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ANSWER-  Jean Piaget’s work on children’s cognitive development, specifically with quantitative concepts,
has garnered much attention within the field of
education. Piaget explored children’s cognitive
development to study his primary interest in genetic
epistemology. Upon completion of his doctorate, he
became intrigued with the processes by which children
achieved their answers; he used conversation as a
means to probe children’s thinking based on
experimental procedures used in psychiatric

One contribution of Piagetian theory concerns the
developmental stages of children’s cognition. His work
on children’s quantitative development has provided
mathematics educators with crucial insights into how
children learn mathematical concepts and ideas. This
the article describes stages of cognitive development with emphasis on their importance to mathematical
development and provides suggestions for planning
mathematics instruction.
The approach of this article will be to provide a
brief discussion of Piaget’s underlying assumptions
regarding the stages of development. Each stage will
be described and characterized, highlighting the stage-appropriate mathematics techniques that help lay a solid foundation for future mathematics learning. The conclusion will incorporate general implications of the knowledge of stages of development for mathematics instruction.

Underlying Assumptions

Piaget believed that the development of a child
occurs through a continuous transformation of thought
processes. A developmental stage consists of a period
of months or years when certain development takes
place. Although students are usually grouped by
chronological age, their development levels may differ
significantly, as well as the
rate at which individual children pass through each
stage. This difference may depend on maturity,
experience, culture. According to Berk (1997), Piaget
believed that children develop steadily and gradually
throughout the varying stages and that the experiences
in one stage form the foundations for movement to the
next. All people pass through each stage before starting
the next one; no one skips any stage. This implies older
children, and even adults, who have not passed through
later stages process information in ways that are
characteristic of young children at the same
developmental stage.

Stages of Cognitive Development
Piaget has identified four primary stages of
development: sensorimotor, preoperational, concrete
operational, and formal operational.

  • Sensorimotor Stage
In the sensorimotor stage, an infant’s mental and
cognitive attributes develop from birth until the
appearance of language. This stage is characterized by
the progressive acquisition of object permanence in
which the child becomes able to find objects after they
have been displaced, even if the objects have been
taken out of his field of vision. For example, Piaget’s
experiments at this stage include hiding an object
under a pillow to see if the baby finds the object.
Dr Bobby Ojose is an Assistant Professor at the University of
Redlands, California. He teaches mathematics education and
quantitative research methods classes. His research interests encompass constructivism in teaching and learning mathematics.

An additional characteristic of children at this
the stage is their ability to link numbers to objects (Piaget,
1977) (e.g., one dog, two cats, three pigs, four hippos).
To develop the mathematical capability of a child in
this stage, the child’s ability might be enhanced if he is
allowed ample opportunity to act on the environment
in unrestricted (but safe) ways in order to start building
concepts. Evidence suggests that
children at the sensorimotor stage have some
understanding of the concepts of numbers and counting. Educators of children in this stage of
development should lay a solid mathematical
foundation by providing activities that incorporate
counting and thus enhance children’s conceptual
development of number. For example, teachers and
parents can help children count their fingers, toys, and
candies. Questions such as “Who has more?” or “Are
there enough?” could be a part of the daily lives of
children as young as two or three years of age.
Another activity that could enhance the
mathematical development of children at this stage
connects mathematics and literature. There is a
plethora of children’s books that embed mathematical
content. (See Appendix A for a non-exhaustive list of
children’s books incorporating mathematical concepts
and ideas.) A recommendation would be that these
books include pictorial illustrations. Because children
at this stage can link numbers to objects, learners can
benefit from seeing pictures of objects and their
respective numbers simultaneously. Along with the
mathematical benefits, children’s books can contribute
to the development of their reading skills and

  • Preoperational Stage
The characteristics of this stage include an increase
in language ability (with over-generalizations),
symbolic thought, egocentric perspective, and limited
logic. In this second stage, children should engage with
problem-solving tasks that incorporate available
materials such as blocks, sand, and water. While the
child is working with a problem, the teacher should
elicit conversation from the child. The verbalization of
the child, as well as his actions on the materials, gives
a basis that permits the teacher to infer the mechanisms
of the child’s thought processes.

