Jean Piaget (1896-1980) is recognised world-wide as one of the leaders in the understanding of Intellectual and Cognitive Development.

In his theory of intellectual development, Piaget utilised structuralism and related it to cognitive growth. In this process, Piaget identified four stages of development as a child grows, namely, the sensorimotor stage; the preoperational stage; the concrete operational stage; and the formal operational stage.

Piaget also believed that individuals construct their own meaning (constructivism) through the interacting processes of assimilation, adaptation, accommodation and equilibrium, and the extension of schema, or ways of thinking.

Key Piagetian terms:
Assimilation: Fitting new information into existing schemes.
Adaptation: Adjustment to the environment.
Organisation: Ongoing process of arranging information and experience into mental systems or categories.
Accommodation: Altering existing schemes or creating new ones in response to new information.
Object Permanence: Understanding that objects have a separate. permanent existence.
Operations: Actions carried out by thinking them through instead of actually performing the actions.
Reversibility: Thinking backward from the end to the beginning.
Conservation: The principle that some characteristics of an object remain the same despite changes in appearance.
Schemes: Mental systems or categories of perception and experience.
Equilibration: Search for mental balance between cognitive schemes and information from the environment.
Decentration: Focusing on more than one aspect at a time.
Egocentrism: The assumption that others experience the world in the same manner as you do.
Compensation: The principle that changes in one dimension can be offset by changes in another.
Seriation: Arranging objects in sequential order according to one aspect; like size, weight, volume.
Classification: Grouping objects into categories.

Piaget’s Four Stages of Development:

Sensorimotor 0-2 years Begins to make use of imitation, memory, and thought. Begins to recognise that objects do not cease to exist when they are hidden. Moves from reflex actions to goal-directed activity
Preoperational 2-7 years Gradual language development and ability to think in symbolic form. Able to think operations through logically in one direction. Has difficulty seeing another person’s point of view.
Concrete Operational 7-11 years Able to solve concrete (hands-on) problems in logical fashion. Understands laws of conservation and is able to classify and seriate. Understands reversibility.
Formal Operational 11-15 years Able to solve abstract problems in logical fashion. Thinking becomes more scientific. Develops concerns about social issues, identity.

Applying Piaget’s Theory in the Primary Classroom


1. Use concrete props and visual aids whenever possible.

2. Make instructions relatively short, using actions as well as words.

3. Do not expect the students to be consistently to see the world from someone else’s point of view.

4. Be sensitive to the possibility that students may have different meanings for the same word or different words for the same meaning. Students may also expect everyone to understand words they have invented.

5. Give children a great deal of hands-on practice with the skills that serve as building blocks for more complex skills like reading comprehension.

6. Provide a wide range of experiences in order to build a foundation for concept learning and language.

Concrete Operational

1. Continue to use concrete props and visual aids, especially when dealing with sophisticated material.

2. Give students the opportunity to manipulate and tes
t objects.

3. Make sure presentations and readings are brief and are well organised.

4. Use familiar examples to explain more complex ideas.

5. Give opportunities to classify and group objects and ideas on increasingly complex levels.

6. Present problems that require logical, analytical thinking.

Lev Vygotsky (1896-1934) was a contemporary of Piaget. For Vygotsky, the learning process was not a solitary exploration by a child of the environment, as suggested by Piaget’s personal constructivist theory, but rather a process of appropriation by the child of culturally relevant behaviour (McInerney and McInerney:1998)

Vygotsky is remembered mainly for his theory of social constructivism (also known as a cultural-historical theory) in which he believed that cognitive development can be understood as the transformation of basic, biologically determined processes into higher psychological functions.

This implies that children are born with a diverse range of perceptual, attentional and memory capacities which are substantially transformed in the context of socialisation and education. Put in a very simple manner, the theory is that children are only as cognitively developed as the culture in which they live, allows. For Vygotsky, the culture and environment in which a child grows over-rides the mental and cognitive schema processes outlined by Piaget.

As a consequence of this line of thinking, Vygotsky put forward the notion that a child’s learning is shaped by their social influence. Known as Vygotsky’s zone of proximal development, he defined it like this “… as the distance between the actual development of a child as determined by the independent problem solving, and the level of potential development as determined through problem solving under adult guidance or in collaboration with more peers. (Vygotsky:1978)

The essentials of a Vygotskian Social Constructivist Perspective for Education For teachers:

– a belief that education is to develop a student’s personality;

– a belief that education is to facilitate the development of the creative potential of students;

– a belief that effective learning requires the active involvement of the learner

– a belief that teachers direct and guide the individual activity of the students but they do not

dictate or force their own will on them. Authentic teaching and learning come through a collaboration by adults with students

– a belief that the most valuable methods for students’ teaching and learning correspond to their developmental and individual characteristics, and therefore these methods cannot be uniform

– a belief that schools should provide the tools that learners need to internalise the ways of thinking central to participation in the cultural world around them.


All of the information on this page has been adapted from either

McInerney, D.M. and McInerney, V. Educational Psychology: Constructed Learning (Second Edition)

(Australia: Prentice Hall, 1998)


Woolfolk, A. Educational Psychology (Fourth Edition)

(Englewood Cliffs, USA: Prentice Hall, 199