Support and Criticism of Piaget's Stage Theory

Jean Piaget
Statue of Jean Piaget, Geneva, Switzerland. Traumrune / Wikimedia Commons

Piaget's theory of cognitive develop is well-known within the fields of psychology and education, but it has also been the subject of considerable criticism. While presented in a series of progressive stages, even Piaget believed that development does not always follow such a smooth and predictable path.

In spite of the criticism, the theory has had a considerable impact on our understanding of child development.

Piaget's observation that kids actually think differently than adults helped usher in a new era of research on the mental development of children.

Support for Piaget's Theory

Piaget's focus on qualitative development had an important impact on education. While Piaget did not specifically apply his theory in this way, many educational programs are now built upon the belief that children should be taught at the level for which they are developmentally prepared.

In addition to this, a number of instructional strategies have been derived from Piaget's work. These strategies include providing a supportive environment, utilizing social interactions and peer teaching, and helping children see fallacies and inconsistencies in their thinking.

Criticisms of Piaget

1. Problems With Research Methods

Much of the criticism of Piaget's work is in regards to his research methods. A major source of inspiration for the theory was Piaget's observations of his own three children.

In addition to this, the other children in Piaget's small research sample were all from well-educated professionals of high socioeconomic status. Because of this unrepresentative sample, it is difficult to generalize his findings to a larger population.

2. Problems With Formal Operations

Research has disputed Piaget's argument that all children will automatically move to the next stage of development as they mature.

Some data suggests that environmental factors may play a role in the development of formal operations.

3. Underestimates Children's Abilities

Most researchers agree that children possess many of the abilities at an earlier age than Piaget suspected. Recent theory of mind research has found that 4- and 5-year-old children have a rather sophisticated understanding of their own mental processes as well as those of other people. For example, children of this age have some ability to take the perspective of another person, meaning they are far less egocentric than Piaget believed.

Piaget's Legacy

While there are few strict Piagetians around today, most people can appreciate Piaget's influence and legacy. His work generated interest in child development and had an enormous impact on the future of education and developmental psychology. His work helped change the way that researchers thought about children. Rather than simply viewing them as smaller versions of adults, experts began to recognize that the way children think is fundamentally different from the way that adults think.


Driscoll, M. P. (1994). Psychology of learning for instruction. Boston: Allyn and Bacon.

Piaget, J. (1977). Gruber, H.E.; Voneche, J.J. eds. The essential Piaget. New York: Basic Books.

Piaget, J. (1983). Piaget's theory. In P. Mussen (ed). Handbook of Child Psychology. 4th edition. Vol. 1. New York: Wiley.

Santrock, John W. (2008). A topical approach to life-span development (4 ed.). New York City: McGraw-Hill.

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