Exploring children's learning
Exploring children's learning

This free course is available to start right now. Review the full course description and key learning outcomes and create an account and enrol if you want a free statement of participation.

Free course

Exploring children's learning

4.4 Structure and stages

Piaget's developmental processes can be described in the context of infant behaviour to show how they explain behaviour becoming more adapted, in a step-by-step way. First, the infant develops the ability to combine different schemas in order to achieve new ends. Then, the child represents schemas ‘internally’; they become representations of actions (‘operations’). Finally, by the age of 2 years, the child becomes capable of combining representations into sets of actions. He saw one of the goals of the first 2 years of life as being the achievement of a set of operations that are represented as a structure; not just a random collection of unconnected actions, but a co-ordinated set of possibilities for manipulating the world.

Piaget's theory described four stages of intellectual development: these are outlined in Box 4.

Box 4 Piaget's stage theory of development

Stage 1: Sensori-motor stage (from birth to about 2 years)

Children are born with innate behavioural patterns (reflexes), which are their first means of making sense of their world. Children can take in new knowledge and experiences as far as they are consistent with their existing behaviours. Eventually they begin to generate new behaviours in response to their environment (schemas). As contact with the environment increases, they develop more elaborate patterns of behaviour. This stage ends when children are able to represent their behaviours internally.

Stage 2: Pre-operational stage (from about 2 to 6 years)

Children begin to use combinations or sequences of actions that can be carried out symbolically. For example, putting two objects together can be represented symbolically as an abstract mathematical principle (addition). However, at this stage children are only able to perform them as actions in the real world rather than to represent them symbolically.

Stage 3: Concrete operations stage (from about 6 to 12 years)

During this stage children are mastering the ability to act appropriately on their environment by using the sequences of actions they acquired in the pre-operational stage. They develop the ability to generate ‘rules’ based on their own experiences (e.g. noticing that adding something to a group of objects always ‘makes more’). Children can now manipulate their environment symbolically too, so they can imagine adding ‘more’ to a group of objects. They are still only able to understand the rules that they have had concrete experience of, but can now begin some mental manipulation of these concepts. What they are unable to do at this stage is use rules to anticipate something that could happen, but that they have not yet experienced.

Stage 4: Formal operations stage (from about 12 years onwards)

By this stage children can reason in a purely abstract way, without reference to concrete experience. They can tackle problems in a systematic and scientific manner and are able to generate hypotheses about the world based on their accumulated representations of it.

Each stage is, according to Piaget, marked by characteristic modes of thought. The general progression through the stages is such that thought, and consequent action, become progressively less ‘centred’. Through increasing abstraction of representation, ‘mental operations’ become less tied to concrete realities and egocentric perceptions.

Using the word ‘stage’ to describe a period of development suggests that children do different things at each of these stages. This idea of stage makes it possible to describe these changes in terms of particular behaviours and ways of solving problems that appear to dominate in particular age ranges. However, it should be noted that Piaget's theory recognises that some children develop more slowly or faster than others, and the development of an individual child may not be maintained at a constant rate. For example, illness can slow development down and, when they have recovered, children often show a spurt of ‘catch-up’ growth, both mentally and physically.

An implication of Piaget's theory is that there is some sort of abrupt change or discontinuity in development that establishes a boundary between one stage and the next. Indeed, if there is no such boundary implied, then it is rather dubious whether we would be justified in calling a particular period a ‘stage’ at all. But using the word ‘stage’ also often carries with it a notion of sequence, that one stage must follow another stage in a set order, or even that there is a causal relationship in which the completion of one stage is deemed a necessary condition for the transition to the next one. Piaget's stages form a necessary sequence, with no child missing out any of the stages, nor passing through them out of sequence.

So, how did Piaget determine when a child passed from one stage to the next? This was achieved by administering sets of experimental tasks, each task being linked to a core concept associated with a given stage of development. For example, pre-operational children, in Piaget's theory, are basically egocentric, centred on their own perceptions because they are still very tied to the concrete world and their actions on it. Also, because this group of children lack the ability to reflect on operations, their understanding of the world tends to focus on states, rather than on transformations. Similarly, such children are unable to comprehend points of view different from their own.

One of the concepts that Piaget suggested was absent from pre-operational children's representation of the world was conservation – the understanding that a quantity will be the same, even if its manner of presentation changes. For example, a quantity of water remains the same whether it is presented in a tall, thin glass or a short, wide glass. His conservation of liquid task involves three basic steps:

  1. The child is shown two identical transparent beakers, each about two-thirds full of water. They are placed side-by-side in front of the child. The experimenter seeks the child's agreement that the quantities of water in each are the same, if necessary adding or taking away small amounts until the child is satisfied.

