Cognitive development in science: novices and experts

Do all students think about the world in the same way? The video below shows how cognitive ability can vary with age according to the Piagetian stage theory of cognitive development proposed back in the 1950s. Piaget proposed  that these cognitive stages followed some biologically inevitable course of development that was predictable by age. Today, however, it is generally accepted that although these stages are broadly true, they are better interpreted in terms of specific alternative conceptual frameworks and novice-expert shifts. What’s important is not the age of the student, but whether they have the necessary prerequisite knowledge to master the subsequent concepts.

The four proposed Piagetian stages of cognitive development

  1. Sensorimotor (0-2yrs)
  2. Preoperational (2-7yrs)
  3. Concrete operational (7-11yrs)
  4. Formal operational (11-adulthood)

Piaget recognised that children must be presented with an experience that challenges their current understanding if they are to move through the stages and construct new understanding. This ‘surprise’ or cognitive conflict will help children progress their thinking as they reorganise their mental structures to accommodate the new information. Conceptual change through cognitive conflict can be a power tool in the science teacher’s arsenal, but misconceptions are remarkably resistant to change and so multiple attempts will probably be required.

Cognitive Development through Science Education (CASE)

Let’s think is the new platform to access resources from the original Cognitive Acceleration through Science Education (CASE) project at King’s College London, led by Michael Shayer and the late Philip Adey. These resources use a constructivist approach that focuses on questioning, collaborative work, problem solving, independent learning, metacognition and challenge. There is also an excellent video here on how to implement CASE in the classroom. A recent evaluation of CASE by the EEF showed the intervention to have no measurable impact on student attainment.

Further reading
  • Adey, P. and M. Shayer (1990). “Accelerating the development of formal thinking in middle and high school students.” Journal of Research in Science Teaching 27(3): 267-285.
  • Glaser, R., & Chi, M. T. (1988). Overview. In The Nature of Expertise (pp. xv-xxvii). Hillsdale: Erlbaum.
  • Piaget, J. and Cook, M.T. (1952). The origins of intelligence in children, WW Norton & Co.
  • Willingham, D. T. (2008, Summer). What is Developmentally Appropriate Practice? American Educator, pp. 34-39


  1. Big ideas of science education
  2. Challenge
  3. Deep learning and making meaning
  4. Diagnostic teaching
  5. Knowledge versus understanding
  6. Misconceptions
  7. Motivation
  8. Novices and experts
  9. Progression
  10. Zooming in and out