piagetWhat is Cognitive Development Theory?

“Learning as defined by [Jean] Piaget is not solely an inner or outer process, but is the interaction of the inner thinking of the child with the outer world” (Plueddemann, 1995, p. 52). Piaget postulated that humans’ cognitive function develops both sequentially in stages and progressively in complexity.  In order to determine if his hypotheses were true, or somewhat normative, a series of observational research was in order. Piaget took several ideas and formed a theory of cognitive development around his findings.

Piaget’s Stages of Growth:

Stage 1

(ages 0-2)

First there is the sensorimotor stage where infants acquire knowledge through their senses: sights, sounds, and movement. Through the senses, infants grow to learn object permanence. “At birth, children react entirely with their reflexes, and by the time children reach two years of age they have begun mastery of language and have discovered how to perform scientific experiements with concrete objects” (Plueddemann, 1995, p. 53).

Stage 2

(ages 2-7)

Second, is the preoperational stage where toddlers start to organize the objects they have learned into various categories or schemes. The process of the organization of schemes is called adaptation (Kim, 2010). Adaptation consists of “three interrelated components: assimilation [gathering the necessary input], accommodation [placing the input into sensible categories], and equilibration [a sense of harmony and balance] and disequilibration [a sense of cognitive dissonance which innately leads one to seek balance]” (Kim, 2010, p. 66).

Stage 3

(ages 7-11)

The third stage is the concrete operational stage which introduces a framework of logical and structured thinking. “This stage marks the beginning of logical thinking in that people become relatively free from the perceptual dominance and are able to form ideas inductively–a major turning point in human intellectual development” (Kim, 2010, p. 70).

Stage 4

(age 12 and up)

The fourth stage brings an advanced state of thinking called abstract reasoning. The ability of adolescents and emerging adults to think in terms of ideas, symbols, metaphors, and complex thought patterns constitutes formal operational thought. “They are able to perform operations on operations and to solve problems that require them to systematically consider all possible alternatives, whether real or hypothetical. They are also able to think about their own thinking” (Seifert & Hoffnung, 1994, p. 55).

Cognitive theory follows Miller’s (1989) informal definition of a theory in that it can “give us a context for judging whether [a] theory of development is headed in the right direction…we can ask whether [a] theory could eventually reach the status of a formal, testable theory” (p. 4). Without a doubt, Piaget’s findings paved the way for further advanced studies of cognitive development. Developmental theorists like Piaget have taken the human, or informal, route to understanding standardized human growth and development over time.

Strengths and Weaknesses

The strength of cognitive theory is that it outlines a linear, sequential, and progressive series of stages related to intellectual development that are identifiable and practical. Because the stages of cognitive development are identifiable it is rather convenient for the developmentalist to engage in the appropriate mental activity related to the identified stage a child or a group of children are in. This strength brings with it the added benefit of usefulness—meaning, when a developmentalist needs to inform or educate a group of concrete operational students, the identified stage helps to both encourage specified levels of intellectual engagement and discourage levels of adaptation that are outside of the related cognitive stage.

The weakness of cognitive theory could be a restricted dependence upon the age-defined limits of each stage. Because the study of cognition is deeply human, any practicing developmentalist needs to be acutely aware of the varying levels of aptitude and environment surrounding an individual’s ability to both round out and move on to higher levels of learning at different times (and ages). To be human is to be unique, and while I do not think that Piaget would argue with such a statement, perhaps those second, third, and fourth generation practitioners of his theory would do well to not remain static on the age-defined categories, but rather the trajectory and the sequential nature of the stages.

Contribution to the Study of Human Development

We cannot know what an infant is thinking, but we can watch what an infant is doing. While it is difficult to determine the effect cognitive development has on emerging childhood one can observe behavioral responses to external stimuli. Piaget postulates a “scheme [which] is a systematic pattern of actions, behaviors, thoughts, and problem solving strategies that provide a framework for dealing with a given type of intellectual challenge or situation” (Seifert & Hoffnung, 1994, p. 52). Further postulation brings theories of assimilation (bringing new ideas into an existing scheme), accommodation (changing out existing schemes when old ones do not work anymore), adaptation (the interchange between assimilation and accommodation), and social transmission (environmental influences) (Seifert & Hoffnung, 1994). In the absence of a child declaring to Piaget what s/he was thinking as cognitive development occurred, as a developmental strategist, Piaget has to theorize informal proposals that might explain how cognitive development occurs. Piaget’s process is the essence of informal theory in action.

