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Cognitivism: Jean Piaget's Genetic Epistemology Theory

Cognition is defined as "the act or process of knowing in the broadest sense; specifically, an intellectual process by which knowledge is gained from perception or ideas" (Webster's Dictionary). Hence, cognition refers to mental activity such as thinking, remembering, learning and using language.

Cognitive psychology is one of the major approaches within psychology and studies unobservable constructs for instance, the mind, memory, attitudes, motivation, reflection and other internal mental processes. Thought processes have been studied by philosophers for centuries, however the psychological study of cognition is a relatively new area of research which originated in the 1950's.

During the 1950's and 1960's many psychologists became increasingly dissatisfied with the behaviorist approach due to its failure to incorporate mental events into its learning theories. The behaviorist argued that the study of learning should be objective and that learning theories should be developed from the findings of empirical research, in doing so they support that mental processes or unobservable behaviors are not suitable for scientific or objective study.

In line with the believes of behaviorist psychologists, cognitive psychologists also argue that the study of learning should be objective and the development of learning theories should be founded in the results of empirical research. Nonetheless, they argue that by observing the individual's responses to a variety of stimulus conditions they can draw inferences about the nature of the internal cognitive processes that produce those responses.

In cognitivism knowledge is viewed as symbolic, mental constructions in the mind of individuals and as the outcome of learning. Learning is a process of recognition which occurs with associations through contiguity and repetition. Thus, learners perceive new relations among the parts of a problem, they acquire and reorganize information into understandable cognitive structures. Instruction is not merely something that is done to the learner but rather involves the learner and empowers their internal mental processes.

There are two main schools of cognitive learning psychology: the Information Processing approach, growing in part from the work in computer science on artificial intelligence, which examines how information entering through the senses is encoded, stored, retrieved and utilised by the brain; the Cognitive Constructivism that attempts to provide understanding of learning through accounts that relate the individual learner with their schemata.

Jean Piaget

Jean Piaget: Genetic Epistemology

Piaget defined himself as a constructivist. Click the link to hear an audio file of the author

Translation of the audio file:

"I am a constructivist. I think that knowledge is a matter of constant, new construction, by its interaction with reality, and that it is not pre-formed. There is a continuous creativity."

Jean Piaget (University of Geneva's Archives Jean Piaget)

Jean Piaget was one of the most influential researchers in the arena of psychological development during the 20th century. Piaget originally trained in the areas of biology and philosophy and considered himself a "genetic epistimologist". His real interest was epistemology, the theory of knowledge. He was mainly interested in the biological influences on "how we come to know." He believed that what distinguishes human beings from other animals is our ability to do "abstract symbolic reasoning."

"His research in developmental psychology and genetic epistemology had one unique goal: how does knowledge grow? His answer is that 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"

The Jean Piaget Society


There are two main elements to his theory: Process of Cognitive Development, the process of coming to know, and Stages of Cognitive Development, the stages one moves through as he/she gradually acquires this ability.

Process of Cognitive Development:

Piaget argued that people are born with schemes, tendency to organize their thinking processes, which at birth he called reflexes. These schemes are basic building blocks, organized systems of actions or thoughts that enable us to mentally represent the object and events of the world in an attempt to adapt to the environment. As schemes become increasingly more complex they are termed structures.

In trying to adapt to the environment the following can occur:

Assimilation: This is when an individual uses their existing schemes to make sense of a new event. This process involves trying to understand something new by fitting it into what we already know.

Accommodation: Is the change of existing schemes to respond to a new situation. If new information cannot be made to fit into existing schemes, a new, more appropriate structure must be developed.

There are also instances when an individual encounters new information that is too unfamiliar that neither assimilation nor accommodation will occur because the individual may choose to ignore it.

Equilibration: Is the complex act of searching for the balance in organizing, assimilating, and accommodating. It is the state of Disequilibrium that motivates us to search for a solution through assimilation or accommodation.

Stages of Cognitive Development:

The Sensorimotor Stage: (Infancy: 0-2 years approx..) In this period intelligence is demonstrated through motor activity without the use of symbols. It involves seeing, hearing, moving, touching, and tasting. Knowledge of the world is limited because its based on physical interactions/experiences. During this period, children acquire object permanence (memory), the understanding that objects in the environment exists regardless of whether they perceive them or not. Some symbolic (language) abilities are developed at the end of this stage.

The following pictures portary experiments on object permanence:

object permanence experiment

object permanence experiment


The Preoperational Stage: (Toddler and Early Childhood: 2-7 years approx..) In this stage intelligence is demonstrated through the use of symbols, language use matures, and memory and imagination are developed. Piaget coined the term Operations meaning actions that are carried out and reversed mentally rather than physically. This stage is called Preoperational because the child has not yet mastered the mental operations thus, in this stage thinking is done in a non logical, non reversible manner. In Preoperational children egocentric thinking predominates.

