Piagets theory of cognitive development was meant to cover all domains of mental and physical life. The word intelligence was used as a substitute for this generalized quality of thought. The following paper will critically evaluate Piagets theory of cognitive development by briefly outlining three domains. This will encompass Piagets understanding of these domains, how his theory has been criticized, and the strengths and weaknesses of these criticisms. The three domains that will be discussed are as follows; drawing development, gender role development, and the understanding of intentions. The first domain will look at the pattern of children’s drawing development as its been studied in Piagets theory of cognitive development. The focus of the second domain is the development of gender roles, and how this development would have been understood from a Piagetian mindset. The third domain is a sub-section of the theory of mind, it is the understanding of intentions, particularly the intentions of others. A brief outline of Piagets theory of cognitive development will be provided next. Piaget believed that children were born without knowledge and therefore all knowledge consumed needed to be learnt first through interaction with the environment. He proposed three domain-general mechanisms in which children learn: assimilation, accommodation, and equilibration. According to Piaget learning took place through 4 discontinuous stages, each stage changed the way knowledge was organized (Leman, Bremner, Parke & Gauvin, 2012).
Domain 1 – Drawing development
In drawing development, many processes are different from cognitive reasoning, a child’s thoughts become more abstract and categorical (Lange & Kuttner, 2008). According to Piaget children’s drawings develop in a consistent manner, from scribbling during the sensorimotor stage of development to visual realism during the concrete operational stage. Drawing initially develops between the age of 1 and 2 years old when children begin to acquire their fine motor control. Throughout the sensorimotor stage all drawings are scribbles. Thereafter, between the ages of 2 and 3 years old, Piaget stated that children begin to label their scribbles as a way of relating an idea to the drawing (Simpson, 2017). Children then progress to drawing closed forms between the ages of 3 and 4 years. This point in the child’s drawing development is interpreted by Piaget as an object representation or schema which has been simplified. Once a child achieves this ability they acquire intellectual realism, which is when the drawing begins to show the objects essential elements (Simpson et al., in press). When a child reaches 8 years of age, he/she is expected to understand the concept of conservation. When a child successfully understands conservation, he/she has reached the stage of visual realism (Piaget & Inhelder, 1969).
Piagets theory of cognitive development and of drawing development has been heavily criticized. Firstly, he is criticized for underestimating children’s abilities, as abstract directions and requirements may lead to children failing at tasks they can do under different conditions (Gelman, Meck, & Merkin, 1986). Furthermore, Piagets theory can also be criticized for hypothesizing that individuals learn better by themselves, when in fact, learning is a much more socially interactive process (Simpson, 2017). Another major criticism of Piaget’s theory is the way which he measured conservation. McGarrigle and Donaldson (1974) developed a test to measure children’s conservation, which they then compared to Piagets standard number conservation task. Two-thirds of 4 to 6 year olds passed McGarrigle and Donaldsons test, but only 1 in 7 passed Piagets task. McGarrigle and Donaldson suggested that children understand conservation at an earlier age than Piaget indicated, and his task may have confused children because his tasks were not child oriented. This is similar to other critiques that have suggested that Piaget’s tasks were too difficult or ambiguous for children to understand. Cox (1981) developed a more child orientated task to measure visual realism. Cox asked children to draw a picture of a robber hiding from a policeman behind a wall. Cox found that when the topic made sense to the children, they were more likely to use visual realism at a younger age than Piaget stated.
However, despite the criticisms, there was some evidence supporting Piagets theory. Freeman & Janikoun (1972) tested Piagets theory of the transition from intellectual to visual realism using a cup. The cup was placed with the handle hidden from direct view and children were asked to draw the cup. The study found that young children often drew the cups handle (it’s principle feature), even though it was not in view. Furthermore, Cox (1978) asked children to draw a picture of two balls, with one ball partly hidden behind the other. The results were consistent with that of the previous study and Piaget, younger children drew the balls separate from each other whereas older drew only what they saw. However, further research suggested that a range of factors could influence the type of drawing style a child chose (Freeman & Cox, 1985). Many theorists have found that children develop certain concepts earlier than what Piaget proposed. However, Piaget did believe that the amount of time each child spends in each stage of development changes depending on his or her environment (Kamii, 1982). Therefore, this statement accounts for the flexibility in the ages in which children move from one stage to the next.
Domain 2 – Understanding Intentions
The Theory of mind is the understanding that all individuals have mental states and subsequently have the ability to reflect on them (Simpson, 2017). It encompasses three kinds of mental states, namely; emotions, desires/intentions, and beliefs. These mental states are believed to be the driving factor behind most human behaviour and allows one to understand that someone else’s mental states can be different from our own. Taking into perspective that theory of mind a broad and complex process, this domain will solely focus on how and when a child begins to understand the intentions of others. According to Piaget (1953) infants begin to learn intent by controlling their movements and observing the links between sense and motion. Children then apply this knowledge to others, through the process of imitation. Piaget as well as other researchers found that children younger than the ages of 8 or 9 focused more on the consequences of a wrongful act then the individual’s intentions behind the act. This resulted in the researchers inferring that children below this age are either unaware of intentions or fail to see the connection between intention and morality (Feinfield et al., ). Furthermore, according to Piaget, children did not distinguish between the physical and mental world until the age of 7 years. At this age children begin to differentiate between internal actions such as thinking and dreaming and external actions such as speaking and acting (Legerstee et al). This means that below the age of 7 children will not be able to infer an adult’s intention behind their action.
