Applying Piaget’s Cognitive Development Theory When Teaching Young Learners

It seems unconceivable in the 21st century not to acknowledge the fact that an efficient and professional teaching practice emerges from combining a series of external and internal factors which influence both teaching and learning. Not surprisingly, children’s psychological and cognitive development seem to be a key element in designing successful teaching strategies and attaining academic achievement. In the field of educational psychology, Piaget’s theory of cognitive development seems to be the most influential one regarding child’s development. This comes as a response to the initial belief of psychologists who associated cognition with information processing.

Piaget outlines that ‘development is a process which concerns the totality of the structures of knowledge’ when referring to cognitive development in children. ‘Cognitio’, the Latin word for ‘knowledge’ encompasses all the mental processes which are involved in learning such as intelligence, memory, attention, the formation of knowledge, higher order thinking skills, problem solving, pattern recognition, language production and imagination.

As a consequence, teaching young learners represents a challenging journey to a higher extent. According to psychologists, young learners include the 5-12 age group, corresponding to the concrete operational stage in Piaget’s classification. This stage is characterised by the shaping of a more logical and systematic form of intelligence based on a more accurate manipulation of symbols related to concrete objects.

The changes that occur throughout this stage at a cognitive level, in perceiving, reasoning or problem solving are influenced by the learning experiences a child encounters both with concrete objects or events in the classroom environment after interacting with peers, teachers or other members of the community. However, there are also some internal factors influencing a child’s development, such as genetic or biological features. The teacher’s action builds on certain given mental structures, which may shape and constrain thinking at different stages in life. What is more, the development is the consequence of the interaction between all the factors involved directly or indirectly.

This stage is considered a major turning point in the child’s cognitive development as it marks the formation of the most important logical and operational elements which preceed formal thinking.

Classroom applications of Piaget’s theory

Some of the most important aspects for classroom instruction require the teacher to focus on the following practical steps.

First of all, by simply listening to the children and observing what they do, in play or other activities, the teacher can collect valuable data regarding behavioural characteristics, which can bring a significant contribution to the teaching process.

Secondly, by taking into account the critical factors that influence children’s cognitive development, including maturation or biologically based changes associated with growth, which may result in individual differences in development, the teacher can design individual or personalized strategies suitable for all learning styles.

Thirdly, the teacher should give children time to explore their world and work things out, recognising children’s role as ‘miniature scientists’ and the learning that results from the interaction between their physical and mental activity. In addition, one should reconsider children’s interaction with adults and other children, providing opportunities for them to discuss their thinking and to debate viewpoints.

Another aspect requires the teacher to ensure that children maintain equilibration or cognitive balance between new experiences and what they already know, challenging their thinking by providing opportunities for them to find links between the unfamiliar and existing knowledge, which may involve creating new schemas or adjusting existing ones. In other words, the teacher should ensure that information given to children is close enough to their current level of understanding so that linkages can be made between the old and the new with ease and no frustration.

Apart from that, teachers should offer concrete experiences to make the children experiment and test ideas in order to begin to think logically. For instance, one can provide concrete resources to support learning such as, visuals, manipulatives or realia.

Furthermore, the teacher should provide opportunities for problem solving and logical thinking using a variety of materials: role-play cards, spot the difference pictures, short stories, secret coding, sequencing, discovering missing items or diagrams for grouping items into subcategories.

Finally, one can encourage group work in order to challenge students to express their ideas to other peers without feeling anxious or inhibited by the teacher’s comments. Group work activities may develop children’s sense of belongingness or even boost their self-esteem.

As a conclusion, being aware that students’ psychological developmental stages can influence the teaching and learning processes to a great extent, the teacher makes a significant contribution in terms of obtaining positive outcomes in both academic and personal domains.

1. Puchta, H., Williams, M. (2012). Teaching Young Learners to Think: ELT Activities for Young Learners Aged 6-12. Austria: Cambridge University Press.
2. Woolfolk, A., Hoy, A. W. (2019). Educational Psychology. United Kingdom: Pearson.


prof. Elena-Irina Teodorescu

Școala Gimnazială Rareș Vodă, Ploiești (Prahova) , România
Profil iTeach:

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