Jean Piaget’s work on childhood development has been profoundly influential in the field of education. Through years of study, he discovered that there are four main stages in children’s development, each stage consisting of groupings of distinct cognitive abilities.
Like most theories, Piaget’s has been exposed to the elements over the years and people build careers by picking at the holes and sagging spots. I’m not going to pick because it’s unnecessary, there are a plethora of people who will do that for you on command. However, I will mention that while the following stages are good outlines, definite crossovers have been observed. For example, some children in Piaget’s second stage exhibit behaviours which are prescribed to start in the third stage, some in the third exhibit traits in the fourth. There are also cases of exceptional children, gifted individuals whose blatant disregard for the rules of normal development make us all look bad.
Regardless of exceptions and annotations to the original formula, Piaget’s stages are worth knowing for their overall contribution to the field. They are as follows:
1. The sensorimotor stage. Birth to 2 years.
In this stage, a child understands the world through movement and use of the senses. Eventually they begin to understand objects through repeated exploration and will learn that an object exists even when they can’t see it. In some philosophical leanings however, this assertion never stops being questioned (did that falling tree make a sound?).
2. The preoperational stage. 2 years to age 6 or 7.
In this stage a child learns to think symbolically. Most notable is the development of language; the ability to transform symbols to words and idea. Children think mainly in present terms, though they begin to develop an understanding of past and future. Lastly, a child in this stage will assume people see things from their viewpoint and have a hard time understanding abstract concepts. They are very egocentric. Some adults never make it out of this stage. I don’t need to because I’m wonderful.
3. The concrete operations stage. Age 6 or 7 to age 11 or 12
Children begin to develop logical reasoning sequencing abilities. They can imagine and grasp things that occur outside their own lives. They begin to have abstract reasoning skills and are able to perform math operations. Abstractions are still largely based on concrete experience, i.e, counting groups of blocks to learn addition. That being said, for most people the counting of lists items on fingers is a method utilised well into adulthood.
4. The formal operations stage. Age 11 or 12 to about age 15.
In this final stage, a child progresses to deducing problems and solutions as well as reasoning hypothetically. By approximately the age of 15, children can use formal logic and understand moral issues. Living by moral assertions is in another developmental category altogether and bears no age label.
It does not surprise me that most points Piaget observed over a hundred years ago have been challenged. However, the basic idea that children mature in stages and are capable of learning only what they are developmentally ready to learn made the biologist ridiculously famous. Piaget’s developmental stages still influence our education system today.
It may not seem overly impressive, common knowledge usually doesn’t once it’s become common knowledge, but if Piaget hadn’t thought of it, who knows where we’d be? Prodigies like Mozart and Joan of Arc could still be throwing the curve measuring the average for musical ability and leadership skills. If Piaget hadn’t begun working out the normal stages of cognitive development for us, maybe we’d think we were stunted if we didn’t play the piano like a god by age two or exhibit leadership skills verging on warlord by the age of 12.
Thank you Piaget, thank you from the bottom of my developmentally average heart.