Piaget is an interesting character in Psychology. His theory of learning differs from many others
in some important ways:
First, he focuses exclusively on children; Second, he talks about development (not learning
per se) and Third, it’s a stage theory, not a linear progression theory. OK, so what’s he on
Well, there are some basic ideas to get your head around and some stages to understand too.
The basic ideas are:
● Schemas : The building blocks of knowledge.
● Adaptation processes : These allow the transition from one stage to another. He called
these: Equilibrium, Assimilation and Accommodation.
● Stages of Cognitive development : Sensorimotor; Preoperational; Concrete
Operational; Formal Operational.
So here’s how it goes. Children develop Schemas of knowledge about the world. These are
clusters of connected ideas about things in the real world that allow the child to respond
When the child has developed a working Schema that can explain what they perceive in the
world, that Schema is in a state of Equilibrium .
When the child uses the schema to deal with a new thing or situation, that Schema is in
Assimilation and Accommodation happens when the existing Schema isn’t up to the job of
explaining what’s going on and needs to be changed.
Once it’s changed, it returns to Equilibrium and life goes on. Learning is therefore a constant
cycle of Assimilation; Accommodation; Equilibrium; Assimilation and so on…
All that goes through the 4 Stages which are defined by Age:
Piaget’s Stages of Cognitive Development.
The Sensorimotor Stage runs from birth to 2 years and the child spends their time learning
basic Schemas and Object Permanence (the idea that something still exists when you can’t see
The Preoperational Stage runs from 2 years to 7 years and the child develops more Schemas
and the ability to think Symbolically (the idea that one thing can stand for another; words for
example, or objects). At this point, children still struggle with Theory of Mind (Empathy) and
can’t really get their head around the viewpoints of others.
The Concrete Operational Stage runs from 7 years to 11 years and this is the Stage when
children start to work things out in their head rather than physically in the real world. They also
develop the ability to Conserve (understand that something stays the same quantity even if it
The Formal Operational Stage runs from 11 years into adulthood and this is where abstract
thought develops, as does logic and cool stuff like hypothesis testing.
According to Piaget, the whole process is active and requires the rediscovery and
reconstructing of knowledge across the entire process of Stages.
Understanding the Stage a child is in informs what they should be presented with based on
what they can and cannot do at the Stage they’re in.