Classical Theories Of Cognitive Development Psychology Essay

23 Mar 2015

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There are two classical theories of cognitive development. The one that I will focus on is Piagets theory of cognitive development. He hypothesized that learning is a physical, biological function of dealing successfully with the environment (Phillips, 1998). This is the basis for his theory. Piaget's theory of cognitive development is based on two biological tendencies. The two tendencies are organisation, and adaption. Organisation as Piaget saw it, said that humans are designed to organise their observations and experiences into coherent sets of meanings (Eggen, 1999). This organisation of observation makes the thinking process more efficient. If a person can put the things they observe in some sort of order the easier it is to remember and apply their observations. Adaption according to Piaget's theory, is the tendency to adjust to the environment. Adaption is a process by which we create matches between our original observations and new ones that might not exactly fit together. Our original observations and conceptions are called our schemas. To adapt to new observations and experiences into our schemas we use one of two techniques. We can assimilate that information by putting it together with old schemas or conceptions. If the observations don't fit nicely into our existing schemas we use the second of the adaption techniques, we accommodate or change our schema to fit our observation. Piaget never said that our schemas had to be right or wrong. Our schemas are based on our own observations and experiences (Eggen, 1999). We adapt to things because we are driven by the urge to have things "fit together" or to be in what Piaget calls equilibrium. As we use our adaption and organization we constantly get things to fit together. There are other biological functions that also help in cognitive development. Normal growth of a person helps a person to adapt and perceive things better. Social interaction is also a biotic factor in cognitive development. Humans use other humans to check their own schemas with others. We learn to use others thought relationships to help them fit their schemas together better in order for us to have a better understanding of ourselves.

Piaget used the two biological tendencies and other biological functions of humans to come up with four stages of cognitive development ( Eggen, 1999). Piaget said that each developing human must go through each stage in order. The first stage is the sensory-motor stage. The approximate age of the humans in this stage is birth to 2 years. Piaget says that children learn through manipulating concrete materials. Half-way through this stage the child has the ability to know that when an object leaves their view they don't cease to exist they still are part of the physical world. This is the concept of object permanence. It also allows the child to hold a concept in their mind. The Second stage of Piaget's cognitive development is the pre-operational stage. This stage occurs from 2 - 7 years of age and in it children master many symbols and concrete concepts. In this stage the child is also very egocentric. They have a hard time looking at more than one characteristic of the object their experiencing this was tested in Piaget's experiment "the three mountains" which helped support his theory of egocentrism. The three mountains experiment was carried out by using three mountains that were coloured differently with different objects on top (snow, house, cross). A doll was placed in different positions and the child was asked what the doll would be able to see depending on which position it was placed. This experiment helped support Piaget's theory of egocentrism due to the majority of these children with their pre-operational thinking that were ever the doll was placed it would have exactly the same view point that they saw (Davenport, 1994). This was later replicated by Hughes (1978) showing that it could easily be generalised.

Hughes (1975) argued that the three mountains task did not make sense to the children and was made more difficult because the children had to match the doll's view with a photograph. Hughes devised a task which made sense to the child. He showed children a model comprising two intersecting walls, a 'boy' doll and a 'policeman' doll. He then placed the policeman doll in various positions and asked the child to hide the boy doll from the policeman. Hughes did this to make sure that the child understood what was being asked of him, so if he made mistakes they were explained and the child tried again. Interestingly, very few mistakes were made. The experiment then began. Hughes brought in a second policeman doll, and placed both dolls at the end of two walls. The child was asked to hide the boy from both policemen, in other words he had to take account of two different points of view. Hughes' sample comprised children between three and a half and five years of age, of whom 90 per cent gave correct answers. Even when he devised a more complex situation, with more walls and a third policeman, 90 per cent of four-year-olds were successful. This shows that children have largely lost their egocentric thinking by four years of age, because they are able to take the view of another. Hughes' experiment allowed them to demonstrate this because the task made sense to the child, whereas Piaget's did not.

In the third stage of Piaget's theory called the concrete-operational stage, children age 7- 11 start to think logically, learn about the law of conservation, and serial ordering. Conservation is the concept that matter is always the same despite the change in shape of an object. Serial ordering is being able to recognise that things can be put in order. Piaget thought concrete operational children had difficulty in considering ideas that were hypothetical or abstract. Piaget would asses children's thinking with conservation tasks i.e. a number of counters in a row does not change even when they are then spaced out. He concluded that pre-operational children failed at this task because they cannot conserve quantity, whereas the concrete operational children can comprehend the change.

