How Piaget's Theory Influenced Child Development Research

Heralded by "Time Magazine" in 1999 as one of the top minds of the 20th century, Jean Piaget was a Swiss developmental psychologist who developed a philosophy positing that children progress through four specific stages of development 6. His influence persists today in psychology and education, but according to an academic paper published on the website for the Jean Piaget Society, his legacy has not been fully explored and that his epistemology “is largely ignored in the English speaking scientific community." 16

Piagetian Philosophy

Piaget pioneered the clinical method of studying child development and developed tests to measure child cognition resulting in a theory of child cognition based on schemas, processes and four stages of development: Sensorimotor, ages birth to 2 years; Pre-operational Thought, ages 2 to 6 or 7 years; Concrete Operations, ages 6 or 7 to 11 or 12 years; and Formal Operations, ages11 or 12 years to adult. Perhaps his most important contribution to the field of psychology was how he demonstrated that children think differently than adults, not less competently.

Implications for Teaching

According to John Hopkins University professor Robert Slavin, four primary implications arise from teaching Piaget's philosophy: A focus on the process of children’s thinking, not just its products; recognition of the crucial role of children’s self-initiated, active involvement in learning activities; a de-emphasis on practices aimed at making children adult like in their thinking; and acceptance of individual differences in developmental progress 5. This can particularly be seen in preschools that have adopted practices specifically to conform with this philosophy.

Social Science Influence

While his epistemology might not be as well known as his theories of child development, Piaget’s contribution is indisputable. He published 53 books and 523 articles, and an examination of his work in editions of the "Handbook of Child Psychology" found that he was “the most referenced author in the field of child psychology," according to the academic paper for the Jean Piaget Society 16. Piaget ranked second in professional journal citations and fourth in citations for introductory psychology textbooks, according to a 2011 study published in the official journal of the Association for Psychological Science 2.


Piaget was not without criticism. Author J. Roy Hopkins points out that he did not report how he found his subjects or how many there were, and his book "The Origins of Intelligence in Children" was based on his observations of his own children. Furthermore, his theories relied on the structure of a whole with stages of development, but current theorists view development as having a more modular system.

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