Who was Jean Piaget 1

The Piaget development stage model

Biography Jean Piaget

Development stages as [printable PDF version]

Jean Piaget (1896 - 1980) developed the theory of "genetic learning" (also "structural-genetic" theory), which deals with the explanation of the cognitive development of children. The focus is on the interaction between a child and its environment. Piaget is referred to as the "father of developmental psychology" (see Spektrum der Wissenschaft, 2002).

His findings are based on the observations of his own children, who made certain (thinking) errors depending on their age. With this approach, Piaget clearly differed from experimental psychologists who use (and use) complicated test arrangements for research in specially set up test laboratories.
Piaget examined the structure of children's logic on the basis of his empirical observations of natural behavioral processes and developed an epistemological justification from this: He established the connection between children's thinking and the developmental phase. In short: he devoted himself to observing the child's development of thinking.

Based on his observations, Piaget built his model of the four developmental stages, according to which every person goes through these phases or stages of cognitive development in the course of his development. According to Piaget, the phases are universal, i.e. they occur in all cultures.
Each of these stages / phases is characterized by specific features. It is particularly relevant that children's thinking differs from the thinking of an adult in every (developmental) stage. If something is plausible and logical for an adult, it does not have to appear plausible and logical for a child as well.
It is important that the levels build on each other, but the age assigned to each level is only to be regarded as a guide: the transitions between the individual levels are fluid and the respective age can vary individually (see Piaget & Inhelder, 1972, p. 153 )

The stages of development according to Piaget:
(Depending on the author, there are slight differences in the names of the phases / stages)

Before discussing these four stages in detail, let's look at some basic assumptions of the Jean Piaget model; these basic assumptions serve as the basis for the four stages of the child's development of thought.

According to Piaget (see Mietzel, 2001, 75), four factors have an influence on cognitive development:
- maturation,
- Active experience,
- social interaction,
- Striving for balance.

According to Jean Piaget, an individual strives for a balance (equilibrium) between assimilation and accommodation.
By assimilating and accommodating, an individual uses or extends their schemes.

In case this sentence was not entirely understandable - here comes the explanation:

Adaptation (adaptation to the environment)

A scheme forms the Basic building block of human knowledge. A schema is an organized pattern of knowledge or behavior.
Terms are branched out and networked with one another in such a way that they are brought into an (individual) logical context. A scheme serves as a 'mental template' (template), for example for an action with which one - without thinking - can act in the same way.
Schemas are individual (i.e. different in each person) categories or networks in which objects or events can be classified according to certain rules.

Piaget differentiates between schemes
(a) Behavior patterns (also action schemes) such as a scheme for running, a scheme for lying down, a scheme for stooping, etc. and
(b) cognitive schemas such as schemes for objects, which is built on the basis of their properties.

Behavioral schemes and cognitive schemes are in turn linked with one another so that mixtures result, as the adjacent diagram of a scheme shows.

Schemas develop through the differentiation of knowledge (accommodation,see below). For example, a child knows that you have to bite more carefully into a cookie than into bread because of the crumbs.

In this context, a branched system of index cards can be imagined under scheme: You have created an index card for 'bread', which contains a description of how to deal with 'bread'.
So you use this index card system in order not to have to get used to every new situation.

Example of a scheme:


Please imagine how inconvenient it would be if nobody knew how to handle food: You get a slice of bread and you don't know what you can or should do with it. So give it a try ... but you cannot save the knowledge you have gained.


Quotes on schemes according to Piaget:
"It [the term schema] refers not only to organized patterns of behavior, but also to internalized thought patterns." Mönks & Knoers (1996, 151)
"The terms Scheme and structure are initially used as an abstraction and as a categorizing summary of modes of action. "Oerter & Montada (1998, 548)
"Piaget was convinced that children 'construct' their schemata through their interaction with the environment." Mietzel (1998 a, 73)
"From around the age of 2, the child has not only sensorimotor but also cognitive / operational schemata. These schemata can be described as the basic structures of the thought process." Mönks & Knoers (1996, 151)
"A scheme enables the child to create new ones Reactions to be learned through accommodation. "Mönks & Knoers (1996, 151)

In the case of an infant, there are still few such schemes or "index cards" available, but these increase significantly with increasing age and with increasing exposure to the environment. The corresponding "index card" is opened when a stimulus requires a reaction - and the child 'knows' how to react.

The adaptation (adaptation) of the existing schemes - i.e. the individual knowledge networks - to a current situation takes place via assimilation and accommodation.

