The Impact of Piaget's Learning Theory on Adult Education

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Piaget's theory of learning was developed based on research with young children. His theory also has strong implications for adult learning.

Life and Times of Jean Piaget

Jean Piaget was born on August 9, 1896 in Neuchatel, Switzerland. He

died on September 17, 1980 in Geneva Switzerland. Jean was a biologist and philosopher best known for his research and work in the area of developmental psychology. As a youth, Piaget was interested in nature and collected shells. His special interests in mollusks eventually lead to a job in a local museum at a young age. As a teenager, he was writing and publishing research papers and considered to be an expert on mollusks.

Piaget received his degree in Zoology in 1918 from the University of Neuchatel. Next, he went to Zurich to study psychology under Carl Jung. He eventually moved on to Paris to study with Alfred Binet at the Sorbonne and was involved in the evaluation of research on intelligence in children. He assisted Binet in the design, and development of intelligence tests that were used extensively throughout the western world through the 1970’s. Throughout this period, Piaget discovered that children made similar kinds of errors at certain ages. He continued to study this phenomenon after he returned to Switzerland. He conducted interviews with young children (including his own children) to test such concepts as conservation of volume, judgment of perspective, and understanding of natural phenomenon. This process gave Piaget insights into the reasoning processes that the children were using.

Papert reported, "Jean Piaget, the pioneering Swiss philosopher and psychologist, spent much of his professional life listening to children, watching children and pouring over reports of researchers around the world who were doing the same. He found… that children don't think like grownups. After thousands of interactions with young people often barely old enough to talk, Piaget began to suspect that behind their cute and seemingly illogical utterances were thought processes that had their own kind of order and their own special logic.” (1999)

Jean Piaget conducted naturalistic research over a period of 60 years.

He published his theories in his many scientific reports and his books which include The Child’s Conception of the World in 1926, The Origin of Intelligence in Children in 1936 and The Early Growth of Logic in the Child in 1958. (“Jean Piaget”)

Piaget was able to ascertain certain patterns and strategies of thought. He was labeled as a constructivist and as an interactionist. Learning and thinking require participation of the learner. To construct knowledge, the child must “act on objects”. This interaction provides knowledge of the objects. Piaget believed that knowledge is, not merely transmitted verbally, but constructed and re-constructed by the learner by interacting with objects.

Piaget respected the creativity of children and believed that their perceptions were limited by their lack of experiences. Further, he believed that teachers, or other adults, who taught in a condescending manner could damage the child’s natural curiosity, causing them to abandon their natural desire to solve problems for themselves to discover creative solutions and ideas. Piaget did not see learning as memorization of facts or procedures. He emphasized that true learning depends on an understanding of how things and ideas fit together, creating a mental model that allows the child to accurately assimilate new information and make useful conclusions and predictions.

Piaget’s theory has been used extensively by educators all around the world and applied to teaching practices and curriculum design. He also influenced many other researchers. His work caused the new fields of cognitive theory, developmental psychology and genetic epistemology to come into existence. His research revolutionized how we think about children, learning, intelligence and the nature of knowledge. His greatest influence has been on educators of young children who must develop school curriculum that enhances the conceptual and logical growth of youth. Subsequently, lessons are planned and instruction is given using strategies that allow students to experience and interact with the environment.

Key Concepts in Piaget’s Theory of Learning

The theory of constructivism is based on Piaget’s research.

Constructivism focuses on the study of the processes children use to create and expand upon their idea. Piaget believed that children actually invented their own ideas. He believed that they do not merely absorb ideas that are presented to them in a rote manner. His research proved that children assimilate new data and modify their understanding accordingly. With appropriate instruction and support, children develop insights and critical thinking skills as their understanding of the world increases in detail and depth. (“Learning Theories: Piaget's Theory of Learning”).

Similar to Sigmund Freud, Piaget divided cognitive development into distinct stages. Piaget theorized that because children are physical beings, they experience the world physically and emotionally. After observing and questioning children for many years, Piaget concluded that intellectual development is the result of interactions between hereditary and environmental factors. Children grow as they explore and come to understandings with increasing abstraction and complexity. Piaget noted that introducing abstract concepts beyond the child’s “mental maps” will result in memorization, not real comprehension.

Piaget’s theory of learning is based on discovery. He stated, “To understand is to discover, or reconstruct by rediscovery, and such conditions must be complied with if in the future individuals are to be formed who are capable of production and creativity and not simply repetition.” (“Constructivist Learning”)

Piaget believed that children transition through stages in which they accept ideas they may later discard and replace with a new idea. Understanding is built step by step through active involvement in the learning process (“Constructivist Learning”). His four stages are:

• Sensorimotor Stage (birth to 2 years) – Children physically interact with their environment through sucking, pushing, grapping, shaking, licking, touching, etc. These interactions serve to build the child’s mental structures about the world and how it works and responds. Children discover that things still exist when they are out of view (“object permanence”) in this stage

• Preoperational stage (2 years to 6 or 7 years) – Children must have visual representations and hands-on experiences to draw conclusions. Repetition of events helps the child to understand cause and effect.

