Cognitive development is the construction of thought processes, including remembering, problem solving, and decision-making, from childhood through adolescence to adulthood.
It was once believed that infants lacked the ability to think or form complex ideas and remained without cognition until they learned language. It is now known that babies are aware of their surroundings and interested in exploration from the time they are born. From birth, babies begin to actively learn. They gather, sort, and process information from around them, using the data to develop perception and thinking skills.
Cognitive development refers to how a person perceives, thinks, and gains understanding of his or her world through the interaction of genetic and learned factors. Among the areas of cognitive development are information processing, intelligence , reasoning, language development , and memory.
Historically, the cognitive development of children has been studied in a variety of ways. The oldest is through intelligence tests, such as the widely used Stanford Binet Intelligence Quotient (IQ) test first adopted for use in the United States by psychologist Lewis Terman (1877–1956) in 1916 from a French model pioneered in 1905. IQ scoring is based on the concept of "mental age," according to which the scores of a child of average intelligence match his or her age, while a gifted child's performance is comparable to that of an older child, and a slow learner's scores are similar to those of a younger child. IQ tests are widely used in the United States, but they have come under increasing criticism for defining intelligence too narrowly and for being biased with regard to race and gender.
In contrast to the emphasis placed on a child's native abilities by intelligence testing, learning theory grew out of work by behaviorist researchers such as John Watson (1878–1958) and B. F. Skinner (1904–1990), who argued that children are completely malleable. Learning theory focuses on the role of environmental factors in shaping the intelligence of children, especially on a child's ability to learn by having certain behaviors rewarded and others discouraged.
Piaget's theory of cognitive development
The most well-known and influential theory of cognitive development is that of French psychologist Jean Piaget (1896–1980). Piaget's theory, first published in 1952, grew out of decades of extensive observation of children, including his own, in their natural environments as opposed to the laboratory experiments of the behaviorists. Although Piaget was interested in how children reacted to their environment, he proposed a more active role for them than that suggested by learning theory. He envisioned a child's knowledge as composed of schemas, basic units of knowledge used to organize past experiences and serve as a basis for understanding new ones.
Schemas are continually being modified by two complementary processes that Piaget termed assimilation and accommodation. Assimilation refers to the process of taking in new information by incorporating it into an existing schema. In other words, people assimilate new experiences by relating them to things they already know. On the other hand, accommodation is what happens when the schema itself changes to accommodate new knowledge. According to Piaget, cognitive development involves an ongoing attempt to achieve a balance between assimilation and accommodation that he termed equilibration.
At the center of Piaget's theory is the principle that cognitive development occurs in a series of four distinct, universal stages, each characterized by increasingly sophisticated and abstract levels of thought. These stages always occur in the same order, and each builds on what was learned in the previous stage. They are as follows:
- Sensorimotor stage (infancy): In this period, which has six sub-stages, intelligence is demonstrated through motor activity without the use of symbols. Knowledge of the world is limited, but developing, because it is based on physical interactions and experiences. Children acquire object permanence at about seven months of age (memory). Physical development (mobility) allows the child to begin developing new intellectual abilities. Some symbolic (language) abilities are developed at the end of this stage.
- Pre-operational stage (toddlerhood and early childhood): In this period, which has two sub stages, intelligence is demonstrated through the use of symbols, language use matures, and memory and imagination are developed, but thinking is done in a non-logical, non-reversible manner. Egocentric thinking predominates.
- Concrete operational stage (elementary and early adolescence): In this stage, characterized by seven types of conservation (number, length, liquid, mass, weight, area, and volume), intelligence is demonstrated through logical and systematic manipulation of symbols related to concrete objects. Operational thinking develops (mental actions that are reversible). Egocentric thought diminishes.
- Formal operational stage (adolescence and adulthood): In this stage, intelligence is demonstrated through the logical use of symbols related to abstract concepts. Early in the period there is a return to egocentric thought. Only 35 percent of high school graduates in industrialized countries obtain formal operations; many people do not think formally during adulthood.
The most significant alternative to the work of Piaget has been the information-processing approach, which uses the computer as a model to provide new insight into how the human mind receives, stores, retrieves, and uses information. Researchers using information-processing theory to study cognitive development in children have focused on areas such as the gradual improvements in children's ability to take in information and focus selectively on certain parts of it and their increasing attention spans and capacity for memory storage. For example, researchers have found that the superior memory skills of older children are due in part to memorization strategies, such as repeating items in order to memorize them or dividing them into categories.
As soon as they are born, infants begin learning to use their senses to explore the world around them. Most newborns can focus on and follow moving objects, distinguish the pitch and volume of sound, see all colors and distinguish their hue and brightness, and start anticipating events, such as sucking at the sight of a nipple. By three months old, infants can recognize faces; imitate the facial expressions of others, such as smiling and frowning; and respond to familiar sounds.
