Developmental Theory

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historical overview
maureen kessenich
frederick j. morrison

cognitive and information processing
jeffrey bisanz
elaine ho
melissa kachan
carmen rasmussen
jody sherman

evolutionary approach
david c. geary

vygotskian theory
m. susan burns
elena bodrova
deborah j. leong


Developmental psychology attempts to understand the nature and sources of growth in children's cognitive, language, and social skills. Within that context, there are four central themes that are unique to a developmental perspective and that bear on issues in childhood education. The first is the role of nature versus nurture in shaping development. Specifically, developmentalists want to know the contribution of genetic or maturational influences on development as well as the role played by environmental experiences. One important educational issue related to this topic is the question of whether a child's en-trance age, or maturational level, is important for school success. For this and other important educational questions, nature and nurture interact in complex ways to shape a child's academic growth.

The second question focuses on whether children's growth proceeds in a continuous or more stage-like fashion. Stage theories, such as those proposed by Jean Piaget, Erik Erikson, and Sigmund Freud, contend that development progresses through maturationally determined stages. While this perspective underscores the contributions of both biology and the environment, a greater emphasis is placed on a maturationally predetermined progression through a fixed developmental sequence. Many researchers and theorists dispute such a rigid, step-like theory of development, emphasizing instead a more continuous, gradual process influenced equally by both brain maturation and environmental stimulation. Two important educational questions relevant to this issue are the extent to which children can be taught particular concepts or skills prior to entering a given developmental stage, and whether concepts learned in one domain are automatically transferred to other similar domains as a child reaches a new developmental stage.

A distinct but related theme centers on the existence of critical or sensitive periods in human development. A critical or sensitive period is defined as a time of growth during which an organism is maximally responsive to certain environmental or biological events. Critical periods emphasize the interaction of both nature and nurture, with environmental experiences (nurture) activating biologically programmed (nature) developmental changes, or, conversely, biologically determined changes enabling an organism to assimilate certain environmental experiences. In terms of language development, educators often wonder whether there is a critical or sensitive period during which children should learn a second language. While certain components of language, such as phonological processing, are believed to be constrained by sensitive periods in development, other elements of language, such as vocabulary, clearly evolve over the lifespan.

The final theme concerns the importance of early experience in shaping later growth and development. Developmental scientists such as Mary Ainsworth, Alan Sroufe, and Freud emphasize the significance of early attachment and emotional conflict in predicting later psychological adjustment. It is argued that early risk factors have a more permanent influence on the course of development than later experiences. Early negative circumstances such as family conflict and social disadvantage have been linked to later delinquent behavior and school failure. Nevertheless, many children display resilience in the face of such early adverse social and environmental conditions. Thus, it is the cumulative impact of both early and later experiences that determines a child's developmental outcome. Children's literacy development, for example, is a product of both early experiences, such as parentchild book reading, as well as later experiences, such as reading instruction in school.

Modern developmental theory centers on these four central issues. An in-depth examination of these topics within a historical context will provide a more comprehensive understanding of developmental theory and its relevance for educational policies and practices.

Nature Versus Nurture

Philosophers and psychologists have debated the relative roles of nature and nurture in human development for centuries. The seventeenth-century English philosopher John Locke described a young child's mind as a tabula rasa (blank slate) upon which the child's experiences are written. Jean-Jacques Rosseau, an eighteenth-century French philosopher, also argued that human development was primarily a function of experience. He believed in the existence of a natural, unspoiled state of humankind that is altered and corrupted by modern civilization. In contrast, nineteenth-century scientists such as Gregor Mendel, Charles Darwin, and Sir Francis Galton highlighted the importance of heredity in shaping development. While all of these scientists provided meaningful insights into the role of heredity and the environment, modern researchers have sought to further explore the dynamic interactions between nature and nurture that shape human development.

The twentieth century saw the evolution of various theories of development that differentially emphasized the role of biological versus environmental factors. These theories can be classified according to four major developmental frameworks: (1) environmental learning (empiricism), (2) biological maturation (nativism), (3) cultural context, and (4) constructivist.

The environmental-learning framework, best exemplified by the behaviorist theories of John B. Watson and B. F. Skinner, underscores the paramount importance of empirical learning in development. According to behaviorist theories, learning is characterized as the process by which an organism's behavior is shaped by experience. While environmental-learning theorists do not completely discount the role of innate factors, they argue that it is the external environment that has the greatest influence on development.

Biological-maturationist theories represent the opposing swing of the theoretical pendulum. This framework posits that biologically and genetically predetermined patterns of change have a greater impact on development than environmental influences. During the early twentieth century, theorists such as Freud and Arnold Gessell proposed that experiential influences were secondary to innate maturational mechanisms. This perspective regained popularity in the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries as a result of major advances in genetic research, as well as the introduction of twin studies and behavioral genetics. Researchers such as Robert Plomin, Noam Chomsky, and Steven Pinker assert that human characteristics such as personality, intelligence, and language acquisition are, to a great extent, genetically grounded and maturationally controlled.

The cultural-context perspective of psychologists such as Lev Vygotsky and Barbara Rogoff contends that while both biological and experiential factors exert important influences on development, such factors are filtered through an individual's social and cultural context. Lev Vygotsky believed that the activities, symbols, and customs of particular social groups are formed by the collective social, cultural, and historical experiences of their ancestors. Through influences on social customs and practices, parenting, and the environment, culture shapes children's cognitive, language, and social development. For example, children's academic performance has been found to vary cross-culturally, as demonstrated by studies showing that Asian immigrant children outperform their white peers in the United States, as well as the black-white test score gap.

Finally, the constructivist, or interactionist, approach stresses the balanced interaction of nature and nurture in forming the foundation for developmental change. In such a framework, both genetics and environment play an important role, and it is the dynamic relations among such internal and external influences that ultimately shape development. Piaget's theory of cognitive development asserts that children construct their knowledge based on the combination of input received from both maturational and environmental sources. Theorists such as Richard Lerner, Gilbert Gottlieb, Esther Thelen, and Linda Smith have taken this conceptualization one step further with the introduction of dynamic systems theories, which emphasize that the source of developmental change is in the process of bidirectional interaction among complex environmental and biological systems.

