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University of Wyoming


Theory of Intellectual Development: Genetic Epistemology

Learning | History | Tenets | Roles


Genetic epistemology is primarily interested in how knowledge developed in human organisms. The theory considers how children (and adults) come to know their world.

Assumptions about Learning:

After many years of observing children, Piaget concluded that intellectual development is the result of the interaction of hereditary and environmental factors. As the child develops and constantly interacts with the world around him or her, knowledge is invented and reinvented. He saw cognitive growth as an extension of biological growth and as being governed by the same laws and principles (London, 1988). He argued that intellectual development controlled every other aspect of development - social, emotional, moral.

Brief History:

Over a period of six decades, Jean Piaget conducted a program of naturalistic research that has profoundly affected our understanding of child development. Piaget had a background in both Biology and Philosophy and concepts from both these disciplines influenced his theories and research of child development. He called his general theoretical framework "genetic epistemology" because he was very interested in knowledge and how children come to know their world. He developed his cognitive theory by actually observing children (some of whom were his own children). Using a standard question or set of questions as a starting point, he followed the child's train of thought and allowed the question to be flexible. Piaget believed that children's spontaneous comments provided valuable clues to understanding their thinking. He was not interested in a right or wrong answer, but rather what forms of logic and reasoning the child used (Singer, 1978).

Major Proponents:

Proponents include but are not limited to childhood education. The question of whether the adult learner continues to progress through various stages of cognitive learning is of great interest to research. This research is based on the concepts Piaget developed.

Major Tenets:

Piaget discovered that children think and reason differently at different periods in their lives. He believed that everyone passed through an invariant sequence of four qualitatively distinct stages. Invariant means that a person cannot skip stages or reorder them. Although every normal child passes through the stages in exactly the same order, there is some variability in the ages at which children attain each stage.

The four stages are

  1. sensorimotor: birth to 2 years,
  2. pre-operational: 2 years to 7 years;
  3. concrete operational: 7 years to 11 years; and
  4. formal operational (abstract thinking): 11 years and up.

Each stage has major cognitive tasks which must be accomplished

  • In the sensorimotor stage (0-2 years), intelligence takes the form of motor actions.
  • Intelligence in the pre-operational period (3-7 years) is intuitive in nature and involves the mastery of symbols.
  • The cognitive structure during the concrete operational state (8-12 years) is logical but depends upon concrete referents. In the concrete stage, children learn mastery of classes, relations, and numbers and how to reason.
  • In the final stage of formal operations (12-15) years, thinking involves abstractions.

Intellectual growth involves three fundamental processes:

  1. assimilation,
  2. accommodation, and
  3. equilibration.
  • Assimilation involves the incorporation of new events into preexisting cognitive structures.
  • Accommodation means existing structures change to accommodate to the new information. This dual process, assimilation and accommodation, enables the child to form schema.
  • Equilibration involves the person striking a balance between him/herself and the environment, between assimilation and accommodation.

When a child experiences a new event, disequilibrium sets in until he is able to assimilate and accommodate the new information and thus attain equilibrium. For Piaget, equilibration is the major factor in explaining why some children advance more quickly in the development of logical intelligence than do others (Lavatelli, p. 40)

Role of the Learner:

Learning and thinking must involve the participation of the learner. Knowledge is not merely transmitted verbally but must be constructed and reconstructed by the learner. The child must act on objects and it is this action which provides knowledge of those objects (Sigel, 1977); the mind organizes reality and acts upon it. The learner must be active; the learner is not a vessel to be filled with facts.

Role of the Teacher:

  • Teachers should be able to assess the child's present cognitive level; their strengths and weaknesses.
  • Instruction should be individualized as much as possible and children should have opportunities to communicate with one another, to argue and debate issues.
  • Teachers are facilitators of knowledge - they are there to guide and stimulate the students.
  • They should allow children to make mistakes and learn from them.
  • The teacher should assist students to construct their own meaning by encouraging them to experiment on their own rather than listening to the teacher lecture.
  • The teacher should present students with materials and situations and occasions that allow them to discover new learning.

In his book To Understand Is To Invent Piaget said the basic principle of active methods can be expressed as follows: "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" (p. 20). In active learning, the teacher must have confidence in the child's ability to learn on his or her own.


Brainerd, C. J. (1978). Piaget's theory of intelligence. New Jersey: Prentic- hall, Inc.

Evans, R. (1973). .Jean Piaget: The man and his ideas. New York: E.P. Duttor. & Co., Inc.

Lavatelli, C. (1973). Piaget 's theory applied to an early childhood curriculum. Boston: American Science and Engineering, Inc.

London, C. (1988). A piagetian constructivist perspective on curriculum development. Reading Improvement, 27, 82-95.

Piaget, J. (1972). To understand is to invent. New York: the Viking Press, Inc.

Singer, D. & Revenson, T. (1978). A piaget primer: How a child thinks. New York: International Universities Press, Inc.