  2. The water from one beaker is all poured into another beaker, which is either taller and narrower than the first one, or shorter and wider.

Typically, up to the age of about 6 or 7 years, children will assert, when asked, that the amount of liquid has changed. If the children are then asked why this is so, they will tend to say something like ‘because it's taller’. The children's answers seem to indicate that their judgement of quantity is centred on the visual change brought about by the transformation (see Figure 6).

Figure 6: (a) Identical beakers of water. (b) Water is poured from one beaker to another which is either taller and narrower or shorter and wider. (c) Comparison of water levels in different sized beakers (adapted from Light and Oates, 1990)

Piaget considered conservation (the understanding that a quantity remains the same, in spite of any transformation of the way in which it is presented) not just in relation to amounts of liquid, but also in relation to mass, volume, weight, area, length and number. For example, to assess conservation of mass, a child is shown two balls of clay and asked whether each ball has the same amount in it. When the child is satisfied that both are equal, one of the balls is rolled out into a sausage shape and placed alongside the other, untransformed, ball. Then, just as in the conservation of liquid task, the child is asked whether there is more material in the sausage shape, or less, or the same amount. A ‘non-conserver’ will now say that the amounts are no longer the same, as the sausage shape now has more in it.

Piaget's theory involves the child progressively becoming freed from the constraints of their own perspective and the concrete objects around them, as mental operations become more abstract. This process reaches its end-point in Piaget's final stage, when operations become wholly abstract and the child becomes able to reason purely hypothetically and systematically.

Clip 3

Download this video clip.Video player: This extract taken from ED209: Child Development.
Skip transcript: This extract taken from ED209: Child Development.

Transcript: This extract taken from ED209: Child Development.

