Jean Piaget was a Swiss psychologist famous for his research in the field of cognitive development—the study of how the mind develops. He discovered that people think on one of four levels of thought.
The first level of thought is called the Sensorimotor stage. This stage usually last only for the first two years of a person’s life. Little or no organized thinking occurs. Infants react and respond to whatever stimuli affects their physical senses. By about age two, children learn that they are a separate entity from their environment.
Piaget’s second level of thought is called the Prelogical stage which begins around age two and lasts to around age five. In this stage, boundaries between fantasy and reality are blurred; and children perceive the world in egocentric terms. Language develops during these years.
His Concrete Operations stage begins around age five and lasts until about age twelve. During this stage, children begin to develop cause-and-effect thinking skills. They also acquire the ability to solve many of their problems by themselves. They can organize facts, categorize them, and then reorganize them if necessary.
The last mental developmental stage many children enter is called the Formal Operations stage. People begin entering this stage around the age of twelve. But some people never enter it. During this stage, people develop abstract thinking skills. They are able to develop complicated philosophical systems and concepts. They do not necessarily take things literally, but can reason through metaphors, parables, allegories, etc.
Many people can enter Piaget’s last stage of cognitive development if they are challenged to think abstractly and choose to accept the challenge. However, because it occurs on unfamiliar, non-physical territory, many people feel threatened by abstract thinking. Part of a Christian educator’s job is to help children and students cross this barrier by challenging them to think in “what if” categories. Jesus used this teaching method to challenge the thoughts and beliefs of his listeners.
Take for instance the parable of the Prodigal Son (Luke 15:11-32). Was the elder son justified in his reaction to his younger brother’s welcome home? Based on the elder son’s reaction and possible future actions, what do you think will happen to the brothers when their father dies?
Each child has his/her own timetable for growth and mental development. Accept this as a given and help your students to grow in the faith as best you can by working with each child within the limits of the stage of cognitive development in which you find him/her.
Keep in mind that students who have fully entered Piaget’s Formal Operations stage become extremely bored when asked to think and work at a lower level. They are not challenged by factual questions that have easy answers. On the other hand, factual questions must be posed and answered to assure that all students know the factual material they are expected to master. For students in this fourth stage and those entering it, supplement factual questions with more challenging questions such as: “Was Jacob right in taking Esau’s birthright from him?” “Why was Rebecca unfaithful to her husband when it came to her two sons?” “What if you…”
Today at the grocery story, a mother was negotiating with her five-year old which granola bars he wanted. I overheard them while I was trying to decide what I wanted. I told them what my grandson likes. The mother must have told him that he was going to send her to the nut house if he didn’t make up his mind. Seeing my indecision, the little boy asked me if I were going to the nut house with his mother. Where would you place him on Piaget’s cognitive development scale?