Piaget’s developmental theory challeged

Piaget's four stages in the developmental journey

Piaget’s four stages in the developmental journey


Indeed, it is a healthy endeavor to discuss aspects of Piaget’s theory that have been challenged by subsequent psychologists using variations of his original experiments. Piaget is said to have created the foundations of the contemporary educational system that is held in place today. Piaget supported the idea that the child would be more beneficial in a rich learning environment rather than being subjected to direct tuition (Claudia Hammond, 2006). To discuss what aspects of his theory have been challenged, this essay is going to give an overview of Piaget’s theory of child development. In addition, three variations of Piaget’s famous experiments will be discussed. Subsequently this will show how aspects of Piaget’s original theory have been questioned.

‘The idea that children could play on their own and discover and learn things for themselves was a change in the classroom that started in the 1960’s’ (Claudia Hammond, 2006). Piaget believed that children did not store facts like adults, he believed that children processed information as they interacted with the concrete things around them in everyday life. Peter Sunderland (2006) explained that children could understand things if they were actually done in front of them with pennies, or with buttons or sweets… something that means something to them. The child would build a model of the world in their mind through the process of self discovery in the particular environment in which they happened to be. Piaget believed that reading books or doing calculations would mean little to children until they could work at a more abstract level.

Piaget also believed there was an inherent logic to the development of human knowledge and that it was constructed by children in the same order. He saw that development was part of the child’s own construction (by Oates et al. 2009). Piaget had four stages of development. Firstly, there was the Sensori-motor stage, which lasted from birth until about two years of age. Secondly, there was the Pre-operational stage, which lasted from about two to six years. Thirdly there was the Concrete operations stage, this lasted from about six to twelve years and finally, there was the formal operations stage, this lasted from about twelve years onwards (by Oates et al. 2009). Throughout these stages the child is able to perceive and understand more abstract ideas. This is evident when using different age groups in the various conservation tasks. When children eventually have the ability to reflect somewhat on operations, it can be said that they have reached the concrete operations stage. The child will reach Piaget’s final stage when their mental operations become fully abstract and non-concrete, and they are able to reason within their environment and surroundings. In addition to these stages, there was also Piaget’s concept of egocentricity. This is when the child thinks entirely from a central perspective. As children’s mental operations become more abstract, they are able to free themselves from their own dominant perspective.

The first of Piaget’s four experiments was conservation of volume (Piaget and Inhelder, 1956). The child would view two transparent beakers placed side-by-side, each filled with two thirds of water. The experimenter would make sure the child was satisfied that the both beakers had the same volume. The water from the first beaker would be poured into a thinner, taller glass or a shorter, wider glass. The child would be expected to believe that the quantity of water had changed when poured into the different shaped beaker. Piaget believed the child would perceive the volume of water had changed up until the age of six to seven years of age. Children seem to use the judgement that because the quantity has changed visually, that is why the volume of water has changed (by Oates et al. 2009).

The second of Piaget’s experiments was the conservation of numbers (Piaget and Inhelder, 1956). It was thought that children were not able to grasp the ‘two lines of counters’ experiment up until the age of around seven. The experimenter would place two equal rows of counters down in front of the child. The experimenter would then ask the child whether there were more counters, or if there were the same amount in each row. Once the child was satisfied that both rows were equal, the experimenter would then rearrange and spread out the counters out on the top row so they appeared longer and more spaced out. The child would then be asked if the number of counters in each row were the same or whether they had changed. This time the child would be expected to say there were more counters in the top row compared to the bottom row. Children in the pre-operational stage would be more likely to say that there were more numbers in the top row than there were in the bottom.

The third of Piaget’s theories was the conservation of mass (Piaget and Inhelder, 1956). The child was presented with two balls of play dough and asked whether each ball had the same amount of dough in them. Once the child was satisfied that the two balls of play dough had equal amounts in them, the experimenter would roll one of the balls into a long sausage shape and place it next to the untouched ball of play dough. Just like the conservation of volume the child was then asked whether the newly rolled sausage shape had more dough, or whether they were both the same. The child would be expected to say the newly rolled sausage shape had more dough than the ball shape. When a child discovers and grasps the conservation of mass this suggests that they are at the concrete operation stage of cognitive development.

Finally, the last of Piaget’s theories is egocentricity (Piaget and Inhelder, 1972). In this experiment the child would sit positioned on one side of a model of three mountains, with a teddy placed at the opposite side. The experimenter would ask the child to choose a picture that would portray the teddy’s view of the mountains. Piaget discovered that again, up until the age of seven, the child is unable to perceive that the doll would have had a different viewpoint from their own. Therefore the child is thought to be centring on their own perspective. They are unable to de-centre themselves from their personal perspective and are unable to comprehend that an individual may have a different view of the mountains from a different position.