Narrator:
The Swiss psychologist, Jean Piaget, investigated children’s cognitive development by administering sets of experimental tasks. Children’s performance on these tasks reflected their stage of development and these tasks have come to be seen as classic experiments in developmental psychology. One of the concepts that Piaget suggested was absent from pre-operational children’s representation of the world, was conservation: the understanding that a quantity will be the same even if its manner of presentation changes.
Kieron Sheehy:
Does this one have more play dough, does this one have more play dough or do they have the same amount?
Imogen (age 5):
They have the same.
Kieron Sheehy:
They have the same amount, right, okay now. Watch, if I do this, you leave that one, Okay. Now, does this one have more play dough, does this one have more play dough or do they have the same amount?
Imogen:
This one has more play dough.
Kieron Sheehy:
That one has more play dough, now how do you know it’s got more play dough?
Imogen:
Because it’s not like that one.
Kieron Sheehy:
It’s not like that one, yeah?
Kieron Sheehy:
Does this one have more play dough, does this one have more play dough or do they have the same amount?
Lewis (age 4):
That one has more in it.
Kieron Sheehy:
This one has more play dough? How do you know it’s, has more play dough?
Lewis:
It’s because it’s longer.
Kieron Sheehy:
’Cos it’s longer. Right.
Kieron Sheehy:
Is there more play dough in this one, is there more play dough in this one or is there the same amount?
Meryn (age 6):
I don’t know.
Kieron Sheehy:
You don’t know.
Kieron Sheehy:
Is there more play dough in this one, more play dough in this one or is there the same amount? What do you think?
Huwie (age 6):
There’s more play dough in this one.
Kieron Sheehy:
Is there more in this one, more in this one or do they have the same amount?
Christie (age 8):
They have the same amount ’cos they’re still the same.
Kieron Sheehy:
It’s still the same amount?
Christie:
Yeah.
Kieron Sheehy:
Okay, is there more in this one, more in this one or do they have the same amount?
Emmie (age 7):
They have the same amount but that one’s in a different shape.
Narrator:
The older children appear to understand conservation of mass.
Kieron Sheehy:
Same amount?
Joe:
Same amount.
Narrator:
And this suggests that they are at the concrete operation stage of cognitive development. Piaget also investigated children’s grasp of conservation in relation to volume, weight, area, length and number.
Kieron Sheehy:
India look, we’ve got a line of counters here and a line of counters here. Okay. So are there more in this one, more in this one or do they have the same number?
India (age 5):
The same number.
Kieron Sheehy:
They’ve got the same number. So if I do this, so now we’ve got a row of counters here, a row of counters here. Okay. Is there more in this one, more in this one or do they have the same number?
India:
More in that one.
Kieron Sheehy:
More in this one?
India:
’Cos it’s stretchy.
Kieron Sheehy:
More of that ’cos it’s stretched, oh I see. That’s great.
Kieron Sheehy:
Does this one have more, does this one have more or do they have the same number?
Imogen:
That one has more.
Kieron Sheehy:
That one has more.
Kieron Sheehy:
Is there more in this one, more in this one or do they have the same number?
Nicholas (age 5):
There’s more.
Kieron Sheehy:
Okay, so one’s got more than the other?
Nicholas:
’Cos that looks like there’s none there.
Kieron Sheehy:
Oh right, so they’re not the same any more. Okay.
Kieron Sheehy:
Is there more in this one, more in this one or do they have the same number?
Christie (age 8):
They have the same number.
Kieron Sheehy:
Is there more in this line, more in this line or do they have the same number?
Sophie (age 7):
They have the same number.
Kieron Sheehy:
Thank you very much, that’s all we had to do. That’s brilliant.
Narrator:
A similar comparison can be made in relation to volume.
Kieron Sheehy:
(Conservation of Volume) More in this one? How about now?
Anna (age 6):
The same.
Kieron Sheehy:
The same, so there’s the same amount in both. Okay. Now is there more in this one, more in that one or the same amount in both?
Anna:
More in that one.
Kieron Sheehy:
More in that one.
Kieron Sheehy:
Okay, does this one have more rice, does this one have more rice or do they have the same amount?
Nicholas:
This one.
Kieron Sheehy:
Which one?
Nicholas:
This one.
Kieron Sheehy:
This one has?
Nicholas:
More than that one.
Kieron Sheehy:
More than this one.
Kieron Sheehy:
Now is there more in this one, more in this one or do they have the same amount?
Emmie:
Same amount because, ’cos this one’s wider, there’s more room for the rice to spread out so...
Kieron Sheehy:
And if I pour this one into there. There. Does this one have more rice, does this one have more rice or do they have the same?
Johnny (age 8):
Same.
Kieron Sheehy:
Have the same.
Kieron Sheehy:
Now. Okay. Is there more in this one, more in this one or do they have the same amount?
Sophie:
They have the same amount.
Kieron Sheehy:
They still have the same amount.
Narrator:
The results of the number and volume tasks further support the view that younger children have yet to develop an understanding of conservation. In Piagetian theory, pre-operational children lack the ability to reflect on operations. Their understanding of the world tends to focus on states rather than on transformations and this is seen in their performance on conservation tasks. Similarly, such children are unable to comprehend points of view different from their own, and Piaget devised an experiment to explore this. He was influenced by the view of the Swiss Alps outside the Institut Rousseau in Geneva where he worked.
Kieron Sheehy:
I’ve got four cards here with pictures on. Pictures of mountains. Which picture shows what you can see from where you are?
Lewis:
All of them.
Kieron Sheehy:
All of them. And which one looks most like what you can see? You know, with the way the mountains look to you?
Lewis:
That one.
Kieron Sheehy:
That one. That’s right, that’s right. If dolly were you, would she see the same as you?
Lewis:
Yes.
Kieron Sheehy:
That’s right, so which picture would be the right one for dolly as well?
Lewis:
The same.
Kieron Sheehy:
The same. That’s right. Now, if I put dolly over here, right, over there, which picture now shows what dolly can see?
Lewis:
The same again.
Kieron Sheehy:
The same, you point to the one, point to the card that you think shows what dolly can see.
Lewis:
That one.
Kieron Sheehy:
Lovely, okay.
Kieron Sheehy:
If I put dolly over there, which picture shows what she can see? That one, okay. If I put dolly over there, which picture would show what she can see?
Meryn:
That one.
Kieron Sheehy:
Okay. If the dolly was sat where you are.
