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A Criticism of Piaget’s Cognitive Development Theory

A Criticism of Piaget’s Cognitive Development Theory


Although Jean Piaget's insightful observations of children remain unmatched and his overall contributions to developmental research have earned him a place in psychological research, he is not without criticism. In this paper,  Piaget's theory of cognitive development shall be criticized in terms of the lack of emphasis placed on the role played by the child's social world, an underestimation of the infant's and young children's cognitive competence and a lack of empirical support for qualitative changes in children's cognitive ability.

Piaget’s research in developmental psychology was directed at elaborating upon a theory of knowledge about cognitive development (Driscoll, 1994). According to him, the growth of knowledge is a progressive construction of logically embedded structures superseding one another by a process of inclusion of lower, less powerful logical means into higher and more powerful ones up to adulthood. Therefore, children’s logic and modes of thinking are initially entirely different from those of adults. Piaget referred to his view as constructivism, believing that the acquisition of knowledge is a process of continuous self-construction. While the child is constructing this knowledge, Piaget assumed there to be an interaction between heredity and environment and also labelled his view as interactionism (Driscoll, 1994).

Piaget’s Four Stages of Developments

Piaget proposed four major stages of development: the sensor motor period (birth to 2 years), preoperational thought (2 to 6/7 years), concrete operations (6/7 to 11/12 years) and formal operations (11/12 to adult). During the first stage, infants’ and toddlers’ cognitive system is limited to motor reflexes, but they build on these reflexes to develop more sophisticated procedures. In the second stage, children acquire representational skills in the area of mental imagery, and especially language. They are very self-oriented, and have an egocentric view.

Children on the third stage, on the contrary, are able to take into account another person’s point of view and consider more than one perspective simultaneously. According to Piaget, their thought process is more logical, flexible, and organized than in early childhood. However, he argued that in this stage, children cannot yet contemplate or solve abstract problems, and that they are not yet able to consider all of the logically possible outcomes. Those who reach the formal operations stage are capable of thinking logically and abstractly, and can reason theoretically. Piaget considered this the ultimate stage of development.

Piaget believed that a child’s scheme or logical structure changes with age and are initially action-based (sensor motor) and later move to a mental (operational) level (Driscoll, 1994). According to him, the cognitive performance in children is directly associated with the cognitive development stage they are in. So, if a child were in the preoperational stage (age 2 to 6/7), he would not successfully be able to master tasks of a concrete operational stage (ages 6/7 to 11/12) child.

Criticism of Piaget’s Theory

Since its conception in 1969, there have been many criticisms of Piaget’s theory. Most notably, developmental psychologists debate whether children actually go through these four stages in the way that Piaget proposed, and further that not all children reach the formal operation stage. Moreover, while most development theorists accept Piaget's outline of cognitive growth in infants, there are questions about his measures of assessing their development.

A major criticism of Piaget’s cognitive development theory is that he underestimated children’s abilities (Gerow, 1996). Infants’ knowledge of the physical world has been a popular research topic. It is agreed that object permanence is developed as the child develops an understanding of the permanence of objects-- the uncovering of a hidden toy or candy is a demonstration of this. However, Piaget failed to take into account the need for motivation in order for children to search, Kagan's (cited in Berger, 1988) theory of object permanence is that 9 month old infants show an ability to search for hidden objects because they have had a growth in memory capacity, rather than because they have a new cognitive structure as stated by Piaget. Similarly, Baillargeon (1987) drew the conclusion that infants are born with basic knowledge of what is possible and impossible. This is based on research that infants stare longer at an impossible event than at a possible event.

Several researchers have proposed that infants under 6 months of age possess considerable conceptual knowledge about the physical world (e.g. Baillargeon, 1987). Some of the most striking claims have been that infants as young as 2 1/2 months understand that one solid object cannot pass through another solid object (Spelke et al., 1992) and that infants as young as 3 1/2 months understand that objects continue to exist even when not in view (Baillargeon & DeVos,1991). Baillargeon (1987), employing a rotating screen study, supposes that infants as young as 3 1/2 and 4 1/2 months of age understand that objects are permanent. These results had also been found with 5-month-old infants (Baillargeon et al., 1985).