However, further research has begun to question these perceptions. Feinfield et al., () highlighted the possibility that the methodological approach by Piaget and previous researchers were flawed. Researchers were trying to assess the understanding of intention through social interactive research rather than focusing on intention directly through more cognitive means. In addition, research has shown that infants as young as 3 years of age distinguish between the mental and the physical world when verbal tasks are being used. Meltzoff (1995) found that infants as young as 18 months of age began to treat human behavior as intentional and distinct from that of objects when nonverbal tasks were used. Meltzoff (1995) found through a task used to explore children’s understanding of intentions that children imitated an adults intention rather than their actual behaviour. The task used to explore this cognitive process is the behavioural re-enactment procedure. 18 month old children observed adults failing to perform an action. When given the object, the same children were able to successfully perform the action. Meltzoff (1995), suggests that we only imitate others intentions and not their actions. However, it’s possible that associative learning could account for this behaviour, weakening the strength of this criticism. Children might have developed associations between human actions and the types of objects toward which the actions tend to be directed (Legerstee et al., ). Other studies have shown that children only imitate the actions of others, the exact movements they make, which is consistent with Piagets theory. Horner and Whiten (2005), wanted to determine whether children copied either an individual’s actions directly, or whether they only performed the action needed to achieve the experimenter’s intention. Results of the study showed that children between the ages of 3 and 4 years old copied both the pointless and the intentional action. It’s possible that children copy intentional actions whether or not they know what the intention is as it is often difficult to infer what the intention is at that age. According to Moses, Carlson, & Sabbagh (2004), domain-general executive skills may be necessary for the development of intention, but they are not sufficient. Exposure and interaction with relevant experiences plays a major role in the development of intention.
Domain 3 – Gender role development
Kohlberg (1966) was one of the first theorists to study gender development in young children. He based his theory of gender development on Piagets stages of cognitive development (Martin, Ruble & Szkrybalo, 2002). This helps to provide insight into how Piaget would apply his theory of cognitive development to the development of gender roles in young children. From a Piagetian perspective, the child would be considered central to his or how own gendered learning (Simpson 2017). This would involve an active construction of gender categories, initiated internally by the child rather than by external social influences (Martin, Ruble & Szkrybalo, 2002).
As with Piagets theory of cognitive development, gender role development would similarly follow a stage like process. During the sensorimotor stage in which children lack internal logic, children will develop their gender identity by being labelled a boy or a girl. This stage is crucial as it is the foundation upon which gender roles are formed. Thereafter, between the ages of 3.5 and 4.5 years old, the child’s gender identity becomes a symbolic representation. At this point, a child will focus on the visible properties of gender, and ignore unseen but essential properties of gender. Therefore, a change in context or physical appearance could influence a child’s opinion of their gender (Simpson, 2017). For example, a 3 year old boy in Martin, Ruble & Szkrybalo (2002) study, said he was a girl when the experimenter pointed out the boy’s ponytail, but changed his mind and said he was a boy when attention was drawn back to his penis. During the operational stage, the child’s view of their gender will become permanent because they will have reached the age where they understand conservation (Banerjee, 2005). Once they have achieved this understanding, they will be able to respond to gender norms, attitudes and behaviours. This is believed to occur at approximately 7 years of age. At the age of 8 or 9 years old, children will begin to segregate into two groups, boys and girls. The vast majority of friends will be of the same gender and they will have fixed views of the differences between boys and girls (Simpson, 2017).
Piagets perspective of gender role development underestimates children’s level of understanding (Martin, Ruble & Szkrybalo, 2002). Bem (1989) suggested that once children understand the foundation of gender identity, they show gender constancy, which can occur between the age of 3 and 4 years. This is much earlier than 7 years of age which was originally proposed by Piaget. Bussy and Bandura (1999, p.678) stated “long before children have attained gender constancy, they prefer to play with toys traditionally associated with their gender…” Furthermore, this theory can also be criticized for not incorporating various external factors as Piaget often emphasizes self-socialization. According to Papila & Olds (1996), the age that a child reaches certain stages or cognitive processes may also depend on maturity, culture, experience, and the ability of the child.
A significant aspect of Piagets understanding of gender role development is the importance placed on the child’s ability to recognize the categorical significance of gender, and subsequently comply with gender norms at that particular point in development (Martin, Ruble & Szkrybalo, 2002). Regardless of the age it occurs at and whether it is stable or consistent, a cognitive developmental process has been highlighted as well as a significant contribution to an individual’s understanding of how thinking about gender changes over time. However, the lack of value placed on external socialization factors is one criticism with very little to no counterarguments (Martin, Ruble & Szkrybalo, 2002).