Kieron Sheehy:
If the dolly was sat where you are.
Emmie:
Here.
Kieron Sheehy:
Yeah, which picture would show what she can see?
Emmie:
This one.
Kieron Sheehy:
The same one, yes, that’s right. Now, if I put the dolly over here, okay, so she’s in a different place, which picture shows what she can see now?
Emmie:
That one.
Kieron Sheehy:
Lovely, that one, very good.
Kieron Sheehy:
Where would we put dolly so she would see that view?
Johnny:
Right behind that big mountain.
Kieron Sheehy:
Yeah, looking this way but over there?
Johnny:
Mmm.
Narrator:
So what we’ve seen seems to support Piaget’s conclusions about these younger and older children being at different stages of cognitive development. The younger children are pre-operational and have yet to develop their understanding of conservation of mass, number or volume. They’re also appearing egocentric: being centred on their own perceptions. This contrasts with the performance of the older children who are at the concrete operation stage. Subsequent researchers, most notably Margaret Donaldson, have argued that young children’s reasoning is more sophisticated than Piaget’s research implied. Donaldson, together with Martin Hughes, designed an alternative experiment to investigate children’s egocentricity in perspective taking.
Kieron and India: (Hiding from Policeman)
If a policeman stands over here, can he see the little girl from there? He can, can’t he? Oh yeah. What about put the little girl there, can he see her now? She stands there. He can. What about if the little girl’s there? That’s right, he can’t see her over there, right, but the policeman has got a friend, look. Ah ha. Right. If the friend stands there, where could the little girl go to hide? Ah, very good. Right. Okay. Take the little girl back. Now, two policemen now I think, and he stands there. That’s very good, that’s very quick so they, can they see her now? All right. What about if the two of them stand like that, where could the little girl hide? Brilliant.
Kieron Sheehy:
Where could the little boy hide so the policeman can’t see him?
Lewis:
Here.
Kieron Sheehy:
Brilliant. Okay. The policeman’s got a friend, okay, and his friend stands there. Where could the little boy go now?
Lewis:
There.
Kieron Sheehy:
Oh yes.
Kieron and Meryn:
What about if the policeman’s friend stands there, where could the little boy hide? Ah ha, they won’t catch him there, will they. Right, won’t find him there. What about...
Narrator:
So this experiment suggests that young children can successfully adopt the viewpoints of the two policemen and hide the toy. In this situation, the young children are more competent and less egocentric than predicted by Piaget. One explanation for this is that the Donaldson and Hughes experiments made human sense and that this made them more understandable for the child. Other researchers went on to re-examine some of the conservation experiments. McGarrigal and Donaldson revisited the conservation of number experiment, and this time, built in a reason for manipulating the counters.
Kieron Sheehy: (Naughty Teddy)
So Meryn, we’ve got two lines of counters, okay. Are there more in this line, more in this line or do they have the same number?
Meryn:
They, they have the same number.
Kieron Sheehy:
Have the same number. Okay. Now, oh who’s coming?
Meryn:
Teddy bear.
Kieron Sheehy:
Hello. He likes that, doesn’t he, likes playing with those, or, that, or. So now look at the lines. Got the line there and another line there. Is there more in that one, in that one or do they have the same number?
Meryn:
The same number.
Kieron Sheehy:
Look what the teddy’s doing? He’s naughty, isn’t he, really? Do we have a cheeky monkey or a cheeky teddy? So now we’ve got the lines so, are there more in this line, more in this line or do they have the same number?
Iona (age 6):
Same number.
Kieron Sheehy:
Got the same number, haven’t they.
Kieron Sheehy:
Look at this, oh this is a, oh, oh no. Go back over there, so... and there he goes. Now, now we’ve still got two lines, okay. Are there more in this line, more in this line or do they have the same number?
Oscar (age 4):
The same number.
Kieron Sheehy:
They’ve got the same number. Thank you Mr Bear.
Narrator:
Paul Light and his co-researchers worked on a classic conservation of volume experiment which provided a reason for making a transfer of pasta from one container to another. In this example, we’ve used rice, as we did before. The children were told that they would be taking part in a competitive game. After they’d agreed that the two beakers contained the same amount, the experimenter noticed that one of the beakers was chipped around the rim.
Kieron Sheehy:
Does this one have more rice in, does this one have more rice in or have they got the same amount?
Huwie:
The same amount.
Kieron Sheehy:
Oh hang on, this one’s chipped. I’ll tell you what, I’ll put this in, oh dear, now, sorry. So does this one have more rice, does this one have more rice or do they have the same amount?
Huwie:
That one’s... they have the same...
Kieron Sheehy:
They have the same amount?
Huwie:
Yes.
Kieron Sheehy:
Oh hang on, we can’t use that, can we, chip in. So sorry, so has this got more rice, this got more rice or have they got the same amount?
Iona:
Same amount.
Kieron Sheehy:
They’ve got the same amount, right.
Narrator:
All of these experiments are seen as classic developmental tasks that have helped to build our understanding of children’s cognitive development. Viewed overall, these tasks indicate that children’s understanding is embedded in a social context. When the social context gives the task a more accessible meaning, as in the work of Donaldson and others, children are able to offer more appropriate responses.
End transcript: This extract taken from ED209: Child Development.
Copy this transcript to the clipboard
Print this transcript
This extract taken from ED209: Child Development.
Interactive feature not available in single page view (see it in standard view).
ED209_1

Take your learning further

Making the decision to study can be a big step, which is why you'll want a trusted University. The Open University has 50 years’ experience delivering flexible learning and 170,000 students are studying with us right now. Take a look at all Open University courses.

If you are new to university level study, find out more about the types of qualifications we offer, including our entry level Access courses and Certificates.

Not ready for University study then browse over 900 free courses on OpenLearn and sign up to our newsletter to hear about new free courses as they are released.

Every year, thousands of students decide to study with The Open University. With over 120 qualifications, we’ve got the right course for you.

Request an Open University prospectus