There is a lack of logic associated with this stage of
development; rational thought makes a little appearance.
The child links together unrelated events see objects
as possessing life, does not understand point-of-view,
and cannot reverse operations. For example, a child at
this stage who understands that adding four to five
yields nine cannot yet perform the reverse operation of
taking four from nine.
Children’s perceptions in this stage of development
are generally restricted to one aspect or dimension of
an object at the expense of the other aspects. For
example, Piaget tested the concept of conservation by
pouring the same amount of liquid into two similar
containers. When the liquid from one container is
poured into a third, wider container, the level is lower
and the child thinks there is less liquid in the third
container. Thus the child is using one dimension,
height, as the basis for his judgment of another
dimension, volume.
Teaching students in this stage of development
should employ effective questioning about
characterizing objects. For example, when students
investigate geometric shapes, a teacher could ask
students to group the shapes according to similar
characteristics. Questions following the investigation
could include, “How did you decide where each object
belonged? Are there other ways to group these
together?” Engaging in discussion or interactions with
the children may engender the children’s discovery of
the variety of ways to group objects, thus helping the
children think about the quantities in novel ways
(Thompson, 1990).

  • Concrete Operations Stage
The third stage is characterized by remarkable
cognitive growth, when children’s development of
language and acquisition of basic skills accelerate
dramatically. Children at this stage utilize their senses
in order to know; they can now consider two or three
dimensions simultaneously instead of successively. For
example, in the liquids experiment, if the child notices
the lowered level of the liquid, he also notices the dish
is wider, seeing both dimensions at the same time.
Additionally, seriation and classification are the two
logical operations that develop during this stage
(Piaget, 1977) and both are essential for understanding
number concepts. Seriation is the ability to order
objects according to increasing or decreasing length,
weight, or volume. On the other hand, classification
involves grouping objects on the basis of a common
According to Burns & Silbey (2000), “hands-on
experiences and multiple ways of representing a
the mathematical solution can be ways of fostering the
development of this cognitive stage” (p. 55). The
importance of hands-on activities cannot be
overemphasized at this stage. These activities provide
students an avenue to make abstract ideas concrete,
28 Applying Piaget’s Theory
allowing them to get their hands on mathematical ideas
and concepts as useful tools for solving problems.
Because concrete experiences are needed, teachers
might use manipulatives with their students to explore
concepts such as place value and arithmetical
operations. Existing manipulative materials include:
pattern blocks, Cuisenaire rods, algebra tiles, algebra
cubes, geoboards, tangrams, counters, dice, and
spinners. However, teachers are not limited to
commercial materials, they can also use convenient
materials in activities such as paper folding and
cutting. As students use the materials, they acquire
experiences that help lay the foundation for more
advanced mathematical thinking. Furthermore,
students’ use of materials helps to build them
mathematical confidence by giving them a way to test
and confirm their reasoning.
One of the important challenges in mathematics
teaching is to help students make connections between
the mathematics concepts and the activity. Children
may not automatically make connections between them
work they do with manipulative materials and the
corresponding abstract mathematics: “children tend to
think that the manipulations they do with models are
one method for finding a solution and pencil-and-paper
math is entirely separate” (Burns & Silbey, 2000, p.
60). For example, it may be difficult for children to
conceptualize how a four by six-inch rectangle built
with wooden tiles relates to four multiplied by six, or
four groups of six. Teachers could help students make
connections by showing how the rectangles can be
separated into four rows of six tiles each and by
demonstrating how the rectangle is another
representation of four groups of six.
Providing various mathematical representations
acknowledges the uniqueness of students and provides
multiple paths for making ideas meaningful.
Engendering opportunities for students to present
mathematical solutions in multiple ways (e.g.,
symbols, graphs, tables, and words) is one tool for
cognitive development in this stage. Eggen & Kauchak
(2000) noted that while a specific way of representing
an idea is meaningful to some students, a different
representation might be more meaningful to others.