Frederick Morrison and colleagues have explored one facet of the nature-nurture question relevant to education by examining the importance of entrance age, or maturation level, on school readiness and academic growth. They found that younger first graders benefited as much from instruction in reading and math as older first graders, and that the younger students made significantly more progress than older kindergarteners of essentially the same age. Thus, entrance ageor maturation levelis not an important indicator of learning or academic risk.

The dispute over the relative importance of nature and nurture in children's development has endured for several centuries, and will no doubt continue to divide theorists for a long time to come. Increasingly, however, developmental scientists are concluding that, for most human characteristics, nature and nurture are inextricably linked and interact in complex ways to shape human growth.

Stages in Development

According to Piaget's stage theory, children progress through a sequence of qualitative transformations, advancing from simple to more complex levels of thought. Piaget believed these transformations to be universal, innately programmed shifts in a child's perception and understanding of the world. He proposed four main stages of cognitive development: sensorimotor, preoperational, concrete operational, and formal operational.

The transition from preoperational to concrete operational thought, at about five to seven years of age, corresponds with entry into formal schooling. While children in the preoperational stage are able to internally represent reality through the use of symbols such as language and mental images, concrete-operational children move beyond this simple mental representation of objects and actions and are able to logically integrate, order, and transform these objects and actions. For instance, because preoperational children cannot integrate information about height and width simultaneously, they are unable to recognize that water poured from a short, wide container into a tall, narrow container represents the same volume of water. Yet once they reach the age of reason, their maturational level converges with their accumulated experiences to facilitate a qualitative shift toward concrete operational thinking.

In addition to Piaget's stage theory of cognitive development, several others have proposed stage theories of psychosexual/personality development (Freud), psychosocial/identity development (Erikson), moral reasoning (Lawrence Kohlberg), and social development (Theory of Mind). These theories claim that children proceed through universal, age-specific stages of growth. Yet not all psychologists agree with such a rigid, step-like representation of development. Recently, neo-Piagetian theorists such as Kurt Fischer, Robbie Case, Annette Karmiloff-Smith, and others have attempted to reconcile the variability and domain-specificity observed in children's cognitive growth with Piaget's static stage theory.

In general, the neo-Piagetian perspective expands upon Piagetian theory by asserting that, while some general constraints or core capacities are hard-wired at birth, learning and experience lead to variation and domain-specificity in the acquisition of knowledge and skills. Cross-cultural studies have shown that varying cultural experiences result in the acquisition of different, contextually relevant skills. For example, children from a Mexican village known for its pottery-making learn conservation of solids (e.g., the fact that a ball of clay has the same mass even when it is molded into a long, thin roll) before conservation of number, which is generally mastered first in formally schooled children. Thus, most neo-Piagetians believe that while learning is constrained by innate mechanisms or information processing capacities, it proceeds in an individualized, domain-specific manner.

The question of whether certain knowledge or skills can be acquired before a child has reached a specified stage of development has also been addressed by neo-Piagetians. Renee Baillargeon conducted experiments with young infants and found that they recognize properties of object permanence prior to reaching that designated Piagetian stage of development. In addition, researchers have demonstrated that children can be taught concrete-operational concepts even before they have formally reached that stage of cognitive understandingthough these children are unable to transfer such knowledge outside the context of the testing situation.

Other theorists construe development as a constructive web (Kurt Fischer) or as a series of overlapping waves (Robert Siegler), rather than a sequence of qualitatively distinct steps. They recognize that cognitive development is the result of gradually acquired skills and abilities that build upon each other. Siegler, in particular, emphasizes the overlapping use of progressively more advanced strategies in the acquisition of skills such as addition. He found that children learning addition use various strategies in "overlapping waves," such as finger counting, verbal counting in their head, the Min strategy (taking the larger of two numbers as a base and adding the smaller number to it) and, eventually, retrieval from memory. They gradually move from using easier, less efficient strategies to more difficult, but more efficient, strategies.

The neo-Piagetian view resembles the information-processing perspective in that both contend that cognitive development is limited by general constraints that are hard-wired at birth. Information-processing researchers such as Robert Kail, Wolfgang Schneider, and David Bjorklund argue that children's learning is restricted by the broad processing capacities of the brain, which improve with age. This perspective regards development as a more gradual, continuous process that evolves as children's processing speed or capacity for holding information increases. Thus, the step-like progression of development is rejected for a more linear representation.

Critical Periods

A critical, or sensitive period is defined as a period of time in development when a particular environmental experience or biological event has its greatest influence. Evidence demonstrates that some physiological and psychological processes are constrained by critical periods.

The existence of sensitive periods in children's psychological development has been noted in aspects of language acquisition. Children deprived of verbal stimulation during the first few years of life are severely impaired in their capacity to learn language and have great difficulty acquiring normal language later on. In addition, while young infants are able to distinguish among the variety of phonemes present in all human languages, after about six months of age the infant's knowledge becomes more focused, and they are only able to discriminate between the various phonemes in their own native language. Consequently, infants can learn any language that they are exposed to, yet it is more difficult for an older child or adult to completely master a non-native or secondary language.

Taken together, such information lends support to the argument that the first few years of life represent a sensitive period for certain aspects of language development. However, the fact that children continue to benefit from exposure to new vocabulary, semantics, and grammatical rules well into elementary school and beyond leads researchers to question whether all language learning is restricted by a sensitive period. During the first few years of life, children's brains grow and become more organized, specialized, and efficient. Yet brain growth and development does not end at three years of age, but rather continues throughout childhood, benefiting from the effects of schooling and other environmental stimulation. Thus, the question of when educators should teach children a second language depends on the components of language being considered (e.g., phonology, semantics, vocabulary, grammar) and the level of proficiency desired.