Nevertheless, there have been critics of Piaget’s theories. Donaldson (1978) believed that children’s reasoning is considered to be more sophisticated than Piaget’s research had originally implied. Tasks have to make ‘human sense’ to children. There has to be reasoning and rationale when communicating with children. Hughes and Greive (1980) demonstrated that both five and seven year olds would try and answer bizarre questions put forward to them by an adult, such as ‘Is milk bigger than water?’ and ‘Is red heavier than yellow?’ (as cited by Oates et al. 2009). They are simply doing what they do during much of their young lives. They are trying to make sense of information from a position of naivety. The child is taught to respect their teacher. They are taught  that it would be inappropriate to doubt or question their teacher. Adult-child relationships were acknowledged by Piaget, but he failed to incorporate this into his studies.

Therefore, the chipped beaker task proved that there could be significant consequences on the outcome of an experiment depending on the way it was carried out and explained to a child. With the chipped beaker experiment (Light et al., 1979) eighty children were tested in pairs, each at four years old. Half the children were given the original Piagetian task, in which two beakers were filled to the same level with dry pasta. Five percent of the children said the amount was still the same. On the other hand, the other half of the children were given a slightly different procedure. They were told at the outset that they were going to use the pasta shells in a competitive game. After they agreed that the two beakers contained the same amount of pasta the experimenter would notice that one of the beakers was dangerously chipped around the rim. The experimenter would look around for an alternative wider beaker and pour the contents in, asking the children, before they started their game whether both beakers still had the same amount of pasta shells in them. This time seventy percent of the children judged that the quantities of the beakers were equal. This challenged Piaget’s original theory due to how it was carried out. The experiment had to be performed in a social context that the children understood. When they had an understanding of why the the pasta was being poured into another beaker, seventy percent of the children understood that the quantity remained the same.

Similarly, another variation of Piaget’s theory was the Conservation of Numbers: Naughty Teddy (McGarrigle and Donaldson, 1974). The experimenter placed two rows of the same number of counters in front of the child just like the original experiment. The experimenter would then ask the child whether there were more counters, or if there were the same amount in each row. Now the experimenter would introduce ‘the naughty teddy’ to the child. The experimenter would then use the ‘naughty teddy bear’ to mess up the top row of counters in what looked to be an accident. The fact the experimenter deliberately altered the situation may have led the children to assume that the experimenter ‘intended’ to change the number of counters in one of the rows. Therefore the child would be more likely to state that the amount of counters had stayed the same (Eyesneck, 2004). It is worth noting that more recent suggestions by Moore and Frye (1986) found that there was a possibility that the children were so absorbed by the teddy bear routine that they did not actually notice the transformation and that is why, with the naughty teddy, they had said the display had not changed. This was tested with the naughty teddy by adding a counter or taking a counter away and the children still agreed that the numbers had still not changed.

Furthermore, Piaget’s original experiment on egocentricity had been questioned using the experiment: Hiding from Policeman (Donaldson and Hughes, 1978). The child was shown a set of four walls arranged in a cross shape. There was a north, east, west and south wall and there were four different segments. The child was told that the doll was hiding from the policeman. If the policeman was placed at the end of the north wall, the doll would have to hide in the south-east or south-west segments of the cross. If a second policeman joined the first and stood at the end of the east wall, then the doll would have to stand at the south-west segment not to be seen. Most children seemed to understand this concept. This seems to indicate that children lack egocentrism, in contradiction to Piaget’s argument. The reason for this could be because the test was far simpler whilst still assessing the same basic skill. One could question the similarity between this experiment and the three-mountain experiment as they really could be quite different in terms of detecting the egocentric behaviour of children.

In conclusion, this essay has looked at aspects of Piaget’s theory that have been challenged by subsequent psychologists. Piaget’s experiments determined when a child passed from one stage to another, but psychologists have questioned this. They have questioned whether Piaget underestimated the stages constructed by children by adapting the original experiments as described in this essay. For example, the revised experiments create evidence that some children may be past the pre-operational stage and at the concrete stage at an earlier age than Piaget had originally observed. Other factors one could take into consideration is that some of the adapted experiments may have been too easy. For example, was ‘the policeman’ test really a variation of  ‘three mountains test’? Although contested, Piaget’s theory of development is still influential when looking at contemporary education for children today.



Eysenck, M.W. (2004) ‘Developmental Psychology’, Psychology: An International Perspective,  pp 527 – 529

Donaldson and Hughes (1978) in the Open University (2006) Media Kit, ED209: Child Development DVD-ROM (Media Kit Part 1, Video Band 1), Milton Keynes, The Open University.

Hammond, C. (2006) ‘Mind Hunters’, in the Open University (2006) Media Kit, ED209: Child Development DVD-ROM (Media Kit Part 1, Audio Band 2), Milton Keynes, The Open University.

McGarrigle and Donaldson (1974) in the Open University (2006) Media Kit, ED209: Child Development DVD-ROM (Media Kit Part 1, Video Band 1), Milton Keynes, The Open University.

Oates, J. Sheely, K. and Wood, C. (2005) ‘Theories of development’, in Oates, j., Wood, C. and Grayson, A. (eds) Psychological Development and Early Childhood, Oxford, Blackwell/The Open University.

Piaget. J. and Inhelder, B. (1969) ‘The “concrete” Operations of Thought’, Psychology of the Child, London, Routledge and Kegan Paul,  pp 92 – 128

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