At six months of age, babies are just beginning to understand how the world around them works. They imitate sounds, enjoy hearing their own voice, recognize parents, fear strangers, distinguish between animate and inanimate objects, and base distance on the size of an object. They also realize that if they drop an object, they can pick it up again. At four to seven months, babies can recognize their names.
By nine months, infants can imitate gestures and actions, experiment with the physical properties of objects, understand simple words such as "no," and understand that an object still exists even when they cannot see it. They also begin to test parental responses to their behavior, such as throwing food on the floor. They remember the reaction and test the parents again to see if they get the same reaction.
At 12 months of age, babies can follow a fast moving object; can speak two to fours words, including "mama" and "papa"; imitate animal sounds; associate names with objects; develop attachments to objects, such as a toy or blanket; and experience separation anxiety when away from their parents. By 18 months of age, babies are able to understand about 10–50 words; identify body parts; feel a sense of ownership by using the word "my" with certain people or objects; and can follow directions that involve two different tasks, such as picking up toys and putting them in a box.
Between 18 months to three years of age, toddlers have reached the "sensorimotor" stage of Piaget's theory of cognitive development that involves rudimentary thought. For instance, they understand the permanence of objects and people, visually follow the displacement of objects, and begin to use instruments and tools. Toddlers start to strive for more independence, which can present challenges to parents concerned for their safety . They also understand discipline and what behavior is appropriate and inappropriate, and they understand the concepts of words like "please" and "thank you."
Two-year-olds should be able to understand 100 to 150 words and start adding about ten new words per day. Toddlers also have a better understanding of emotions, such as love, trust, and fear. They begin to understand some of the ordinary aspects of everyday life, such as shopping for food, telling time, and being read to.
Preschoolers, ages three to six, should be at the "preoperational" stage of Piaget's cognitive development theory, meaning they are using their imagery and memory skills. They should be conditioned to learning and memorizing, and their view of the world is normally very self-centered. Preschoolers usually have also developed their social interaction skills, such as playing and cooperating with other children their own age. It is normal for preschoolers to test the limits of their cognitive abilities, and they learn negative concepts and actions, such as talking back to adults, lying , and bullying. Other cognitive development in preschoolers are developing an increased attention span, learning to read, and developing structured routines, such as doing household chores.
Younger school-age children, six to 12 years old, should be at the "concrete operations" stage of Piaget's cognitive development theory, characterized by the ability to use logical and coherent actions in thinking and solving problems. They understand the concepts of permanence and conservation by learning that volume, weight, and numbers may remain constant despite changes in outward appearance. These children should be able to build on past experiences, using them to explain why some things happen. Their attention span should increase with age, from being able to focus on a task for about 15 minutes at age six to an hour by age nine.
Adolescents, ages 12 through 18, should be at the "formal operations" stage of Piaget's cognitive development theory. It is characterized by an increased independence for thinking through problems and situations. Adolescents should be able to understand pure abstractions, such as philosophy and higher math concepts. During this age, children should be able to learn and apply general information needed to adapt to specific situations. They should also be able to learn specific information and skills necessary for an occupation. A major component of the passage through adolescence is a cognitive transition. Compared to children, adolescents think in ways that are more advanced, more efficient, and generally more complex. This ability can be seen in five ways.
First, during adolescence individuals become better able than children to think about what is possible, instead of limiting their thought to what is real. Whereas children's thinking is oriented to the here and now—that is, to things and events that they can observe directly—adolescents are able to consider what they observe against a backdrop of what is possible; they can think hypothetically.
Second, during the passage into adolescence, individuals become better able to think about abstract ideas. For example, adolescents find it easier than children to comprehend the sorts of higher-order, abstract logic inherent in puns, proverbs, metaphors, and analogies. The adolescent's greater facility with abstract thinking also permits the application of advanced reasoning and logical processes to social and ideological matters. This is clearly seen in the adolescent's increased facility and interest in thinking about interpersonal relationships, politics, philosophy, religion, and morality.
Third, during adolescence individuals begin thinking more often about the process of thinking itself, or metacognition. As a result, adolescents may display increased introspection and self-consciousness. Although improvements in metacognitive abilities provide important intellectual advantages, one potentially negative byproduct of these advances is the tendency for adolescents to develop a sort of egocentrism, or intense preoccupation with the self.
