Critically evaluate Piaget's theory of cognitive development
Piaget has been described as the father of cognitive psychology (Shaffer, 1988) and his stage theory as the foundation of developmental cognitive psychology (Lutz & Sternberg, 2002). It is not possible to describe Piaget's empirical findings and theory in only 1,500 words. Instead, I will briefly review the theory's scope, comprehensiveness, parsimony, applicability, heuristic value and methodological underpinning. I will then evaluate in more detail the theory's utility in describing and explaining cognitive development.
Historically, Piaget's ontological approach was ground-breaking with its focus on the qualitative nature of cognition and its constructivist perspective. The theory itself is wide-scoped (universal), comprehensive (covering a broad spectrum of cognitive achievement) and elegantly coherent (from neonate to adult). It remains profoundly influential on cognitive psychology and continues to be widely applied in childcare and educational settings. Piaget's theory is parsimonious in its commonality of approach to a broad range of complex phenomena with key interlinking concepts. Inevitably, such an ambitious theory has generated a wealth of research, some supporting, some supplementing, some extending and some disputing aspects of Piaget's theory.
Some of the weaker aspects of Piaget's theory appear to arise from his 'clinical method' of using observational behavioural data to infer conclusions about children's underlying cognitive competences. Longitudinal data, ideally suited to monitoring progression, was only recorded for his own three children. Certain of his techniques were insufficiently sensitive to identify the underlying causes of performance variations, especially with very young infants, where more recent habituation techniques have shown that Piaget considerably underestimated their understanding and ability (Bower, 1982, Baillargeon & DeVos, 1991). This may have led him to overlook other relevant explanations for varying levels of performance, eg limitations on memory capacity (Bryant & Trabasso, 1971, Kail, 1984, Diamond, 1985), motor-co-ordination (Mandler, 1990), availability of memory strategies (Siegler, 1991) and verbal understanding (Sternberg, 1985). However, Piaget's clinical method, his flexible and ecologically valid approach did reveal original insights into children's thinking, which a more standardised, 'scientific' approach may have overlooked entirely.
Piaget's theoretical framework describes the structure of cognitive development as a fixed sequence of four discontinuous and qualitatively different 'periods' (for ease of understanding, referred to as stages) of all children's intelligence across domains, tasks and contexts.
Invariance is a core feature of Piaget's conceptual structure, in contrast with contemporary perspectives, which question rigid conceptual structures, eg post-modernism and chaos theory. Piaget emphasised the invariance of progression through stages, so that a child never regresses to thinking methods from an earlier stage of cognitive development. This is empirically unconvincing, eg, as an adult, I have easily switched from formal-operational to concrete-operational thinking when presented with flat-pack furniture and an incomprehensible set of instructions. Research (Beilin, 1971, Case, 1992) has also contradicted the assumption that within a given stage of development, children demonstrate only stage-appropriate levels of performance, eg 4-year-olds make the same mistakes as 1-year-olds on some hidden-object problems by looking at locations where they have found the object previously (Siegler, 1998).
Structural, qualitative discontinuity between stages - a key feature in the theory's description of cognitive development - is also questionable. Although much research has shown that children can do things at ages earlier than Piaget considered possible (Baillargeon, 1987,...
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