A summary about what is the stage of concrete operations according to Jean Piaget.
The stage of concrete operations is the third stage of development proposed by the Swiss psychologist Jean Piaget, in his well-known Theory of Cognitive Development.
During this stage, boys and girls acquire a better ability to perform operations related to the mass, number, length and weight of objects. They are also able to better order objects, in addition to being able to establish categories and organize them hierarchically.
Next, we will take a more in-depth look at this stage, in addition to seeing each of the skills acquired in this period and the criticisms that have been made of Piaget’s findings.
What is the stage of concrete operations?
The stage of concrete operations is a period of development proposed by the Swiss psychologist Jean Piaget in his Theory of Cognitive Development.
This stage begins more or less at age 7 and ends at age 11, being the third in theory, coming after the pre-operational stage and before the stage of formal operations. It is during these years that children acquire a greater ability to organize their ideas, developing better rational, logical and operational thinking.
At these ages, children acquire the ability to discover things that they did not understand before and solve problems through language. They are able to present arguments without strings attached, reflecting a higher level of intelligence and operability compared to the two previous periods of development, the sensorimotor and preoperational stages.
The main characteristic of this period is the ability to use logical thinking or operations. This implies being able to use the rules of thought, having a less fanciful vision of real objects, in the sense that it understands that the changes that may occur in their number, area, volume and orientation do not necessarily mean that there are more or less . Despite this great advance, children can only apply their logic to physical objects, not to abstract and hypothetical ideas, which is why we speak of a stage of concrete and non-formal operations.
Main characteristics of this stage of development
There are five main characteristics that can be identified in this stage proposed by Jean Piaget.
Conservation is the child’s ability to understand that an object remains the same in quantity even though its appearance changes. That is, regardless of what type of redistribution is made of matter, it does not have to affect its mass, number, length or volume. For example, it is at this age that children understand that if we take a medium-sized ball of plaster and divide it into three smaller balls, we still have the same amount of plaster.
Another very recurrent example is the conservation of liquids. It is from the age of 7 that most boys and girls can understand that if we put water in a short and wide glass and change it to a thin and tall glass, we still have the same amount of liquid.
This same example does not occur in 5-year-olds, according to Piaget. At this age, if we do the same exercise of changing the liquid from one glass to another with a different shape, children think that we have more water.
To see how they were able to see the conservation of the number of elements, Piaget carried out an experiment with tokens. He gave the children a number of these cards and asked them to make a line equal to the one the experimenter had made.
Next, Piaget would take his row and spread the tiles a little, asking the children if they thought there were more tiles. Most 7-year-olds could answer correctly, concluding that it was at that age that the notion of numerical conservation was achieved.
But he also saw that the idea of conservation for all aspects, that is, number, mass, length, and volume, was not homogeneously understood. Some children first learned one of one type without understanding another. Based on this, Piaget concluded that there was a horizontal lag in this ability, that is, there were certain inconsistencies in development.
Classification is the ability to identify the properties of things and categorize them based on them, relate the classes to each other, and use that information to solve problems.
The basic component of this skill is the ability to group objects according to a common characteristic, in addition to being able to organize categories in hierarchies, that is, categories within categories.
Piaget devised three basic options that would help to understand how children develop the ability to classify objects and relate them to each other. Thus, he speaks of inclusion of classes, simple classification and multiple classification.
1. Inclusion of classes
It refers to the different ways people have to communicate, encompassing ideas and concepts within various categories, seeing how they relate or include each other.
2. Simple classification
It is about grouping a series of objects that will be joined to use them for the same purpose. For example, organize geometric figures with different shapes and colors.
3. Multiple classification
It involves grouping a series of objects working in two dimensions or features.
Seriation is the ability to mentally order elements along a quantifiable dimension, such as weight, height, size … It is for this reason that, according to Piaget, children of these ages know how to better order objects.
Piaget tested this ability through an experiment, taking a sample of children of different ages. In this experiment, I presented them with tubes of different sizes, giving them the task of ordering them from largest to smallest size.
Children between the ages of three and four had trouble ordering them, while as they got older, they had some ability to do so. At 5 certain skills were noticeable, while by 7 she seemed to know how to do the task.
