3.4 Child Development: Do you know Jean Piaget’s Cognitive Interaction Theory?

Chapter THREE


3.4 Discuss Jean Piaget’s Cognitive Interaction Theory

Jean Piaget’s Cognitive-Interaction Theory

Since the 1930’s until his death Swiss psychologists and biologist Jean Piaget had been studying the development of cognition (the process of thinking and understanding).  His work proved to be very important for the insight it provided into children’s behaviour. Piaget wanted to understand what knowledge is and how people acquire it, and he approached the question of adult knowledge by investigating children’s knowledge.  He asked two basic questions: Why do children and adults think differently in similar situations? What causes human knowledge to change over time?


In his studies, Piaget found that children have different levels of understanding at different ages.  Their responses to a situation are determined not just by the situation alone but by how they understand the situation.  This is the heat of the Cognitive –Interaction theory. Piaget does not think of knowledge as something that exists independently in the external world and that a person can simply acquire. To him, knowledge is a creation resulting from the interaction of the person and the environment. He sees knowledge as constructed or created gradually as the child interacts with the environment.  The Child is therefore active in the construction of his own knowledge.


Piaget proposed two processes to explain how knowledge is created and changed over time.  Assimilation is the process of taking in information about the environment and incorporating it into an existing knowledge structure (scheme). A scheme is a way of thinking about something or about an event. For example,  a child that has seen dogs can be said to have a dog scheme, which may cover medium-sized, four legged animals found in people’s houses.  The first time this child sees a cat, she may call it a dog because that’s the most appropriate scheme she has. Gradually, as she sees more cats and notices how they are different from dogs, she develops two schemes, one for cats and one for dogs.  This process of changing knowledge structures in order to incorporate new knowledge is known as accommodation.


Our schemes are always inadequate to handle all our experiences (Piaget, 1963), so assimilation tends to distort information from the environment to make it fit available schemes.  Eventually, these distortions are corrected as we change schemes to accommodate the new information. In this way our schemes come to conform more closely to the world around us. The 2-year old changes her “dog scheme” to exclude animals that meow and climb trees, and she develops a ‘cat scheme” that includes these characteristics.  Eventually her schemes will accurately reflect all the characteristics of both types of animal.


The processes of assimilation and accommodation occur simultaneously. Piaget uses the term equilibration to refer to the process by which assimilation and accommodation attempt to balance each other. Piaget came up with a stage theory of development.


Piaget’s Stages of Development

Assimilation and accommodation lead not just to more knowledge but also to reorganizations of knowledge and different ways of thinking.  The points at which this reorganization takes place marks the beginnings of different stages. Each stage is characterized by a unique way of thinking.


The first stage is referred to as Sensori-motor Stage. It corresponds to the age of 0 to 2 years. During this stage the child learns through senses and actions. Thus the schemes are tied to action. The child learns by doing.  From the age of 2 to 6 years the child is said to be in the Preoperational Stage during which knowledge is acquired through symbols. A symbol is something that is used to represent another thing. A good example of a symbol is a word. The name of a person is not the person. It is simply a language symbol that represents the person. The 7 to 12 years old child is said to be in the Concrete Operational Stage. The child continues to acquire knowledge symbolically. However he is now capable of thinking logically but is limited to concrete objects and events. Finally the child enters the Formal Operational Stage at approximately 12 years of age. A major achievement in this stage is the ability to think abstractly. Piaget believes that cognitive development is a product of the environment and the biological factors. It is therefore referred to as a Cognitive-Interaction theory.

Definition of key terms

Further Reading



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