Jean Piaget was a Swiss psychologist and philosopher who studied children from birth through adolescence. He lived from 1896 through 1980 and was influential among educators for decades. He was known for many things, but possibly the best for his theory of cognitive development and the way he advocated for delayed academic studies. His research forms the foundation of educational method that some specialists have built upon in the development of their own educational theories. Dr. Raymond Moore, the ‘grandfather of homeschooling’ in America, and his belief in delayed academic learning is one example of someone who used Piaget’s theories in the development of their educational theory.
Piaget believed that the way children processed cognitive thinking was different than that of youth and adults. He studied children by several methods. One was by researching and charting standardized test scores. Another was by studying his own three children and recording how they developed from birth through to adulthood. He observed children through all ages and stages, both in a learning environment, at work, and home.
His ultimate conclusion was that all children develop in stages and that each one will exhibit very distinct and certain patterns of cognition in each period of their growth and development. These patterns can be recognized as sequential and predictable for each age. He identified four developmental stages. As his theory advocates, they are:
1) Sensorimotor stage (birth to age 2)
A this stage a child learns through sensation and movement. It is important that they experience touch, smell, taste, hearing, and things to see (colors, shapes, and faces). It is also important that they observe and experience movement at this age. Rocking a child is vitally important during this phase of development. At this stage, children are extremely self-centered and cannot see the perceive the world through the eyes of another. They let their needs be known by crying and requiring immediate attention.
2) Preoperational stage (ages 2 – 7)
At this stage, a child cannot use logical thinking. These years are sometimes known as the years of magical thinking. Children from two to seven are beginning to master symbols such as language and are starting to be able to form conclusions based upon past experiences. Although initially egocentric at this age, this trait weakens as they grow older. During this stage of development, children are developing their motor skills. It is important to allow opportunity and experiences for this growth, and to not rush a child onto the next stage before mastery of motor skills is achieved.
3) Concrete operational stage (ages 7 – 12)
Children of this age are very concrete in their thinking. In fact, their thinking is limited to concrete experiences. They learn to generalize by drawing conclusions about one situation and applying it to another. As they mature through this stage, they begin to think logically, but that thinking is still very concrete in nature and with practical tools to assist them. Children at this age are no longer ego-centric.
4) Formal operational stage (ages 12 – adult)
Children in this stage can now deal with abstractions, mental speculation, and the formation of hypotheses. Abstract reasoning occurs and they are able to think logically. They can keep watch or maintain in their thought processes. Abstract reasoning opens up the world of thinking to children at this stage.
The rate or speed of passing through these phases may vary, but the sequence of stages is consistent for all children. When choosing or designing curriculum for children, the method and materials should match the cognitive level of the child. It is important that these principles are applied to how a parent-teacher chooses to home educate the children in their care so that natural, purposeful, and successful learning can result. Rushing a child through one stage to the next can be counter-productive and effectively cause burn-out and learning difficulties for the child. From the studies of Jean Piaget we can conclude that it really is ‘better late than early’ when it comes to academic instruction.