"Piaget viewed cognitive development as an event of the constant interplay of assimilation and accommodation. Assimilation preserves and expands what already exists and thus connects the present with the past, and accommodation arises from problems posed by the environment, i.e. from information that is not to fit what you know and think. " Zimbardo & Gerrig (1999, 463)

assimilation(Alignment, approximation, amalgamation, structure preservation)
Means assimilation Incorporation of new experiences or experiences into an already existing scheme
Through assimilation, stimuli from the environment are classified into what is already known. The existing knowledge is used to classify a situation that appears to be similar. If necessary, the perception is changed / reinterpreted in such a way that the existing cognitive structures (schemas) are sufficient to cope with the situation.

Example assimilation:
One child has already learned that
- an apple has to be brought to the mouth,
- the mouth has to be opened and
- a piece has to be bitten out.

If this child now meets a pear, assimilated the child [After all, apples and pears also look similar] and goes with the pear just like with an apple around


Quotes on assimilation:
According to Piaget, assimilation means the classification of environmental experiences in already existing subjective reference systems. The information that the individual receives is changed in such a way that it can be inserted into the existing scheme. See Zimbardo (1992, 66)
Assimilation: "Incorporation of objects into the schemas of behavior; schemata that are nothing other than skeletons of actions that humans can actively repeat in reality"; Piaget, 1948 "Krech & Crutchfield (1992, Vol. 4, p. 41)
"[...] because to assimilate means to modify the object according to one's own action and one's own point of view, that is, as a function of a" schema "." Piaget (1975, p. 348)

Accommodation (Adaptation, accumulation, enrichment, environmental adaptation)
Accommodation means that Extension or adaptation of a scheme (i.e. the cognitive structures) to a perceived situation that cannot be mastered with the existing schemes.
Accommodation only comes about when assimilation is insufficient to cope with a situation, i.e. a situation or a stimulus cannot be integrated into an existing scheme. The existing schemes are insufficient and need to be expanded.
One adapts to what is found, whereby the scheme is expanded and thus differentiated. Accommodation means adapting the existing cognitive structures in such a way that they (again) correspond to reality and are useful for improved (since more differentiated) problem solving in the future.

Example accommodation:
The attempt of a child to suckle on a building block is supported by assimilation if the building block appears similar to an edible object. However, since the building block does not contain any food, assimilation is not enough to cope with this situation. The child has to accommodate: The scheme is expanded (perhaps by adding: Not blue, not made of wood, ...) to the index card 'Food'.

If a situation cannot be mastered successfully by using the contents of existing schemes [assimilation], the corresponding scheme must be expanded to include the new knowledge [accommodation].


Quotes on accommodation according to Piaget:
If there is an adaptation to a situation or an object, Piaget calls this process accommodation of the schema to the object. See Oerter & Montada (1998, 548)
"Piaget calls adaptation to reality Accommodation. "Oerter & Montada (1998, 523)
"In the case of accommodation, the schemes themselves are changed in order to be appropriate to the information or so as not to be in conflict with other schemes or the overall structure." Zimbardo (1992, 66)

"From a pedagogical-psychological point of view, it is important that a learner initially interprets new things against the background of what is already known. ... There would be no reason to question and expand this knowledge if (him [Linus, example. P . 72]) would not be given an opportunity to gain experience in handling biscuits. " Rent (1998 a, 73)

Image source: Mietzel (1998 a, 72)

In this example, Linus first tries to assimilate: He tries to handle the biscuit as he is used to with bread: You can bend a slice of bread. After a few unsuccessful attempts accommodated he: A biscuit can Not to be equated with bread. Although both are something edible and baked, there are differences. A biscuit is different from a slice of bread - the existing scheme must be expanded (accommodation) as it is not enough.

"Indeed, one finds accommodation and assimilation at all stages of the development of intelligence, but they are always better differentiated and complement each other better and better in their growing equilibrium." Piaget (1975, p. 207)

Assimilation:What is perceived fits into the already existing, cognitive structures (schemes).
Accommodation:The cognitive structures (schemes) must be adapted to the new situation, as the existing structures are not sufficient for the solution.

Adaptation / equilibrium(Striving for balance)
Assimilation and accommodation are forms of adaptation (adaptation) of the individual to his environment. Living organisms strive for a balance (equilibrium) between assimilation and accommodation.


