Assignment: Common Criticisms

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Assignment: Common Criticisms

Assignment: Common Criticisms


Assignment: Understanding Piaget’s Theory Through Evaluating Common Criticisms

Although Piaget has been extremely influential in developmental psychology, his theory has been mis-interpreted in numerous ways, partly because his goals have not always been recognized. There are now two views of Piaget’s theory: the familiar “received view” that has become entrenched in textbooks, and a more recent and close reading of Piaget’s work advanced by Michael Chapman and others that differs in striking and important ways. From the perspective of the “received view”, Piaget is acknowledged as a pioneer in many areas, but nonetheless is heavily criticized for a number of reasons. The implication is that Piaget has little to offer current research and theory in developmental psychology. Therefore, to give a contemporary summary and assessment of Piaget’s theory it is now necessary to discuss both views of his work.

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The primary diversity of interpretation of Piaget’s theory revolves around the concept of developmental stages. Piaget’s idea of stage is commonly interpreted to imply that once children demonstrate a form of reasoning, such as concrete operational reasoning (e.g., conservation tasks), they are in this stage, and, therefore, should be able to pass all other concrete operational reasoning tasks. That is, the principle of conservation is the same, regardless if the concept conserved is substance, volume, weight, or liquid. However, there is now overwhelming evidence of inconsistency in reasoning across tasks that have identical logical formal properties, such as conservation. This inconsistency is known as horizontal decalage. For example, children’s understanding of conservation develops in the following order, with each type being separated by approximately two years: substance (7-8 years), weight (9-10 years) and volume (11-12 years). This evidence is generally seen as a fatal flaw for Piaget’s theory. However, Michael Chapman pointed out that Piaget never did make this claim so often attributed to him about consistency in reasoning within stages, and, in fact, Piaget stated the opposite in several of his writings. If we begin from Piaget’s basic insight that thought originates in action, then horizontal decalage is not an embarrassing surprise at all; rather, it ought to be expected. That is, as children engage in new forms of actions (e.g., displacing water, weighing with a scale) new understandings (e.g., types of conservation) should emerge. This discussion also highlights the point that Piaget was classifying forms of reasoning (knowledge) as the object of his study; he was not classifying children as being at one particular stage, as is commonly understood.

It has also been claimed that Piaget underestimated children’s abilities because his tasks include extraneous factors (i.e., factors not intrinsically related to the concept being tested). Consequently, researchers have modified Piaget’s tasks and removed what they considered to be extraneous factors in order to uncover children’s true competence. For example, the conservation of number task was administered with 2 or 3 objects instead of 5 objects, and younger children did pass this simplified task. However, this work was later criticized because it became evident that children could pass the simplified tasks with different forms of reasoning. That is, the simplified tasks were no longer assessing the form of reasoning that they were originally designed to assess. Furthermore, this line of research overlooks the crucial point that within Piaget’s theory age is only an indicator but not a criterion for children’s competence. The issue that competences develop in an ordered, sequential manner was more important to Piaget than the question of when these competencies emerge.

Piaget has been criticized for neglecting the importance of social factors and language in development. Moreover, it is generally assumed that he took a strictly individualistic perspective on development. However, in several of his books Piaget emphasized that social interaction is an essential factor in development, but that it is necessary to go beyond such obvious statements to clarify how particular forms of social interaction influence development. Early in his career, Piaget argued that reasoning develops from the social process of argumentation. Later, Piaget recognized the roots of logical thought in infants’ prelinguistic activity, and thus argued that although social factors are necessary, they are not in themselves sufficient as a complete explanation for cognitive development. Social factors are important in knowledge being imparted from one generation to another, but this could not explain how new forms of knowledge emerge, nor how children develop to the point at which they can begin to assimilate such socially available knowledge. Although Piaget did focus on the child’s physical action on the world, for a full appreciation of Piaget’s thought his research should be viewed in the context of the larger framework in which he worked.

Implications for Education

Interpretations of Piaget’s theory as individualistic might suggest that his theory has little to offer education. However, Piaget himself was explicitly concerned with education, and his theory is a general approach to cognitive development that has implications for social cognitive development and for education. Piaget’s theory directs our attention to the child’s level of development because a child can only understand instruction if she has developed structures or forms of understanding with which to do so. Further, according to Piaget, knowledge is constructed through interaction with the world, and he emphasized the child’s active role in the constructive process. This suggests that rote memorization or passive reception by children is not the best way to learn. However, Piaget’s theory does not imply that there is no role for teachers; teachers are essential in creating situations that facilitate children’s ability to develop understanding.

