.

Among other things, it explains the way that we acquire and retain knowledge (how we learn). But, most importantly, it establishes 'stages' or 'phases,' and with this, it eases learning.

As we mentioned before, one of the most iconic authors when it comes to the application of constructivism in psychology and pedagogy, as well as in creating the stages of development, was the Swiss, Jean Piaget.

Jean Piaget's stages of cognitive development

Something that Piaget observed in children was that they continuously created and recreated their own models of reality. Doing all of this through manipulation and experiments with the objects around them.

This leads them to gradually develop on a mental level since in each consequent phase, slightly more complex concepts are mastered: sensorimotor, pre-operational, concrete operational, and finally, the formal operational stage. Let's take a look at the characteristics of each phase.

1. Sensorimotor stage (0-2 years)

Based on this cognitive learning theory, without realizing it, children from 0 to 2 years old, are concerned with just one thing: gaining control over their bodies.

That is to say, during this phase, development focuses on gaining control over innate physical reflexes; which includes eventually being capable of using these movements to carry out activities that result in interest or pleasure.

Slowly, this process allows them to gain awareness of themselves as physical entities independent of other physical entities (for example, their parents or caretakers, and even other objects around them).

It's here that the children acquire basic notions of their body schema, while they learn to crawl, walk, and say their first words. This is when children explore and learn about the world via their five senses.

For example, textures, shiny objects or ones that move and make sounds, etc., could seem attractive to them. For the same reason, Piaget named this phase the 'sensorimotor stage,' referencing the connection between the senses and fine motor development.

2. Pre-operational stage (2-6 years)

Once children gain body awareness, as well as the ability to control their body voluntarily, they become capable of controlling their environment symbolically (not just on a material level).

To do this, they develop internal depictions (thoughts, perceptions) about the world around them. Meaning, they acquire basic representation skills, for example, substituting an object for a word (naming things).

Similarly to the way they learn to manipulate objects with their body in the prior stage, in the second phase, children learn to manipulate words with their minds.

Not only do they acquire abilities related to symbolic function, where egocentrism in their point of view is one of the main characteristics; but the development of intuitive thoughts also takes place. 

Some of the main traits of this phase are curiosity, concentration, conservation, and the use of basic logic.

Piaget named this stage of development the 'pre-operational stage' since its the phase before acquiring the abilities needed to carry out operations; that's to say, to understand and use rules that lead to a specific result.

3. Concrete operational stage (7-11 years)

Since the children are now able to represent the objects around them both mentally and symbolically, they can now think using more complex logic than in prior phases.

In particular, they use inductive logic, that doesn't include the ability to foresee the result of actions nor the ability to change the order nor the relationship between different mental categories either.

For example, learning to categorize objects depending on their similarities and differences; understanding more complex notions of time and numbers; coming to correct conclusions, however, all of this is concerning the concrete material world.

Besides, they acquire the ability to understand things from an external perspective, and with this, they gradually leave the egocentric ways that characterize the prior stage.

Piaget named this child development stage 'concrete operations' because the word 'concrete' means 'exact, precise, or determined;' and this stage is characterized precisely by the mental ability to solve problems related solely with objects or real events (nothing abstract or hypothetical).

4. Formal operational stage (12 years - adulthood)

Finally, the time comes when children can control their bodies, use symbols, solve problems related to a real event, and thus they are capable of reasoning on a hypothetical, abstract, or deductive level.

This last part is achieved precisely in the formal operational stage that corresponds with the Piaget's fourth stage of cognitive development. This extends into adulthood, and the development and then mastery of logical thinking are characteristic of this phase.

Reasoning on a mental level is more complex than in the prior stage which is why more serious conclusions can be reached or rather, more 'formal' operations; for example:

  • Learning to manipulate ideas about things that they can't see

  • Making assumptions

  • Coming up with hypotheses

  • Foreseeing the results of an event

  • Understanding the relationship between different variables in a specific phenomenon

  • Considering the implications of their thoughts, and those of others (they develop metacognition).

  • Applying trial and error logic

The educational implications of this theory

Piaget's theory and stages of cognitive development is one of the most influential philosophies in educational programs across the globe. Likewise, these stages serve as guidelines for parents who choose to homeschool.

This is the case since it helps to set specific educational goals depending on the child's next development stage: you couldn't expect a 7-year-old child to solve a problem where he or she needs to understand that balancing two objects is achieved not only by considering their weights, but also the distance between them, for example.

But, you could expect a 12-year-old to carry out the same operation that requires abilities like coming up with a hypothesis, and testing it through trial and error and anticipating the results.

Likewise, you could expect a 2-year-old during the egocentric thought stage to get frustrated with his parent's negative responses when he wants to do something that they don't agree with.

On the other hand, the constructivism theory of learning sets guidelines for the development of educational materials that promote the abilities of each stage, as well as preparing for the following one.

However, as with other theories, their applications have certain limitations that over time have received critiques both in psychology and pedagogy (and even from Piaget himself).

The main critiques of Piaget's stages of development

The most noteworthy critique of Piaget's stages of development, is that knowledge isn't always acquired linearly, nor through phases that have no connection.

Among other things, the prevalence of the idea in Piaget's theory that suggests that if a child doesn't acquire certain abilities by a certain age, that their delayed cognitive processes are pathological, or at least, that they have to develop during a certain time frame; is a matter that is currently debated by a majority of the scientific community.

With advances in the cognitive sciences, later studies suggest that a lot of the knowledge expected in earlier stages can also be learned later on, and vice-versa.

Besides, they suggest that cognitive maturity isn't reached at the same time for people with all abilities, nor during the same development stage. For example, some children start talking later than others but carry out logical or mathematical operations earlier on, or the other way around.

So, Piaget's learning theory is without a doubt a useful estimation to understand how knowledge and skills are acquired, however, it's always a good idea to stay up to date and compare his views with other more recent studies.



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Jean Piaget (2019). Encyclopaedia Britannica. Retrieved Janaury 24, 2018. Available at

Jorge González, M.A. y Arencibia, R. (2003). El pensamiento psicológico y pedagógico de Jean Piaget. Revista Cubana de Psicología, 20(1).

Lautrey, J. (2002). “Is there a general factor of cognitive development?” En Sternberg, R. J. y Grigorenko, E. L. (Eds.), The general factor of intelligence: How general is it?, Mahwah, NJ: Erlbaum.

Piaget, J., y Inhelder, B. (1973). Memory and intelligence. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul

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