Piaget's conservation experiments have been criticised due to his methodology he used. Rose & Blank (1974) suggested that the use of two questions may have confused his younger children participants. In the original experiments the children were shown a picture of items i.e counters lined up and then asked the same question with the counters rearranged. A pre-operational child could perceive that being asked twice then something must be different, so the answer will be not the same as before, this can affect the demand characteristics of the experiment because it can lead the child to behave in a particular way. Rose & Blank(1974) tried carrying out the experiment with just one question after they had been rearranged and discovered that pre-operational children could cope a lot better. Donaldson (1978) criticised Piaget's experiment stating that the demand characteristics of his experiment was deliberately trying to suggest to the child that the experimenter was looking for a different response. Donaldson & McGarrigle (1974) carried out a similar test using a 'naughty teddy' that would accidentally spread out one row of beads similar to Piaget's test. The results showed that children were able to conserve more resulting in them having a better performance compared to Piaget's initial task. However, more recent research has concluded that Donaldson may have been mistaken due to it being possible that the children were more absorbed in the 'naughty teddy' and didn't realise the beads had been rearranged, so still stated they were still the same number.

The fourth and final stage is the formal-operational stage. From age 12 to adult, learners are able to think abstractly about real objects. They also use reasoning and logic to think abstractly about those objects. In this highest of the stage of development learners start to use complex language forms such as metaphors. Piaget & Inhelder (1956) demonstrated this with the 'beaker problem' . Participants were given four beakers of colourless liquids and asked to find out which one will produce a yellow liquid. The younger participants tried all sorts of combinations whereas the older children took a more systematic approach until they got the correct solution. However, the results from this cannot be universal.

There are some weak points of Piaget's theory. The first is that Piaget underestimated children's capabilities. Most children move through the first two stages much faster than Piaget said they would. On the other hand the last two stages Piaget overestimated the abilities of humans to master the stage. Because of the other biological factors each child will go through each stage in their own time, so at a given age not all children are at the same cognitive stage ( Eggen, 1999).

Much of the criticism of Piaget's work is in regards to his research methods. A major source of inspiration for the theory was Piaget's observations of his own three children. In addition to this, the other children in Piaget's small research sample were all from well-educated professionals of high socioeconomic status. Because of this unrepresentative sample, it is difficult to generalise his research.

Comparison of Two Cognitive Development Theories

Cognitive development is defined as the areas of neuroscience and psychology studies, concentrating on adolescent development with special focusing on information processing, language learning, conceptual resources, perceptual skill, and brain development. Jean Piaget and Lev Semyonovich Vygotsky were two pioneers in the field of cognitive development. With this essay I will compare and contrast each theorist's views on the nature or development of intelligence. I shall also compare their views on the stages of development from birth through adolescence. And finally I will incorporate possible classroom applications of each theorist's views.

Similarities in Cognitive Development

Like Piaget, Lev Vygotsky believed that cognitive development takes place in steps that are the same for all individuals. Vygotsky theorised the first step in intellectual development is learning that action and sounds have meaning. Second, that step in cognitive development was practicing the new action or sound. And finally, using the actions and sounds to think and solve problems without the help of others, referred to by Vygotsky as self-regulation. Glassman (1999) noted that Piaget focused on the natural laws of intellectual development while Vygotsky concentrated on the impact of social processes and culture. Although both Vygotsky and Piaget recognised the importance of social interactions in cognitive development, it was Vygostsky who believed the most helpful interactions were those with peers. Piaget thought that interaction with peers encouraged disequilibrium or cognitive conflict forcing change or "development." Vygotsky theorised that language was the most important tool for development. Piaget, however, didn't think that language played a huge role. They both believed that egocentric speech is important to a child's development.

Differences in Cognitive Development

While Piaget believed that intellectual development was highly personal, and that individuals learned from experiences rather than the teaching of concepts and thought processes, Vygotsky believed that learning development was a social process directly linked to the teaching of information, and that learning proceeded development. Vygotsky theorised that language was the key to cognitive development, and learning was influenced by the culture of the individual. He believed that a child first incorporated the speech of others into their personal knowledge and practices it, known as private speech, and later they used this "private speech" in efforts to solve tasks. Vygotsky redefined this theory into what we now know as The Zone of Proximal Development. (ZPD) defines intellectual development as the ability to use thought to control our own actions, but first we must master cultural communication systems, and then use these systems to regulate our thought processes. Children learning with in the (ZPD) work on tasks that they could not complete alone, but were able to finish with the help of and competent instructor. These teachable moments demonstrate Vygotsky's theory that learning proceeded development, and that cooperative learning promotes advance learning. His theory defined language as a way to pass on cultural values and that teaching language was the medium needed to develop cognitive thought processes.