Another area of development believed to be constrained by a sensitive period is attachment. Psychologists such as John Bowlby, Ainsworth, Sroufe, Erikson, and Freud contend that children's early attachment to their primary caregiver (e.g., mother, father) during the first few years of life sets the foundation for their later socioemotional development. Research conducted by Harry Harlow on infant monkeys found that those deprived of maternal attachment prior to six months of age had a more difficult time recovering socially than those deprived of maternal contact after six months of age, thus lending support to the existence of a critical period for social development in monkeys. Yet many "natural experiments" looking at orphan children who have been deprived of adequate affection and sensitivity from a primary caregiver have found that, if removed from such a socioemotionally impoverished environment and placed in a loving adoptive home, most children are able to recover socially, emotionally, and cognitively. Thus, while early experiences can and do have an impact on later development, children often demonstrate resilience in response to adverse early experiences.

Early Experience

Early experience is the consummate critical period. During the broad social reform of the late 1800s, scientists in the newly evolving field of developmental psychology brought attention to the harmful effects of child industrial labor and validated the importance of a healthy and nurturing environment for promotion of normal development. Throughout the twentieth century, psychologists such as Bowlby, Freud, Erikson, and Sroufe have stressed the profound importance of early socioemotional experiences on later psychological outcomes. In addition, scientists and policymakers have recognized the importance of early intervention programs, such as Head Start, that seek to enrich the cognitive development of socially disadvantaged children. During the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries, public interest and government policy has advocated even earlier interventions, focusing on zero to three as the most important age range on which to concentrate resources. Yet, as theorists such as John Bruer argue, the importance of the first three years of life has reached "mythical" proportions. According to Bruer, it is important to recognize the cumulative nature of development, emphasizing both early and later experiences in shaping children's growth.

Evidence from researchers such as Baillargeon and Susan Rose has demonstrated that cognitive skills begin to develop very early in life, and that these skills follow rather stable trajectories over time. Such findings suggest that children's developmental course begins to solidify before they enter formal schooling, and even before they utter their first words.

A problem of particular interest is the poor state of literacy in America, and the impact of early experiences on literacy development. The amount of cognitive enrichment, verbal stimulation, and book reading, for example, that children are exposed to at an early age is predictive of later literacy skills. Research conducted by Betty Hart and Todd Risley (1995) found a wide range of variability in young children's vocabulary skills as early as two years of age, and this variability was highly correlated with the number of words spoken by their parents. Socioeconomically disadvantaged toddlers were exposed to a substantially lower number of words per day as compared to toddlers from professional families. It is clear from such research that children's early experiences can lead to striking differences among children from enriching versus impoverished environments. Furthermore, studies have shown that the achievement gap between low- and high-performing children widens once children enter school.

With respect to socioemotional development, psychologists such as Freud, Sroufe, Bowlby, Erikson, and Mary Main have claimed that children's early attachment relationships with their primary caregivers lay the foundation for later social functioning. Researchers have found that securely attached children are more cooperative with their mothers, achieve higher cognitive and academic scores, are more curious, and maintain better relationships with teachers and peers, as compared to insecurely attached children. Taken together, such research affirms the impact of early attachment and socioemotional experiences on later psychosocial and cognitive development.

While early risk factors such as poor attachment and socioeconomic disadvantage can have long-term effects on children's cognitive, academic, social, and emotional development, children do demonstrate varying levels of vulnerability and resilience toward such early conditions. Differences in temperament and coping abilities, for example, can moderate the degree to which a child's early experiences forecast their later developmental outcomes. Furthermore, while there is ample evidence that early experiences have a substantial effect on later cognitive and social outcomes, the real question is whether early experiences are any more important than later experiences. Growing evidence suggests that it is the cumulative effects of both early and later experiences that define an individual's trajectories later in life.

In summary, developmental theory pursues four central themes: (1) the importance of nature versus nurture, (2) stages in development, (3) the existence of critical or sensitive periods, and (4) the impact of early experience. Significant progress has been made over the last thirty years on each of these topics, resulting in a more complex view of human psychological growth and the forces that shape it. With regard to educational practice, modern developmental theory stresses that rigid notions of genetic determinism, stages, critical periods, or the lasting impact of early experience are being replaced by more flexible views that emphasize the malleability of human nature and its potential for change.

See also: Developmental Theory, subentries on Cognitive and Information Processing, Evolutionary Approach, Vygotskian Theory.


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Bolby, John. 1988. A Secure Base: Parent-Child Attachment and Healthy Human Development. New York: Basic Books.

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Thelen, Esther, and Smith, Linda. 1998. "Dynamic Systems Theories." In Handbook of Child Psychology Vol. 1: Theoretical Models of Human Development, 5th edition, ed. William Damon and Richard M. Lerner. New York: Wiley.

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Maureen Kessenich

Frederick J. Morrison


Cognitive development typically refers to age-related changes in knowledge and acts of knowing, such as perceiving, remembering, problem solving, reasoning, and understanding. The development of cognition is studied most frequently in infants, children, and adolescents, where changes often are relatively rapid and striking. Many researchers also study cognitive development in aging adults, in children and adults during recovery of function following brain damage, and in a variety of species other than humans. Since the 1890s, when researchers such as James Mark Baldwin and Alfred Binet established cognitive development as a substantive area of inquiry, two overlapping goals have been evident. One goal is to provide insights into how complex, organized knowledge systems develop, an issue with a long history in philosophy and science. The other goal is to provide insights into optimizing human development, especially with respect to education. Researchers have adopted many different theoretical approaches to the study of cognitive development over the past 100 years, and they continue to do so. During the latter part of the twentieth century a relatively new approach, information processing, gained a degree of ascendancy because of its potential for providing rich insights into how cognition develops and how instruction might be improved.

Assumptions and Findings

In the 1950s and 1960s researchers began to notice similarities between human thinking and the new computers of that era, which could manipulate not only numbers but also a variety of nonnumeric symbols. Allen Newell and Herbert Simon were among the first to suggest that humans and computers could both be viewed as general symbol manipulators, and that knowledge of computers could be used as a metaphor for exploring human cognition. The argument that emerged was not that humans are computers, but rather that computers could be used as a source of ideas about how human cognition works and also as a tool for expressing ideas about how humans process information mentally. Information-processing studies of cognition and its development began to flourish in the 1960s and 1970s.

