Cognitive Developmentalisms


Cognitive Developmental Theories


Distinct stages/phases of an individual’s dominant modes of cognition

Principal Metaphors

  • Knowledge is … the range of developmental possibility
  • Knowing is … stage-influenced interpretations of prior construals
  • Learner is … a transformer (individual)
  • Learning is … construing and reconstruing
  • Teaching is … occasioning, prompting, triggering, listening




Cognitive Developmentalisms focus on stages in the individual’s development of skills and preferences around perception, reasoning, memory, problem solving, language use, and other thought-associated competencies. In general terms, these theories trace the development from the infant’s dependence on physical actions on concrete objects to more mature abilities to mentally manipulate abstract notions. While it has fallen into some disfavor, Jean Piaget’s Model of Cognitive Development continues to serve as the standard against which more recent versions are articulated:
  • Stage Theory of Cognitive Development (Piaget's Model of Cognitive Development) (Jean Piaget and Barbel Inhelder, 1940s) – a model that tracks development from birth to late adolescence through Sensorimotor, Preoperational, Concrete Operational, and Formal Operational periods. Piaget's Genetic Epistemology is essential to understanding the model. Key distinctions within Stage Theory of Cognitive Development include:
    • Concrete Thinking (Jean Piaget, 1950s) – a mode of thinking that is focused on and framed by one's own immediate experiences with specific objects. Concrete Thinking is characteristic of young children,
    • Abstract Thinking (Categorical Thought) (Jean Piaget, 1950s) – a mode of thinking involving the uses of generalized ideas, concepts, or classification
Because Piaget’s model has been so consequential in education, brief descriptions of his identified stages are warranted: Piaget identified markers for each of these stages, which include:
  • at the Sensorimotor Stage:
    • Mental Combination (Invention of New Means through Mental Combination) (Jean Piaget, 1950s) – in Piaget’s Stage Theory of Cognitive Development, a mode of problem solving based on thought rather than merely trial-and-error. It typically emerges in the latter portion of the Sensorimotor Stage, and it signals the emergence of image- and symbol-based reasoning.
    • Object Permanence – the awareness that objects continue to exist when they are no longer directly observed or observable
  • at the Preoperational Stage:
    • Centration – the tendency to focus on a single aspect (of a situation, an object, etc.) and to ignore others
    • Magical Thinking – the belief that one can influence others’ actions and thoughts with one’s own. Magical Thinking is typical of, but not exclusive to, children up to 4 or 5 years of age.
    • Precausal Thinking (Jean Paget, 1950s) – the anthropomorphism of natural phenomena – that is, interpreting rain, moon phases, etc. in terms of deliberate actions rather than mechanical processes. Precausal Thinking typically dominates until age 7–9 years.
    • States – the appearance of an object, which tends to be the centre of the child’s attentions in the Preoperational Stage(compare: Transformations, below)
    • Symbolic Function (Semiotic Function) – the capacity to operate mentally on objects that are not physically present
  • at the Concrete Operational Stage:
    • Categorization (Classification) – the combined processes of grouping different experiences, objects, etc. into classes and making distinctions among classes (see Categorization Strategies)
    • Conservation – the awareness that changing the appearance or shape of a quantity does not affect the actual quantity
    • Decentration – the awareness that others may perceive and interpret differently, compelling one to consider multiple aspects of situations (akin to Theory of Mind, in Identity Theories)
    • Transformations ­– the movement between states of an object, which tends to be the centre of the child’s attentions in the Concrete Operational Stage (compare: States, above)
  • at the Formal Operational Stage:
    • Hypothetico-Deductive Reasoning – abstract reasoning, based on hypothesis testing and or logic, that is not reliant on immediate physical perception or action
    • Moral Reasoning – see Piaget’s Theory of Moral Development, in Moral Development Theory
An aspect of Piaget’s Stage Theory of Cognitive Development is that the sequences of development do not vary across individuals:
  • Décalage (Jean Piaget, 1950s) – the assertion of invariant orders in Piaget’s Stage Theory of Cognitive Development. Two varieties of Décalage are:
    • Horizontal Décalage (Jean Piaget, 1950s) – within a specific stage of Piaget’s Stage Theory of Cognitive Development, the invariant order in which accomplishments are asserted to occur
    • Vertical Décalage (Jean Piaget, 1950s) – in Piaget’s Stage Theory of Cognitive Development, the invariant order in which the major stages of development are asserted to occur
A prominent subcategory of Cognitive Developmentalisms is:
