Discussion about Piaget’s Theory

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Discussion about Piaget’s Theory

Discussion about Piaget’s Theory

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Discussion about Piaget’s Theory of Cognitive Development

To properly understand Jean Piaget’s theory of cognitive development, it is important to consider it within the larger context of his work. Although Piaget is recognized as one of the greatest developmental psychologists, he described his own work as “genetic epistemology.” Genetic (Greek genno = give birth) here refers to the origin and development of knowledge, rather than to genes, as the word is used today. The main goal of Piaget’s epistemology was to explain the generativity and rigor of human knowledge. Generativity refers to novelty and invention, whereas rigor refers to logical necessity: that an answer must necessarily and logically be true, could not be otherwise, and must universally hold to be true for all rational persons.

Even though Piaget also approached the genesis of knowledge from the perspectives of phylogeny and the history of science, the major portion of his work addressed this issue by studying the development of knowledge in children. In this way, Piaget addressed fundamental epistemological questions about the origin, development, and validity of knowledge in general. He concluded that the development of knowledge is a constructive process, and he emphasized the child’s active role in the construction of knowledge: knowledge is constructed through a process of active exchange between the individual and his or her environment. Piaget’s constructivist theory is essentially a theory of dynamic self-organization, which is rooted in biological functioning, with cognitive development representing the extension and continuation of this process of biological self-organization to a new level of functioning. This process of cognitive development results in the construction of increasingly advanced forms of thinking that Piaget described as progressing through a series of stages.

Piaget’s Constructivist View of Knowledge and Development

Theories of development are based on views of the nature of knowledge, and therefore, Piaget argued that it is essential to examine foundational assumptions about the nature of knowledge. He argued against “copy theories” of knowledge, according to which knowledge consists of acquiring images, pictures, or representations that match reality. A flaw in these theories is that it is not possible to check the accuracy of such copies except by comparing them to reality itself. But such comparisons are not possible according to copy theories, because the point of the copy was to provide knowledge of reality; if we could directly access reality in order to compare our representations against it, we would not need such representations in the first place. Therefore, this view does not explain the development of knowledge about the world; instead, it already presupposes its existence.

For Piaget, knowledge, rather than consisting of images or representations, is built up through action on the world, through coming to know what can be done to aspects of the world. Acquiring knowledge through action begins in infancy with simple acts such as pushing and pulling, and continues throughout development, because, according to Piaget, even the most sophisticated forms of thought are interiorized actions, now carried out mentally. Knowledge is not innately preexisting within the child, nor does it arise solely from empirical experience with objects, such that this experience produces a simple copy of the object. Rather, the essential characteristic of Piaget’s constructivism is that intelligence is constructed through the child’s continuous interaction with the world. In this sense, Piaget considered his constructivism a third way that avoids the problems with both nativism and empiricism.

Central in describing the process of development are Piaget’s concepts of scheme, assimilation, and accommodation. These concepts describe the functional relation between the individual and the world at any point in development. A scheme is a general structure that is applied in a particular situation and it is that aspect of any activity that can be generalized. For example, at the sensorimotor level, schemes are general patterns of activity that can be repeated, such as the sucking scheme, which can be applied to different objects. Assimilation is the incorporation of objects or events into an already acquired pattern of activity, or scheme. By integrating objects and events into preexisting knowledge structures or schemes, assimilation gives them meaning (e.g., “suckable”). Infants not only suck on nipples, but also on fingers; that is, a finger may be assimilated to the sucking scheme. But because of differences in the experience of sucking a finger (e.g., it provides no nourishment), the infant differentiates this experience and accommodation is said to have occurred: patterns of activity differentiate to allow for the assimilation of novelty. Assimilation and accommodation are inseparable and describe two fundamental aspects of any activity in the process of adapting to the world, i.e., acquiring knowledge.

The concepts of assimilation and accommodation have several implications. First, they express the idea that development is a continuous process that, at the same time, leads to structural change (differentiation and integration of knowledge structures). Second, activity is always organized in the sense that it is based on a structure (otherwise objects interacted with would be devoid of meaning). Structures, however, do not exist as an entity in the mind that results in reasoning; rather, they exist as potential coordinations of operations. Third, assimilation and accommodation continue, on a functional plane, the material process of self-organization (metabolism), thereby securing the continuity between biological and psychological functioning.

Based on this constructivist view of knowledge, Piaget described a series of stages, or forms of thought, in the development of intelligence. These stages build on each other and, therefore, necessarily develop in the following sequence.

Sensorimotor Intelligence

During the first stage of cognitive development, infants interact with the world through sensorimotor patterns of activity that gradually come to be differentiated and coordinated, as a result of interaction with the world. Because of the relative lack of differentiation and integration of action patterns, infants’ experience of the world is undifferentiated from and fused with their own activity on the world. Piaget argued that the infant’s initial experience of the world is centered upon her own body, which he referred to as egocentrism. This does not mean that the child is focused on herself (self-centered), but rather that she has not yet constructed an understanding of herself as an object existing among other independent objects.

Over the first one and half to two years of life, this initial egocentrism, or centration on the self as the reference point of epistemic experience, is gradually overcome, thanks to the functional interplay of assimilation and accommodation. Piaget described this process as occurring over a series of 6 substages. To get a sense of how radical Piaget’s theory is consider that it is during this period that, according to Piaget, the infant gradually constructs a sensorimotor, practical understanding of what will only later be reflectively understood as space, time, causality and objects. For adults, such a conception of the external world is simply taken for granted, and assumed to be given by perception. Yet, according to Piaget, infants must gradually construct such an understanding of the external world.

Particular interest was generated by Piaget’s description of infants’ development of object permanence; that is, infants’ growing understanding that objects exist as “things out there,” independent of their own activity. During the sensorimotor period, object permanence undergoes a systematic, stagewise development. For example, at substage 3 in the development of object permanence infants will not search for an object if it is completely covered, but they can retrieve an object if part of it is still visible. At substage 4, infants can successfully search for an object even it is completely covered. However, if they have found it under cover A, and then they see it placed under cover B, they will still continue to search for it under A. This curious phenomenon, referred to as the A not B error, has generated a great deal of research. Piaget’s explanation for this characteristic error is that the object is not yet sufficiently separated from the infant’s own action of finding it in the first location. With increasing integration and combinations of schemes, the object will eventually be conceived of as external to and separate from the infant’s own activity: The more an infant can do with an object (e.g., grasp, suck, look, drop), and the better they can coordinate these action schemes, the more the object takes on an existence independent of the infant’s activity.

Sensorimotor intelligence is practical or lived knowledge, which means that such knowledge is dependent on interaction with objects and is not yet reflective in nature. Further development requires a gradual process in which this knowledge is conceptualized and reconstructed at a higher level, within the organization of the succeeding stage. The sensorimotor stage ends with the emergence of the symbolic or semiotic function, the ability to use symbols or signs to represent object or events that are not present. The semiotic function is made possible by the interiorization of imitative actions such that these actions are performed internally and serve as images for the signification of schemes.

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