Information processing is not a theory of cognition but rather a general framework that comprises a family of theories sharing certain core assumptions. One assumption is that all cognitive activities involve mental processes that operate over real time on internal, symbolic representations of information. That is, information of all sortsincluding the words on this page, memories of past events, knowledge about friends or world events, and abstract concepts such as "justice"are all coded as mental representations with certain structural properties.

When one sees a painting for the first time, for example, perceptual processes code new sensory information and may also create more elaborate representations of what is seen. Memory processes store these representations and also retrieve previously developed representations that can be useful for interpreting the painting. Problem-solving and reasoning processes operate to help understand the artist's intent in creating the painting. From an information-processing view, one does not simply experience the painting. Instead, one is engaged in a series of events in which mental representations are created and manipulated by processes operating over time. Information-processing researchers seek to identify these processes and representations and to understand their properties. Researchers therefore focus less on whether children solve problems correctly and moreon how problems are solved. This approach has led to a rich set of findings about the skills and knowledge children acquire on specific tasks in such domains as reading, mathematics, and scientific thinking.

A second assumption is that these processes and representations exist within an organized system with definable properties and constraints. An important goal of research is to define the cognitive architecture, that is, the general structural characteristics of the information-processing system. For example, the amount of information that can be activated at any one time is limited, as is often evident when people try to remember new telephone numbers or solve difficult problems. This phenomenon is often interpreted in terms of working memory, an important, limited capacity system for manipulating information. Research on working memory has revealed the operation of three interacting components: a phonological loop for storing speech-basedinformation; a visual-spatial sketchpad for storing visual information; and an executive system for combining information from various sources to solve problems and create plans. New research, such as that reported in 2000 by Susan E. Gathercole and Susan J. Pickering, is beginning to link developmental change and individual differences in cognitive performance to changes in these components of working memory. Another constraint on cognitive processing is the speed at which processes operate. In general, faster processing speed should enable more competent performance on particular tasks. Not only does general processing speed increase from early childhood through adolescence, but as researcher Robert Kail reported in 1991, it does so at a consistent and well-defined rate of change. The reasons for this phenomenon still are not understood.

A third assumption is that cognitive development occurs via self-modification of the information-processing system. Although environmental events critically influence development, the mechanisms by which the information-processing system changes over time are assumed to be internal to the system itself. A number of such mechanisms have been proposed. For example, as children develop some processes become automatized in the sense that they are executed more rapidly and with less demand on limited attentional capacity than earlier in development. According to some theories, increasing automatization allows children to operate at higher levels of complexity and flexibility. Knowledge modification processes, such as generalization and discrimination, operate to create more powerful and accurate processes and representations. A critical task for developmental theorists is defining a cognitive architecture and self-modification mechanisms that, together, can account for the striking changes in thinking that emerge as children develop.

Information-processing theories of development differ significantly from other approaches in fundamental ways. They are not phenomenological because they are not limited to conscious experience, and they are not neurological in that they do not rely on neural or biochemical mechanisms as explanations. They differ from traditional stimulus-responses theories because of their emphasis on detailed descriptions of mental processes and representations that interact over time. Unlike structural theories, such as that of Jean Piaget, the focus is on very specific processes and representations that underlie performance. Information-processing theories often can be amalgamated to some extent with these other approaches, however. In contemporary neuroscience research, for example, information-processing concepts, such as working memory and processing speed, are often used to explore relations between brain and behavior.


The assumptions of information processing have led researchers to adapt or create methods appropriate for identifying processes, representations, and characteristics of cognitive architecture. Given the emphasis on temporal properties of processes, researchers have developed highly specialized, chronometric methods for measuring the speed of particular mental processes. With rule assessment, tasks are structured so that patterns of responses can be used to identify particular processes and decision rules. Protocol analysis is used to examine verbal self-reports, provided by participants as they solve problems, for evidence about solution procedures, internal representations, and processing constraints. When applied to the study of development, these methods need to be used carefully so that they are equally sensitive to important aspects of performance at different developmental levels.

Information-processing researchers also have adopted a number of distinctive methods for illustrating or representing their theories. Because of the emphasis on specific processes and their organization, flow charts and diagrams often are used to indicate how processing is structured. Some researchers take a more formal approach: They implement their theories of cognitive development as computer programs. To the extent that the programs mimic children's behavior and development, researchers receive some support for the veridicality of their theory. If, however, the program crashes, then clearly the theory is lacking.

Educational Implications

Ideally, educational assessment would provide specific insights about how to adapt instruction to individual children so as to optimize learning. In principle, information processing should provide a basis for assessing specific strengths and weaknesses and for identifying specific processes and representations that can be targeted for instruction. Teachers want their students to answer problems correctly, but measuring achievement only in terms of correct answers can be misleading: Often children can answer a problem correctly but for the wrong reasons, or incorrectly but for reasons that make sense. More important than answering correctly, in terms of educational goals, are whether students use appropriate solution strategies and whether they understand what they are doing. The value of information-processing research for education lies in its inherent distinction between the products of children's thinking (i.e., whether children solve problems correctly) and the processes (i.e., how problems are solved). Research on the development of school-related knowledge and skills is beginning to yield impressive advances.

In studies of young children's arithmetic, for example, researchers have identified a wide range of solution procedures, correct and incorrect, that children use to solve problems. To account for how children select among these procedures, how procedures change as children gain experience, and how some new procedures arise, Robert S. Siegler and Christopher Shipley (1995) developed an information-processing model that includes assumptions about an associative memory for number facts, a memory system for recording the results of past solutions, and a system for deciding whether and how to apply particular procedures. This model accounts extremely well for some aspects of children's development in arithmetic, and it has some specific instructional implications. For example, according to this model, associating problems and correct solutions is critical for later development of efficient solution procedures. Discouraging children from counting accurately with their fingers may increase the chance of incorrect associations developing and thus delay the use of more advanced procedures. The model is far from complete, but it provides a coherent basis for analyzing how children solve arithmetic problems, how and why change occurs, and how instruction might be adapted to the needs of individual children.