Traditionally, object permanence in infants was studied using a Piagetian manual search task in which infants were tested on whether or not they would reach for a hidden object. Using this method, it was found that infants do not succeed until around 8 to 9 months. Baillargeon and others, however, claimed that Piaget’s manual search task is too conservative as a test of object permanence because it requires infants to perform means-end sequential actions, an ability that young infants may lack (e.g. Baillargeon et al., 1985).

Another shortcoming of Piaget’s theory is his contention that children only show intellectual development through their actions. But perception researchers argue that infants know more than they can physically demonstrate with limited motor actions; they have found that newborn infants try to look for sounds, grasp objects and respond to human faces, and believe that perceptual learning occurs, particularly aural, before birth (Berger, 1988). Also, the physical nature of Piaget's theory fails to explain how children understand abstract words that don't necessarily relate to an immediately physical object.

Piaget put too much emphasis on the individual's internal search for knowledge, and not enough on external motivation and teachings (Berger, 1988), neglecting the individual differences of children-- the differences caused by heredity, culture and education. Piaget did little research on the emotional and personality development of children and possibly would have been more accurate to view cognitive development as a gradual and continuous rather than having definite demarcation stages. Although Piaget's information processing approach provides a good way of assessing intelligence and gathering information about memory development and other cognitive processes, it fails to address the importance of creativity and social interaction (Paplia, Olds, and Feldman, 1998).

According to Gray (1994), Piaget offers no substantial evidence for a qualitative difference in cognitive capacity between two children of different stages; Piaget does not provide sufficient evidence for a qualitative difference between stages. This implies that if each stage is marked by a new type of thinking, then as a child ages there should be signs indicating the sudden acquisition of certain abilities. On the contrary, children tend to progress rather slowly and gradually.

The likes of Lev Vygotsky, criticises Piaget for his inattention to culturally specific influences on cognitive development. Most of children who participated in Piaget’s grew up in Geneva. He worked in a context of Western culture where children attend school and are trained in certain forms of thinking, affecting the universality of his theory. Yet Piaget largely ignored this influence and attributed each child's intellectual growth to the individual's cognitive reaction to the environment. Other tests (Segall et al., 1990 cited in Gray, 1994) have also shown that Piaget's formal operational period and even the concrete operational period are heavily dependent on formal Western schooling.

Piaget's elegant and striking tests of children's thought processes have attracted the attention of developmental researchers. His theories have brought substantial changes to psychology, education, and childrearing, and they have sparked countless research studies both to extend and to contradict his ideas. In conclusion, although Piaget made strides in developmental research, his stages do not prove to be culturally universal. Many aspects affect the timing and extent to which the behaviors and characteristics develop. It can not be concretely predicted when each stage will take place in any individual across any culture in any period of time. Moreover, his emphasis on qualitative rather than quantitative changes in thinking is excessive, and that his estimation of children's thinking abilities is too low.  


Baillargeon, R. (1987). Object permanence in 3.5- and 4.5-month-old infants. Developmental Psychology, 23, 655-664.


_________, Spelke, E. S., & Wasserman, S. (1985). Object permanence in five-month-old infants. Cognition, 20, 191-208.


Berger, K.S. (1988). The developing person through the life span (2nd ed.). New York: Worth Publishers Ltd.


Driscoll, M. P. (1994). Psychology of learning for instruction. Needham Heights, MA: Allyn & Bacon.

Gerow, J. R. (1996). Essentials of Psychology. New York: Harper Collins.

Gray, P. (1994). Psychology (2nd edition). Boston: Worth Publishers.

Papalia, D. E., Olds, S. W., and Feldman, R. D. (1998). Human development (7th ed.). Boston: McGraw-Hill.

Spelke, E. S., Breinlinger, K., Macomber, J., and Jacobson, K. (1992). Origins of knowledge. Psychological Review, 99, 605-632.


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