Jean Piaget is one of the most influential figures in 20th century psychology. Its four stages on the development of the child, belonging to what has been called, are known worldwide Piagetian genetic epistemology.
This theory is a set of postulates, ideas and formulations of the French psychologist on how children acquire knowledge, theory which we will explore below.
What is genetic epistemology?
Without a doubt, Jean Piaget (1896-1980) is one of the most prolific authors in the field of cognitive development. This Swiss psychologist has focused his work on developing a theory of children’s knowledge, on how children get to know their world.
Piaget wanted to know what are the laws that make cognition develop. His theory centered on this question is what we call genetic epistemology and with it he attempted to discover what were the roots of different types of knowledge, from the most basic to the most complex.
The origin of knowledge has traditionally been explained with two explanations: the empiricist and the innate. According to the empiricist, knowledge comes from outside the human being and people learn to receive it more or less passively. Instead, the innate holds that knowledge is an imposition of the subject’s internal structures on objects.
Piaget criticized both. He considered empiricism to be an idea that could well be defined as “a genesis without structures”, while innateism would be “structures without genesis”. Faced with these two historical explanations, Piaget presented his own position as a solution: there are no structures that do not come from other structures. Any genesis or development requires a prior structure.
Piaget’s theory of genetic epistemology it is based on the idea that the acquisition of knowledge is a process of continuous self-construction, that is why it is considered a constructivist theory.
According to this way of seeing human development, infant knowledge is developed and reworked as the child develops and interacts with his environment. Children actively acquire knowledge through their actions.
A central idea in cognitive theory is that of schemas, which are units of generalized behavior (or action) that provide the basis for mental operations. Moreover, Piagetian theory is oriented towards the way in which children acquire knowledge, and not the way in which adults do.
In his genetic epistemology, Piaget describes three types of knowledge:
1. Physical knowledge
Physical knowledge this is what concerns the objects of the world, knowledge that can be acquired through its perceptual properties.
2. Logical-mathematical knowledge
Logical-mathematical knowledge is the most abstract; one that must be invented.
3. Social-arbitrary knowledge
Social-arbitrary knowledge it’s specific to each culture. It is the data acquired by the subject when he belongs to a certain society and interacts with its members.
Stages of development according to Piaget
These three types of knowledge form a hierarchy, ranging from the most physical knowledge as a base to social and arbitrary knowledge as the top.
The acquisition of specific knowledge will depend on whether or not lower level knowledge is acquired. For example, from an ontogenetic point of view, the acquisition of logical-mathematical knowledge cannot be done before physical knowledge.
This idea of hierarchy is explained in more detail by Piaget when he tells us that, as children grow older they go through a sequence of four stages, phases that everyone must go through to be able to acquire the three types of knowledge previously mentioned:
1. Sensorimotor stage (from birth to 2 years)
The sensorimotor phase occurs before language has developed. During this period, the baby builds the notion of a permanent object and acquires the notions of space, time and causality.. He uses sensory and motor experiences to know the world around him and to build relationships.
2. Pre-operational stage (2 to 4 years)
During the preoperative period language acquisition and the first representations of reality are given.
3. Stage of specific operations (reached between 6 and 7 years)
In the phase of concrete operations, there is a greater consistency of knowledge of the object. Specific operations directly affect the objects that can be manipulated by the child and must be linked to the immediate present. The child has the ability to perform logical mental operations.
4. Stage of formal operations (from 12 years old)
In formal operations phase the child can work with hypotheses in addition to objects. The initiated adolescence acquires the capacity to formulate a set of possible explanations and then to test them for empirical confirmation.
The criteria of the stages of development
As we can see, each stadium has its own characteristics. All children go through these phases in the same order, but not at the same time. That means Every child is expected to exhibit the characteristics of each stage at some point in their life and eventually reach the stage of formal operations..
The criteria used by Piaget to establish these steps were:
- Each step should represent a qualitative change in the child’s cognition.
- Children go through this sequence of phases outside of culture.
- Each stage retains and includes the cognitive structures and skills of the previous stage.
- At each stage, the child’s patterns and operations are integrated as a whole.
In addition to the three types of knowledge and the four stages of Piaget, there are the knowledge development process, based on three principles: assimilation, accommodation and balance.
Assimilation occurs when the child he incorporates new objects or events into his existing patterns.
Accommodation is granted when the child must modify your existing schemas to incorporate new objects or events.
Balance is described as the “main development process”. This process it would incorporate both assimilation and accommodation.
At this point, the child begins to find shortcuts in the new way of thinking. This results in an imbalance, which is overcome by moving on to the next phase. That is, when the child is at a certain stage of the Piagetian model and this imbalance occurs, to return to stability, he will move on to the next stage.
Strengths and weaknesses of genetic epistemology
One of the strengths of the theory is the structure and order it exhibits. The theory serves as an interesting guide for educators giving them basic guidelines on the types, phases and processes involved in knowledge development in childhood. These ideas can be very useful in developing the instructional plan and help teachers understand the current level of students using their age as a benchmark. It is also used to determine when to move on to more complex knowledge.
Among the weaknesses, we find that, in the first place, we have seen that what Piaget advocates is not observed in all children. Not all adolescents reach the stage of formal operations, and there are even adults who do not. And even if boys reach this stage, they may not not “stay there”.
The second major weakness of the model is that although the theory considers that children progress from stage to stage as a qualitative change, the truth is that it seems to be going back and forth. That is to say that there would be children who would enter a stage, we would put the phase of concrete operations, and then return to the preoperative.
The knowledge that children are supposed to acquire is very unstable, being this period of instability that which would appear in a moment of transition from one stage to another. Change doesn’t happen suddenly or permanently, it takes time. It also happens that we have seen that children can present very advanced cognitive strengths depending on their age, according to what Piaget argued.
Ultimately, one of the most important criticisms received by Piaget concerned its idea of structure. According to its detractors, the structure does not exist in the minds of children, but only in the mind of the Swiss psychologist. He himself replied that the structure defines it as something the child can do. The child does not have his own idea of the structure, there is no abstract idea in his head about it, but his actions on what he has to do are well coordinated, thus allowing him to ‘deduce certain consequences.
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