Quotes on equilibrium according to Piaget:
"Equilibrium describes at its simplest level a balance between assimilation and accommodation." Lefrancois (1994, 129)
"The tendency to adapt can be described as the innate tendency of every organism to adapt to its environment. This tendency to adapt consists of two components or two complementary processes: assimilation and accommodation. "Mönks & Knoers (1996, 149)
"Equilibration means finding equilibrium. The impulse for differentiating existing structures, for their internal coordination or integration, ie for building increasingly complex structures, comes from the experience of an" imbalance ", which is failed attempts at assimilation, contradictions between various attempts at assimilation, cognitive conflicts. Oerter & Montada (1998, 553 f)

Fig. 92
Image source: Mönks & Knoers (1996, 152)


Stages of cognitive development

Let's summarize:
According to Piaget, there are four phases or stages in the child's development of thinking (also: "the cognitive development").
Each of these levels builds on the previous level. Piaget believed that all children go through these stages in the same order, although the pace of development may be different. "It should be noted once and for all that age information in this book always only means an average and still approximate age" (1977, note 1, p. 119). "Lück & Miller (1999, 134) is particularly relevant Knowledge of the levels, e.g. for educators, teachers or parents.

The levels illustrate, for example, the importance of working with examples and symbols during the first years of school; this information could thus be incorporated into lesson planning.
Attempts should be made to present problems to a child at an appropriate level of difficulty according to their level of development. A very active concept of upbringing can be derived from the approaches of Jean Piaget, which is based on the world of the child (and not the world of the adult).

Overview of the four stages of development:



Sensorimotor phase

0 to 2 years old - infancy

A child gains experience in the first two years of life
with his sense organs (senso = sensual, concerning the senses) and
with his movements (motor skills = movement processes).
With each month of life, the child's movements get better, as the child varies and increasingly coordinates different possibilities.

During the sensorimotor stage of cognitive development, intelligence only occurs in the form of motor activity in response to sensory stimulation (cf.Mönks & Knoers, 1996, 154)

Piaget divided the sensorimotor level into six sub-levels:

0 to 1 month of life: innate reflex mechanisms
From birth, a baby is equipped with certain reflexes (sucking, swallowing and grasping reflexes). The organism shows spontaneous activities.
"The reproductive or functional assimilation that this exercise ensures continues, on the other hand, in a generalizing assimilation (empty sucking between meals and sucking on new objects) and in a recognizable assimilation (differentiating the nipple from other objects)." Piaget & Inhelder (1972, 18)
"Practicing leads to the consolidation of the given schemes and their adaptation to the respective circumstances, thus already to their differentiation: sucking on the mother's breast is something different than sucking on the bottle and the thumb; [...]" Oerter & Montada (1998, 520)

1st to 4th month of life: Primary circular reactions
Activities limited to one's own body. Actions with pleasant consequences are repeated.
The hand accidentally touches the lips. Since this activity is perceived as pleasant, the child tries to bring his hand to his mouth (thumb sucking).
"The child builds up his knowledge of this world by first gaining experience on his own body through active action, and later on the circumstances of his environment. ...
The only way to think is to do something with the things you find - that is, to look at them, to touch them, to put your mouth and reach for them. While it is working in its object world, it receives feedback via its sense organs; it repeats those activities that produce interesting effects. Piaget speaks of "circular reactions". "Mietzel (1998 a, 79)
"A schema is the structure or organization of actions as they are carried over or generalized when that action is repeated under similar or analogous circumstances." Piaget & Inhelder (1972, p. 19)
"Schemes of action, such as sucking, grasping, looking at an object, are being applied to more and more objects and other environmental areas.Piaget calls this, based on biological processes, the generalized assimilation, "incorporation" of objects, people, environmental conditions into one's own "action organs or schemes". "Oerter & Montada (1998, 520)
"Throughout life, we try to assimilate new problems with familiar schemes and concepts, i.e. to solve them with those concepts that are familiar to us." Oerter & Montada (1998, 523 f)

4th to 8th month of life: secondary circular reactions
The child discovers that through their own activities they can cause certain effects in the environment. Actions can be used as a means to an end. There is therefore the possibility of differentiating between the desired goal / the desired reaction and the means used to achieve the goal.
In some sequences the child experiments with this possibility of influencing the environment:
Accidental knocking of a bell. The child apparently likes the sound, as they repeatedly hit the bell to make it ring.
Objects are retained from around the eighth month of life even if they are no longer seen: The previous "out of sight - out of mind" is replaced by a cognitive existence (i.e. an inner image of the no longer visible object).

