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11.2: Piaget’s Theory of Cognitive Development

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    Concrete Operational Thought

    As children continue into elementary school, they develop the ability to represent ideas and events more flexibly and logically. Their rules of thinking still seem very basic by adult standards and usually operate unconsciously, but they allow children to solve problems more systematically than before, and therefore to be successful with many academic tasks. In the concrete operational stage, for example, a child may unconsciously follow the rule: “If nothing is added or taken away, then the amount of something stays the same.” This simple principle helps children to understand certain arithmetic tasks, such as in adding or subtracting zero from a number, as well as to do certain classroom science experiments, such as ones involving judgments of the amounts of liquids when mixed. Piaget called this period the concrete operational stage because children mentally “operate” on concrete objects and events. 3

    Figure \(\PageIndex{1}\): Children studying. (Image is licensed under CC0)

    The concrete operational stage is defined as the third in Piaget's theory of cognitive development. This stage takes place around 7 years old to 11 years of age, and is characterized by the development of organized and rational thinking. Piaget (1954a) considered the concrete stage a major turning point in the child's cognitive development, because it marks the beginning of logical or operational thought. The child is now mature enough to use logical thought or operations (i.e. rules) but can only apply logic to physical objects (hence concrete operational). Children gain the abilities of conservation (number, area, volume, orientation) and reversibility.5

    Let’s look at the following cognitive skills that children typically master during Piaget’s concrete operational stage.6 :

    Figure \(\PageIndex{2}\): The cognitive skills developed during the concrete operational stage. (Image by Ian Joslin is licensed under CC BY 4.0)

    Seriation: Arranging items along a quantitative dimension, such as length or weight, in a methodical way is now demonstrated by the concrete operational child. For example, they can methodically arrange a series of different-sized sticks in order by length, while younger children approach a similar task in a haphazard way.8

    Figure \(\PageIndex{3}\): Caption: Putting these rectangles from smallest to largest is seriation. (Image by MehreenH is licensed CC BY-SA 4.0)

    Classification: As children's experiences and vocabularies grow, they build schema and are able to organize objects in many different ways. They also understand classification hierarchies and can arrange objects into a variety of classes and subclasses.

    Figure \(\PageIndex{4}\): This child might use classification if she sorts these toys by color. (Image is licensed under CC0)

    Reversibility: The child learns that some things that have been changed can be returned to their original state. Water can be frozen and then thawed to become liquid again. But eggs cannot be unscrambled. Arithmetic operations are reversible as well: 2 + 3 = 5 and 5 – 3 = 2. Many of these cognitive skills are incorporated into the school's curriculum through mathematical problems and in worksheets about which situations are reversible or irreversible.

    Figure \(\PageIndex{5}\): Understanding that ice cubes melt is an example of reversibility. (Image by John Voo is licensed under CC BY 2.0)

    Conservation: An example of the preoperational child’s thinking; if you were to fill a tall beaker with 8 ounces of water this child would think that it was "more" than a short, wide bowl filled with 8 ounces of water? Concrete operational children can understand the concept of conservation, which means that changing one quality (in this example, height or water level) can be compensated for by changes in another quality (width). Consequently, there is the same amount of water in each container, although one is taller and narrower and the other is shorter and wider.

    Figure \(\PageIndex{6}\): Beakers displaying the idea of conservation. (Image by Ydolem2689 is licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0)

    Decentration: Concrete operational children no longer focus on only one dimension of any object (such as the height of the glass) and instead consider the changes in other dimensions too (such as the width of the glass). This allows for conservation to occur.

    Figure \(\PageIndex{7}\): Children looking at these glasses demonstrate decentration when looking at more than one attribute i.e. tall, short, and wide narrow. (Image by Waterlily16 is licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0)

    Identity: One feature of concrete operational thought is the understanding that objects have qualities that do not change even if the object is altered in some way. For instance, mass of an object does not change by rearranging it. A piece of chalk is still chalk even when the piece is broken in two. 14

    Figure \(\PageIndex{8}\): A broken egg is still an egg. (Image by John Liu is licensed under CC BY 2.0)
    Figure \(\PageIndex{9}\): A deflated balloon is still a balloon. (Image is licensed under CC0)
    Figure \(\PageIndex{10}\): Broken chalk is still chalk. (Image from Pexels)

    Transitivity: Being able to understand how objects are related to one another is referred to as transitivity or transitive inference. This means that if one understands that a dog is a mammal and that a boxer is a dog, then a boxer must be a mammal.18

    Figure \(\PageIndex{11}\): Transitivity allows children to understand that this boxer puppy, is a dog and a mammal. (Image by Martin Vorel is in the public domain)

    Looking at Piaget’s Theory

    Researchers have obtained findings indicating that cognitive development is considerably more continuous than Piaget claimed. Thus, the debate between those who emphasize discontinuous, stage-like changes in cognitive development and those who emphasize gradual continuous changes remains a lively one.20

    Triarchic Theory of Intelligence

    An alternative view of intelligence is presented by Sternberg (1997; 1999). Sternberg offers three types of intelligences. Sternberg provided background information about his view of intelligence in a conference, where he described his frustration as a committee member charged with selecting graduate students for a program in psychology. He was concerned that there was too much emphasis placed on aptitude test scores (we will discuss this later in the chapter) and believed that there were other, less easily measured, qualities necessary for success in a graduate program and in the world of work. Aptitude test scores indicate the first type of intelligence-academic

    1. Analytical (componential) sometimes described as academic: includes the ability to solve problems of logic, verbal comprehension, vocabulary, and spatial abilities. 2. Creative (experiential): the ability to apply newly found skills to novel situations 3. Practical (contextual): the ability to use common sense and to know what is called for in a situation. 21


    Figure \(\PageIndex{12}\): Reading supports analytical intelligence (Image licensed under CC0)


    Figure \(\PageIndex{13}\): Building with shows creative intelligence (Image licensed under CC0)


    Figure \(\PageIndex{14}\): Navigating social settings is practical intelligence (Image by Steven Depolo is licensed under CC BY 2.0)

    Contributors and Attributions

    3. Educational Psychology by OpenStax CNX is licensed under CC BY 4.0

    5. Lifespan Development: A Psychological Perspective by Martha Lally and Suzanne Valentine-French is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 3.0

    6. Concrete Operational Stage Image by Simply Psychology is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 3.0; Lifespan Development: A Psychological Perspective by Martha Lally and Suzanne Valentine-French is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 3.0

    8. Lifespan Development: A Psychological Perspective by Martha Lally and Suzanne Valentine-French is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 3.0

    14. Lifespan Development: A Psychological Perspective by Martha Lally and Suzanne Valentine-French is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 3.0

    18. Transitivity by Boundless is licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0

    20. Lifespan Development: A Psychological Perspective by Martha Lally and Suzanne Valentine-French is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 3.0

    21. Lifespan Development – Module 6: Middle Childhood by Lumen Learning references Psyc 200 Lifespan Psychology by Laura Overstreet, which is licensed under CC BY 3.0 (modified by Dawn Rymond)

    This page titled 11.2: Piaget’s Theory of Cognitive Development is shared under a CC BY license and was authored, remixed, and/or curated by Paris, Ricardo, Raymond, & Johnson (College of the Canyons) .