Tuesday, June 5, 2012


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Every parent and teacher goes through the dilemma of figuring out when to teach their child and at what stage in life do we teach them. Jean Piaget’s Theory of Cognitive Development, stated that children go through a period of stages in which they develop. The four stages of Piaget’s theory grouped the development of a child into age groups, in which interaction with people and the natural world is necessary for cognitive development. Briefly, the four stages of Piaget’s theory are the sensorimotor stage (birth until ), the preoperational stage ( until 6 or 7), the concrete operational stage (6 or 7 until 11 or 1), and the formal operation stage (11 or 1 through adulthood). According to Piaget, children in the pre-operational stage use mental representations, such as mental images, drawings, words, and gestures, rather than just motor actions to think about objects and events. Children in this stage think faster, are more flexible and efficient, and more socially involved. Their thinking is limited due to egocentrism, focus on only perceptual states, reliance on appearance rather than underlying realities, and the inability to comprehend reversibility. In Piaget’s opinion, children in the pre-operational were incapable of succeeding at his conservation tasks, because they lacked knowledge to conserve. Conservation means to understand that certain physical characteristics of objects remain the same, even when their outward appearance changes. Piaget’s conservation tasks involved tests for conservation of number, solid, and liquid. According to Piaget, children in the concrete stage are able to easily solve the problems faced in the conservation task due to their cognitive development.

In Piaget’s conservation task, 5 year olds were asked to follow procedures for the conservation of number, solid quantity, and liquid quantity. The conservation of number involves taking two rows with the same number of things, for example coins, fruits, and buttons that are equally spaced. Initially, the 5 year olds knew that the two rows were had the same number, but if one row was shortened, children failed to notice that the two rows were the same. On the task for conservation of solid quantity, he showed young children two pencils, two pens, or two sticks of the same length laying down next to one another. Piaget, then moved one of the sticks to show the children that by moving one of the sticks, it would make it longer than the other and as he had predicted, the children were unable to realize that the two sticks were of the same length. In the task of conservation of liquid, he described he showed young children the same amount of water in two identical glasses and allowed the children to realize that both of the glasses were of the same size and the water in them were of equal proportion. Piaget then took one of the glasses and poured the water into a longer, thinner glass and concluded that the children were unable to comprehend that the new glass contained the same amount as the original two glasses of water. According to Piaget, children’s thinking is perception bound in the pre-operational stage and that they could not focus their attention on two aspects, because their attention was to only one aspect.

In two studies done of Piaget’s conservation tasks, it was evident that children during the pre-operational stage are unable to succeed as the tests. Anderson and Cuneo found that twenty children, ages 6 and 7, were put to Piaget’s tasks with regard to the concept of area failed. Twenty other children, who were at the age of 8, were able to apply “an additive rule” to solve the problems, while the nonconserving children showed patterns of concentrating on only one of the two dimensions. In another study, Fiati (1) studied children in the Volta regiorn of West Africa and attempted to find a correlation between children learning in different cultures and conservation. Since children in the Volta region were growing up in isolated, agricultural villages their experiences with time, money, and mathematical computation were different from children living in settings with schools. Under these conditions, Fiati discovered that the children living in the non-school setting lacked comparable abilities to the children that went to school. Fiati concluded that children’s central conceptual structures for numbers did not advance past the unidimensional level. He also stated that these unidimensional structures are universal and that children tested on central conceptual structures progressed through the same stages and at the same rate, but on the test of specific understanding, there was “cross-national differences” and from this Fiati concluded that if a culture values a particular task and invests time and effort in to teaching them, it is likely that children will pass the tasks. According to these studies, it is conclusive that children at the stage of pre-operational have problems with Piaget’s tasks, but according to Fiati, if these tasks are practiced and effort is put in to learning them, children can pass the tests.

After reviewing Piaget’s conservation tasks and the studies done on them, I set up an experiment designed to mimic Piaget’s test for conservation of number, solid quantity, and liquid quantity. The idea that children at the age of 5 are not capable of passing the tasks of conservations, while 8 year olds are able to succeed will be tested in the following experiment. The purpose of this experiment is to test Piaget’s belief that children at the stage of Pre-operational are not able to succeed at the conservation tasks because it is not in their ability to understand such concepts.

