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Learning Theory Paper

“Scientific thought, then, is not momentary; it is not a static instance, it is a process.”

This quote from Jean Piaget, a cognitive psychologist, perfectly sums up the basis of

Cognitivism. Cognitive psychology is a theoretical perspective that focuses on how the

surrounding environment affects behavior, as well as on the mental processes of behavior itself

(Ormrod & Jones). These processes include perception, memory, and reasoning.

As a child develops vocabulary and syntax while learning to talk, they seem to be doing

so without much effort. This is called implicit learning. Implicit learning is unconscious learning,

or learning without thinking about what one is learning. Most unconscious learning occurs

during childhood, but the process continues in older children and even adults. As a person gets

older, they begin to take part in more explicit learning, where they constantly analyze and

interpret everything in their environment. But how does this explicit learning take place? What

process allows humans to constantly be thinking about what’s going on around them? Cognitive

psychology is the theory that attempts to explain this process (Sincero, 2011).

The sequence of cognitive development is to some extent foreseeable. Universals have

been discovered in how children develop. These are marked by developmental milestones

reached throughout childhood. An example of this is children learning to sit up and crawl before

they are able to walk. The developmental milestones are predictable in sequence, but the time it

takes each child to reach them fluctuates. All children develop at different rates. Progression

through developmental stages is not always continuous. Children go through spurts of rapid

growth and periods of gradual growth(Ormrod & Jones).

Jean Piaget proposed a theory of four stages through which everyone undergoes cognitive

development. The first stage is the sensorimotor stage, which extends from birth until the child is

about two years of age. During this time, children are realizing relationships between their bodies

and the environment. Infants, for the most part, have well developed sensory abilities, and

therefore, they rely on their senses to learn about themselves and the environment. Perhaps the

most important development during the sensorimotor stage is the awareness of object

permanence, or the understanding that objects continue to exist even when they are not in view.

By the end of the sensorimotor period, children have a concrete sense of themselves and the

environment (McLeod, 2012).

The next stage of cognitive development is the pre-operational stage. This stage lasts

until about age seven. During this stage, children are unable to understand concrete logic and

struggle to mentally maneuver information. This stage is where children take part in play and

pretend. These actions can be categorized by symbolic play and manipulating symbols.

Operations are actions that a person does mentally rather than physically. Therefore, during the

pre-operational stage, operations happen somewhat sporadically. Thinking in this stage is

egocentric, and children are inept to seeing the viewpoints of others. The child’s development

consists of building experiences about the world through adaptation (McLeod, 2012).

The third stage in Piaget’s cognitive development theory, the concrete operational stage,

occurs between the ages of seven and eleven. This stage is distinguished by suitable use of logic.

This stage is where children develop organized and rational thinking. Piaget thought of the

concrete stage as the “turning point” in a child’s cognitive development. Children are mature

enough to use logical operations. However, they are not able to think abstractly or

hypothetically. During the concrete operational stage, the concept of conservation becomes
understood. Conservation is the understanding that something stays the same in quantity even

though its appearance changes. Around the age of seven, most children begin to understand the

conservation of a liquid, and the understanding of conserving numbers and lengths soon follows

(McLeod, 2012).

The formal operational stage is the fourth and final stage of Piaget’s theory, which lasts

from adolescence to adulthood. During the final stage, children are able to engage in deductive

reasoning, and form abstract thought. Children are able to do math calculations, think creatively,

use conceptual reasoning, and imagine the outcomes of their actions. Before the formal

operational stage, children use inductive reasoning, drawing conclusions from specific facts and

experiences. A person has entered the formal operational stage when the person is able to

manipulate ideas mentally and draw conclusions from their own thinking, without any

dependence on concrete manipulations, such as drawing pictures or using objects (McLeod,


Jean Piaget disagreed with the idea that intelligence was a fixed trait. Instead, he regarded

cognitive development as a process which occurs due to biological maturation and interaction

with the environment (McLeod, 2012). Piaget was less interested in how well children could

spell or count, and more interested in the way concepts such as numbers and time developed.

Key components of the cognitive learning theory are accommodation and assimilation.