Similar progress has been made in other areas. Reading, for example, is a complex skill consisting of numerous components, and information-processing methods have been useful for identifying and measuring these components. One such component is phonological awareness, which includes the ability to identify and manipulate phonemes. Lynette Bradley and Peter E. Bryant (1983) found that instruction designed to enhance phonological awareness in young children strongly and positively influences the rate at which they become effective readers. Problem solving is critical to success in many academic domains. Amarjit S. Dhillon (1998) studied the behavior of experts and novices as they solved physics problems and found that their strategies could be analyzed in terms of fourteen processes or activities. Experts and novices differed systematically in the use and sequence of these activities, a finding that provides insights into understanding students' knowledge in terms of specific concepts and procedures. The results of this research were used to develop problem-solving instruction for high school and university students.

Aside from its use in specific academic domains, information processing also has provided a basis for assessing broad intellectual skills. A new generation of tests is emerging that are constructed so that children's performance can be interpreted in terms of relatively specific processing skills that, in principle, may be amenable to targeted instruction. One example is the Cognitive Assessment System (CAS), developed by Jagannath P. Das and Jack A. Naglieri, in which tasks from information-processing research have been adapted to measure four aspects of processing (planning, attention, simultaneous processing, and successive processing) that are emphasized in a comprehensive theory developed by the neuropsychologist Aleksandr Luria. Because of the links between theory and measures, the CAS has proved useful in interpreting performance for children with or without learning disabilities and for developing specific instructional interventions.


Information processing is by no means the only approach for studying cognitive development, but its assumptions and methods have proved helpful in exploring the many ways in which children's thinking changes with development. Its greatest utility to date has been in studying task-specific or domain-specific processes and representations. It has been applied with somewhat less success to domain-general characteristics of development, as well as to topics such as motivation and affect that are critical to understanding development and optimizing education. At this point, it is not clear whether these apparent deficiencies are inherent to information processing or whether they are simply a result of how information-processing concepts and methods have been applied to date. The information-processing approach is challenged by connectionist and dynamic systems theories that do not share the assumptions about symbolic representations and discrete processes; by ecological theories that focus on environmental factors and their structure; by neuroscientific theories that provide explanations in terms of neural functioning and neuroanatomy; and by traditional theories, such as those of Jean Piaget and Lev Vygotsky, in which a more general level of analysis and explanation is emphasized. The extent to which information processing succeeds will depend, in part, on the extent to which its practitioners can adapt to accommodate these challenges and contribute to research that enriches educational assessment and instruction.

See also: Learning; Taxonomies of Educational Objectives.


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Jeffrey Bisanz

Elaine Ho

Melissa Kachan

Carmen Rasmussen

Jody Sherman


The English naturalist Charles Darwin's principles of natural selection provide the theoretical foundation for the biological sciences and are frequently used to address issues in the medical and social sciences. Evolutionary theory can also be used to understand human development in general and children's academic development in particular.

Life History

Biologists study development by documenting species' life history. Life history refers to the typical ages associated with developmental milestones, such as length of gestation, age of weaning, and life span. Certain life history patterns have been found in many different species. For instance, a long developmental period is common for species that have large brains and sophisticated cognitive skills, and live in complex social groups. The implication is that the demands of living in a complex social world resulted in evolutionary expansions of the developmental period and brain size, and resulted in more complex social-cognitive abilities. The larger brain supports complex social-cognitive abilities, such as language in humans. The long developmental period allows the individual to engage in activities that refine social and other (e.g., foraging) skills.

Human life history. The same life history perspective has been applied to human development and is understood in the context of hunter-gatherer societies, that is, societies that are similar to those in which humans evolved. In these societies, there are five distinct periods in the human life cycle. Infancy is the time of breast-feeding, and lasts until the age of three years. Childhood begins with weaning and lasts until age seven. During this four-year span, children are still heavily dependent on parents, but are becoming increasingly independent. Juvenility ranges from seven years until the onset of puberty, which often does not occur until the mid-teens in hunter-gatherer societies. Adolescence is the time of physical maturation, and adulthood is the period of mature reproductive activities. These include finding a mate and providing for the well-being of children. Each of these periods is characterized by different social relationships and degree of cognitive maturity.

Social development. Social relationships in infancy and childhood function to allow normal physical development (e.g., rapid brain development) and to reduce mortality risks. In hunter-gatherer societies, a high percentage (50%) of children die before reaching juvenility. Social relationships and other activities during juvenility involve a preparation for later survival-related (e.g., hunting) and reproductive activities. Social relationships in adolescence and adulthood are focused more directly on survival and reproduction.

The primary relationship during infancy and childhood is between the child and his mother, although the father is also heavily involved in some cultures. The nature of this relationship is termed attachment. Attachment-related behaviors, such as separation anxiety, keep the child close to his parents and thus safe. Play becomes an important activity during childhood, and models adult activities, as in play parenting. During juvenility, the focus of social relationships shifts from parents to peers. Peer relationships mirror and thus provide a context for practicing adult social activities. As an example, boys engage in play fighting and organize themselves into large groups that then compete against other groups of boys. These activities result in the practice and refinement of the social and cognitive skills associated with primitive warfare.

Adolescence is defined by the physical changes that prepare the individual for reproductive activities, such as bearing children or competing for mates. During this time, juvenile play activities become increasingly adult-like. Early adulthood is the reproductive period and in hunter-gatherer societies usually begins in the late teens for girls and a few years later (sometimes much later) for boys. In hunter-gatherer societies, many men will have more than one wife and thus continue to reproduce into old age. Older women, in contrast, focus their activities on raising their later-borne children and investing in the well-being of grandchildren.

Cognitive development. In hunter-gatherer societies, people have to learn how to deal with other people; use the local ecology to find food and medicine; navigate from one place to another; and use tools. The cognitive skills that allow people to engage in social activities and maintain relationships are called folk psychology. These skills include language, understanding body language and facial expressions, as well as theory of mind. Theory of mind is the ability to make inferences about what other people are thinking or feeling and predicting their later behavior. The cognitive skills that allow people to understand the behavior, growth patterns, and potential uses of plants and animals for food and medicine are called folk biology.Folk physics includes the ability to move about in the physical environment, remember the location of things in the environment, and know how to use objects as tools.

