Support and Criticism of Piaget's Stage Theory

Statue of Jean Piaget
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Jean Piaget's theory of cognitive development is well-known within the fields of psychology and education, but it has also been the subject of considerable criticism. While presented in a series of discrete, progressive stages, even Piaget believed that development does not always follow such a smooth and predictable path.

In spite of the criticism, the theory has had a considerable impact on our understanding of child development. Piaget's observation that kids actually think differently than adults helped usher in a new era of research on the mental development of children.

Support for the Theory

Piaget's focus on qualitative development had an important impact on education. While Piaget did not specifically apply his theory in this way, many educational programs are now built upon the belief that children should be taught at the level for which they are developmentally prepared.

In addition to this, a number of instructional strategies have been derived from Piaget's work. These strategies include providing a supportive environment, utilizing social interactions and peer teaching, and helping children see fallacies and inconsistencies in their thinking.

Problems With Research Methods

Much of the criticism of Piaget's work is in regards to his research methods. A major source of inspiration for the theory was Piaget's observations of his own three children. In addition to this, the other children in Piaget's small research sample were all from well-educated professionals of high socioeconomic status. Because of this unrepresentative sample, it is difficult to generalize his findings to a larger population.

Piaget's research methodology is also problematic due to the fact that he rarely detailed how his participants were selected. Most of his work includes very little statistical detail about how he arrived at his conclusions.

Another issue lies with Piaget's lack of clear operationally defined variables. In order to replicate his observations and objectively measure how one variable leads to changes in another, researchers need to have very specific definitions of each variable. Much of the terminology related to Piaget's theory lacks these operational definitions, so it is very difficult for researchers to accurately replicate his work.

Developmental Variations Exist

Research has disputed Piaget's argument that all children will automatically move to the next stage of development as they mature. Some data suggest that environmental factors may play a role in the development of formal operations.

The theory seems to suggest that reaching the formal operational stage is the end goal of development, yet it is not clear if all people actually fully achieve the developmental tasks that are the hallmark of formal operations. Even as adults, people may struggle to think abstractly about situations, falling back on more concrete operational ways of thinking.

The theory also seems to suggest that intellectual development is largely complete by the age of 12. More recent research demonstrates that the teen and early adult years are a period of important cognitive development as well.

The stage approach is viewed as problematic as well. Stage theories have fallen out of popularity in modern-day psychology for a number of reasons. One of these is that they often fail to accurately capture the many individual variations that exist in development.

The Theory Underestimated Children's Abilities

Most researchers agree that children possess many of the abilities at an earlier age than Piaget suspected. Theory of mind research has found that 4- and 5-year-old children have a rather sophisticated understanding of their own mental processes as well as those of other people.

For example, children of this age have some ability to take the perspective of another person, meaning they are far less egocentric than Piaget believed. Some research has shown that even children as young as age 3 have some ability to understand that other people will have different views of the same scene.

Piaget's Legacy

While there are few strict Piagetians around today, most people can appreciate Piaget's influence and legacy. His work generated interest in child development and had an enormous impact on the future of education and developmental psychology.

While his research methods were imperfect, his work did pioneer the development of what is now known as the clinical method. This approach involves conducting intensive interviews with subjects about their own thought processes.

Piaget's theory also helped change the way that researchers thought about children. Rather than simply viewing them as smaller versions of adults, experts began to recognize that the way children think is fundamentally different from the way that adults think.

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Article Sources
  • Santrock, John W. (2008). A Topical Approach to Life-Span Development (4 ed.). New York City: McGraw-Hill.
  • Hopkins, JR. The enduring influence of Jean Piaget. Observer, November; 2011.