• Concrete Operational Stage ( 6 -7) years to approximately 12 years – Children continue to learn from their physical experiences. Explanations and predictions become more sophisticated. Abstract problem solving begins. They still benefit from educational materials based on real life situations. Learning activities should involve challenges of classification, location, and ordering using concrete objects

• Formal Operational Stage (12 years through adulthood) – By this time, the cognitive structure of children is approaching to that of adults and increasing rapidly. (“Genetic Epistemology: J. Piaget”).

These stages of development vary for each person.

It was reported that Albert Einstein stated that Piaget’s discovery was “…so simple that only a genius could have thought of it.” (Papert, 1999)

The following have been identified as universal characteristics of Piaget’s stages of his learning theory:

1) The sequence of development is the same for all human beings, but children vary in their time in each stage. They progress in the same order and do not skip any phases.

2) Phases are universal and are the same in all cultures.

3) The stages occur in the same sequence for every human being and each state incorporates elements of the previous stage.

4) Each phase represents qualitative differences in ways of thinking

(“Jean Piaget”).

Piaget hypothesized that individuals developed mental structures (“mental maps”). He believed that new information is incorporated, or accommodated, into the existing structures. The process of accommodation allows for minor changes in the structures to add the new information. New information can be either rejected or transformed to fit into the learner’s mental maps (“Learning Theories: Piaget's Theory of Learning”).

Additionally, Piaget hypothesized that human beings have a natural desire to find and operate in a condition of equilibrium. A person is in disequilibrium when information is too far away from the mental structure to be accommodated but makes enough sense to make it difficult to reject. During transition from one stage to another, individuals with rigid personalities will move more slowly between stages due to their intolerance for ambiguity. A person with a higher tolerance for ambiguity will make the transitions more readily.

Piaget’s Ideas on How Parents and Teachers Can Help Children Learn

Piaget considers parents as the primary supporters of learning in children. Modeling desired behaviors greatly increases the possibility that children will repeat those behaviors. For example, parents reading to their children or reading a newspaper where children can observe them, greatly increases the chances that the child will repeat the behavior at a younger age. Childrenn who have learning difficulties, are severely abused or isolated, develop more slowly through the stages identified by Piaget. Television, both parents going to work outside of the home, and computers are also altering how children learn.

In modeling Piaget, parents and stewards of children would do well

to do more listening to children and teaching with positive guidance.

Piaget was a proponent of active learning and the creation of learning environments to support the growth of intelligence through assimilation and accommodation.

In summary, parents and teachers can help children to learn by giving them opportunities and encouragement to experiment, explore, manipulate, and question—to find answers for themselves. Activity is essential. They should avoid pushing data or facts on to children to memorize before they are capable of understanding (Ginn).

The Impact of Piaget’s Theory of Learning and Androgogy: While some of Piaget’s theories of learning have been proven to be incorrect, his insights have continued to make a significant impact on instructional practices in the education of young children and adult education. For example, recent researchers have disproven Piaget’s belief that children are not born without any knowledge. Also, Piaget saw intellectual development as a demonstration of the individual’s ability to interact with the environment—nature verses nurture.

Today, educators at the secondary and university levels universally recognize the importance of internal motivation to learning. Teachers have altered their approach from memorization and rote learning to an emphasis on making connections between known information (schema) and new information. The realization that “language use depends on our ability to use symbols and map categories and relationships on to the brain” is significant (Shaw). While some learners figure this strategy out for themselves, educators are now aware of the process and can teach this learning strategy to adults and help them to become more efficient processors of information.

It is also interesting to note that Piaget’s theory of readiness, once thought to apply to young children and the early stages of learning, is now seen as having relevance to adult learners. Learners cannot learn something until maturation (knowledge or skills) results in the acquisition of certain prerequisites. The ability to learn any cognitive content is related to the individual’s stage of intellectual development (Ginn).

Historically, adults were viewed as becoming increasingly more rigid in their thinking and resisting change. However, new research is showing that healthy, active adults who continue to learn into their 80’s and 90’s, adjust and shift paradigms as required to maintain equilibrium (Shaw). Recent research into multiple intelligences by Dr. Howard Gardener (linguistic, logical-mathematical, spatial, bodily-kinesthetic, musical, interpersonal, intrapersonal, and naturalist intelligences) and brain health by Dr. Daniel Amen indicates that much of Piaget’s theory of learning is correct. However, his concepts that are founded on a physical and biochemical basis can be expanded to include adult learning.

Finally, when considering technology, instructional applications influenced by Piaget’s theory of learning go beyond mere memorization, drill and practice. The technology must engage the learner in an interactive platform such as multimedia and virtual reality (Ginn).

In conclusion, in this writer’s opinion, Piaget’s pedagogical learning theory about children can be expanded and applied to adult learning theor - androgogy. This writer believes that adults continue to develop cognitively and maintain their intelligence throughout their lives if they maintain their curiosity, remain active and stay healthy.


Ginn, W. Y. Jean Piaget - Intellectual Development. Retrieved from

Jean Piaget. NNDB. Retrieved from

Educational Theories. Oklahoma: ISR. Retrieved from

Learning Theories: Piaget's Theory of Learning. Retrieved from

Learning Theories: piaget's Theory of Learning. Retrieved from

Genetic Epistemology: J. Piaget. TIP. Retrieved from

Constructivist Learning. Northern Illinois University. Retrieved from

Papert, S. (1999). Child Psychologist Jean Piaget. Time Magazine, 153(12). Retrieved from

Shaw, P. Theories of Learning. Retrieved from


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