Accommodation and assimilation work hand in hand as children develop their understanding of

the world. Children interpret each new event within the context of their existing knowledge,

through assimilation, and at the same time modify their knowledge as a result of new events,

through accommodation (Ormrod & Jones). Accommodation rarely happens without

Practical applications for Piaget’s cognitive learning theory are ample. For starters, the

theory can be applied to the course syllabus and schedule at the beginning of the class. By doing

this, the instructor can analyze whether topics are suitable for students and what levels they

should be able to comprehend information at, and adjust accordingly. As students progress

through the four stages of the cognitive learning theory, they begin to perform mental operations

with greater accuracy and fluency.

While John Piaget did a great amount of research and came away with major findings,

there are some criticism to his research, First and foremost, much of Piaget’s research was done

with his own three children. Not only is it a conflict of interest to use his own children for his

research, but only using three children to write this theory is a grossly small sample size. To

come up with the many generalizations in Piaget’s work and theory by using only three children

seems to be academically inappropriate. Another criticism about the theory Piaget came up with

is that environmental factors, rather than age, have more to do with children moving in and out

of the stages of his theory. This criticism has some merit. The ten year old who has one parent

working two jobs is probably more advanced than the ten year old with both parents at home

every night to watch movies. However, in Piaget’s theory, the age is more of a baseline, than a

concrete, set in stone time for development. It would be remiss to say environmental factors have

nothing to do with development.

One of the first things to understand about the cognitive process is that learners build new

knowledge off of existing knowledge. This is where accommodation and assimilation come into

play. As a teacher, understanding these concepts is key. Starting off a lesson about amphibians

by asking, “who knows what an amphibian is?” may not be the most effective way to teach.

Instead, explain to the class that amphibians are similar to reptiles or another class of animals
previously learned. In this way, students will be able to relate the information learned to that

previously learned and organize it.

Other keys terms to understand in Piaget’s Theory are equilibrium and disequilibrium.

These terms help explain why parenting a child can be like a roller coaster ride. At times, a

parent can be enjoying everything about their child. The way they act, talk, and play with other

children. Then out of nowhere, the child becomes cranky, quiet, and secluded. Parents are left

wondering what happened to their sweet little girl or boy. This is the process of a stage of

equilibrium being replaced by a stage of disequilibrium. During a stage of equilibrium, the child

is at a sort of “plateau” of their development. They are working and practicing skills that have

already been mastered and aren’t acquiring new ones. During a stage of disequilibrium, children

are going through rapid development and are acquiring many new skills at once. During

disequilibrium, the child’s behavior can be uneven. They are less confident in themselves and in

the world, because they are learning so many new things at once. In periods of equilibrium,

children are more confident in what they are doing, because they are practicing mastered skills.

Therefore, their behavior will be more steady.

As students move through the stages of development, teachers can be extremely

beneficial to students. According to the University of Arkansas, some ways to do this include

using concrete props whenever possible, make instructions relatively short, and providing a wide

range of experiences to help build a foundation for learning (McClendon, 2011). Doing so helps

student progress through the stages and develop their understanding of conservation, egocentrism

and more. As students reach the formal operational stage teachers are able to implement more

sophisticated elements into their teaching. These can include more advanced visual aids like
graphs and charts, open ended problems, and cooperative learning. These types of strategies and

activities give students an opportunity to explain themselves and grow cognitively. Teachers

understanding what students can do at each stage is important for giving them the best possible

learning environment.

As students move through their educational careers, and through the stages of the

cognitive development theory, it is important for teachers to be engaged in their learning as well.

The processes taking place in the students brain are ever growing and changing, and the role of

the teacher is to navigate those changes and provide the best learning opportunity for the student.

McLeod, S. (2012). Developmental Pyschology. Retrieved February 27, 2018, from

McClendon, K. (2011, April 26). Jean Piaget: Cognitive Development in the Classroom.

Retrieved February 28, 2018, from


Sincero, S. M. (2011, March 11). Cognitive Learning Theory. Retrieved February 27, 2018, from

Ormrod, J. E., & Jones, B. (n.d.). Essentials of Educational Pyschology.