Did Piaget underestimate the preoperational child?

Did Piaget underestimate the preoperational child?

Piaget describes the two- to seven-year-old preoperational child as being able to perform representational thinking, in that the child is able to produce mental images of objects and use other symbols and signs to represent objects and experiences. For example, playing “pretend” is a favorite pastime of this age group. At my church’s children ministry, my young charges often like to pretend that a particular squeaky toy that happens to have a handle is “mommy’s suitcase,” thereby using one object to represent another. However, while the capacity to utilize representations may add a dimension of logic and organization to thought processes, the child’s thinking still remains limited in its logical capabilities. Piaget characterizes the preoperational child in terms of four predominant, limiting cognitive features: “egocentrism, rigidity of thought, semilogical reasoning, and limited social cognition” (Miller, 2009). Of these four concepts, I believe that Piaget underestimated the preoperational child in terms of egocentrism and rigidity of thought.

Egocentrism is defined as the child’s inability to recognize that another person may have a different perspective than his or herself. According to Piaget, this phenomenon results as a consequence of an incomplete differentiation of self from the surrounding environment and a perception of the world solely from one’s own perspective (Miller, 2009). Piaget demonstrated this concept experimentally through the “three mountains task,” in which children are asked to examine a three-mountain model and describe what they see and what they anticipate that their peers would see if they viewed the model from a different angle. Piaget reported that the preoperational child was only successful in describing the mountain scene from his or her own perspective and could not identify what another individual would see, which he considered to be an exemplification of the child’s egocentrism (Cognitive Development).

However, upon examination of follow-up experiments—specifically, the policeman-doll task conducted by Martin Hughes—I would venture to say that Piaget overestimated the extent to which egocentrism limited a child’s thinking and underestimated the preoperational child’s ability to take on the perspective of another individual. In the policeman-doll experiment, Hughes showed the child a model with a few walls and asked the child to hide a doll from the policeman. Even when including multiple policemen in the model, 90 percent of three-and-a-half to five-year-old children were able to position the doll in a location that would be hidden from the view of both policemen (Cognitive Development). Considering that success in this task would be dependent upon the child’s ability to take into account the perspectives of both policemen, the considerable success rate of the children in completing this task is consequently indicative of the preoperational child’s ability to decenter, which signifies that the child is capable of recognizing that other people may have different perspectives and identifying what those perspectives are. Therefore, this suggests that Piaget may have underestimated the preoperational child in terms of egocentrism.

The dramatic increase in success for Hughes’ policeman-doll task, compared to Piaget’s three-mountain task, may potentially be attributed to the child’s increased understanding of the task itself. For instance, Hughes deliberately sought to ensure that the child understood the intentions and the language used in the task, while the children faced with the three-mountains task may have been confused by the language involved, which may have interfered with their ability to offer correct answers. Additionally, the three-mountains task required the children to choose the other individual’s perspective from a set of images, which may have been challenging for the preoperational child, considering it required a greater level of mental manipulation. On the other hand, the policeman-doll task allowed the children to manipulate the doll in the model in a more hands-on manner. Furthermore, having lived in an urban setting, the children were likely more familiar with the concept of walls and policemen and less familiar with mountain scenery, thereby potentially influencing their success in the task (Cognitive Development). It would certainly be interesting to evaluate whether the same children, who were unsuccessful in the three-mountains task, would successfully complete the policeman-doll task, as this would further validate Piaget’s underestimation of the preoperational child as well as implicate his methodology in that underestimation.

Miller describes the rigidity of thought as the “frozen” nature of preoperational thought, citing centration as an example. Centration is characterized by the child’s inability to take into consideration more than one dimension or characteristic of an object. According to Piaget, a consequence of the preoperational child’s inability to decenter involves their inability to understand the concept of conservation and perform reversible mental operations. Conservation involves the child’s ability to comprehend that a particular feature or identity of an object—i.e. its volume or number—may remain constant despite a transformation in appearance. For instance, in the conservation of volume task, a preoperational child would be unable to conclude that the volume of water remains constant as it is poured from a tall, skinny beaker into a short, fat beaker. Piaget attributed the child’s lack of success in conservation to both centration, which reflects the child’s inability to consider both dimensions of height and width, as well as lack of reversibility, in which the child is unable to mentally reverse the transformation he had just witnessed (Miller, 2009).

As in the three-mountain task, a misunderstanding or incomplete comprehension of the language used may have played a role in the children’s inability to provide correct answers to the questions. For instance, critics of Piaget suggest that the child may not have fully understood what the adult had meant by “more” water, whether the adult was referring to “more” in terms of width, height or volume. This misinterpretation issue is further compounded by “social expectations” that the child may have, in that the child may offer a response that he or she believes the adult expects or desires to hear, rather than describe what he or she actually thinks. Since children likely operate under the assumption that the adult has some semblance of logic or rationale behind the questions that he or she asks, the child may assume that the adult’s repeated questioning indicates that the adult may be looking for a different answer than previously given (Cognitive Development). As a result, the child’s response is colored by his or her assumptions of what the adult expects. Consequently, the preoperational child’s inability to provide correct answers to the conservation task may be attributed to these inappropriate misinterpretations rather than the child’s actual inability to decenter and adequately conserve.

Evidence that Piaget may have in fact underestimated the preoperational child’s ability to perform conservation tasks is supported by the McGarigold and Donaldson study, which sought to determine whether a child could recognize that the number of objects would be conserved despite having been spread out further. However, a key difference in this study is that the change in arrangement of the objects was a consequence of the accidental actions of “Naughty Teddy.” Interestingly, in this “Naughty Teddy” scenario, the children provided the correct answers (Cognitive Development). It is possible that the ‘accident’ perpetrated by the “Naughty Teddy” provided sufficient justification for why the adult would ask a repeated question, such that the children were able to provide earnest, unbiased answers to the questions. Therefore, this would suggest that the preoperational child is indeed capable of comprehending the concept of conservation and signifies that Piaget would have underestimated the cognitive ability of the preoperational child in this respect.

Cognitive Development [motion picture]. (1995). United States: Films Media Group.
Miller, P.H. (2009). Theories of Developmental Psychology. New York, N.Y.: Worth Publishers.

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