A fourth change in cognition is that thinking tends to become multidimensional, rather than limited to a single issue. Whereas children tend to think about things one aspect at a time, adolescents can see things through more complicated lenses. Adolescents describe themselves and others in more differentiated and complicated terms and find it easier to look at problems from multiple perspectives. Being able to understand that people's personalities are not one-sided or that
|source: Miller-Keane Encyclopedia and Dictionary of Medicine, Nursing, and Allied Health, 5th ed. and Child Development Institute, http://www.childdevelopmentinfo.com.|
|One month||Watches person when spoken to.|
|Two months||Smiles at familiar person talking. Begins to follow moving person with eyes.|
|Four months||Shows interest in bottle, breast, familiar toy, or new surroundings.|
|Five months||Smiles at own image in mirror. Looks for fallen objects.|
|Six months||May stick out tongue in imitation. Laughs at peekaboo game. Vocalizes at mirror image. May act shy around strangers.|
|Seven months||Responds to own name. Tries to establish contact with a person by cough or other noise.|
|Eight months||Reaches for toys out of reach. Responds to "no."|
|Nine months||Shows likes and dislikes. May try to prevent face-washing or other activity that is disliked. Shows excitement and interest in foods or toys that are well-liked.|
|Ten months||Starts to understand some words. Waves bye-bye. Holds out arm or leg for dressing.|
|Eleven months||Repeats performance that is laughed at. Likes repetitive play. Shows interest in books.|
|Twelve months||May understand some "where is...?" questions. May kiss on request.|
|Fifteen months||Asks for objects by pointing. Starting to feed self. Negativism begins.|
|Eighteen months||Points to familiar objects when asked "where is...?" Mimics familiar adult activities. Know some body parts. Obeys two or three simple orders.|
|Two years||Names a few familiar objects. Draws with crayons. Obeys found simple orders. Participates in parallel play.|
|Two-and-a-half years||Names several common objects. Begins to take interest in sex organs. Gives full names. Helps to put things away. Peak of negativism.|
|Three years||Constantly asks questions. May count to 10. Begins to draw specific objects. Dresses and undresses doll. Participates in cooperative play. Talks about things that have happened.|
|Four years||May make up silly words and stories. Beginning to draw pictures that represent familiar things. Pretends to read and write. May recognize a few common words, such as own name.|
|Five years||Can recognize and reproduce many shapes, letters, and numbers. Tells long stories. Begins to understand the difference between real events and make-believe ones. Asks meaning of words.|
social situations can have different interpretations depending on one's point of view permits the adolescent to have far more sophisticated and complicated relationships with other people.
Finally, adolescents are more likely than children to see things as relative, rather than absolute. Children tend to see things in absolute terms—in black and white. Adolescents, in contrast, tend to see things as relative. They are more likely to question others' assertions and less likely to accept facts as absolute truths. This increase in relativism can be particularly exasperating to parents, who may feel that their adolescent children question everything just for the sake of argument. Difficulties often arise, for example, when adolescents begin seeing their parents' values as excessively relative.
Cognitive impairment is the general loss or lack of development of cognitive abilities, particularly autism and learning disabilities. The National Institutes of Mental Health (NIMH) describes learning disabilities as a disorder that affects people's ability to either interpret what they see and hear or to link information from different parts of the brain. These limitations can show up in many ways, such as specific difficulties with spoken and written language, coordination, self-control, or attention. Such difficulties extend to schoolwork and can impede learning to read or write or to do math. A child who has a learning disability may have other conditions, such as hearing problems or serious emotional disturbance. However, learning disabilities are not caused by these conditions, nor are they caused by environmental influences such as cultural differences or inappropriate instruction.
As of 2004 it is widely accepted that a child's intellectual ability is determined by a combination of heredity and environment. Thus, although a child's genetic inheritance is unchangeable, there are definite ways that parents can enhance their child's intellectual development through environmental factors. They can provide stimulating learning materials and experiences from an early age, read to and talk with their children, and help children explore the world around them. As children mature, parents can both challenge and support the child's talents. Although a supportive environment in early childhood provides a clear advantage for children, it is possible to make up for early losses in cognitive development if a supportive environment is provided at some later period, in contrast to early disruptions in physical development, which are often irreversible.
When to call the doctor
If, by age three, a child has problems understanding simple directions or is perplexed when asked to do something simple, the parents or primary caregiver should consult a physician or pediatrician. The child may have a delay in cognitive development. Parents should also consult a healthcare professional if, after age three, their child's cognitive development appears to be significantly slower than their peers.
Autism —A developmental disability that appears early in life, in which normal brain development is disrupted and social and communication skills are retarded, sometimes severely.
Cognition —The act or process of knowing or perceiving.
Egocentric —Limited in outlook to things mainly relating to oneself or confined to one's own affairs or activities.
Learning disabilities —An impairment of the cognitive processes of understanding and using spoken and written language that results in difficulties with one or more academic skill sets (e.g., reading, writing, mathematics).
Metacognition —Awareness of the process of cognition.
Schemas —Fundamental core beliefs or assumptions that are part of the perceptual filter people use to view the world. Cognitive-behavioral therapy seeks to change maladaptive schemas.
Stanford-Binet intelligence scales —A device designed to measure somebody's intelligence, obtained through a series of aptitude tests concentrating on different aspects of intellectual functioning. An IQ score of 100 represents "average" intelligence.
Bjorklund, David F. Children's Thinking: Cognitive Development and Individual Differences. Stamford, CT: Wadsworth Publishing, 2004.
