Cognitive Development Today: Piaget and His Critics


Peter Sutherland

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  • Front Matter
  • Back Matter
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  • About the Author

    Peter Sutherland taught for ten years in a variety of schools, both primary and secondary, and has since been a lecturer in education, specializing in psychological topics. He worked at two colleges of education before moving to the University of Stirling in Scotland. There he teaches student teachers and teachers on in-service MEd and BEd courses.

    His major interests lie in the cognitive development of children and in adolescence. He studied for his PhD with Professor E. A. Peel on stage development across the school age-range. After his PhD he undertook research on the formation of values in adolescents. More recently, he has researched into primary children who have learning difficulties in maths.

    His qualifications include a BEd, an MA (Ed) from London University and a PhD from Birmingham University. He is a chartered psychologist and a committee member of the Education Section of the British Psychological Society.


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    This book is dedicated to Duncan and Malcolm. Just as Piaget was spurred to study child development by his children, so have I been by mine


    This book is intended to provide a basic introduction to the main present-day ideas and theories about cognitive development. It is about practice as well as theory, and so the implications of the ideas are worked through for school teaching situations, from the nursery class to the sixth form.

    It is hoped that student teachers of all types of schools as well as serving teachers (particularly those taking in-service courses on children's understanding of curriculum material) will find the book of value. It is also hoped that undergraduate and A-level students of psychology (taking cognitive development courses) will find it useful. Most chapters, therefore, have a further-reading section that suggests texts that are relatively easy to follow and that may be consulted after the initial introduction provided here. For further in-depth reading, the reader is recommended to consult the appropriate references in the Bibliography.

    A summary at the end of each chapter gives a quick overview of the issues discussed. Also at the end of each chapter, a series of questions is provided that may be used by teachers for discussion during a seminar or class, or students may like to use these as a starting-point for their own informal discussions (those who are not in a group can always debate these issues with themselves).

    In writing the book, various conventions have been adopted. The child is referred to as ‘he’ while the teacher, psychologist or other adult is referred to as ‘she’. No sexist connotations are intended; a decision had to be made for clarity — since the majority of primary-school teachers are female, it seemed logical to use ‘she’, leaving ‘he’ for the child.

    I am grateful to Rudolf Schaffer, Margaret Sutherland, Helen Haste, Chris Kyriacou, Nicholas Hawkes, Chris Holligan, Ros Sutherland, John Wilson and David Carr for their comments on whole chapters, and to Richard Skemp, David Galloway, Norman Graves, Colin Peacock, Sally Brown, Morag Donaldson, Lynn Michell, David McNab, Paul Rideout, Jim McNally, Alan Weeks, Lyn Moore, John Elliott, Bryan Ward and Derek Indoe for their comments on sections from chapters. Most of all, I am grateful to my editor, Marianne Lagrange, for her advice.

    I have been fascinated by Piaget's ideas and their relevance to teaching since my first year of teaching 26 years ago, and I was introduced to Piaget's ideas by Professor W. H. O. Schmidt while studying for an in-service degree; I hope I have succeeded in passing on some of that enthusiasm (if modified by critical awareness) to the reader.

    Stirling, 1991
  • Glossary

    All terms are Piagetian, unless otherwise specified.

    • Accommodation A mechanism by which a child adjusts to the environment in some way.
    • Assimilation A mechanism by which a child alters the environment to fit in with his concepts, e.g. a brush ‘becomes’ a witch's broom.
    • Circular reaction An action repeated by a baby for the pleasure it gives.
    • Class A group of similar objects.
    • Class inclusion The ability to include the correct and exclude the incorrect members of a class, e.g. the class (or set) of cows includes the subset of white cows but excludes horses; the class (or set) of fruit includes both apples and oranges.
    • Concrete operational thought The ability to understand that processes are reversible, etc., provided the objects are visible.
    • Conservation This is reached when a child realizes the unalterability of a quality, despite apparent changes in appearance, e.g. a child achieves conservation of number when he realizes that four sweets are the same as four toys.
    • Decentre To be able to focus on one's whole visual range and not just part of it.
    • Disembedding (Donaldson) Abstracting an idea from its natural context so that it can be used more generally, e.g. the letter ‘a’.
    • Equilibrium The process by which, as a result of alternating accommodation and assimilation, a child's thinking reaches a stable state for that stage.
    • Formal operational thought The ability to think in an abstract way.
    • Horizontal décalage (or lag) A child attains different aspects of the same stage at different ages.
    • Invariance A number is the same, whatever different form it is presented in, e.g. 4 is still 4, whether represented by 4 houses or 4 sweets.
    • 1:1 correspondence Matching one set of objects with another on a 1:1 basis, e.g. pairing each child in a class with a toy.
    • Operational thought When a child realizes conservation of a number of qualities.
    • Relations The relationship of one concept to another.
    • Schema (plural schemata) A child's conception of an object, etc.
    • Scheme A set of schemata covering a particular area, e.g. the schemata of ice, water and heat necessary for the scheme of melting.
    • Sensorimotor activity That involving the five senses, but not language.
    • Seriation Arranging objects of different length in ascending order.
    • Transductive logic Falsely generalizing a connection on one occasion to all occasions, e.g. a man is dressed up as Father Christmas, so all men are Father Christmas.
    • Transitivity To be able to deduce logically that, for instance, if A > B and B > C, then A > C.
    • Vertical décalage (or lag) A child, responding cognitively to the same physical experience, does so at a ‘lower’ stage when younger and then at a ‘higher’ stage after maturation.

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    Name Index

    Page numbers in italics refers to bibliographic details

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