The basic skeletal knowledge that supports these cognitive abilities appears to be innate, but must be fleshed out during development. Infants, for instance, automatically attend to human voices and faces, and toddlers easily learn human language through innate brain and cognitive systems that guide children's attention to other people and process social information (e.g., language sounds). However, these brain and cognitive systems are immature, and require extended exposure to language, human faces, and so forth to develop appropriately. Children's play and other activities, such as exploration of the environment and objects, provide the experiences needed to flesh out these innate skeletal systems. The result is an elaboration of the systems that support folk psychology, folk biology, and folk physics. The elaboration results in the adaptation of these brain and cognitive systems to local conditions, such as the local language and the plants and animals in the local ecology.

Implications for Education

The folk psychological, biological, and physical knowledge that emerges through an interaction between innate brain and cognitive systems on the one hand and children's play and exploration on the other is not sufficient for living in industrial societies. In industrial societies, schools exist to facilitate the acquisition of competencies, such as reading, that are essential for living in these societies, but are not part of our evolutionary heritage. Several educational issues arise from this perspective.

Academic development. The evolved cognitive competencies that comprise folk psychology, biology, and physics are called biologically primary abilities, and skills that build upon these primary abilities but are principally cultural inventions, such as reading, are biologically secondary abilities. The mechanisms by which evolved systems are adapted to produce secondary competencies are not yet fully understood, but involve, in part, co-opting primary systems for secondary learning, and access to knowledge built into primary systems.

As an example of co-opting, consider the relation between language, a primary ability, and reading, a secondary ability. The acquisition of reading-related abilities, such as word decoding, involves co-opting language and language-related systems, among others (e.g., visual scanning). The result is that these systems can be used for purposes for which they were not designed. For instance, individual differences in the sensitivity of kindergarten children's phonological processing systems, which are part of the language domain, are strongly predictive of the ease with which basic reading skills are acquired in first grade. In other words, the evolutionary pressures that selected for phonological processing, such as the ability to segment language sounds, were unrelated to reading, but these systems are used, or co-opted, when children learn how to read.

As an example of using implicit knowledge for secondary learning, consider that the development of geometry may have been initially based on access to knowledge built into the primary navigation system. In cataloging the basic principles of classical geometry, Euclid started with self-evident truthsimplicit navigational knowledgeand then proceeded to prove the rest by logic, that is, by means of fundamental theorems. For example, the implicit understanding that the fastest way to get from one place to another is to go "as the crow flies," was made explicit in the formal Euclidean postulate, "a line can be drawn from any point to any point," that is, a line is a straight line. The former reflects an evolved but implicit understanding of how to quickly get from one place to another and is knowledge that is built into the brain and cognitive systems that support navigation. The latter was discovered, that is, made explicit, by Euclid. Once explicit, this knowledge was integrated into the formal discipline of geometry and became socially transmittable and teachable.

Motivation to learn. Another implication of the evolutionary perspective is that the motivation to acquire school-taught secondary abilities is based on the requirements of the wider society and not on the inherent interests of children. Given the relatively recent advent of near-universal schooling in contemporary societies, there is no reason to believe that all children are inherently motivated to acquire the skills that are taught in school, nor is school learning likely to be inherently interesting or enjoyable. Stated differently, an important difference between primary and secondary abilities is the level and source of motivation to engage in the activities needed for their acquisition.

This does not preclude the self-motivated engagement in some secondary activities. Many children and adults are motivated to read. The motivation to read, however, is driven by the content of what is being read rather than by the process itself. In fact, the content of many stories and other secondary activities (e.g., video games) appears to reflect evolutionarily relevant themes that motivate engagement in these activities, such as social relationships and social competition. Furthermore, the finding that intellectual curiosity is a basic dimension of human personality suggests that there will be many intellectually curious individuals who will pursue secondary activities. Euclid's investment in formalizing the principles of geometry is one example. However, this type of discovery typically reflects the activities and insights of only a few individuals, and the associated advances spread through the larger society only by means of informal (e.g., newspapers) and formal education. The point is, the motivation to engage in the activities that will promote the acquisition of secondary abilities is not likely to be universal.

Instructional activities. The basic brain and cognitive systems that support the acquisition of primary abilities are inherent, and children are inherently motivated to seek out experiences, through social play, for example, that ensure the appropriate fleshing out and development of these systems. In contrast, there is no inherent structure supporting the acquisition of secondary abilities, nor are most children inherently motivated to engage in the activities that are necessary for secondary learning. Although this conclusion might seem self-evident, it runs counter to many assumptions about children's learning in contemporary education; for example, that children are inherently motivated to learn secondary abilities and will do so through activities that involve play and social discourse.

Thus, from the evolutionary perspective, one essential goal of schooling is to provide content, organization, and structure to the teaching of secondary abilities, features that have been provided by evolution to primary abilities. It cannot be assumed that children's inherent interests (e.g., social relationships) and preferred learning activities (e.g., play) will be sufficient for the acquisition of secondary abilities. Instruction must often involve engaging children in activities that facilitate the acquisition of secondary abilities, whether or not children would naturally engage in these activities. This does not mean that play and social activities cannot be used to engage children in some forms of secondary learning. It does, however, mean that it is very unlikely that the mastery of many secondary domains (e.g., reading or algebra) will occur with only these types of primary activities. In fact, research in cognitive and educational psychology indicates that some forms of secondary learning will require activities that differ from those associated with fleshing out primary abilities. These would include, among others, direct instruction, where teachers provide the goals, organization, and structure to instructional activities and explicitly teach basic competencies, such as how to sound out unfamiliar words or manipulate algebraic equations. In closing, the evolution of brain, cognition, behavior, and motivation has profound but largely unrecognized implications for educational theory and practice.

See also: Child Development, Stages of Growth.