Pica, Rae. Your Active Child: How to Boost Physical, Emotional, and Cognitive Development Through Age-Appropriate Activity. New York: McGraw-Hill, 2003.
Thornton, Stephanie. Growing Minds: An Introduction to Children's Cognitive Development. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2003.
Wadsworth, Barry J. Piaget's Theory of Cognitive and Affective Development: Foundations of Constructivism, 5th ed. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Allyn & Bacon, 2003.
Blumberg, Fran. C., and Lori M. Sokol. "Boys' and Girls' Use of Cognitive Strategy when Learning to Play Video Games." The Journal of General Psychology (April 2004): 151–58.
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Thurber, Christopher A. "I Am. Therefore, I Think: Explanations of Cognitive Development." Camping Magazine (July-August 2003): 36–41.
Wacharasin, Chintana, et al. "Factors Affecting Toddler Cognitive Development in Low-Income Families: Implications for Practitioners." Infants & Young Children (April-June 2003): 175–81.
Zinner, Susan. "The Role of Cognitive Development in Pediatric Medical Decision-Making." Global Virtue Ethics Review (January 2004): N/A.
Cognitive Development Society. University of North Carolina, PO 3270, Chapel Hill, NC 27599. Web site: <www.cogdevsoc.org>.
National Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry. 3615 Wisconsin Ave. NW, Washington, DC 20016. Web site: <www.aacap.org>.
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Ken R. Wells
"Cognitive Development." Gale Encyclopedia of Children's Health: Infancy through Adolescence. . Encyclopedia.com. (September 20, 2018). http://www.encyclopedia.com/medicine/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/cognitive-development
"Cognitive Development." Gale Encyclopedia of Children's Health: Infancy through Adolescence. . Retrieved September 20, 2018 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/medicine/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/cognitive-development
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The development of thought processes, including remembering, problem solving, and decision-making, from childhood through adolescence to adulthood.
Historically, the cognitive development of children has been studied in a variety of ways. The oldest is through intelligence tests, such as the widely used Stanford Binet Intelligence Quotient , or IQ, test first adopted for use in the United States by psychologist Lewis Terman (1877-1956) in 1916 from a French model pioneered in 1905. IQ scoring is based on the concept of "mental age," according to which the scores of a child of average intelligence match his or her age, while a gifted child's performance is comparable to that of an older child, and a slow learner's scores are similar to those of a younger child. IQ tests are widely used in the United States, but they have come under increasing criticism for defining intelligence too narrowly and for being biased with regard to race and gender. In contrast to the emphasis placed on a child's native abilities by intelligence testing, learning theory grew out of work by behaviorist researchers such as John Watson and B.F. Skinner (1904-1990), who argued that children are completely malleable. Learning theory focuses on the role of environmental factors in shaping the intelligence of children, especially on a child's ability to learn by having certain behaviors rewarded and others discouraged.
The most well-known and influential theory of cognitive development is that of French psychologist Jean Piaget . Piaget's theory, first published in 1952, grew out of decades of extensive observation of children, including his own, in their natural environments as opposed to the laboratory experiments of the behaviorists. Although Piaget was interested in how children reacted to their environment , he proposed a more active role for them than that suggested by learning theory. He envisioned a child's knowledge as composed of schemas, basic units of knowledge used to organize past experiences and serve as a basis for understanding new ones. Schemas are continually being modified by two complementary processes that Piaget termed assimilation and accommodation. Assimilation refers to the process of taking in new information by incorporating it into an existing schema. In other words, we assimilate new experiences by relating them to things we already know. On the other hand, accommodation is what happens when the schema itself changes to accommodate new knowledge. According to Piaget, cognitive development involves an ongoing attempt to achieve a balance between assimilation and accommodation that he termed equilibration.
Piaget's stages of cognitive development
At the center of Piaget's theory is the principle that cognitive development occurs in a series of four distinct, universal stages, each characterized by increasingly sophisticated and abstract levels of thought. These stages always occur in the same order, and each builds on what was learned in the previous stage. During the first, or sensorimotor, stage (birth to 24 months), knowledge is gained primarily through sensory impressions and motor activity. Through these two modes of learning, experienced both separately and in combination, infants gradually learn to control their own bodies and objects in the external world. The ultimate task at this stage is to achieve a sense of object constancy, or permanence—the sense that objects go on existing even when we cannot see them. This developing concept can be seen in the child's keen enjoyment of games in which objects are repeatedly made to disappear and reappear.
The preoperational stage (ages two to six years) involves the manipulation of images and symbols. One object can represent another, as when a broom is turned into a "horsey" that can be ridden around the room, and a child's play expands to include "pretend" games. Language acquisition is yet another way of manipulating symbols. Key concepts involved in the logical organization of thoughts—such as causality, time, and perspective—are still absent, as is an awareness that substances retain the same volume even when shifted into containers of different sizes and shapes. The child's focus remains egocentric throughout both the preoperational and sensorimotor stages.
