A Comparison between the works of Piaget and Bruner

Jean Piaget was a Swiss biologist who developed an influential model of childhood development he viewed cognitive development in a series of different stages. At each different stage children create a more mature approach on reality. This changes how they view the world and assimilate new information. His argument was that essentially the child was a different cognitive person during each stage of his four developmental stages. Piaget believed that once a child advanced to a certain stage they could not decrease to a previous stage, but in turn would elevate up the developmental stages. These stages were age associated and increased successively. To test out his theories Piaget used his own three children as case studies, where he questioned and used observational techniques as they grew up, he acknowledged the change in the answers and reasoning he received from them to the different problems he gave them. The key concept to this was he gave them open ended questions, he believed that non structured and non standard questions was a better way to find out how the children were thinking, this would enable him to follow ideas and concepts of the children’s understandings which gave him a deeper insight of their cognitive abilities. The downside to open-ended questions was that the questions were not interpreted how he expected them to be and the wrong conclusions were formed, Piaget did use his theories on other children so his tests were not as biased as you would first perceive. Piaget was not really interested in accumulating quantities of data for his studies; however other researchers using the same open-ended questioning find it difficult to define the answers. Piaget believed that all newborns were born with the similar biological apparatus, Piaget used the term structures. These structures were the brain, the senses and reflexes, like sucking and grabbing etc. He suggested that older children must have developed in some way from just using basic reflexes. The term ‘schemata’ was used by Piaget to describe everything that the baby or the children knew about objects or actions this includes the organisation of the memories, thought processes, actions and knowledge. Piaget said that these schemas are developed by the child’s own experiences and interactions with their environments and that new experiences lead to new schema’s being developed. Using what experiences they have already encountered and adapting this to any new information they come across is how the schemata develops and becomes more complex. “Piaget claimed that adaption has two components: assimilation and accommodation.” Oliver K, Ellerby-jones L (2004) Assimilation is the way of processing new information and experiences into existing schemas, whilst accommodation is where a the existing schema can be changed when new information cannot be assimilated. Piaget used these stages to describe his theories. Stage one: The Sensitorimotor stage (age 0-2 years) is when young children learn through experiences (such as suckling, crying, grasping and kicking) through real life experiences and through their environment. The stage is called the sensitorimotor stage because it is to do with the child’s experience with their senses and their motor movements. He also said that the children experienced the world as it is immediately visualised “out of sight out of mind” that they are not aware of things if they are not present. He used the term object permanence which means that if the child cannot see the object they do not understand that it is in a different location. Stage two: the operations stage (age 2-7) Piaget believed a child in the pre-operational stage lacks operations which means that they lack the ability to reverse the mental process, for example a child can describe what they can see from where they are sitting but not from the perspective of someone else who is sat opposite them, this is known as egocentrism. He used his “three mountains task” to demonstrate this. Piaget also said that the pre-operational child lacks conservation where they are unable to recognise that properties such as weight and volume stay the same even when the shape is changed. Stage three: the concrete operations stage (age 7-11) in this stage the children lose their egocentric tendencies and achieve ‘cognitive operations’ these are much more complex schemas which enable the child to form logical realisation of the world. Which in turn means that they are able to put items in order for example height and weight where as before they were unable to. In this stage the child gains the ability to put things in the right order because they are able logically to figure out what comes next. Although Piaget believed that they still have problems with abstract concepts and principles and are likely to only see things in black and white. Stage four: Formal operational stage (age 11 years +) this stage involves the ability to not only use reasonable logic but also have the ability to deal with abstract concepts. Piaget used the term ‘logic of combinations’ where the child may need to deal with many factors at the same time, at this stage children also have the understanding that rules can be broken. There have been many criticisms of Piaget’s work, many of the criticisms are based on the fact that Piaget’s age grouping is too rigid and that children are far more competent at ages younger than what Piaget had specified. Research has suggested that children go through developmental stages but they are not age related, therefore should only be used as guidelines only. Research by Margaret Donaldson proposes that Piaget had underestimated younger children’s cognitive abilities; by using language that 3 and 4 year olds understand it enables them to think logically and understand things such as numbers, volume and weight. It also appears that when children are faced with a stressful situation they can regress to an earlier stage of reasoning, something that Piaget did not acknowledge. “Another study investigated children’s ability to conserve numbers by presenting a different version of the original Piagetian study using counters. The result also indicated that that young children can think quite logically in situations they understand” Oliver K, Ellerby-jones L (2004) later on in life Piaget realised the importance of social development and its connection with the development of cognitive processes, that social interactions aids stimulation and helps formulate intelligence. Piaget gave a valuable insight into children’s cognitive development he shown that children’s thinking is an active process instead of an inactive consumption of information.


Jerome Bruner was an American psychologist who became a leading figure in ‘cognitive’ psychology in the 1950’s. Bruner agreed with some of Piaget’s concepts but not all of them, Piaget and Bruner both believed in the importance of children of children being able to explore and discover things by themselves in realistic circumstances, that’s why play has an importance in learning. There were three considerable dissimilarities in their approaches which included the adult’s role, language and the cognitive development stages idea. Bruner believed in the importance of the adult being a supporting role in how the child thinks and learns. Bruner calls this adult support ‘scaffolding’. He believed that adults are supporting roles in a child’s learning until they are able to stand on their own. Adults should be aware of when the scaffolding is and is not required. Children’s learning should be flexible, the adults support should be able to move with the child’s needs as they change, and their knowledge and understanding skills mature. Bruner conducted many valuable experiments to that provided subjective biases in the way people perceive the world. For example when judging the size of coins, children over-estimated how big the more valuable coins were this showed to be greater in the poorer children. “Thus perceptions of the world were shown to be related to socioeconomic experiences. The demonstration of the important role of subjective interpretations went against the aversion of behaviourists to everything mental and subjective.” Moghaddam (2005) Bruner viewed language as being central to how children think and learn. Language is what connects a person’s grasp on different situations. The adult has the role of making sure effective communication is used and help broaden the child’s way of thinking and learning. Bruner believed that a child could learn anything at any age as long as it was demonstrated in a suitable way. He also believed that learning happen in a fixed sequence of stages, which is sustained by the children linking knowledge to their existing cognition. Bruner’s cognitive development theory is separated in to three areas: Enactive, iconic and symbolic. Enactive – understanding of the world is gained through actions. Iconic – where the child is guided through by mental images the children are able to form their own mental images, which is used to express themselves. Symbolic – where symbols and language are used to gain an understanding of the world. Children may use any one of these stages as they grow up. Bruner and his colleague Leo Postman carried out important work on the ways of which needs expectations and motivations also known as ‘mental sets’ have an effect on perception. Their approach was referred to as the ‘new look’. The experiment was to show perception as a self-sufficient process that should be considered differently from the world. Bruner and Postman showed young children plain blocks and toys that were of equal heights, but the children expected the toys to be bigger than the blocks. The toys size seemed to increase when the researchers removed them. There have been some criticism of Bruner’s work, critics believe that his work on discovery learning is not efficient and very difficult to organise.

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