Cognitive theory posits that human beings long for equilibrium. When any sort of dissonance is introduced or presented to a human individual or group, s/he or they long for a solution (or equilibrium) to the problem. It is inherently frustrating for a human to not be able to solve a problem. This longing for equilibrium is an essential characteristic to both be aware of and wisely use in the course of human development.

Contribution to the Study of Spiritual Formation

Piaget’s cognitive theory would greatly assist in the process of faith formation through the wise and intentional introduction of more and more advanced ways of thinking as the human’s intellectual capacities are capable of handling such information. A wise teacher would not introduce the mystery of the interaction between man’s free will and God’s sovereignty until such a student was capable of abstract thought. To do so would frustrate both the student and the teacher as the child is incapable intellectually to understand such a complex thought structure. Additionally, a wise teacher will not spend a gross amount of time with a college student on the basics of Christian reasoning (i.e. God’s love) other than to springboard into more complex forms of assimilation.

Piaget’s introduction of the basic ideas of schemes, assimilation, accommodation, adaptation, and disequilibrium can greatly help the study of how anyone is spiritually formed. In other words, how does a human come to know and understand the work of God in their life as well as in the world around them? New schemes, new file folders for information are formed. New ways of thinking about God’s work in the world and through their heart are both assimilated and accommodated. Some things are changed into existing structures, other things are accommodated into new structures.

Cognitive theory contributes a recognition that both the assimilated and accommodated work happens through the process of disequilibration in the life of a person who is being spiritual formed.

Application to Children and Youth Ministry

Ministry can be greatly enhanced when one can use the ideas of Piaget in the timing of the introduction of various forms of higher learning. For example, perhaps the wise Christian educator could introduce basic forms of truths about God to infants and toddlers via stories. Additionally, when children are in preschool and kindergarten, perhaps hands-on, kinetic, activity will help solidify the truths about God amidst various stories found in Scripture. Furthermore, perhaps children in elementary school should have basic instruction regarding a chronological understanding of the unfolding narrative of God’s redemptive plan of rescuing humanity (all told through concrete stories). In middle and high school, as abstract reasoning is flourishing, perhaps the wise teacher can start to introduce abstract concepts of who God is using metaphors and analogies and stretch students as they grow to further embrace and understand these abstract realities.

Additionally, I do not think a developmentalist can stress the importance of disequilibration enough in the application of cognitive theory on ministry practice. The innate, human desire for equilibrium can be used wisely to help children and teenagers at each level of cognitive development learn about the Bible and God’s work in the world as well as grow in the grace and knowledge of Jesus Christ. Perhaps disequilibration in teenagers could be used to instigate questions about God and the Bible and the problems of humanity and questions all humans have when trying to figure out how faith is practiced in real life. There are instances where natural disequilibration happens within a person. For example, a teenager recently was asking me how prayer works if God already knows what is going to happen. This student’s question was: “What does it matter if I pray for something if God is going to do what He wants anyway?” Great question! A natural tension existed within this student’s cognition related to how the providence of God and the free will of man work itself out in real life. In other instances, a wise developmentalist can introduce or create a problem for a group of students, and because teenagers are testing out the new engine of abstract reasoning, they can sort of step outside of themselves and imagine the world from a different perspective. Using disequilibration can be extremely effective in both natural and instigated problems.

Resources for Cognitive Development Theory

Kim, J. H. (2010). Intellectual development and christian formation. In J. R. Estep & J. H. Kim (Eds.), Christian formation: Integrating theology & human development (pp. 63-97). Nashville, TN: B&H Academic.

Miller, P. H. (1989). Theories of developmental psychology. New York, NY: W.H. Freeman and Company.

Plueddemann, J. E. (1995). The power of Piaget. In J. C. Wilhoit & J. M. Dettoni (Eds.), Nurture that is christian (pp. 47-60). Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books.

Seifert, K. L. & Hoofnung, R. J. (1994). Children and adolescent development (3rd ed.). Boston, MA: Houghton Mifflin Company.