Cognitive Development, Cognitive Enablers, Creativity, Creativity and Conformity, Lecturing, Thinking & Learning

Jean Piaget on education

This article is going to be looking at education through the theoretical lens of the Swiss psychologist Jean Piaget. After learning about many of the various issues that surround modern education through many hours of conversations and collaboration with a professor and now colleague, who had taught in a fashion quite similar to what is about to follow in this article. I had begun to pierce through many of the illusions that shrouded post-secondary education. In fact, my final semester was more focused on actually learning, outside of the classroom. I often skipped classes and went into exams briefly glancing over course material, or not at all, in some cases. I did alright and am getting that fancy piece of paper ( a degree in psychology) that notifies people that I have “learned” in May.

What was done with all that time outside of the classroom in my final semester? I began reading the works of Jean Piaget, and in the span of two and a half months had essentially read all of his published works. I learned a lot about the development of the human mind and how it learns. More importantly is much of what Piaget wrote about is essentially pointing out how education was, and is still, failing to properly teach children to learn. The issue carries over into higher levels of education as well, where even post-secondary institutions are rarely a decent place to learn higher-order thinking skills.

A quick primer on who Piaget is can be found on Wikipedia, which gives a brief explanation of the famous psychologist: “Jean Piaget was a Swiss psychologist known for his work on child development. Piaget’s theory of cognitive development and epistemological view are together called “genetic epistemology” (“Jean Piaget”, 2019, para. 1).

Any psychology student worth their salt knows the stages of development proposed by Piaget, the sensorimotor, preoperational, concrete, and formal stages of cognitive development (Evans, 1973). It is essential in any introductory course whether it be psychology or human development. Piaget held many constructivist views when it came to education, and though some educators pay lip service to his works, as you will see, very few actually practice any of the learning techniques he formulated based on his research. Students too, only receive a cursory glance of his works, typically learning what the developmental stages are as well as some of his concepts concerning animism and schemas. There is a lot more to the theories and expands into many areas of cognition and even personality, especially in his work on cognitive equilibration where Piaget (1985) breaks down much of the processes behind cognition, where it is argued it works in a hierarchical fashion that has certain reactions that either modify or compensate when the subject encounters information, often on three levels, alpha, beta, and gamma. The work is comparable to more modern examples of the way the mind works as written by Friston and Harrison (2006), who propose a similar model, the free energy principle, where the subject attempts to minimize the gap between its internal model of the world with their own sense and perception. Creating equilibration. 

Before looking into where education has failed its students a base needs to be established from which to point out how this is so. This will require concentrating much of Piaget’s work to reveal what mechanisms are at work in the learning process.

First off, human cognition is only capable of certain feats after going through the particular stages noted by Piaget’s observations. Transition through the stages isn’t necessarily set in stone, where some go through them more rapidly than others, but are generally within a specific age range, starting from 0-2, 3-7, 8-11, and 12-16+, respectively (Piaget, 1952). These differences in growth of cognition are accounted for by Piaget (1971a), noting that there are forms of knowledge at work on three levels, they are hereditary, logico-mathematical, and experience. Which remain in homeorhesis, or steady flow, rather than a static state. Here, is where Piaget (1952), claims that intelligence is like a biological system and serves an adaptive and organizing function to navigate the environment. Piaget (1970), the structure is an assimilation of this knowledge to organize reality either through action or cognition but is not being pushed to its potential through the process of simply imitating or copying. It is here, the cognitive map, or schema, begins formation, Piaget (1971b), either in a slow or more rapid pace based on feeling, mood, or attitude, though these affective factors do not modify the structure. Piaget, Tomlinson, and Tomlinson (1929), the child takes in the environment and selects and incorporates elements from it based on their own structure. As it was found by Piaget (1928), the information that is assimilated into the schema is typically distorted based on the individual’s psychological disposition.

These schemes Piaget (1968), also act symbolically and reveal the manner in which the subject understands their reality and the external stimuli they come across. Something which, according to Piaget (1970), can be seen fairly early in the child’s play. Piaget (1989) notes that the tools of cognition are left to the individual to build in each new problem situation they may find themselves in. Where there is also a chance of falling into pseudo-necessities. This concept implies the subject has trouble thinking of other paths or outcomes. This is generally triggered by an inability to go outside of a habituated reality. It creates resistance or dissonance, this is problematic because cognitive development does not happen at a linear pace and requires restructuring and reorganization in the face of new knowledge often calling for a reinterpretation of those sometimes habituated realities. There is a need for the operational aspects of the subject to be engaged with. 

Essentially, in order for a child to understand something, he must construct it himself, he must reinvent it (Piers, 1972, p.132).

The studies of these processes seemed to reveal much about how human cognition works, Piaget (1967), found that there is a lot of activity in the child’s mind and it is very original and unpredictable in nature. Through its study, the formation of rational thought can be observed and could even clarify unknowns about thinking and science. 