During the third, or concrete operational, stage (six or seven to 11 years of age), children can perform logical operations, but only in relation to concrete external objects rather than ideas. They can add, subtract, count, and measure, and they learn about the conservation of length, mass, area, weight, time, and volume. At this stage, children can sort items into categories, reverse the direction of their thinking, and think about two concepts, such as length and width, simultaneously. They also begin to lose their egocentric focus, becoming able to understand a situation from the viewpoint of another person.
The fourth, or formal operations, stage begins in early adolescence (age 11 or 12) with the development of the ability to think logically about abstractions, including speculations about what might happen in the future. Adolescents are capable of formulating and testing hypotheses, understanding causality, and dealing with abstract concepts like probability, ratio, proportion, and analogies. They become able to reason scientifically and speculate about philosophical issues. Abstract concepts and moral values become as important as concrete objects.
In the decades since Piaget's theory of cognitive development became widely known, other researchers have contested some of its principles, claiming that children's progress through the four stages of development is more uneven and less consistent than Piaget believed. It has been found that children do not always reach the different stages at the age levels he specified, and that their entry into some of the stages is more gradual than was first thought. However, Piaget remains the most influential figure in modern child development research, and many of his ideas are still considered accurate, including the basic notion of qualitative shifts in children's thinking over time, the general trend toward greater logic and less egocentrism as they get older, the concepts of assimilation and accommodation, and the importance of active learning by questioning and exploring.
The most significant alternative to the work of Piaget has been the information-processing approach, which uses the computer as a model to provide new insight into how the human mind receives, stores, retrieves, and uses information. Researchers using information-processing theory to study cognitive development in children have focused on areas such as the gradual improvements in children's ability to take in information and focus selectively on certain parts of it and their increasing attention spans and capacity for memory storage. For example, they have found that the superior memory skills of older children are due in part to memorization strategies, such as repeating items in order to memorize them or dividing them into categories.
Today it is widely accepted that a child's intellectual ability is determined by a combination of heredity and environment. Thus, although a child's genetic inheritance is unchangeable, there are definite ways that parents can enhance their children's intellectual development through environmental factors. They can provide stimulating learning materials and experiences from an early age, reading to and talking with their children and helping them explore the world around them. As children mature, parents can both challenge and support the child's talents. Although a supportive environment in early childhood provides a clear advantage for a child, it is possible to make up for early losses in cognitive development if a supportive environment is provided at some later period, in contrast to early disruptions in physical development, which are often irreversible.
Bruner, Jerome S. Studies in Cognitive Growth: A Collaboration at the Center for Cognitive Studies. New York: Wiley, 1966.
Ginsburg, Herbert, and Sylvia Opper. Piaget's Theory of Intellectual Development. 3rd ed. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1988.
Lee, Victor, and Prajna Das Gupta., eds. Children's Cognitive and Language Development. Cambridge, MA: Blackwell Publishers, 1995.
McShane, John. Cognitive Development: An Information Processing Approach. Oxford, Eng.: B. Blackwell, 1991.
Piaget, Jean, and Barbel Inhelder. The Growth of Logical Thinking from Childhood to Adolescence. New York: Basic Books, 1958.
"Cognitive Development." Gale Encyclopedia of Psychology. . Encyclopedia.com. (September 20, 2018). http://www.encyclopedia.com/medicine/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/cognitive-development-0
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See Experience, Religious: Cognitive and Neurophysiological Aspects; Neurosciences; Psychology
"Cognitive Development." Encyclopedia of Science and Religion. . Encyclopedia.com. (September 20, 2018). http://www.encyclopedia.com/education/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/cognitive-development
"Cognitive Development." Encyclopedia of Science and Religion. . Retrieved September 20, 2018 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/education/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/cognitive-development
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It does not take an expert to observe the many magnificent changes that take place in a human being from the time of birth through early childhood and beyond. Parents lovingly mark these changes in baby books and with photographs. Other relatives remark at the new abilities that babies seem to acquire daily. While parents may have just one or a few children to observe, developmental psychologists study many more. By studying many children over time, experts can chart the changes, and then begin to explain how they occur.
Overview of Cognitive Development
There are many different types of changes that occur over the course of a child's development. In general, cognitive development refers to the changes over time in children's thinking, reasoning, use of language, problem solving, and learning. The field is vast and researchers across the world study many different aspects of children's thinking at different points in development. For example, some researchers are interested in changes during infancy, such as when a baby recognizes her caregivers, remembers simple events, and understands the language spoken around her. Some researchers examine toddlers to learn how young children progress in their use of language and their understanding of the perspectives of the people around them. The early school years are studied to learn how children become more sophisticated in their ability to solve problems and use their memories. Yet others are interested in the possible changes in academic performance of school-age children and adolescents when they transition from grade school to middle school or from middle school to high school.