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David C. Geary


Lev Semenovich Vygotsky was born 1896 in Orsha (in what is now Belarus), and grew up in Gomel in a prosperous Jewish family in the western provinces of the Russian Empire. His higher education was at Moscow University, despite the fact that in Russia under Czar Nicholas II there were strict laws limiting how many Jewish people could receive advanced degrees. His university studies focused on medicine, and later law. In addition, he studied in an independent university majoring in philosophy and history. After working as a schoolteacher and then as an instructor in a teacher training college, Vygotsky turned to psychology. His career as a psychologist spanned just ten years, ending with his death in 1934. In that time Lev Vygotsky produced about one hundred books and papers, many of which have only recently been published and translated into English. At the time of his death, Lev Vygotsky's work included numerous powerful ideas, however, many were not fully developed and some were even speculative. His students, including most notably Alexander Luria, Alexei Leontiev, Daniel Elkonin, and Alexander Zapororzhets, and others (in Russia and throughout the world) have been responsible for further elaborating many of the ideas of his initial papers.

In the last decade, the intellectual climate of educational theory in the United States has had been dramatically influenced by the work of Lev Vygotsky. His work was first introduced to the West in 1962 through the translation of Thought and Language. Many Westerners learned about the basic ideas of cultural-historical theory from Mind in Society, edited by James Wertsch and published in 1978. This brief entry presents the major ideas pioneered by Vygotsky and successors, along with an overview of contemporary Vygotskian educational efforts taking place in Russia and the United States.

Vygotsky's theory is known in the West as sociocultural, although Vygotsky himself and his close colleagues preferred to describe it as culturalhistorical, emphasizing the dual focus of this theory: the history of human development and the cultural tools that shape this development. At the core of this theory is Vygotsky's belief that human developmentchild development as well as the development of all humankindis the result of interactions between people and their social environment. These interactions are not limited to actual people but also involve cultural artifacts, mainly language-based (written languages, number systems, various signs, and symbols). Many of these cultural artifacts serve a dual purpose: not only do they make possible the integration of a growing child into the culture but they also transform the very way the child's mind is being formed. Vygotsky refers to these as special cultural tools, acquisition of which extends one's mental capacities, making individuals the master of their own behavior. In the course of child development, a child typically learns how to use these cultural tools through interactions with parents, teachers, or more experienced peers. As a result of using these toolsfirst in cooperation with others and later independentlythe child develops higher mental functions: complex mental processes that are intentional, self-regulated, and mediated by language and other sign systems. Examples of these higher mental functions include focused attention, deliberate memory, and verbal thinking. According to Vygotsky, although all human beings are capable of developing these functions, the particular structure and content of higher mental functions depend on specific social interactions, as determined by culture in general and by each person's unique social situation of development.

Of all the processes involved in acquisition of mental tools, Vygotsky focused primarily on the use of language (it was through the work of his colleagues and students that acquisition of non-verbal mental tools was studied). For him, language is both the most important mental tool and a medium facilitating the acquisition of other mental tools. One of the best-known concepts that illustrates Vygotsky's view of language is the concept of private speech. Private speech, or self-talk, originates in social speech, the initial form of speech that is directed to other people. Although it retains the audible characteristic of social speech, private speech changes its function. It now becomes speech directed to oneself rather than speech that is regulated or directed by a more capable person. Noticing that children tend to increase the amount of self-talk when facing more challenging tasks, Vygotsky hypothesized that at some point, they start using private speech to organize (plan, direct, or evaluate) their behaviors. The use of private speech peaks during preschool years and then decreases. Vygotsky associates this decrease with private speech turning first into inner speech and then into verbal thinking. This evolution of speechfrom social to self-directed to internalizedexemplifies the path of all higher mental functions, which was described by Vygotsky in his "law of the development of higher mental functions." According to this law, each higher mental function appears twice in the course of child development: first as shared or carried out by an individual jointly with other peopleintersubjective and then as appropriated or internalized by this individual and used independentlyintrasubjective.

Vygotsky's view of child development and education is an extension of his general approach to the development of higher mental functions. Consistent with his definition of development as socially determined, Vygotsky introduced a new relationship between education, learning, and development. Vygotsky argued against the theorists who believed that child development occurs spontaneously and is driven by the processes of maturation and cannot be affected by education. Neither did he agree with those who claimed that instruction could alter development at any time regardless of a child's age or capacities. Instead, he proposed a more complex and dynamic relationship between learning and development that is determined by what he termed a child's zone of proximal development (ZPD).

Vygotsky's theory is based on the idea that learning can lead development, and development can lead learning, and this process takes place through a dynamic interrelationship. The ZPD is the area between a learner's level of independent performance (often called developmental level) and the level of assisted performancewhat the child can do with support. Independent performance is the best the learner can do without help, and assisted performance is the maximum the learner can achieve with help. By observing assisted performance one can investigate a learner's potential for current highest level of functioning. ZPD reveals the learner's potential and is realized in interactions with knowledgeable others or in other supportive contexts (such as make-believe play for preschool children). By providing assistance to learners within their ZPD we are supporting their growth.

Through identification of a learner's ZPD, teachers find out what knowledge, skills, and understandings have not yet surfaced for the learner but are on the edge of emergence. Teachers also study ways to engage the learner in shared or co-operative learning experience through participation in the learner's ZPD. This involves doing more than completing a task in a combined fashion; it involves developing the learner's higher mental functions, such as the ability to plan, evaluate, memorize, and reason. In How Children Think and Learn (1998), David Wood points out: "By reminding children we are helping them to bring to mind and exploit those aspects of their past experience that we (as experts) but not they (as novices) know to be relevant to what they are currently trying to do" (p. 97).

Applications in Contemporary Russia

Examples of work being done in contemporary Russia within Vygotsky's cultural-historical paradigm are too numerous to be listed in a short article. One could say that most of Vygotsky's ideas, suppositions, and insights were further elaborated upon, verified in empirical studies, and often implemented into practical applications. Some of these ideas became starting points to new theories such as the theory of periods in child development developed by Daniel Elkonin, based on Vygotsky's ideas of psychological age and leading activity. Other theories developed by Vygotsky's colleagues and students can be better described as Vygotsky-inspired in a broader sense rather then purely Vygotskian. Among these are Alexei Leont'ev's activity theory and Piotr Gal'perin's theory of step-by-step formation of mental actions. Common features of most of these theories can be traced back to Vygotsky; these include beliefs in social and cultural determination of child development and in the power of education to shape this development. Because of these assumptions, post-Vygotskians were generally successful in implementing their theoretical principles in classroom practice to create innovative educational programs. Examples of those include a number of preschool and kindergarten curricula based on theories of Alexander Zaporozhets and his student Leonid Venger and the system of "developmental education" based on the work of Daniel Elkonin and his student Vasili Davidov, which has been implemented in curricula for school-aged children from primary grades through high school.

