The term “stage” appears to be used in three general senses in theories of behavioral development: (a) as a metaphor: (b) as a description of behaviors that undergo age change; (c) as an explanation of age-related changes in behavior. Although most existing stage models are purely descriptive, a few of them purport to have explanatory power. One such model, Piaget's stages of cognitive development, is considered in this paper.
To be viewed as potentially explanatory, a stage model must describe some behaviors that undergo age change, posit antecedent variables believed to cause the changes, and provide procedures whereby the behavioral changes and the antecedent variables can be independently measured. Piaget's stages seem to satisfy some but not all of these requirements. Piaget's stages describe many agerelated changes in behavior, and some antecedent variables have been proposed. However, procedures do not exist for measuring the two factors independently. In lieu of such procedures, Piaget has outlined a “program” of five empirical criteria whereby the reality of his stages can ostensibly be verified. Some objections to these criteria are considered.
The five criteria in Piaget's program are invariant sequence, cognitive structure, integration, consolidation, and equilibration. Three of the criteria (invariant sequence, integration, and consolidation) lead to the same sorts of empirical predictions (culturally universal sequences in the acquisition of certain behaviors). Such predictions are subject to the objection that Piagetian invariant sequences are often measurement sequences. A measurement sequence is said to occur when some late-appearing behavior consists of some earlier-appearing behavior plus additional things. The cognitive structure criterion is subject to at least three criticisms: First, it yields, at most, descriptions of behavior; second, these are often nothing more than descriptions of task structure; third, they cannot be regarded as unique to the given stages for which they are posited. The fifth criterion, equilibration, generates some predictions that might be considered as prima facie evidence for the existence of stages. However, these predictions conflict with the current data base on Piaget's stages.
It is concluded that there is no compelling support for Piaget's hypothesis that his cognitive stages do more than describe age-related changes in behavior. Since explanatory statements involving stages appear with some regularity in Piagetian and neo-Piagetian writings, there are grounds for supposing this conclusion to be nontrivial.