Genetic Epistemology (J. Piaget)


Over a period of six decades, Jean Piaget conducted a program of naturalistic research that has profoundly affected our understanding of child development. Piaget called his general theoretical framework "genetic epistemology" because he was primarily interested in how knowledge developed in human organisms. Piaget had a background in both Biology and Philosophy and concepts from both these disciplines influences his theories and research of child development.

The concept of cognitive structure is central to his theory. Cognitive structures are patterns of physical or mental action that underlie specific acts of intelligence and correspond to stages of child development. There are four primary cognitive structures (i.e., development stages) according to Piaget: sensorimotor, preoperations, concrete operations, and formal operations. In the sensorimotor stage (0-2 years), intelligence takes the form of motor actions. Intelligence in the preoperation period (3-7 years) is intutive in nature. The cognitive structure during the concrete operational stage (8-11 years) is logical but depends upon concrete referents. In the final stage of formal operations (12-15 years), thinking involves abstractions.

Cognitive structures change through the processes of adaptation: assimilation and accomodation. Assimilation involves the interpretation of events in terms of existing cognitive structure whereas accomodation refers to changing the cognitive structure to make sense of the environment. Cognitive development consists of a constant effort to adapt to the environment in terms of assimilation and accomodation. In this sense, Piaget's theory is similar in nature to other constructivist perspectives of learning (e.g., Bruner , Vygotsky ).

While the stages of cognitive development identified by Piaget are associated with characteristic age spans, they vary for every individual. Furthermore, each stage has many detailed structural forms. For example, the concrete operational period has more than forty distinct structures covering classification and relations, spatial relationships, time, movement, chance, number, conservation and measurement. Similar detailed analysis of intellectual functions is provided by theories of intelligence such as Guilford , Gardner , and Sternberg .


Piaget explored the implications of his theory to all aspects of cognition, intelligence and moral development. Many of Piaget's experiments were focused on the development of mathematical and logical concepts. The theory has been applied extensively to teaching practice and curriculum design in elementary education (e.g., Bybee & Sund, 1982; Wadsworth, 1978). Piaget's ideas have been very influential on others, such as Seymour Papert (see <HREF="COMPUTER.HTML">computers ).


Applying Piaget's theory results in specific recommendations for a given stage of cognitive development. For example, with children in the sensorimotor stage, teachers should try to provide a rich and stimulating environment with ample objects to play with. On the other hand, with children in the concrete operational stage, learning activities should involve problems of classification, ordering, location, conservation using concrete objects.


1. Children will provide different explanations of reality at different stages of cognitive development.

2. Cognitive development is facilitated by providing activities or situations that engage learners and require adaptation (i.e., assimilation and accomodation).

3. Learning materials and activities should involve the appropriate level of motor or mental operations for a child of given age; avoid asking students to perform tasks that are beyond their currrent cognitive capabilities.

4. Use teaching methods that actively involve students and present challenges.


Brainerd, C. (1978). Piaget's Theory of Intelligence. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall.

Bybee, R.W. & Sund, R.B. (1982). Piaget for Educators (2nd Ed). Columbus, OH: Charles Merrill.

Flavell, J. H. (1963). The Developmental Psychology of Jean Piaget. NY: Van Nostrand Reinhold.

Gallagher, J.M. & Reid, D.K. (1981). The Learning Theory of Piaget and Inhelder. Monterey, CA: Brooks/Cole.

Piaget, J. (1929). The Child's Conception of the World. NY: Harcourt, Brace Jovanovich.

Piaget, J. (1932). The Moral Judgement of the Child. NY: Harcourt, Brace Jovanovich.

Piaget, J. (1969). The Mechanisms of Perception. London: Rutledge & Kegan Paul.

Paiget, J. (1970). The Science of Education amd the Psychology of the Child. NY: Grossman.

Piaget, J. & Inhelder, B. (1969). The Psychology of the Child. NY: Basic Books.

Piaget, J. & Inhelder, B. (1973). Memory and intelligence. NY: Basic Books. Wadsworth, B. (1978). Piaget for the Classroom Teacher. NY: Longman.