  • Neo-Piagetian Theories of Cognitive Development – Both critiquing and extending Piaget's Model of Cognitive Development,  these models typically invoke more recent ideas from Cognitive Psychology and Cognitive Science in order to address a perceived deficiency (e.g., inadequate explanations of individual differences, the intimation of universal stages of cognitive development, and/or developmental stages beyond adolescence). The following are among the many other models (listed by decade of publication):
    • Pascual-Leone’s Neo-Piagetian Model of Cognitive Development (Juan Pascual-Leone, 1960s) – model drawing on Information Processing Theory, based on a distinction between basic-level thought (based on processing power) and higher-level thought (based on storage capacity)
    • Postformal Operations (Michael Basseches, Klaus Riegel, 1970s) – Positioned as a critique of Piaget's view that adults rely mainly on the formal reasoning skills developed in adolescence, Postformal Operations comprise a range of reasoning schemas that are seen to be developed across the lifespan and that tend to be more phenomena- and/or situation-specific.
    • Dynamic Skill Theory (Skill Theory) (Kurt W. Fisher, 1980s) – theory developed around a progression of four tiers of representation (reflexive, sensorimotor, representational, abstract). Relevant constructs include:
      • Closed Skill – a motor skill that is always performed until highly similar conditions (e.g., a repetitive drill)
      • Open Skill – a motor skill that is never performed under precisely the same conditions (e.g., a skill deployed during a competitive game)
    • Intellectual Development Theory (Robbie Case, 1980s) – model of cognitive development elaborating Pascual-Leone’s by arguing for multiple lines of development over four main stages (sensorimotor, interrelational, dimensional, vectorial).
Other Cognitive Developmentalisms take somewhat different tacks on the nature of developmental stages. A sampling (listed chronologically, by decade of publication) includes:
  • Montessori’s Four Planes of Development (Maria Montessori, 1930s) – a model of development that frames such educational principles as promoting independence, structured correction, and rich environments (see Montessori Method under Alternative Education). Four stages are posited: Infancy (0–6 years; adaptation to the world), Childhood (6–12 years; rapid intellectual and social development), Adolescence (12–18 years; move to abstraction and assertion of identity); Maturity (18–24 years; self-responsibility with emotional and moral independence).
  • Perry’s Stages of Cognitive Development (William G. Perry, Jr., 1970s) – Focused on the development of logical thinking, this model plots a journey through four major periods: Dualism/Received Knowledge; Multiplicity/Subjective Knowledge; Relativism/Procedural Knowledge; Commitment/Constructed Knowledge.
  • Role-Taking Theory (Developmental Theory of Role-Taking Ability; Social Perspective Taking) (Robert Selman, 1970s) is a stage-based model of social perspective taking which is founded the premise that one’s ability to understand others’ emotions and perspectives is an aspect of general cognitive development. Such development is seen to be enabled by taking on others’ roles and/or recognizing their points of view. Five levels of role taking are identified: Egocentric, Subjective. Self-Reflective, Mutual, and Societal.
  • Women’s Ways of Knowing (Women’s Development Theory) (Mary Field Belenky, Blythe McVicker Clinchy, Nancy Rule Goldberger, & Jill Mattuck Tarule, 1980s) Citing the fact that Perry’s Stages of Cognitive Development (see above) was based entirely on male college students, Women’s Ways of Knowing is in part a critique of prominent Cognitive Developmentalisms of the 1900s. It describes how women view themselves and knowledge, identifying five perspectives: Silence; Received Knowledge; Subjective Knowledge; Procedural Knowledge; Constructed Knowledge.
  • Cognitive Complexity and Control Theory (CCC Theory) (Philip Zelazo, 2000s) – the suggestion that rule-following ability is dependent on one’s levels of self-awareness and self-control – and, therefore, age related
  • Cognitive Tools Theory (Kieran Egan, 1990s) – five stages of understanding (somatic, mythic, philosophic, ironic) that support memory and enhance learning capacity
  • General Theory of Development of Self-Understanding and Self-Regulation (Andreas Demetriou, 1990s) – model of cognitive development that incorporates the roles of self-awareness and processing efficiency through three functional levels (processing potentials, domain-specific systems of thought, hypercognition)
  • Hierarchical Complexity Theory (Michael Commons, 1990s) – model positing 16 orders of hierarchical complexity in the development of cognition, some of which extended beyond ages and levels of development covered by most theories
  • Relational Complexity Theory (Graeme S. Halford, 1990s) – model that shifts the focus to four modes of reasoning used to solve problems (element mappings, relational mappings, system mappings, multiple-system mappings)


