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Jean Piaget

    Jean Piaget (1896-1980)

    “The principal goal of education in the schools should be creating men and women who are capable of doing new things, not simply repeating what other generations have done.”

    If we read between the lines of Piaget’s quote, we will understand how much he emphasizes the importance of education and the discovery approach to learning. Jean Piaget dedicated his life to the intellectual development of children during childhood. His research as a philosopher and a development psychologist had a great impact on education. Today, Piaget’s work and theories are studied and implemented in education, psychology, sociology, philosophy (epistemology), and genetics. He considered education to be liberating and essential for the healthy upbringing of future generations and the entire society.    

    Piaget defended the idea that children think differently than adults by identifying several cognitive milestones in their mental development. According to Piaget, children can fulfill higher education goals like critical and creative thinking progressively because of both biological evolution and environmental experience. His emphasis on the importance of childhood in human development was revolutionary. No wonder he was voted the second most influential psychologist of the 20th century by the American Psychological Society members.


    Jean William Fritz Piaget was born on August 9, 1896, in Neuchâtel, Switzerland, and died on September 16, 1980, in Geneva. Jean Piaget’s early interest was in zoology. He studied at the University of Neuchâtel, both zoology and philosophy. His interests continued in psychology. First, he studied in Zürich, and later on at the Sorbonne in Paris.

    While in Paris, Piaget developed and used reading tests for schoolchildren and evaluated their responses. Through his analysis, Piaget tested children’s intelligence and researched how they resolve problems differently according to their age. Once he started testing the nature of children’s mistakes, he was even more motivated to explore children’s cognitive development. He realized some mistakes were consistent among children of the same age and that younger children think differently than older ones. When he gave the children a possibility to defend their logic in the incorrect answers, he saw the flawless power of reason in children, and their method of using imagination when lacking relevant experience of the subject in question.

    He began to publish his findings in 1921 and was appointed director of research for the Jean Jacques Rousseau Institute in Geneva. In 1925, Piaget became a professor of philosophy at the University of Neuchatel, in 1929 a professor of the history of scientific thought, and in 1940 a professor of experimental psychology at the University of Geneva. He was the only Swiss invited to teach child psychology at the Sorbonne in Paris. He had a long, rich, and fulfilling career, and in over 50 books and theses, he continuously developed his theory that the child’s mind develops through a series of set stages to adulthood.


    Jean Piaget had many ideas and theories throughout his career, but he is mostly remembered for his theory of cognitive development. Thanks to his theory, teachers have moved from traditional teaching methods to more collaborative tactics for subjects such as science, math, languages, and social studies. His work changed the entire perception of children’s mental capabilities and way of thinking.

    “Each time one prematurely teaches a child something he could have discovered himself, that child is kept from inventing it and consequently from understanding it completely.”

    Let’s not take the discovery process from children, instead let’s recall the stages of Jean Piaget’s theory and truly understand children’s learning process, one step at a time. Through his thorough research, and the behavioral observation of his children, he concluded that children’s learning develops in four stages:

    1. The sensorimotor stage (birth to around the age of 2) is the first stage of development when children perceive the world primarily through their senses and movements, beginning with reflexes and ending with complicated combinations of sensorimotor skills. This stage incorporates the following sub-stages:
    2. The simple reflex stage (from birth to 1 month) is when babies use common reflexes (ex. sucking and rooting)
    3. The stage of principal circular reactions (1-4 months) is when babies learn sensational coordination and two types of schemas, like habit and circular reactions. A principal circular reaction is when babies try to copy an event that occurred by accident (ex. suck their thumb, blow bubbles, again and again…)
    4. The secondary circular reaction stage (4-8 months) is when infants may act intentionally and combine different schemas to achieve their personal goals. Now they’re aware of the environment, and they’re more object-oriented (ex. squeeze a rubber duck, that goes “quack”, and shakes a rattle, again and again… for the sake of satisfaction)
    5. The stage of coordination of secondary circular reactions (8-12 months) when infants, besides acting intentionally, understand that an object may be permanent and continue to exist even when it’s out of their sight (ex. use a stick to reach something; just because they can’t see something doesn’t mean it’s gone)
    6. The stage of tertiary circular reactions, also known as the curiosity, and novelty stage (12-18 months) when children driven by curiosity explore many object possibilities and seek different results through experimentation (ex. If they hit the drum with a stick it goes “rat-tat-tat-tat”, if they hit the block with the stick it goes “thump-thump”)
    7. The stage of scheme internalization (18-24 months) is when children’s learning develops from within as they slowly learn to speak. They’re developing mental representation (they hold an image in their mind after the immediate experience), engaging in delayed imitation (they throw a tantrum after seeing one), and using mental combinations to resolve problems (they leave their toy to open the door)
    8. The preoperational stage (2-7 years) is when children develop their language skills and symbolic play. According to Piaget, at this stage of cognitive development children don’t understand tactile logic and aren’t capable of mentally manipulating information, and are more pretentious and playful. Also, at this stage, they develop an interest in learning (ex. they use a box as a table; they ask why things are as they are).
    9. The concrete operational stage (7-11 years) is when children still have difficulties with abstract and theoretical thinking, and use logical and conventional thinking. At this stage, children are no longer egocentric and have better classification skills.
    10. The formal operational stage (11-16 years) is when children can converse with others, and think logically. This is a stage when they develop their metacognition skills, think abstractly and focus on problem-solving using numerous strategies.


    Jean Piaget’s theory of cognitive development had a major impact on educational practices. Through his cognitive development stages, he helped teachers understand the importance of an appropriate learning environment, learning experience, and learning materials for students’ stimulation. Even though his theory is not directly connected to education, it has been widely used to improve educational policy, educational methodology and curriculum.

    Since we’re aware of Piaget’s theory, stages, and impact on education, it’s time to use it in our day-to-day activities in the classroom:

    • Don’t just verbally transmit your knowledge to the students, create conditions for the students to create and recreate knowledge
    • Use visual aids and specific props whenever possible
    • Let your students learn through discovery, exploration, and active participation
    • Make sure students have enough hands-on practice with the use of simple to more complex skills
    • Give assignments suitable to children’s emotional, social, physical, and cognitive abilities
    • Incorporate classroom activities that encourage self-learning
    • Focus on the student’s thinking process, not just its results
    • Ask students how they find answers to particular questions
    • Recognize the value of the student’s methodology used to make a specific conclusion
    • Give students a chance to explain their way of thinking
    • Be aware that words can have different meanings to kids and that they may even invent new words
    • Encourage students not to use ready-made knowledge, but to discover it for themselves through natural interaction with the environment
    • Provide many different activities that allow students to act directly in the physical world
    • Premature teaching can be worse than no teaching, so take your time and don’t rush the students
    • Accept students’ differences in developmental progress, students go through the same developmental stages, at different rates
    • Make an effort to organize classroom activities for individuals and small groups of students rather than for the total class group
    • Assess students’ progress in terms of each student’s previous course of development, not in terms of normative standards for same-age peers
    • Allow students to discuss and debate with each other, with you acting as a guide and a facilitator
    • Let students make mistakes and learn from them
    • Include practical learning situations in the classroom
    • Emphasize co-curricular activities that enhance children’s cognitive development.

    We should make the most of Piaget’s legacy if we want to be successful educators and pedagogues. Starting from the fact that children think differently than adults, continuing with the study of knowledge development, and ending with the cognitive development stages. So, let’s transform our teaching methods to the best of our abilities to create future critical thinkers!

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