Although developmental psychologists begin their work by charting the changes they see in the developing human, their ultimate goal is to explain how those changes came about. This is challenging because humans are dynamic, complex beings who are shaped by different people and events. It is often difficult to draw conclusions about exactly which influences and experiences are most important for particular aspects of cognitive development. Thus, psychologists examine a variety of influences including changes in the brain, the influence of parents, the effect of a child's interaction with siblings and peers, and the role of culture. Typically, in order to accurately characterize aspects of development, psychologists must consider interactions between physiological changes in the brain and the child's social environment. For example, people often use child-directed speech when talking with young children. This type of language accentuates word boundaries and is spoken more slowly compared to adult-directed speech. This aspect of the child's environment may interact with changes in the baby's brain to help the baby comprehend the language spoken around her.
Three theories have had a substantial influence on research in cognitive development. It is important to examine these theories, and a subset of the key experimental demonstrations that support them, to understand how each perspective emphasizes different influences as critical to a child's development. Interestingly, historical trends in the field can often be explained by understanding which theory was most influential during various periods over the last half of the twentieth century.
The first major theory of cognitive development emerged during the 1950s when the work of Swiss psychologist Jean Piaget was discovered and translated. A second major theory of cognitive development, known as the sociocultural theory, can be attributed to translations of work done by Russian psychologist Lev Vygotsky, who was a contemporary of Piaget. A final important class of theories, information-processing theories, has focused on the child's ability to process information and emerges from an interaction between environmental influences and physiological changes in the child's brain. These three theoretical perspectives have been influential for more than half a century and continue to inform developmental research that is conducted in the early twenty-first century.
Piaget's Theory of Cognitive Development
Piaget is considered the father of cognitive development because his studies were the first to examine children's thinking and because he offered a comprehensive theory of how cognition changed over time. His theory of cognitive development was based on data from a series of experiments and interviews of children (including his own) that explored their thinking in a variety of contexts. Piaget's theory consisted of four stages of development from birth to adolescence: sensorimotor, preoperational, concrete operational, and formal operational.
Piaget's Four Stages
The sensorimotor stage describes the years from birth to about age two. During this time the infant learns to coordinate the visual and tactile information she receives from the world around her with her emerging motor skills. For example, the child learns that by moving her eyes she can see a different part of her world and monitor how her arms or legs are interacting with various objects. Throughout these first two years of life the infant becomes increasingly aware of the world outside of herself and develops her ability to act on it.
The preoperational stage lasts from about two years of age until about six years of age. Piaget described preoperational children as egocentric; they have difficulty seeing the world from a perspective that is different from their own. A classic illustration of this was children's performance on Piaget and Bärbel Inhelder's three mountain task. Children viewed a three-dimensional display of three mountains from a particular perspective. Each mountain was slightly different in shape and had a small distinguishing reference object on top (e.g., a church steeple). The child was asked to select a two-dimensional picture that represented what another person would see from a different vantage point. Not surprisingly, the children were unsuccessful at seeing the display from another person's perspective. They often chose the picture of the mountains as they saw them from their own perspective.
The third stage, concrete operations, lasts from about six years of age until about twelve years of age. In this stage, children become more flexible in their thinking and more able to perform concrete mental operations, such as conservation, which requires the simultaneous consideration of multiple pieces of information. In a typical task involving the conservation of liquid, water from a short, fat glass is poured into an empty glass that is tall and skinny. In order to understand that the volume of water does not change even though the level of the water does, the child must account for change in two different aspects at once: the circumference of the glass and the height of the liquid in that glass.
Piaget argued that in the formal operations stage children become even more flexible in their thinking and are able to think about the world more abstractly. During this final stage, from about twelve years of age through adolescence, children can think about hypothetical problems and give hypothetical solutions to those problems, such as how a society would maintain peace if there were no laws.
Critiques of Piaget's Theory
Piaget is widely recognized for his substantial contribution to the study of cognitive development. His experiments laid the foundation for much of the early work that examined cognitive development. During the 1970s and 1980s, however, much research questioned the timing of Piaget's stages. Because children vary widely as to when a particular stage starts or ends, it is unclear whether cognitive development occurs in stages, as Piaget's theory suggests, or whether it is a continuous process. Specifically, many researchers believe that Piaget underestimated the timing of some of children's abilities and that sometimes children understand a concept before they are able to demonstrate their understanding of it. This "competence performance gap" can occur when a child's motor skills are not advanced enough or their language skills are not sophisticated enough to indicate their knowledge and mental processes.