Applications in the United States

As mentioned above, this entry focuses on just a couple of examples of Vygotsky-inspired educational work in the United States. For more perspectives, see the work of Michael Cole and colleagues in The Construction Zone: Working for Cognitive Change in School, and Roland G. Tharp and Ronald Gallimore's 1988 book, Rousing Minds to Life: Teaching, Learning and Schooling in Social Context. The following are descriptions of two examples: Tools of the Mind, which is an early childhood education program, and Reciprocal Reading, used with older children.

Tools of the mind. This first example might be considered a transitional model. Though the work is being developed in the United States, one of the lead authors is Russian and has worked at the Institute of Preschool Education with Lev Vygotsky's student Alexander Zaporozhets. Elena Bodrova and Deborah Leong have developed an early childhood education model titled, Tools of the Mind (1996, 2001). The model has a Vygotskian theoretical basis: development cannot be separated from its social context; learning can lead development; language plays a central role in mental development; teaching should provide organized experiences that are in advance of a child's independent functioning but still remain within the child's ZPD; and teachers should encourage (and even create) opportunities for problemsolving. Implemented in Head Start, preschools, and kindergartens, the program focuses on play, the leading activity of this age. In addition, there are a number of activities designed to promote symbolic representation and self-regulation, such as play planning using Scaffolded Writing, and specially designed artifacts or tools, including the Sound Map, the purpose of which is to support young children in their beginning efforts to spell.

Reciprocal listening/reading. A second program motivated by the work of Lev Vygotsky and developed in the United States is reciprocal listening/reading, which was introduced in the mid-1980s by Annemarie Sullivan Palincsar and Ann Brown. It is a strategy for teaching reading comprehension that addresses children's need to examine the background of a text and particular words while learning to monitor their own reading process. Children are taught to interact with text and as a result to regulate their own thinking about the text as they read and listen (when being read to).

The ties of this program to Vygotsky lie in the belief that development of complex comprehension strategies has to start in a cooperative activity (intersubjective) and then move inward for use by a student (intrasubjective). Reciprocal teaching provides guided practice in the use of four strategiespredicting, question generating, summarizing, and clarifyingthat are designed to enhance children's ability to construct the meaning of text. These strategies for interacting with the text are most often used automatically and soundlessly by readers and listeners. In reciprocal reading and listening, the strategies are vocalized and made available to other learners. To engage in reciprocal teaching dialogues, the children and their teacher read a piece of common text. This reading may be done as a read-along, a silent reading, or an oral reading, depending on the decoding abilities of the children and the level of the text. The children and the teacher take turns leading the discussion of segments of the text, using strategies to support their discussion. The teacher uses the strategies and the children are encouraged to play the "teacher role" and to interact with the text. Children then learn new ways of interacting with the text by implementing these previously unobserved strategies and being an integral part of what is being taught in their role as "teacher." Following Vygotskian theory, the children begin to internalize the processes until they become an automatic part of their internal reading and listening comprehension activities. An ultimate purpose of the discussion is the application of the strategies for the purpose of coming to a shared sense of the meaning of the text at hand.

See also: Learning; Vygotsky, Lev.


Bodrova, Elena, and Leong, Deborah J. 1996. Tools of the Mind: The Vygotskian Approach to Early Childhood Education. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Merrill.

Bodrova, Elena, and Leong, Deborah J. 2001. Tools of the Mind: A Case Study of Implementing the Vygotskian Approach in American Early Childhood and Primary Classrooms. Geneva, Switzerland: International Bureau of Education, United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization.

Elkonin, Daniel. 1977. "Toward the Problem of Stages in the Mental Development of the Child." In Soviet Developmental Psychology (1971), ed. Michael Cole. White Plains, NY: M.E. Sharpe.

Gal'perin, Piotr Yakovlevich. 1969. "Stages of Development of Mental Acts." In A Handbook of Contemporary Soviet Psychology, ed. Michael Cole and Irving Maltzman. New York: Basic Books.

Leont'ev, Alexei. 1977. Activity, Consciousness, and Personality. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall.

Newman, Denis; Griffin, Peg; and Cole, Michael. 1989. The Construction Zone: Working for Cognitive Change in School. Cambridge, Eng.: Cambridge University Press.

Palincsar, Annemarie Sullivan, and Brown, Ann L. 1984. "Reciprocal Teaching of Comprehension Fostering and Monitoring Activities." Cognition and Instruction 1 (2):117175.

Palincsar, Annemarie Sullivan; Brown, Ann L.; and Campione, Joseph C. 1993. "First-Grade Dialogues for Knowledge Acquisition and Use." In Contexts for Learning: Sociocultural Dynamics in Children's Development, ed. Ellice Forman, Norris Minick, and C. Addison Stone. New York: Oxford University Press.

Tharp, Roland G., and Gallimore, Ronald. 1988. Rousing Minds to Life: Teaching, Learning and Schooling in Social Context. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Vygotsky, Lev Semenovich. 1962. Thought and Language (1934), trans. Eugenia Hanfmann and Gertrude Vokar. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Vygotsky, Lev Semenovich. 1978. Mind in Society: The Development of Higher Psychological Processes, ed. James V. Wertsch. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

Vygotsky, Lev Semenovich. 1983. Sobranie sochinenii: Tom tretif. Problemy razvitya psikhiki (Collected works: Vol. 3. Problems of mental development). Moscow: Izdatel'stvo Pedagogika.

Vygotsky, Lev Semenovich. 1993. The Collected Works of L. S. Vygotsky, Vols. 1 and 2. New York: Plenum Press.

Wertsch, James V., ed. 1984. Culture, Communication and Cognition: Vygotskian Perspectives. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Wood, David. 1998. How Children Think and Learn: The Social Contexts of Cognitive Development, 2nd edition. Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishers.

M. Susan Burns

Elena Bodrova

>Deborah J. Leong

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