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My subject is a four year old girl named Sarah, who according to Piaget would be in the pre-operational stage and would not succeed at the task that will be presented to her and ten year old Kiran, who would succeed. Before presenting Sarah and Kiran with the tasks, I had to prepare the experiment according to the way Piaget had performed it. There were some modifications in the experiment in that I used M&M candies for the conservation of number and also assured the subjects that they would be rewarded for their participation, in order to keep their interest. For each task, the subjects were separated and had no knowledge of what was going to be presented to them before performing the task. In testing the conservation of number, I set two rows M&M candies, approximately eight, on a table and counted out the numbers of M&M candies to Sarah. She realized that each row had eight candies and responded “eight”, when I asked her to confirm how many candies were to each row. I, then took the candies in one of the row and placed them further apart from each other and asked Sarah to tell me if both rows of candies were the same. According to Piaget, Sarah would respond that the row with the candies further apart had more and according to her response, that is exactly what she did. I, then had Sarah leave the area of the experiment and had Kiran follow the same procedures as Sarah had done. When asked about the rows after the transformation, Kiran replied that they both were the same, except that one of the rows were spaced further apart. This sort of response is what Piaget had predicted and this is due to the fact that Kiran is in stage, where is capable of handling these tasks, while Sarah is not able to comprehend the transformations.

For the test of liquid quantity, I had two identical glasses and filled them up with water and placed them on the table. I then took another glass, except that it was longer and thinner as compared to the two other glasses. I asked Sarah to look at the two identical glasses and tell me that if both of the them had the same amount of water and she responded “yes”. After getting a response from her, I attempted to take the water from one of the glasses and pour it in the longer and thinner glass. After pouring it in the glass, I asked Sarah if both of the glasses had the same amount of water and she concluded that the tall and thinner glass had more water. I then asked Sarah to leave the room where the experiment was being held and had Kiran come in and follow the same procedures. I asked Kiran to tell me if both of the identical glasses had the same amount of water and she determined that both were of the same amount. After performing the transformation, she realized that both of the glasses, while different in size and shape, still had the same amount of water. Up till this part of the experiment, both Sarah’s and Kiran’s responses were of no surprise and to note, both subjects had full concentration while performing Piaget’s tasks. The idea of receiving something in response to the participation might have played a part in their full concentration and honest responses.

In the task of conserving solid quantity, I had two pencils of the same length placed next to one another and had Sarah look at them and asked her if they were the same and she said they were the same. After getting a response, I moved one of the pencils ahead of the other and asked her if they were still the same and she said “no”. She failed to realize that both of the pencils were of the same length except that one was just moved ahead of the other. When Kiran was put to the test, she realized that both of the pencils were of the same length in the initial part of the task and after the transformation concluded that they were the same length regardless of the transformation.


As Piaget had predicted, all the results were consistent with his findings and had the support of his stage theories, that Sarah was incapable of performing such tasks, while Kiran was able to due to her placement in the concrete operational. According to Piaget, changes or stages in childhood development are universal and the results stated above prove that, but could it be that it was something about the way the experiment was performed that caused such results to occur. In each task, Sarah was shown the items before and after the transformations and she consistently believed that after the change in formation, the items were not the same. Sarah’s placement in the pre-operational stage concludes that she does not have cognitive ability to succeed in the tasks. Neither Sarah or Kiran were not rushed in to any judgment about the tasks and their answers were purely on their cognitive abilities. There was additional information provided about the items involved or the situation of the transformation, all questions and procedures were identical in each subject’s case and as a result we concluded that both Sarah and Kiran were able to display Piaget’s beliefs. Kiran was very consistent in her answers and had no difficulty understanding the directions and procedures whatsoever. Neither of the subjects looked for cues from the experimenter and no cues were provided to the subjects. The results show that Kiran and Sarah are in different stages of development and this is the cause of the difference in responses.


In conclusion, it is evident that Piaget’s tasks of conservation were designed to produce success in children beyond the pre-operational stage. Both participants in the study, displayed exactly what Piaget had predicted and led the results to show that Piaget’s theory could be correct in terms of universal development. But, this would be true if children were placed in a controlled environment their whole life and their interactions with others were controlled also. If the procedures modified in such that the children were able to perform the task with the experimenter, the results might have been different. Sarah might have been more involved in putting the M&M candies on the table and counting them with the experimenter out loud. This act of involvement would allow Sarah to successfully accomplish his conservation tasks. Sarah’s attention, understanding of the concepts of numbers and the hands on experience on the tasks would make her realize that the transformations did not change the amount of candy, water, or the length of the pencil. Based on these changes, Sarah would be in the preoperational stage and be able to conserve the number and do conserve liquid very early in life contrary to Piaget’s theory of stages and his tasks.

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