Jean Piaget's Genetic Epistemology

prepared by
Michael Corry
Dr. Donald Cunningham
P540 - Spring 1996

Jean Piaget was possibly the most prolific writer dealing with issues of cognitive development. Driscoll (1994) explains that his cognitive development work was based on "elaborating a theory of knowledge, of how the child comes to know his or her world" (p. 171). In other words, "Under what laws does cognition develop and change?" (Saettler, 1990, p. 74). This theory is known as Piaget's theory of "genetic epistemology."

During this paper, I will briefly review the underlying assumptions of Piaget's theory, discuss its applications to instruction, and review its strengths and weaknesses. During this discussion, I will assume the role of a teacher educator. In the latter sections of the paper I will attempt to turn this theory "back upon itself" while examining the strengths and weaknesses of its assumptions.

Piaget's Theory of Instruction - Underlying Assumptions

Piaget's theory is based on the idea that knowledge acquisition is a process of continuous self-construction. Knowledge is invented and re-invented as the child develops and interacts with their surrounding world (Driscoll, 1994). Central to the theory is the idea that children actively acquire knowledge through their own actions. Fundamental to the theory are principles of cognitive theory rather than those of behavioral theory. Central to the idea of cognitive theory are schemas or schemes, which refer to units of generalized behavior (or action) that provide the basis for mental operations (Gruber and Voneche, 1977). In addition, Piaget's theory is geared towards knowledge acquisition for children not adults.

Within the theory, Piaget describes three types of knowledge that children acquire. They are 1.) Physical knowledge - "knowledge about objects in the world, which can be gained through their perceptual properties," 2.) Logical-mathematical knowledge - "abstract knowledge that must be invented," and 3.) Social-arbitrary knowledge - "culture-specific knowledge learned from people within one's culture-group" (Driscoll, 1994).

The three types of knowledge form somewhat of a hierarchy. The base of the hierarchy being physical and the peak being social-arbitrary. The attainment of the specific type of knowledge is based on the hierarchy. For example, logical-mathematical knowledge cannot be attained prior to physical knowledge. As an outgrowth of this idea of a hierarchy, Piaget describes a sequence of four stages that all children must pass through in developing knowledge.

The four stages are sensorimotor (birth to age 2), preoperational (2 to 7 years), concrete operational (7 to 11 years), and formal operational (11 years on). Each stage is represented by various characteristics representative of that stage. Children pass through these stages in the same order, but not exactly at the same time. In other words, each child is expected to exhibit the characteristics of every stage at some point and to ultimately reach the fourth stage.

Central to the four stages are the criteria on which they are based. Those criteria are as follows: 1). Each stage must represent a qualitative change in the children's cognition, 2.) Children progress through the stages in a culturally invariant sequence, 3.) Each stage includes the cognitive structures and abilities of the preceding stage, and 4.) At each sage, the child's schemes and operations form an integrated whole (Driscoll, 1994).

In addition to Piaget's three types of knowledge and four stages of development of knowledge, is the process of the development of knowledge. This process is based on three principles: assimilation, accommodation, and equilibration. Assimilation is when a child incorporates new objects or events into existing schemes. Accommodation occurs when a child must modify existing schemes to incorporate new objects or events. Equilibration is described as the "master developmental process" (Driscoll, 1994). It encompasses both assimilation and accommodation. It is most evident at the end of a developmental stage. At this point, the child begins to find shortcomings in their way of thinking. This results in disequilibrium, which is overcome by moving to the next stage. In other words, the child moves from disequilibrium at one stage to equilibrium at a higher stage.

Application of the Theory

As a teacher educator, I am very interested in the application of Piaget's theory. To begin this process, the first thing I have to keep in mind is that the theory is very broad and general in nature. Second, I have to remember the purpose of the theory is to explain how knowledge is gained and developed (some people may call this learning). Third, I have to remember that the theory is geared towards children, not adults. The final point to remember is that the theory is centered on the actions of the child not the teacher. As Brainerd (1978, p. 286) states, "the basic assumption seems to be that children's minds, if planted in fertile soil, will grow quite naturally on their own."