8th to 12th month of life: Intentional behavior
(Intention = intentional, intentional, here: purposeful)
Transfer of already known effects to an activity in new situations. By trying it out, the schemes of action are further refined through adaptation. Furthermore, the existing schemes are better coordinated (the sequence of movements becomes more fluid).

12th to 18th month of life: Tertiary circle reactions
The child tries to find out when and why certain events occur. It reveals interest in every new stimulus situation. Here, too, it is important for the child how they can influence the environment themselves. By the Experimenting in the Environment new action schemes are created.
The child examines different 'spray techniques' while bathing. It can hit the water with its own hand or with the play duck and the water splashes differently ...
"He [the child] systematically tries different ways of throwing a ball: with one hand, with both hands, from a small height, from a great height, etc." Oerter & Montada (1998, 521)

18th to 24th month of life: transition to the pre-operational phase
Some of the results of an activity can be foreseen. Experimentation as to how an action can be carried out 'best' becomes unnecessary, since actions are carried out internally and planned ahead can be.
At just under two years of age there is an 'inner image' of an object: the child "can deal with this object" in the spirit "without it having to be physically present." Zimbardo & Gerrig (1999, 464)
Object permanence: In addition to actions, objects (such as a toy) are also retained, even if they disappear from the field of perception (previously, the principle "out of sight - out of mind" applied, ie there is a toy that the child can no longer see not in the child's mind either).
"The Internalization of actions characterizes the transition to thinking. "Oerter & Montada (1998, 521)



Pre-operative phase

2 to 7 years - kindergarten and preschool age


Thinking is still full of logical errors, since childlike thinking is dominated more by perception than by logic. For example, at the beginning of the preoperational phase, children believe that a boy can become a girl if he plays girls' toys (e.g. dolls).

anthropomorphism (or the tendency to humanize)
Kindergarten children tend to humanize objects. For example, if a child hurts himself at a table, it is the angry table that intentionally stood in the way or intentionally wanted to hurt the child.

Magical thinking
In preschool age, childlike thinking is often magical: circumstances are ascribed to the work of higher powers. Contrary to scientific explanations, the "magically thinking" children consider phenomena to be controlled by higher forces.

It is increasingly possible for the child to imagine complete actions on a mental level if these actions have already been carried out in "real life".

Children imitate what they have observed: they play the role of their parents, drive a car or act out situations and characters that they have observed on television.

In the pre-operational phase, a misunderstanding is often "learned" which is countered by set theory:
You show a child apples and show them one after the other: "one", "two", "three". In the faulty adaptation, the child adopts the name "three" for the third apple. When asked "Give me the three!", The child gives the third apple - instead of all three! In this case the child has no concept of a set and transfers "three" as the name of the third apple.

The "transfer task" (part 1)
Piaget's best-known attempt at "logical errors" is certainly the pouring exercise: children were shown a wide container with liquid and the liquid was poured into a thinner container in front of the children. At the beginning of the preoperational phase, children are of the opinion that the amount of fluid has changed. Only when they are around 7 years old (transition to the phase of specific operations) do children "know" that the amount of fluid does not change when they are poured over.

From about 4 years (intuitive [clear] phase) some "logical errors" decrease, but thinking is very selfish and strongly dominated by perception. The child thinks egocentrically: it has its point of view and considers its point of view to be the only possible and therefore the only correct view.
"An egocentric child is unable to adopt the point of view of others." Lefrancois (1994, 131)
"Egocentrism does not mean self-centeredness here, but the difficulty of imagining a scene from someone else's point of view." Zimbardo & Gerrig (1999, 465)
It should be noted that egocentrism is NOT to be confused with egoism, but means the child's own point of view.

The child considers his (current) view to be the only view, not one of many.
Piaget clarifies this thesis with his 'three-mountain experiment': A (approx. 4-year-old) child can only 'understand' his or her current perspective. Depending on the point of view of the three model mountains, there is only one point of view.

Image source: Oerter & Montada (1998, 525)

The child cannot imagine the field of vision of pos. 2 or pos. 3 from the field of vision pos. 1 - even if it has previously looked at the other two perspectives.
The child is limited to their own view / point of view and is not able to take or adopt another point of view or another point of view.