Piaget's theory indicates that children progress intellectually through four stages of development: Sensorimotor, Pre-operational, Concrete Operations and Formal Operations. At each one of these levels, Piaget posited, there were different challenges that the child needed to deal with. He also indicated that unless the child mastered the tasks in one stage, he or she could not master the tasks in other stages. There are problems that are inherent in all theories which posit "stages" of development. Development does not occur in discrete stages - it occurs whenever the environment places increased demands and/or provides less support to the individual. In our society, it simply appears that we all tend to place these demands on children at around the same time - this makes it appear that we are witnessing "stages" of development.

Zimmerman conducted a series of various studies beginning around the 1960's and up until today demonstrating that if the environment placed certain demands, then children would surpass what was expected of them. Baillargeon et al (1985), in the 'drawbridge' study; a coloured box was placed in the path of the drawbridge. In the possible event, the drawbridge stopped at the point where its path would be blocked by the box. In the impossible event, the drawbridge appeared to pass through the box and ended up lying flat, the box apparently having disappeared.

Baillargeon found that infants spent much longer looking at the impossible event. She concluded that this indicated surprise on the infants' part and that the infants were surprised because they had expectations about the behaviour of physical objects that the impossible event had violated. In other words, the infants knew that the box still existed behind the drawbridge and, furthermore, that they knew that one solid object cannot just pass through another. The infants in this study were five months old, an age at which Piaget would say that such knowledge is quite beyond them. Infants could identify, to a reasonable degree, events which violated the laws of physics, even though, Piaget noted that infants at the "sensorimotor" stage could not do so.

Another critique, according to Das Gupta & Bryant (1988). Children were able to follow simple transformations, even though; Piaget noted that children at the "pre-operational" stage could not do so. Hughes (1978) noted that children were able to take the perspective of multiple people even though; Piaget noted that children at the "pre-operational" stage could not do so.

Light, Buckingham & Robbins (1979) found that when children were taught to pay attention to the concrete properties of an event (e.g., pouring liquids into different sized beakers), then they were able to do so, even though, Piaget noted that children at the "pre-operational" stage could not do so this contradicted Piaget as he was instrumental in getting people to think about children as individuals who are developing. However, children develop in radically different ways.

Applied to Education

To apply Piaget's theory in the classroom, we should remember the student's developmental level and gear our teaching toward that. To have infant children thinking abstractly is impossible. They would never completely understand the concept because they are not ready developmentally. Since Piaget's theory revolves around the biological adaption to environment we need to teach so that students can see relationships between concepts. One way to do those in elementary schools is to teach with thematic units. This lets the students relate all subjects together through the main theme.

Piaget suggested that learning should be supported by material, experiences and suggestions which are appropriate for the child's level of development (Montessori, 1912). For example, according to Piaget's theory, 5 and 6 six-year-olds will find it easier to understand the concept of addition if they are given objects to manipulate (perhaps using counters to add up numbers) than if they just see numbers written down. According to Piaget, what children can learn is determined by their current level of cognitive development. This prediction has had little support, some attempts have been made to teach concrete operations to preschool children but was unsuccessful as the standard age is 7.

According to Piaget, children learn best in active self-discovery. They learn best in their active involvement with the world around them. Teachers can encourage this by creating a state of disequilibrium, in which the child's existing schemas or cognitive structures are shown to be inadequate. Disequilibrium can be created by asking children difficult questions, and by encouraging them to ask questions. Doise & Mugny (1984) argued that cognitive development involves the resolution of socio-cognitive conflict, which is produced by exposure to the differing views of others. This was supported by Ames & Murray (1982), in a study of children aged 6-7 who had failed on conservation tasks. Some children were given corrective feedback, and others were exposed to children who already knew about conservation. Still others were paired with children who had also failed to conserve, but who had provided a different wrong answer from theirs. Children in the last condition showed the greatest improvement in ability to conserve.

A major weakness of Piagets work to education is that it only focuses on mathematical or logical principles so it does not allow for other topics i.e. history, languages etc. Vygotsky's key contribution to educational practice was the notion that children typically learn best in a social context in which someone who is more knowledgeable carefully guides and encourages their learning efforts. Thus, children can be regarded as apprentices who are taught the necessary skills by those already possessing them by means of scaffolding (Wood et al, 1976). His approach can explain cultural differences because it is based on the social context. However, one might expect learning to be much faster than it is if all that was required was the guidance of experts. Through Vygotsky's theory the child can learn better because of peer tutoring, collaboration with others, play as it involves cultural activities (Bennett & Dunne,1991).

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