Few reject the core assumptions of Cognitive Developmentalisms – that is, hardly anyone debates that humans progress from “concrete” to “abstract” thinkers, and in the process come into entirely new ways of thinking about and engaging with their worlds. Criticisms tend to be focused on specific theories. Piaget’s model, for example, is routinely faulted for its failure to attend to cultural context, social class, gender, and developments past adolescence – along with its limited empirical base and over-emphasis on age (i.e., wide ranges of developmental competencies can be observed among agemates).

Authors and/or Prominent Influences

Jean-Jacques Rousseau; Maria Montessori; Jean Piaget

Status as a Theory of Learning

Cognitive Developmentalisms can be classified as theories of learning. However, they tend to deal less with the dynamics of cognition and more with the modes/stages of learning across the lifespan.

Status as a Theory of Teaching

Cognitive Developmentalisms are not theories of teaching, but they the source of considerable advice on age- and stage-appropriate knowledge and activities. Piaget’s model has been particularly influential, especially in mathematics education. A prominent example of its application is around the trajectory through object-based activities in early school grades, through application-focused algebra in middle grades, to abstract work with functions in the higher grades.

Status as a Scientific Theory

For the most part, Cognitive Developmentalisms meet the requirements of scientific theories. They are also bolstered by complementary world in Neuroscience, PsychologySociology, and Anthropology.


  • Abstract Thinking (Categorical Thought)
  • Categorization (Classification)
  • Centration
  • Closed Skill
  • Cognitive Complexity and Control Theory (CCC Theory)
  • Cognitive Tools Theory
  • Concrete Thinking
  • Concrete Operational Stage of Development
  • Conservation
  • Décalage
  • Decentration
  • Dynamic Skill Theory (Skill Theory)
  • Formal Operational Stage of Development
  • General Theory of Development
  • Hierarchical Complexity Theory
  • Horizontal Décalage
  • Hypothetico-Deductive Reasoning
  • Intellectual Development
  • Magical Thinking
  • Mental Combination (Invention of New Means through Mental Combination)
  • Montessori’s Four Planes of Development
  • Neo-Piagetian Theories of Cognitive Development
  • Object Permanence
  • Open Skill
  • Pascual-Leone’s Neo-Piagetian Model
  • Perry’s Stages of Cognitive Development
  • Piaget’s Theory of Moral Development
  • Postformal Operations
  • Precausal Thinking
  • Preoperational Stage of Development
  • Relational Complexity Theory
  • Role-Taking Theory (Developmental Theory of Role-Taking Ability; Social Perspective Taking)
  • Sensorimotor Stage of Development
  • Stage Theory of Cognitive Development (Piaget’s Model of Cognitive Development)
  • States
  • Symbolic Function (Semiotic Function)
  • Transformations
  • Vertical Décalage
  • Women’s Ways of Knowing (Women’s Development Theory)

Map Location

Please cite this article as:
Davis, B., & Francis, K. (2022). “Cognitive Developmentalisms” in Discourses on Learning in Education.

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