Decentration is a prosocial ability, which implies that the individual has the ability to consider aspects in serious situations or conflicts in order to find a solution.
In children at the end of kindergarten and the beginning of elementary school, this ability can be found partially, since many have an arrogant and defiant attitude towards their peers. However, between the ages of 7 and 11 many already know how to control and address these issues.
As for the concept of transitivity, this is characterized by finding the relationship between two elements. The knowledge that children acquire at these ages, both at school and at home, has a lot to do with this ability, since it is what allows them to relate ideas.
For example, they are able to relate that a ball, the field, the goal and sportswear are related to the sport of soccer.
Criticisms of Piaget
Several psychologists after Piaget were critical of the findings made by the Swiss psychologist. These criticisms have focused, above all, on his statements about at what age the capacity for conservation was acquired. Among these we can highlight the following:
Rose and Blank Investigations (1974)
One of the main criticisms of conservation proposed by Piaget is related to how the researcher asked his subjects if they saw differences or not after presenting changes in the objects.
Rose and Blank, in 1974 argued that at the age of 5 it is not difficult to accidentally confuse children by asking them the same question twice. If the question is repeated, they may think that the first answer they gave the researcher was incorrect and that the adult is repeating the question, suggesting that the first thing they said was wrong and that they should give another answer.
According to Rose and Blank, this is a procedural error, and Piaget, in fact, made it. The Swiss asked the children twice, before and after the transformation. As the question was closed (is there more liquid now? Yes / no), there was a 50% chance of being right and, since 5-year-olds thought they could be wrong when answering the first time, they changed their answer.
Rose and Blank replicated this experiment, but asking the question only once, after moving the liquid from a thicker container to a slimmer one. They found that many children between the ages of 5 and 6 gave the correct answer anyway. This shows that children can understand the idea of conservation at an earlier age than that proposed by Piaget.
McGarrigle and Donaldson Study (1974)
Researchers McGarrigle and Donaldson in 1974 devised a study on conservation, in which the number of alteration was accidental.
They placed two identical rows of sweets in front of their experimental children, ages 4 to 6, checking that they saw that both were the same. Suddenly, however, an element appeared that altered the rows, a stuffed animal that we will call the mischievous Teddy. The little bear spoiled the order of one of the rows of sweets and went back to his box to hide. After this, the children were asked if there were the same number of sweets and the 4- to 6-year-olds gave the correct answer more than half the time.
This experiment suggested, once again, that Piaget’s idea that conservation was a notion acquired over 7 years was not true. Apparently, this ability was manifested by children at an earlier age, beginning at 4 years.
Dasen Study (1994)
Dasen demonstrated in 1994 that children of various cultures achieve the skills proposed for the stage of concrete operations at different ages, depending on their cultural context.
His sample consisted of Aboriginal children from remote parts of the central Australian desert, aged between 8 and 14 years.
He made them carry out the tasks of conservation of liquids and spatial awareness, finding that in this culture the capacity for conservation occurred later, between the ages of 10 and 13. Interestingly, spatial awareness skills developed earlier in Aboriginal children than in Swiss children. Thus, with this study it was shown that cognitive development was not purely dependent on maturation, but also influenced by cultural factors.
In the case of spatial awareness, it seems that this was a skill acquired early in the nomadic peoples since for them being able to orient themselves through physical space is fundamental. In the Swiss context, the acquisition of conservation between the ages of 5 and 7 seems to be caused by schooling.
- Dasen, P. (1994). Culture and cognitive development from a Piagetian perspective. In W .J. Lonner & RS Malpass (Eds.), Psychology and culture. Boston: Allyn and Bacon.
- Greenfield, PM (1966). On culture and conservation. Studies in cognitive growth, 225-256.
- McGarrigle, J., & Donaldson, M. (1974). Conservation accidents. Cognition, 3, 341-350.
- Piaget, J. (1954). The construction of reality in the child. (M. Cook, Trans.).
- Piaget, J. (1954). The child’s conception of number. Journal of Consulting Psychology, 18 (1), 76.
- Piaget, J. (1968). Quantification, conservation, and nativism. Science, 162, 976-979.
- Rose, SA, & Blank, M. (1974). The potency of context in children’s cognition: An illustration through conservation. Child development, 499-502.