The following are two examples of conversations that portray characteristics of the Preoperational Stage:

Julie: "I love my dolly, her name is Tina"

Carol: "I'm going to color the sun yellow"

Julie: "She has long, curly hair like my auntie"

Carol: "Maybe I'll color the trees yellow, too"

Julie: "I wonder what Tina's eyes are made of?"

Carol: "I lost my orange crayon"

Julie: " I know her eyes are made of glass."


Piaget: What makes the wind?

Julia: The trees.

P: How do you know?

J: I saw them waving their arms.

P: How does that make the wind?

J (waving her hand in front of his face): Like this. Only they are bigger. And there are lots of trees.

P: What makes the wind on the ocean?

J: It blows there from the land. No. It's the waves...

Seymour Papert, Jean Piaget.


Concrete Operational stage: (Elementary and early adolescence: 7-11 years approx..). In this period intelligence is demonstrated through logical and systematic manipulation of symbols related to concrete objects. Operational thinking develops, the realization that elements can be changed or transformed and still conserve many of their original characteristics, and the understanding that these changes can be reversed. There is understanding of reversibility and mastery of two-way thinking. Egocentric thought diminishes.

Piagets Conservation Experiments

Conservation is the realization that quantity or amount does not change when nothing has been added or taken away from an object or a collection of objects, despite changes in form or spatial arrangement (Pulaski, 1980).

student's ability to solve conservation problems depends on an understanding of three basic aspects of reasoning: identity, compensation, and reversibility.

With mastery of identity: The student realizes that material remains the same if nothing is added to or subtracted from the material.

With mastery of compensation: The student realizes that changes in one dimension can be offset by changes in another.

With mastery of reversibility: The student realizes that a change may be canceled out by mentally reversing the steps and returning to the origin.

Conservation experiment

Conservation experiment

Conservation experiment

Conservation experiment


Formal Operational stage: (Adolescence and adulthood: 11- on). In this stage, intelligence is demonstrated through the logical use of symbols related to abstract concepts. Logical operations can be performed outside the presence of concrete objects. Abstract reasoning, the ability to think logically about intangible concepts, about possibilities, about hypotheses, is the key element formal operations. Characteristics of formal operations include: Hypothetic-deductive reasoning (consideration of alternative hypotheses when dealing with a problem that can be formulated, data can be measured, and appropriate decisions reached); Proposional reasoning (capability to deal with statements that describe concrete data and even contrary-to-fact propositions); and, Combinatorial reasoning (isolation of individual factors and possible recombination of factors that may figure into new solutions). Only 35% of high school graduates in industrialized countries obtain formal operations; many people do not think formally during adulthood.

There are four interrelated factors that allow movement from stage to stage: Maturation, physical and psychological growth that occurs in the child at a specific stage; Experience is when the child thinks and interacts with real or concrete objects in the external environment; Social interaction, a child's socializing with others, especially children; Equilibration, bringing together maturation, experience, and social interaction in order to build mental schema.

In addition to the development of his theory Piaget was very influential in the development of modern computers' interfaces.

During the 1970's the conceptual basis for most current graphic user interfaces was developed at Xerox's Palo Alto Research Center (PARC). Two factors influenced the development of modern graphic interfaces: the direct manipulation of graphic "objects" on the computer screen, and the creation of appropriate interface metaphors-graphic representations designed to encourage and complement the user's understanding of the computer system.

The Xerox PARC work on direct manipulation computer interfaces was grounded in the observations of cognitive and developmental psychologists Jean Piaget and Jerome Bruner (Bruner 1966; Piaget 1954) who support that our understanding of the world is fundamentally linked to visual stimulation and the tactile experience of manipulating objects in our environment. In particular, Bruner's model of human development as a combination of enactive skills (manipulating objects, knowing where you are in space), iconic skills (visually recognizing, comparing, contrasting), and symbolic skills (the ability to understand long sequences of abstract reasoning) lead PARC researchers to try and build interfaces that explicitly addressed all three of these fundamental ways of understanding and manipulating the world around us.



Piaget, J. (1955) The Construction of Reality in the Child. Routledge and Kegan Paul

Piaget, J. (1968) Genetic Epistomology. Columbia Univesity Press.

Piaget, J. (1972). The psychology of the child. New York: Basic Books.

Piaget, J. (1990). The child's conception of the world. New York: Littlefield Adams.

Piaget, J., Gruber, H. (Ed.), & Voneche, J. J. (Ed.). The essential Piaget (100th Anniversary Ed.). New York: Jason Aronson.


The Jean Piaget Society

Piaget's Stages of Cognitive Development (Online quiz)