Piaget's Stage (Part 1)

In general, Piaget saw intellectual development as having four main stages: sensory motor, preoperational (which subdivide into preoperational and intuitive), concrete operational, and formal operational (see figure 1). It will help if you will remember that the numbers of years for the successive stages are approximately 2,2,3,4, and 4+. So the upper age limits for the stages are approximately 2, 4,7,11, and 15+.

Figure 1
Piaget’s concepts of stages of cognitive development at various chronological age ranges

The age designations for each stage are approximate, not hard and fast. Moreover, a stage does not end suddenly. Rather, it trails off. Thus a child may still be preoperational in his thinking in some areas while performing more logically in others.

First Stage: Sensory motor
Covering roughly the age from birth to two years, the sensory motor stage is characterized by child’s growth in ability in simple perceptual and motor activities. This stage covers the period during which children move from a newborn’s reflexive activity to a more highly organized kind of activity. The child learns to:
• See himself as different from the object around him
• Seek stimulation by lights and sounds
• Try to prolong interesting experiences
• Define things by manipulating them
• Regard an object as constant despite changes in location or the child’s point of view
One example of changing behavior in the sensorimotor stage is that of baby who tries to suck from the bottom of his bottle when it is presented upside down. Perhaps just a month or two later the baby learns to turn the bottle right side up when it is presented, because he sees the bottle as the same object, regardless of the way in which it is presented to him. Similarly, a child at the age of five months will no longer seek a ball if it becomes hidden under a blanket. But at eight months he will continue too look for it, having acquiring the knowledge that object do not cease to exist when they suddenly go out of one’s direct observation field. When you think about it, some remarkable achievements take place in this time period. Children from birth to about two years age change to an astounding extent through maturation and learning.
One reason Piaget’s work has been unique is that he observed more carefully than his predecessors the remarkable cognitive changes that take place in children. An instant of the discrimination learning of a child in the sensory motor period is found in Piaget’s notes on his own child, Laurent, when he was between three and one-half and four months of age:
When, after being dressed as usual just before the meal, he is put in my arms in position for nursing, he look at me and then searches all around, look at me again, etc.—but he don’t attempt to nurse. When I place him in his mother’s arms without his touching the breast, he look at her and immediately opens his mouth wide, cries, move about, in short reacts in a completely significant way. It is therefore sight and no longer only the position which henceforth is the signal (Piaget, 1952, p.50)
Before we go on, lets us ask of what use is it to sit back and watch children change before us? Does it really matter that a bottle gets changed around? That pursuit of object continues after the object is out of sight? Or that sucking occurs under one set of circumstances and not another?
Knowledge for the child under two years of age consists of the repertoire of actions upon objects in the environment. What a child does, from his simplest grasping through his most complex examination of things, is designed to give mastery over the world. Examining minute changes in behavior gives us clues to what a child is learning and how that learning fits within still more complex learning.
Piaget trained as a biologist, a fact that clarifies his approach of looking for how one behavior fits within another, evolving in ways to help the organism adapt to its environment. If young children engage in some activity, that activity must be functional for the child. By carefully watching the child, we may learn how the child comes to see himself as different from his environment and why that differentiation is important for the later development of his image of self. We may learn how and why he seeks stimulation. We may learn the ways in which the manipulation of objects—the sheer joy a child takes in repetitive activities—comes to aid the development of skilled motor performance and, later, symbolic thinking. We learn that without the child babbling, his comprehensible speech would never occur. Thus Piaget has searches for patterns in behavior, for ways in which even the simplest behavior of an organism is organized and adaptive.