So where does the teacher come into play? I believe that the role of the teacher is to provide the "fertile soil" for the students. This is not something that comes easily to many teachers who are used to the mind set of "providing knowledge to their students" instead of "allowing students to construct knowledge on their own." Different theorists have different ideas about how to provide the fertile soil (i.e. Vygotsky, Bruner, Piaget, Montessori, etc.). But, the important point for teachers attempting to apply Piaget's theory is to get out of the mind set of "providing knowledge for their students."

Even though it might be difficult for teachers (like myself) to get out of this mind set, Piaget's theory does provide some ideas that make it's application easier. The first of which is the structure and order that accompanies the theory. The theory provides teachers with basic types, stages, and processes of knowledge development. These ideas can be very helpful to teachers as they design instruction and attempt to apply the theory. Saettler (1990, p. 77) suggests that the most significant contribution from Piaget's theory is that it provides teachers with a "new approach to the old problem of readiness, or developmental capacity." In other words, the theory helps teachers better understand their students current level of knowledge and how to move to higher levels at the appropriate time.

In addition, Driscoll (1994) outlines three instructional principles that can be applied by teachers in designing instruction to help children gain and develop knowledge. Those principles are: 1.) The learning environment should support the activity of the child, 2.) Children's interactions with their peers are an important source of cognitive development, and 3.) Adopt instructional strategies that make children aware of conflicts and inconsistencies in their thinking.

I view these principles as general guidelines that teacher educators can keep in mind as they design instruction. Specific methods of instruction should be based on the teacher's knowledge of their individual students and on the three preceding principles from Piaget's theory.

Strengths and Weaknesses of the Theory

Based on both the strengths and weaknesses of Piaget's theory many alternative theories have grown (i.e. Case, Klahr and Wallace, Siegler, Carey). I have outlined three basic strengths of Piaget's theory in the preceding section. The first is the order and structure derived from the theory's types of knowledge, stages of knowledge development, and processes of knowledge development. A second strength is the guidance it gives to teachers in determining student stages of knowledge and how to help students move to higher stages. A third strength is the general nature of the theory and the three guiding principles as outlined above.

As with most theories, this theory also has several weaknesses. Some of these weaknesses cut to the very core of Piaget's theory. I will describe the two main weaknesses that I feel will affect me as a teacher educator.

The first weakness I have identified is that not all students (or even adults) get to the formal operational stage of knowledge development. Even if students do get to that stage, they don't seem to stay there. Driscoll (1994) provides references that back up this idea. As an educator, I believe I can live with this weakness as long as I am dealing with students at the first three stages of knowledge development. Its the jump from the third to fourth stages that becomes a problem. As a teacher, how do I deal with getting my students into the formal operational stage? Is this something I should I worry about it? Should I attempt to design instruction to help my students get to this stage or is this an almost impossible task?

The second main weakness I see as a teacher educator deals with two related issues. First of all, are the stages of development of knowledge discontinuous or continuous? The theory maintains that as a child progresses there is a qualitative change and a leap to the next stage. Is this really how knowledge is developed? I seem to think that there is a transition time where children move back and forth between stages. Eventually, it might be a leap, but not immediately. This poses problems for teachers as they attempt to determine at exactly what stage their students are functioning during this transition period.

In addition, Driscoll (1994), explains that sometimes children demonstrate unsuspected cognitive strengths or characteristics at lower stages of knowledge development. A possible explanation for this is described by some researchers who believe that the nature of the task rather than the stage of development is the critical factor in analyzing student characteristics. With this confounding factor in mind, educators will have a very difficult time determining the real stages of knowledge development for their students.


Brainerd, C.J. (1978). Piaget's theory of intelligence. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall.

Driscoll, M. P. (1994). Psychology of learning for instruction. Boston: Allyn and Bacon.

Gruber, H.E. & Voneche, J.J. (1977). The essential Piaget. New York: Basic Books.

Saettler, P. (1990). The evolution of american educational technology. Englewood, CO: Libraries Unlimited, Inc.