With a layout of the basics of the formation of cognitive structures and the way knowledge is used by the subject, we can start to look at what Piaget thought of education and how it applies to his theories as well as what is needed to actually promote learning in educational institutions.

In terms of the big issue that seems to serve no purpose in the development of higher order thinking, is the continued use of lectures. Where it was found that the use of this institutionally acknowledged means of learning is not a method of developing cognition, where its representative or perceived knowledge tries to create the illusion that it does otherwise. It cannot because it is not activating the operational aspects, or considering the assimilative processes distortion, of the subject nor is it going outside of the symbolic purpose it serves, which is learning. It cannot match the operational dynamism of the individual because the method is restricted to its own dynamism which requires the subject to remain subordinate to it and yet, still cannot replace the individual’s operational disposition. It basically relies on the idea that the individual will turn to the institution, or external schema because it requires less energy and creates less dissonance than if the individual relied on their own methods of cognition. The institution serving as a ready-made pseudo-necessity (Piaget, 1971b).

Of course, there is not only the strict method of how to teach, but there is also the aspect of authority that comes with those who maintain these symbols. Where Piaget (1973) argues that school should accommodate the most diverse population and aid each individual in developing their particular talents. Something that cannot be nurtured by an authority which attaches intellectual and moral constraints on those within its framework. It sets parameters around itself, of which typically includes little room for the lived experience or investigative freedom. These actions stifle the natural mental capabilities and search for knowledge of the subject, putting out or allowing likely beneficial abilities and sparks of interest, to be replaced by the institutional schema. The answers are given rather than actually searched for.

There is little in the way of true learning in educational institutions, most of it being memorization of the knowledge of the institution, with maybe some accommodation for individual learning, but not enough. As it must still go through the process of grading by an authority. Piaget (1970) calls for a need of allowing the learner to develop in a way that matches their psychological constitution and development and not as a passive agent in their education. They do not need ready-made truths or wills, but rather an active discovery and engagement with reality. Thus, allowing them to maintain their personal need and interest. This has far-reaching consequences, in terms of the future of society and what it expects of successive generations, where enrichment would override imitation.

Using this, we can see that our educational institutions have failed to properly nurture learning. The ramifications of this can be seen in our current lag in societal advancement. More notably in political and infrastructural trends. There is the advance of populism and tribal political debates, hard lines have been drawn. Either side only encouraging the other to maintain their positions through an “us versus them” mentality. Too, infrastructurally there is still a way of doing things and little in the way to shake up our politicians and their appeal to a mainly aging population, where youth have seemingly lost interest or have developed cynical attitudes towards the process. Much of this could likely be fixed if our education were more amenable to the writings of Piaget, and the host of research that says education is doing a terrible job of giving proper cognitive skills to those that will run our society in the future.

Clearly, this is a systemic issue. The fix being true education from the earliest signs of cognition and onward throughout the lifespan. This would be a powerful tool in actually tackling the aforementioned issues, it is too often that the subject goes to its pseudo-necessities. A population that has been given the freedom and independence to learn and discover, where, Piaget (1970), the dynamics of relations between the subject and society would shift. The subject no longer enters the society by receiving reason and the rules of how things should be done as a ready-made piece of knowledge, but by achieving them through their own effort and personal experience. That is when inventiveness and enrichment become the standard rather than an outlier.


Evans, R. I. (1973). Jean Piaget: The man and his ideas. New York, NY, England: E. P. Dutton.

Friston, K., Kilner, J., & Harrison, L. (2006). A free energy principle for the brain. Journal of Physiology-Paris, 100(1-3), 70-87.

Piaget, J. (1928). Judgment and reasoning in the child. London: Routledge & K. Paul.

Piaget, J., Tomlinson, J., & Tomlinson, A. (1929). The child’s conception of the world. London; New York;: K. Paul, Trench, Trubner & co., Ltd.

Piaget, J., & Cook, M. (1952). The origins of intelligence in children. New York: International Universities Press.

Piaget, J. (1967). Six psychological studies. New York: Random House.

Piaget, J. (1968). On the development of memory and identity. Worcester, Mass.: Clark University Press.

Piaget, J. (1970). Science of education and the psychology of the child. New York: Orion Press.

Piaget, J. (1971a). Biology and knowledge: An essay on the relations between organic regulations and cognitive processes. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Piaget, J., & Inhelder, B. (1971b). Mental imagery in the child: A study of the development of imaginal representation. London: Routledge & K. Paul.

Piers, M. W. (Ed.). (1972). Play and Development: Symposia held during the Celebration of the Centennial Anniversary of the Loyola University of Chicago. Norton.

Piaget, J. (1973). To understand is to invent: The future of education. New York: Grossman Publishers.

Piaget, J. (1985). The equilibration of cognitive structures: The central problem of intellectual development. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Piaget, J., & Garcia, R. (1989). Psychogenesis and the history of science. New York: Columbia University Press

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