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Critically evaluate Piaget's theory of cognitive development.

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Critically evaluate Piaget's theory of cognitive development Piaget has been described as the father of cognitive psychology (Shaffer, 1988) and his stage theory as the foundation of developmental cognitive psychology (Lutz & Sternberg, 2002). It is not possible to describe Piaget's empirical findings and theory in only 1,500 words. Instead, I will briefly review the theory's scope, comprehensiveness, parsimony, applicability, heuristic value and methodological underpinning. I will then evaluate in more detail the theory's utility in describing and explaining cognitive development. Historically, Piaget's ontological approach was ground-breaking with its focus on the qualitative nature of cognition and its constructivist perspective. The theory itself is wide-scoped (universal), comprehensive (covering a broad spectrum of cognitive achievement) and elegantly coherent (from neonate to adult). It remains profoundly influential on cognitive psychology and continues to be widely applied in childcare and educational settings. Piaget's theory is parsimonious in its commonality of approach to a broad range of complex phenomena with key interlinking concepts. Inevitably, such an ambitious theory has generated a wealth of research, some supporting, some supplementing, some extending and some disputing aspects of Piaget's theory. Some of the weaker aspects of Piaget's theory appear to arise from his 'clinical method' of using observational behavioural data to infer conclusions about children's underlying cognitive competences. Longitudinal data, ideally suited to monitoring progression, was only recorded for his own three children.


Siegler (1998) suggests that catastrophe theory (a mathematical theory which examines sudden changes) explains both the continuous and discontinuous appearance of cognitive development. The forces that lead to the collapse of a bridge may build up over a period of years, however the bridge's visible collapse appears as a sudden event. Analogously, a child may suddenly solve a problem that she could not solve the day before, but her progress may be due to experience and improved understanding acquired over preceding months. Thus cognitive development may be viewed both as a continuous process of small, imperceptible amendments or as a discontinuous shift from one state to another - depending on when and how closely viewpoints are taken. Bloom (2002) provides a similar argument in refutation of 'spurts' in word learning. Piaget initially argued that his stages are universal, ie that they apply to everyone irrespective of their individual experience. Recent research suggests that cultural practices are related to children's proficiency on tasks (Rogoff, 1990). Piaget (1972) always acknowledged the impact of social and cultural contextual factors on cognitive development but came to revise his claim that his stages are universal, eg by recognising that achieving formal operations is dependent on exposure to the specific type of thinking found in science classes and on individual motivation to undertake certain types of task.


and is supported by research into the innate social characteristics of young infants (Meltzoff & Moore, 1994 amongst others cited in Smith, Cowie & Blades, 1998). Information-processing theorists (Case, 1985,) have also explained the contribution of specific areas of cognitive development, such as memory and attention. Other theorists (Karmiloff-Smith, 1992) have incorporated a combination of approaches into a more holistic explanation of cognitive development. In conclusion, Piaget's theory appears only broadly accurate in its description of cognitive development. Its explanation of cognitive development is inadequate; only acknowledging but not fully examining the role of social, emotional and contextual factors, underestimating the existence of innate cognitive abilities (Flavell, Miller & Miller, 1993), and ignoring the complex role of language in cognitive development. Nonetheless, Siegler (1998) describes Piaget's work as 'a testimony to how much one person can do'. The theory's heuristic power is undeniable: recent studies of cognitive development have focussed on previously unsuspected cognitive strengths in children and on a broader range of children's thinking than that investigated by Piaget (Kohlberg, 1984). The theory's longevity is certainly warranted for its originality and inspiration to others. According to Piaget "the principal goal of education is to create adults who are capable of doing new things, not simply of repeating what other generations have done - who are creative, inventive, discoverers" (Piaget, 1977 cited in Shaffer, 1998). By this standard, Piaget and his theory of cognitive development must be judged a success for current cognitive psychology.

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