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How Helpful or Unhelpful Is Piaget’s Theory Within Today’s Learning Contexts?

World-renowned Swiss psychologist Jean Piaget’s name is synonymous with child development and also closely linked to education and educational pedagogy. His work is among the top five authors cited within the fields mentioned. While his theories have contributed to those fields in unmistakeable ways (for example, his focus on natural play versus structured play), there is a significant amount of criticism that Piaget’s approach is not particularly universal. One of the major criticisms of his work is that it has a somewhat “cookie cutter” or a “one size fits all” approach that does not adequately account for the social norms, practices, and values of diverse cultures. After an overview of the theories of Piaget, this essay will focus on how Piaget’s narrow focus fails to account for external factors such as non-Western cultures and differences across socio-economic classes and his many limited scientific method.

Piaget was a modern thinker concerned with the cognitive development of children. In his work on cognitive theory, he set out to interpret the way that young children think in comparison to adults. Piaget’s cognitive theory is around three main principles: schema, adaptation and stages of development. Generally speaking, as Piaget was concerned with development, rather than learning; he was primarily focused on the biological maturation of children in the world around them. Piaget’s model was empirically-based and suggested that a universal, secular order was programmed into a child’s genetic structure.

According to Ansell (2005), Piaget’s cognitive theory, ‘schema’ relates to the building blocks of intelligent behaviour. In this way, as a child obtain more schemata, they may be better able to explain or interpret the world around him/her. In addition to the schema, Piaget focused on adaptation through three parts: assimilation (using existing schema to interpret a new situation), accommodation (modifying schema that do not work to deal with a new situation), and equilibration (a force that drives development). Piaget studied children from very young ages (sensorimotor – 0-2 years) through to teenagers (formal operational – 11 years and up). He suggested that development occurs in all children, regardless of their location and or culture. Piaget’s focused on cognitive development from a more biological point of view. As a result, his views on culture and surroundings have drawn much criticism in recent research which identifies more sophisticated observations than Piaget did. Nevertheless, there is certain literature which does support Piaget’s assertions: Vygotsky (1978) also noted that students learn through social interactions, often from the guidance of a more knowledgeable other such as a teacher, parent or caregiver. As Piaget’s theory does correlate to a certain extent with other eminent educational theories that would seem to emphasise the relevance of it to the present learning environment.

Ansell (2005) reiterates that Piaget’s theories were Eurocentric-based, and, therefore, focused mostly within a Western context. Moreover, Piaget’s approach indicates his belief that all children develop in the same manner, in fixed stages, and without regard to socio-economic status or environmental differences. Blundell (2012) suggests that Piaget, through experimental science, looked to ‘reconstruct childhood’ based upon the idea of ‘developmentalism,’ in which practitioners were encouraged to view the different stages of development as separate circumstances. Blundell (2014) suggests that Piaget provided, the “dominant working model for childhood” (p.121). In contrast, however, Vygotsky (1978) argued that “learning is a necessary and universal aspect of the process of developing culturally organized, specifically human psychological function” (1978, p. 90). More recently, professors have had difficulty accepting that Piaget is still essentially directing children and the nature of childhood into what he assumes children should be (which is that they should be encouraged to grow based on powerful and universal laws). Piaget (1972) explains that “to understand is to discover, or reconstruct by rediscovery, and such conditions must be complied with if… individuals are to be formed who are capable of production and creativity and not simply repetition” (p.20). Furthermore, Piaget fairly rigidly holds that developmentalism is a process where children develop cognitive ability in discrete and rigid stages. Hopkins (2011) suggest that “stages often fail to capture the complexities of intraindividual and interindividual variation in development” while explaining why stage theories have fallen out of approval. Isaacs et al. (2015) note that Piaget’s work is applicable to many fields of research, specifically education where it has been lauded as an authoritative method of how children learn. They note that Piaget’s work also has applications in psychology as it appreciates the social and cultural factors that a child may go through which influences their learning. Nevertheless, they note that the rigid nature of his theories make it hard to apply to some research contexts.

One of the stronger arguments against Piaget’s work is the lack of scientific method. It is worth noting that his research for his book “The Origins of Intelligence in Children,” consisted of only his three participants, all of whom were Piaget’s children (Hopkins, 2011). With such a small and statistically insignificant, completely non-random sample, it is amazing that his findings had as much value as they did. Contemporary research would take advantage of a much greater and more diverse range of participants than Piaget’s did and have greater validity and reliability. Even as his research grew, Piaget focused very narrowly on a uniform and unvaried group; the global applicability, therefore, is somewhat limited as norms, practices, and values differ across cultures and socio-economic classes. This is a strong criticism of Piaget’s theory that it is too uniform and fails to appreciate the complexity of factors which contribute to children’s learning. Nevertheless, Piaget laid the base upon much of what has come after him has been built and why he remains a common name among academics and students in education, psychology, and child development even in contemporary theory and practice.


Ansell, N. (2005) Children, Youth and Development. London: Routledge

Blundell, D. (2012) Education and Constructions of Childhood. London: Continuum.

Blundell, D. (2014) Childhood and education. Social Problems in the UK: An Introduction.

Hopkins, J. (2011) The enduring influence of Jean Piaget. (Online) Available from:

Isaacs, S., Blundell, D., Foley, A., Ginsburg, N., McDonough, B., Silverstone, D. and Young, T. (2015) Social Problems in the UK: An Introduction. New York: Routledge (1st ed.).

Piaget, J. (1972) The Psychology of the Child. New York: Basic Books.

Vygotsky, L. (1978) Mind in Society: The Development of Higher Psychological Processes. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.


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