Adult Development

Jean Piaget (1896-1980)


Summary of Theory

Jean Piaget  was a biologist who who became interested in developmental theory as it related to how we come to know things. His view of how minds function and develop has been enormously influential in education. His ideas focus on the role of development in a person's ability to understand his/her world. Based on his research, Piaget proposed that no matter how bright a person may be, s/he cannot undertake certain tasks until s/he is psychologically ready (mature enough) to do so (Atherton, 2009).

According to Piaget, cognitive structures, or schemas, are patterns of physical or mental action that underlie acts of intelligence (Satterly, 1987). These structures change through the processes of adaptation: assimilation and accommodation. Assimilation involves the interpretation of events in terms of existing schema, while accommodation refers to changing the schema to make sense of the environment (Satterly, 1987). Cognitive development is a constant effort to adapt to the environment in terms of assimilation and accommodation (Satterly, 1987). The process of adaptation corresponds to four stages in human development, as follows:

Where are my learners in this scheme?
 Most of my learners will be  in the early part of formal operations, but some will still be in or will occasionally regress to the concrete operational stage.

In general, what does that mean?
In the formal operational stage, intelligence is demonstrated through the logical use of symbols related to abstract concepts ((Huitt & Hummel, 2003).  The video below provides an example of the difference between learners in the concrete operational and formal operational stages.

Only 35% of high school graduates in industrialized countries obtain formal operations; many people never think formally during adulthood. ((Huitt & Hummel, 2003).

What does this mean to me?

1. Learners will provide different explanations of reality at different stages of cognitive development.
2. Cognitive development is facilitated by activities that engage learners and require adaptation.
3. Asking learners to perform tasks that are beyond their cognitive capabilities is a both a waste of class time and frustrating for learners.
4. Use teaching methods that actively involve students and present challenges.

Huitt (1997) provides a detailed table of applications of Piaget's theories at