  • Formal Operations Stage
The child at this stage is capable of forming
hypotheses and deducing possible consequences,
allowing the child to construct his own mathematics.
Furthermore, the child typically begins to develop
abstract thought patterns where reasoning is executed
using pure symbols without the necessity of perceptive
data. For example, the formal operational learner can
solve x + 2x = 9 without having to refer to a concrete
situation presented by the teacher, such as, “Tony ate a
certain number of candies. His sister ate twice as many.
Together they ate nine. How many did Tony eat?”
Reasoning skills within this stage refer to the mental
the process involved in the generalizing and evaluating of
logical arguments (Anderson, 1990) and include
clarification, inference, evaluation, and application.
Clarification. Clarification requires students to
identify and analyze elements of a problem, allowing
them to decipher the information needed in solving a
problem. By encouraging students to extract relevant
information from a problem statement, teachers can
help students enhance they’re mathematical
Inference. Students at this stage are
developmentally ready to make inductive and
deductive inferences in mathematics. Deductive
inferences involve reasoning from general concepts to
specific instances. On the other hand, inductive
inferences are based on extracting similarities and
differences among specific objects and events and
arriving at generalizations.
Evaluation. Evaluation involves using criteria to
judge the adequacy of a problem solution. For
example, the student can follow a predetermined rubric
to judge the correctness of his solution to a problem.
Evaluation leads to formulating hypotheses about
future events, assuming one’s problem solving is
correct thus far.


The application involves students
connecting mathematical concepts to real-life
situations. For example, the student could apply his
knowledge of rational equations to the following
situation: “You can clean your house in 4 hours. Your
sister can clean it in 6 hours. How long will it take you
to clean the house, working together?”
Implications of Piaget’s Theory
Critics of Piaget’s work argue that his proposed
theory does not offer a complete description of
cognitive development (Eggen & Kauchak, 2000). For
example, Piaget is criticized for underestimating the
abilities of young children. 
Although not possible to teach cognitive
development explicitly, research has demonstrated that it can be accelerated. Piaget believed that the amount of time each
child spends in each stage varies by environment
(Kamii, 1982). All students in a class are not
necessarily operating at the same level. Teachers could
benefit from understanding the levels at which their
students are functioning and should try to ascertain
their students’ cognitive levels to adjust their teaching
accordingly. By emphasizing methods of reasoning,
the teacher provides critical direction so that the child
can discover concepts through investigation. The child
should be encouraged to self-check, approximate,
reflect and reason while the teacher studies the child’s
work to better understand his thinking (Piaget, 1970).
The numbers and quantities used to teach the
children number should be meaningful to them.
Various situations can be set up that encourage
mathematical reasoning. For example, a child may be
asked to bring enough cups for everybody in the class,
without being explicitly told to count. This will require
them to compare the number of people to the number
of cups needed. Other examples include dividing
objects among a group fairly, keeping classroom
records like attendance, and voting to make class

Games are also a good way to acquire
understanding of mathematical principles (Kamii,
1982). For example, the game of musical chairs
requires coordination between the set of children and
the set of chairs. Scorekeeping in marbles and bowling
requires a comparison of quantities and simple
arithmetical operations. Comparisons of quantities are
required in a guessing game where one child chooses a
number between one and ten and another attempts to
determine it, being told if his guesses are too high or
too low.



As children develop, they progress through stages
characterized by unique ways of understanding the
world. During the sensorimotor stage, young children
develop eye-hand coordination schemes and object
permanence. The preoperational stage includes the growth
of symbolic thought, as evidenced by the increased use
of language. During the concrete operational stage,
children can perform basic operations such as
classification and serial ordering of concrete objects. In
the final stage, formal operations, students develop the
ability to think abstractly and metacognitively, as well
as reason hypothetically. This article articulated these
stages in light of mathematics instruction. In general,
the knowledge of Piaget’s stages helps the teacher
understand the cognitive development of the child as
the teacher plans stage-appropriate activities to keep
students active.

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