Theories of Cognitive Development
10 Developmental Psychology
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Theories of cognitive development look at how our patterns of thinking, reasoning, remembering, and problem solving change as we grow. Most developmental theories focus on infancy, childhood, and adolescence.
Jean Piaget’s Theory of Cognitive Development
Swiss psychologist Jean Piaget developed a stage theory of cognitive development based on decades of careful observation and testing of children. His theory has been very influential because Piaget recognized that children think differently than adults do. He thought that certain cognitive structures were innate, but only through a child’s interaction with the environment could they grow and develop over time.
Piaget believed that all knowledge begins with building blocks called schemas, mental representations that organize and categorize information processed by our brain. Through the process of assimilation, we fit new information into our existing schemas. Through the process of accommodation we modify our schemas to fit new information. As babies, we learn through accommodation that not all people fit our schema of mommy see the table 10.1.
Table 10.1 Jean Piaget’s Stages of Cognitive Development
Sensorimotor (First) Stage
Piaget called the first stage of cognitive development, from birth to approximately age 2, the sensorimotor stage, during which the baby explores the world using his or her senses and motor interactions with objects in the environment. The concept of object permanence—that objects continue to exist even when out of sight—to Piaget seemed to develop suddenly between 8 and 10 months. Piaget said that the 5-month-old who sees a toy does not search for it if it disappears, but a 9-month-old does. Recently, psychologists have found that object permanence seems to develop gradually; young infants gaze where they saw a toy that disappeared. According to Piaget, infants at about 8 months of age also seem to develop stranger anxiety, fear of unfamiliar people, indicating that they can differentiate among people they know and people they don’t know.
Preoperational (Second) Stage
To Piaget, attainment of object permanence and stranger anxiety indicated that cognitive structures had matured sufficiently for the typical 2-year-old to represent and manipulate objects with symbols such as words, whether or not the objects were present, which characterizes Piaget’s second stage, the preoperational stage. From approximately age 2 to age 7, language develops with the ability to think. The child is mainly egocentric, seeing the world from his or her own point of view. Egocentrism is consistent with a belief called animism, that all things are living just like him or her and the belief, called artificialism, that all objects are made by people. While preoperational, a child uses trial and error to figure out how things work and answers questions intuitively rather than logically. He or she sometimes demonstrates magical thinking, reasoning that something happens because he or she wishes it to happen.
Concrete Operational (Third) Stage
During Piaget’s third stage, the concrete operational stage, children between ages 7 and 12 develop simple logic and master conservation concepts, in which changes in the form of an object do not alter physical properties of mass, volume, and number. For example, 12 ounces of juice in a tall, thin glass isn’t more than 12 ounces of juice in a short, fat glass. The child now can logically classify objects into categories mentally. Mathematically and logically, the concrete operational child recognizes reversibility (transformations), for example, that 3 + 4 = 4 + 3.
Formal Operational (Fourth) Stage
According to Piaget, after about age 12, children reason like adults in the fourth stage, the formal operational stage. In this stage, youngsters are able to think abstractly and hypothetically. They can manipulate more information in their heads and make inferences they were unable to make during the previous stage. Teens are able to consider questions involving abstract concepts, such as truth and justice. Some believe that the ability to think abstractly decreases in older adults partially because these skills are not utilized as often.
Piaget emphasized that increases in reasoning skill over time were punctuated by shifts in perspective, which were qualitative from one stage to the next. For example, in moving from the preoperational stage to the concrete operational stage, children decenter their perspective from egocentric to taking other people’s perspectives. With more experience, concrete operational thinkers cognitively reorganize their thinking to become the abstract thinkers of the formal operational stage. Although psychologists agree with the sequence of cognitive development steps and milestones proposed by Piaget, critics fault him for not acknowledging that children go through the stages at different rates, often more quickly than he predicted, and for not understanding that change is more gradual and continuous.
Vygotsky’s Sociocultural Theory of Cognitive Development
Whereas Piaget emphasized maturation (nature) and development in stages (discontinuity), Russian psychologist Lev Vygotsky emphasized the role of the environment (nurture) and gradual growth (continuity) in intellectual functioning. Vygotsky thought that development proceeds mainly from the outside in by the process of internalization, absorbing information from a specified social environmental context. Children learn from observing the interactions of others and through their own interactions within the environment. Vygotsky’s sociocultural theory of cognitive development assigns a significant role to mentors such as parents, teachers, and other students. A key concept is his zone of proximal development (ZPD), the range between the level at which a child can solve a problem working alone with difficulty and the level at which a child can solve a problem with the assistance of adults or more-skilled children. Working close to the upper limit of a child’s capability, the instructor and child work closely together to reach that goal, and then through continued practice, the child is able to attain it more and more independently. When the goal is achieved without help, then that goal becomes the lower limit for a new ZPD. Both Piaget and Vygotsky have influenced the ways that teachers are trained to help children learn.
Cognitive Changes in Adults
Piaget did not study changes in cognition as adults age. Adult thought is frequently richer and more adaptive than adolescent thought. Middle-aged adults tend to reason more globally and make more rational decisions than do younger people. Gerontologist Warner Schaie has found that while fluid intelligence—those abilities requiring speed or rapid learning—generally diminishes with aging, crystallized intelligence—learned knowledge and skills such as vocabulary—generally improves with age (at least through the 60s). In situations that access their skills and long-term memories, older adults may show superior functioning to younger people but with tasks that require effort, initiative, and speed may show decline. Decline in mental abilities can be slowed if we stay healthy, live in a favorable environment, engage in stimulating activities, are flexible, have a mentally able partner, maintain perceptual processing speed, and feel satisfied with our earlier accomplishments.