Second stage: Preoperational
In the preoperational phase of this second stage, which covers the ages from two to four, the child is busy using language to help him self develop concepts. His concepts are very private, often false, and need to be checked again reality. Experience is crucial for learning linguistic forms. You may say to a child, “Too much water. You’ll spill it!” and the child will promptly spill it. Is the child testing your patience? Or is the child incapable to understanding complex relational terms like too much until a later stage, after much experience with the environment? Piaget emphasizes that the child needs this extensive experience to understand complex relational terms. Because our own thought patterns are relatively sophisticated, we seem to overestimate the depth of understanding of young children.
In the preoperational stages of development, the child:
• Is markedly self-centered and often incapable of putting himself in another person’s shoes, that is taking another person’s point of view in perceiving the physical world
• Can classify objects on the basis of single conspicuous feature
• Is unable to see that objects alike in one respect may differ in others
• Is able to collect things according a criterion, including a shifting criterion
• Can arrange things in a series, but cannot draw inferences about things not adjacent to each other in the series. Thus, if John is taller than Joe, and Joe is taller than Jim, is John taller than Jim? Such an inference is not usually possible at the preoperational stage.
The inability of a child at this stage to handle multiple classifications is seen in the nursery school child who meets his teacher in the supermarket and either fails to recognize her or is shocked to discover that she also eats! Piaget reports a similar observation made on his daughter, Jacqueline (J), at age 2 years, 7 months, 12 days:
…seeing L in a new bathing suit, with a cap, J asked: “what’s the baby’s name?” Her mother explained that it was a bathing costume, but J pointed to L herself and said: “But what’s the name of that?” (Indicating L’s face) and repeating the question several times. But as soon as L had her dress on again, J exclaimed very seriously: “It’s Lucienne again,” as if her sister changed her identity in changing her clothes (Piaget, 1951, p. 224)
In the intuitive phase of preoperational stage, which covers the ages from four to seven, a child reach conclusions that are based on vague impression and perceptual judgment that are not put into words. These give ground, but only slowly, to more logical and rational understanding. Perceptual without words—that is, without symbolic mediation—often leads the child to misunderstand events in world around him. As language becomes more and more important, more mediation can take place. A good example of the way a child’s abilities change in the period of preoperational thought was given by Miller (1962), reporting Russian investigations. Suppose you give children two picture to look at. The children are asked to raise their right hands when the picture with the pale yellow background is shown, and their left hands when the picture with the grey background is shown. The two pictures are (a) a bright red circle on a pale yellow background and (b) a bright green circle on a grey background.
With these instructions, the children attention has been focused on the least salient characteristics of the picture. After practicing a while, the children are tested on whether they are really reacting to the background and not to the bright circles. The test easily devised: the circles are merely switched. When the picture with the green circle (now on the pale yellow background) is presented to the child, will the right or left hands go up?
Children who are three years age pay attention to the bright colors, ignoring the verbal instructions. Their raised their left hands. They are dominated by perceptual field, not the verbal system. Four year old children appear to be confused, first doing one think then the other, when given this test.
Not until the child is five will a verbal command produce a stable reorganization of his perceptual field.
Experiments of this short illustrate the fact that long after a child has mastered the basic skill needed for social communication there are still important changes going on in the way these linguistic skills modify and control other aspects of his cognitive life (Miller, 1962. P 305)
Slowly, perhaps by age seven, the child learns to react to symbol systems in a reliable manner and to override his intuitive perceptual impressions. More important, by age seven the child can symbolically transform the contents of his mind. But this can happen only if the child has had extensive experience with the world at large. Meanwhile, in this intuitive preoperational stage of development, the child:
• Become able to form classes or categories of object, but not necessarily be aware of them
• Become able to understand logical relationships of increasing complexity
• Become able to work with the idea of number
• Acquire the principle of conservation, that is, the idea that the amount of something stays the same regardless of changes in its shape or the number of pieces into which it is divided. He acquires the conservation of mass at age five, weight at age six and volume at age seven. Thus he come to realize that the amount of liquid stay the same even when the liquid is poured into container of different shape. He understands that the number of objects remains the same regardless of how they are grouped.
The mental processes required recognizing that the amount of liquid stays the same regardless of the shape of the beaker it is in, or that changes in the shape of clay ball will not affect its weight, are relatively sophisticated. By introducing such tasks into the study of development, Piaget gained understanding of the growth of logical, abstract, and scientific thought processes. Simple paired-associate learning tasks, simple serial learning or discrimination tasks, have interested Piaget little. His goal has been to probe fundamental aspects of thinking, the basic processes of mental life, and not so much their products. Piaget’s approach went considerably beyond a concern with the mere rightness or wrongness of answers to test questions—a concern that had been dominant in American psychology.
To study the conservation of mass (see figure 2a), Piaget gave a child some clay to roll into a ball of the same size as another ball of the same material. Then hew rolled one of the ball into a long cylindrical shape. At the age of about four, the child consider the longer of the two objects to contain more clay, but at the age of about five, roughly half the children see the amount of clay as staying the same. In studying the conservation of weight (see figure 2b), an understanding acquired the age of about six, Piaget first asked the child to balance two balls of clay on a scale. After changing the shape of one of the balls, Piaget noted whether the child realized that the ball whose shape had been changed would still balance the round ball. In studying conservation of volume (see figure 2c), Piaget first showed the child that balls of equal size will make the water level in a cylinder go up by the same amount. Then he asked the child whether a ball, whose shape had been changed, perhaps elongated, will cause the water to rise the same distance. Typically, about half of the children give the right answer at the age of about seven.

Figure 2
Examples of conservation tasks

The sequence in which these kinds of conservation are learned (first mass, then weight, and finally volume) seem to remain the same in many studies and different cultures. It is possible, with a lot of work, to train children to understand these kinds of conservation at earlier age than they would normally do so. But Smedslund (1961) showed that more speedily induced understanding was fragile. For example, a group of children were trained to respond correctly to problems involving conservation of weight. Then Smedslund, without letting his action be seen, removed a very small quantity of the clay. Now the two pieces of clay no longer balanced on a scale. Children who understood the conservation of weight as a result of their normal development resisted this experience, accusing the experimenter of chicanery, searching the area for missing clay, challenging the accuracy of the scales. They kept on looking for an explanation longer and more persistently than children who had received their understanding through experimental training. That is, children who had acquired the concept of conservation through training and not through natural experience began acting as they had in pretraining sessions, unable to demonstrate the concept of conservation of weight.
In the intuitive phase, the child also becomes able to form classes or category of objects, see relationships, and work with the idea of number. However, the child is considered to be intuitive because he is not conscious of the categories his using.

To be continued

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