Another example of the implications of Piaget’s work for education follows from his approach to moral development in which he emphasized the role of two types of relationships: constraint and cooperation. Relationships of constraint involve unilateral respect and the imposition of views from authority. In contrast, relationships of cooperation are best suited for the development of knowledge because they involve mutual respect and each person is obliged to listen to the other and to fully explain themselves. This situation is most likely to lead to mutual understanding, which is essential in the development of all forms of knowledge.


Piaget’s approach to the development of knowledge rejects the nativist view that knowledge is innately given and is simply a matter of biological maturation. He also pointed out inadequacies with the empiricist position that the source of knowledge can be completely accounted for in the physical and social external world. Therefore, according to Piaget, knowledge cannot be simply transmitted from one person to another. Instead, he argued for a third position according to which knowledge originates in action on the world, and thus has to be constructed. This construction begins with the infant’s physical and sensory interaction with the world and continues with mental activity, as actions become interiorized (i.e., they no longer have to be actually physically performed). This gradual process of the child becoming progressively more adapted to the world—that is, the acquisition of knowledge—involves assimilation and accommodation. In order for experience, including education, to affect a child she must have some way of making sense of it, i.e., of assimilating it. The process of assimilation is paired with accommodation, so that as the child assimilates or makes sense of present experience in terms of previous experience she also accommodates to differences in the current experience. These are aspects of the overall back and forth process of the acquisition of knowledge that Piaget referred to as equilibration. Although this process has been interpreted as individualistic, Piaget recognized the essential role of social factors in development. Other people can structure the situations in which children construct knowledge in ways that facilitate development, and social relationships in which others fully explain positions are best suited to reach mutual understanding and further development. The increasing coordination of interiorized actions leads to the generation of new possibilities in thought and also to the sense of necessity, i.e., that the answer necessarily has to be so. This is Piaget’s answer to the fundamental question that pervades his writings, i.e., the question of the origins and development of the generativity and rigor of human thought.

Jeremy I. M. Carpendale, Simon Fraser University

Ulrich Müller, University of Victoria

Maximilian B. Bibok, Simon Fraser University

See also Conservation, Constructivism, Egocentrism, Equilibration, Object Permanence.

Further Reading

Bremner, G. (2001). Cognitive development: Knowledge of the physical world. In G. Bremner & A. Fogel (Eds.), Blackwell handbook of infant development (pp. 99-138). Oxford: Blackwell.

Chapman, M. (1988). Constructive evolution: Origins and development of Piaget’s thought. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Chapman, M. (1992). Equilibration and the dialectics of organization. In H. Beilin & P. B. Pufall (Eds.). Piaget’s theory: Prospects and possibilities (pp. 39-59). Hillsdale, NJ: Erlbaum.

Furth, H. G. (1969). Piaget and knowledge. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall.

Inhelder, B., & Piaget, J. (1958). The growth of logical thinking from childhood to adolescence. New York: Basic Books (Original work published 1955)

Lourenço, O., & Machado, A. (1996). In defense of Piaget’s theory: A reply to 10 common criticisms. Psychological Review, 103, 143-164.

Piaget, J. (1963). The origins of intelligence in children. New York: Norton. (Original work published 1936)

Piaget, J. (1970). Piaget’s theory. In P. Mussen (Ed.), Carmichael’s manual of child psychology (3rd ed.) (pp. 703-732). New York: Plenum Press.

Piaget, J. (1971). Science of education and the psychology of the child. (Original work published 1969). New York: Penguin Books.

Piaget, J. (1971). Biology and knowledge. University of Chicago Press. (Original work published 1967)

Piaget, J. (1971). The construction of reality in the child. New York: Ballantine. (Original work published 1937)

Piaget, J. (1972). The principles of genetic epistemology. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul. (Original work published in 1970)

Piaget, J. (1995). Sociological studies. London: Routledge. (Original work published 1977)

Piaget, J., & Inhelder, B. (1969). The psychology of the child. New York: Basic Books (Original work published 1966)

Smith, L. (1993). Necessary knowledge. Hove, UK: Erlbaum Associates Ltd.

Smith, L. (2004). Developmental epistemology and education. In J. I. M. Carpendale & U. Müller (Eds.), Social interaction and the development of knowledge (pp. 175-194). Mahwah, NJ: Erlbaum.

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