One example of a cognitive deficit inappropriately attributed to the preoperational stage of development involves object permanence. A child who understands object permanence realizes that an object continues to exist when it is moved out of sight. Some researchers suggest that a competence performance gap accounts for Piaget not finding evidence of object permanence in the sensorimotor stage. Piaget conducted the following experiment to examine an infant's understanding of object permanence. He showed an object such as a stuffed animal to an infant and then placed it behind an opaque screen that was in front of the infant. Piaget noticed that as soon as the object "disappeared" behind the screen the infant acted as if it had never existed and did not try to look behind the screen. Contrary to Piaget's suggestion that the infants in this study were unaware that the object still existed when it was out of view, some researchers have argued that these infants did indeed realize that the object existed, but that it was difficult for them to coordinate reaching around the screen with their memory for the object.
Researchers tested whether it was truly the difficulty of coordinating the motor skills or whether the children thought that out of sight was out of mind as Piaget had argued. Renee Baillargeon and her colleagues used a method different from Piaget's and were able to show that infants as young as four months old seemed to understand that an object that was out of sight still existed. Baillargeon used a methodology known as habituation, which exploits the tendency of infants to look at interesting displays until they become bored and look away. Thus, this method provides information about which objects in the environment capture an infant's attention without relying on their ability to coordinate motor movements. Subsequently, researchers can change a display in certain ways to examine whether the infant is sensitive to the change. Typically, a researcher records the length of time that an infant looks at the subsequent changed display. If the infant does not look at the second display for a longer amount of time than he looked at the first display, then the researcher concludes that the infant does not see this display as different from the original. If the infant does look for a longer amount of time, then it is assumed that he sees the subsequent display as novel and distinct from the first display.
To test this prediction, Baillargeon and Julie DeVos created a display that showed two events. In one display, a short carrot moved from one side of a screen to the other by passing behind an opaque screen. In the other scenario, a tall carrot passed behind the identical opaque screen. Once the infant habituated to the display, one of two different subsequent displays was shown: an "impossible" event in which the tall carrot passed behind a new screen containing a translucent window that should show the top of the carrot but did not, or a "possible" event showing the short carrot moving behind the screen where it just passed underneath the translucent window and was not seen until it came out on the other side. Because infants as young as four months looked longer at the "impossible" event than the "possible" event, Baillargeon suggested that the infants did remember the characteristics of the carrots and had expectations about whether they should appear in the window. Based on findings such as this, some researchers have argued that Piaget underestimated infants' understanding because he did not take into account the gap between the child's understanding and her ability to demonstrate that understanding. Piaget had contended that infants appear to understand object permanence at nine months old, which is when infants can coordinate their motor skills to successfully reach for a hidden object.
Piaget also seemed to underestimate children's ability to see the world from another person's viewpoint. Piaget used the three mountain task as evidence that children had difficulty taking another's perspective. The three mountain task, however, is not easy. Although the mountains are slightly different in size and have small distinguishing marks on the top, they are still quite similar in appearance. According to Helen Borke, when this task has been modified using a town scene that contains familiar animals and a number of different-shaped landmarks, children in the preoperational stage are successful at taking another person's perspective despite Piaget's contrary prediction.
During the 1980s and 1990s an area of research concerned with children's perspective-taking abilities engaged the field of cognitive development. This area focused on a child's "theory of mind," suggesting that children have theories for the way their minds work, as well as the way other people's minds work. Heinz Wimmer and Josef Perner developed a classic demonstration of children's "theory of mind." Using a task called the Maxi Chocolate Task, Wimmer and Perner told children a story about a child named "Maxi," who places a piece of chocolate in the kitchen cabinet and then goes out to play. While he is out to play, his mother moves the chocolate to another location. Later, Maxi comes home and he wants his chocolate. The test question to the child participant is, "Where will Maxi look for his chocolate?" Three-year-olds typically respond that Maxi will look for the chocolate in the second location, because they themselves know it is there and it is difficult for them to understand that their perspective is different from Maxi's. Alternatively, most four-year-olds and nearly all five-year-olds take the perspective of Maxi and answer that he will look for the chocolate in the kitchen cabinet where he left it because he does not know that his mother has moved it. Thus, contrary to Piaget's suggestion that only children between six and eight years of age will have developed a "theory of mind," this task has shown that four- and five-year-olds can take the perspective of another person.
The work examining children's "theory of mind" is one example of how cognitive development research at the end of the twentieth century and the beginning of the twenty-first century has moved away from experiments designed to test Piaget's theory. Many researchers are no longer focused on showing which Piagetian tasks can be done earlier and instead focus on providing theoretical explanations for why and when children might be successful on certain tasks. Some of these studies employ modern neuro-imaging techniques (such as positron emission tomography, functional magnetic resonance imaging, and electrical encephalographic techniques) to examine the effects of cognitive development in the brain. For example, if psychologists using these techniques can map out when the various brain structures develop during childhood, it may become possible to predict when various skills and capabilities that rely on those structures will emerge. Another burgeoning area of research in cognitive development examines the influence of culture on cognition in order to test for the universality or uniqueness of development across cultures. For example, the study of culture is critical for investigating how language and thought may affect each other, understanding why some people believe intelligence is primarily innate and others believe it is primarily the product of effort, and determining how people may solve problems differently based on their cultural norms and ideals.