"Interview excerpt (Hall, 1970):
Piaget: "... The self-centered child - and all children are self-centered - regards his own point of view as the only possible one. He is incapable of putting himself in someone else's position because he does not know that the other person is a Point of view. "
According to this, a child seems to assume that all social partners think and feel in the same way as they do themselves.
Rent (1998 a, 84 f)

"- Peter, do you have a brother?
- Yes.
- What's your brother's name?
- Hans.
- Does Hans have a brother too?
- No. "Mönks & Knoers (1996, 157)


Piaget speaks of 'centering' when a child is judging only on each a Feature can pay attention.


Attention is limited to one feature or point of view:
In one experiment, children were given bars that they were asked to sort according to size.

In some cases, the goal was achieved, as shown in the figure on the right:
A two to three year old child has usually carried out an incorrect sorting of the bars - two bars can be compared and sorted: the top bar is larger than the second bar from the top; the second from the bottom bar is larger than the bottom bar.
However, the children lacked an overview, they only paid attention to one feature when solving the task (bar 1 is larger than bar 2) - but not to the sorting of all four bars (1> 2> 3> 4)

"The child understands something about classes because it can identify objects; however, its understanding is incomplete because it cannot yet distinguish between apparently identical members of the same class ..." Lefrancois (1994, 132)

Phase of the concrete operations

7 to 12 years - primary school age

  From the age of seven and eight, perception no longer has such a major impact on the formation of judgments.
Concrete thinking operations become possible: The child can consider several dimensions of a situation: Classes, series and numbers are no longer a problem either.

The "transfer task" (part 2)

"While the pre-operational thinking child is mostly still fooled by his perception impression, as a concrete operational thinker he knows the correct answer. If a quantity is not added to or taken away from a quantity, this is how he explains his answer, it remains unchanged (aspect of identity). Also if the column of liquid looks higher in one glass and lower in the second, the seven or eight year old child takes into account both height and width (aspect of compensation). " Rent (1998 a, 86)

If the contents of a wide vessel are poured into a thinner vessel, the contents seem to have increased. The phase of the concrete operations is characterized, among other things, by the fact that the child has a logical understanding of the invariance: If nothing changes in the amount (it is not poured in and nothing is lost), the amount remains the same. The child therefore judges by logic and not by perception.

Understanding invariance indicates that children at this stage can perform further mental operations. They can mentally transform information and even reverse the order of cognitive processing. They now rely on concepts rather than what their perception of them is or lets you feel. " Zimbardo & Gerrig (1999, 465)

Image source: Oerter & Montada (1998, 526)

The concrete operational thinker also manages to add subclasses (e.g. white pearls + brown pearls = wooden pearls) and the conclusion (e.g. wooden pearls - white pearls = brown pearls). See Mietzel (1998 a, 87)

For many concrete thinkers, however, it is still very difficult to understand unrealistic assumptions (“Assuming cars could fly, ...).

Hypothetical deductive thinking
The transition from the phase of concrete operations to formal operations is characterized by the mastery of hypothetical-deductive thinking:
If two assumptions are true, a deduction from them must also be true (inclusion relationship):
a) All people are mortal.
b) My father is human
From this it should follow: -> My father is mortal.


Formal operations phase

from approx. 12 to 15 years - adolescence


By reaching the stage of formal operations, the individual is able to completely solve problems on a hypothetical level. Logical conclusions are just as possible as the mental variation of variables.
A young person can also grapple with unrealistic assumptions about what plays an important role in various sciences: "What if ..."
They are able to ask hypothetical questions ("What if someone had eyes on the back of their head?") And come up with logical evidence of abstract problems.

Problems are dealt with systematically, which is illustrated by an experiment by Piaget and Inhelder from 1958, in which the test subjects were given five glass vessels with a colorless liquid. You should find out which two liquids mixed together would make a yellow liquid. Many formal thinkers found the solution by trying out all possible combinations according to plan (see Mietzel, 1998 a, 84)

"The first (Piaget, 1961) is a simple test of verbal reasoning of the type: A> B; A


Exercise slide for the phases

Worksheet for "Piaget's Introduction to Cognitive Development"

Worksheet for "Piaget - Development of Thought"

An important goal of "development aid" in the sense of Jean Piaget should be to enable and stimulate independent development. Only the individual himself is active in his development. The more opportunities are offered to deal with one's environment, the more positive human development is. Piaget viewed intelligence as a special case of biological adaptation. The task of the environment consists in the provision of materials and the creation of problem situations that arouse children's interest and stimulate independent, active problem-solving.
This goal is closely related to constructivism.