Vygotsky's Sociocultural Theory
Vygotsky's theory emphasized the influence of culture, peers, and adults on the developing child. To understand this influence, Vygotsky proposed the "zone of proximal development." This zone refers to the difference in a child's performance when she attempts a problem on her own compared with when an adult or older child provides assistance. Imagine that a child is having difficulty with writing letters, and with the help of an adult who writes out sample letters or helps the child trace over letters, this same child is able to make progress. The help from the adult is called scaffolding. Just as the scaffolding of a building helps to support it, assistance from adults and peers in a child's environment helps support the child's development.
Vygotsky also discussed the importance of cultural tools to the sociocultural approach. These are items in the culture such as computers, books, and traditions that teach children about the expectations of the group. By participating in the cultural events and using the tools of the society, the child learns what is important in his culture. For example, in the United States a child attends school from about six years of age until eighteen years of age, and thus it is in school that children learn important skills such as mathematics. In some countries, such as in Brazil, however, children learn mathematics via buying and selling candy in the streets of the city.
Vygotsky believed the influence of the environment was crucial for development, whereas Piaget believed that the child's ability to independently explore her world was important. Although neither researcher emphasized the role of physiological changes in the brain and their contribution to a child's increasing ability to process information, neither would deny the significance of those changes for development. Information-processing theories attempt to account for changes in a child's cognitive ability via interactions between the developing brain and the child's increasing knowledge of the world. For example, researchers interested in these interactions may examine changes in working memory and how a child's world knowledge affects it.
Working memory (sometimes called short-term memory) is the memory that allows a person to remember a phone number that he has just looked up in the phone book. It involves mental rehearsal processes that maintain the information in memory. The capacity of young children's working memory is under debate. Early on, researchers measured the number of digits children could remember. Results from this work suggested that children had a smaller working memory capacity compared to adults. For example, participants were asked to listen to a list of single digits and repeat them back in the order they had heard them. Researchers found that adults could typically remember between five and nine digits and children typically remembered about three or four.
Despite this clear result, other researchers, such as Robbie Case, argue that the overall capacity of working memory does not change over the course of development. What changes is the child's ability to efficiently process information. For example, in order to perform well on a digit span task one has to represent the numbers in some way. Adults and older children can quickly repeat the numbers aloud or in their mind. Case, D. Midian Kurland, and Jill Goldberg found that young children take longer to repeat a number. Therefore more of the young child's resources are taken up with saying the numbers than with efficiently remembering them.
Implications of Cognitive Development for Schooling and Parenting
Research in cognitive development prompted by information-processing theories, Piaget's stage theory, and Vygotsky's sociocultural theory have not only informed the work of developmental psychologists but also proved useful in schools and to parents. For example, teacher and student understanding of the workings of memory can affect student performance in school, and teachers can use developmental research to help students become more aware of strategies that may help them improve their memory. In turn, students can enhance their "meta-memory" skills by becoming more aware of the limitations of their memory and the activities that may enhance it. For example, students can learn that repeatedly reading over their class notes does not ensure later recall of that material. Instead, mental strategies called "mnemonics" may be used to successfully learn information in a manner that promotes later recall. For example, one technique, called elaboration, involves relating the material to be learned to already known information in memory. This process, by associating new information with old information, not only helps prevent forgetting, but also increases the number of cues that may lead to later retrieval of that information.
Parents can also benefit from the knowledge gained from current and past research in cognitive development. For example, Vygotsky described parental roles as being critical in a child's development. Early on parents can provide the help that children need to develop certain culturally relevant skills. Parents' sensitivity to their child's skill level and their ability to allow the child to gradually take on more and more responsibility in a task provides an excellent way for children to learn.
Researchers in the field of cognitive development strive to describe and understand changes in children's thinking over the course of development. The work of Piaget and his stage theory of cognitive development guided much of the early work in that field. More recent investigations, however, attempt to understand the continuity of development. Researchers investigate interactions between biological and environmental variables, and thus focus on the ways in which culture, the family, the peer group, and the developing brain make complex contributions to a child's development.
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Borke, Helen. "Piaget's Mountains Revisited: Changes in the Egocentric Landscape."Developmental Psychology 11 (1975):240-243.
Case, Robbie. The Mind's Staircase. Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum, 1991.
Case, Robbie, D. Midian Kurland, and Jill Goldberg. "Operational Efficiency and Growth of Short-Term Memory Span." Journal of Experimental Child Psychology 33 (1982):386-404.
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"Cognitive Development." Child Development. . Encyclopedia.com. (September 20, 2018). http://www.encyclopedia.com/children/applied-and-social-sciences-magazines/cognitive-development
"Cognitive Development." Child Development. . Retrieved September 20, 2018 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/children/applied-and-social-sciences-magazines/cognitive-development