Which cognitive development theories are there? - Chapter 4

There are five different theories about the cognitive development of a child that will be discussed in this chapter.

What is the focus in Piaget's theory?

Piaget's theory remains the best known cognitive development theory. Piaget focuses on the way children think at different ages. He sees the child as a researcher: the child acquires knowledge through experiences. Children are motivated to learn without instructions or rewards from others. Piaget is therefore seen as a constructivist.

Which are the central development aspects?

Piaget believed that the genes and environment interact, in order to produce cognitive development. Piaget saw the development as both a continuous process and a discontinuous process. The main aspects of continuity are: assimilation, accommodation, and balance. Assimilation is a process in which incoming information is processed on basis of the knowledge the child already has. Accommodation is a process in which new incoming information is processed on the basis of knowledge the child did not have before. Balance is a process in which a balance is created between the first two processes in order to understand new information. When a child does not understand something, it is in a phase of non-equilibrium.  

Many of the important aspects of Piaget's theory are discontinuous aspects, which he named stages of cognitive development. The following stages are the central characteristics of Piaget's theory of urbanism: qualitative change, broad applicability, brief transitions and invariant sequence. Qualitative change means that the older a child becomes, the more the interpretations of certain behavior change. Broad applicability means that the thinking about certain subjects is influenced by the general way of thinking. Brief transitions explains the period of transition in the way of thinking. By invariant sequence is meant that each child runs all stages in the same order.

Piaget's theory consists of the following four stages: the sensorimotor phase, the preoperational phase, the concrete operational phase, and the formal operational phase.

  • The sensorimotor phase occurs between the birth and the child's second year of life. The development of intelligence happens through sensory perceptions and motor actions. Important concepts in this phase are object permanence, the A-not-B-error and deffered imitation. Object persistence means that the child understands that an object does not dissappear and still exists when covered by a cloth. Children are only able to understand this from the age of 8 months. The A-not-B-error  is a process in which an object is hidden under a cloth (cloth A). Then the object is clogged under another cloth (canvas B). Then the child must search for the object (in this case, in place B). Children up to and including 12 months do not understand this process and will search at location A. Deffered imitation implies that children in the last six months of the sensorimotor phase (18 to 24 months) are able to imitate certain behaviors of other people.

  • The preoperational phase takes place between the second and seventh year of a child's life. What they experienced in language (verbal) and pictures (non-verbal) is expressed and processed. Important concepts are symbolic representation and egocentrism. By symbolic representation is meant that children from an age of 3 years use an object for a purpose other than the one it is intended for. For example, they use the phone as a pistol. Egocentrism is a limitation of thinking, children are only perceiving the world from their own point of view and are not able to imagine  the perspectives of others. Children also have difficulty with centration during this phase. Centration is the focusing on a single observable object or event. Children in this phase do not yet have the conservation concept. It means that they are not able estimate quantities yet. If, for example, water is poured from a low, wide glass into a tall, narrow glass, they think it is now more water, because it is 'higher'.

  • The concrete operational phase takes place between the seventh and twelfth year of life. In this phase, it is taught to reason logically about concrete (non-abstract) things.

  • The formal operational phase starts from the twelfth year of life. During this phase abstract and hypothetical situations/ objects are deliberated and understood.

What are criticisms on Piaget's theory?

The following points of Piaget's theory are criticized:

  • Piaget's theory is unclear about the mechanisms that arise a child's thinking and advance cognitive growth. 

  • Babies and small children are cognitively much more competent than Piaget believes.

  • Piaget underestimates the influence of the social world on the children's cognitive developments.

  • In Piaget's model,the thinking behavior of children seems more consistent than it actually is.

Some implications of how children should receive education followed Piaget's. Different ways of thinking at different ages need to be considered in education. Second, children learn the best through physical and mental interaction with their environment. Children's learning can be promoted by combining physical activity with asking questions. 

The next four theories are alternative theories for Piaget's theory. They address the weaknesses of Piaget's theory and hope to improve it.

What does the information processing theories say ? 

Information processing theories focus on the structure of the cognitive system and the mental activities used to solves problems by using attention and memory.  Task analysis is the identification of goals, relevant information in the environment and potential problem solving strategies. Job analysis helps to get a better understanding of behavior. In some cases a computer simulation can be formulated, a mathematical model that forms precise ideas about mental processes. 

How is the nature of the child seen?

According to Klahr, the child is a limited capacity of a processing system. Humans are compared with a computer processing system. The limitations of the hardware have to do with the memory of the computer and the efficiency in carrying out basic operations. The limitations of software is related with strategies and information available for certain tasks. Human thinking is limited by similar factors: memory capacity, efficiency of thought processes, and the availability of useful strategies and knowledge.

Klahr also sees the child as a problem solver. Problemsolving is a process of reaching a goal by using a strategy to overcome obstacles/ problems.

Which are the central development aspects?

Information processing theories differ from other theories, because they also adress how change takes place. Hereby, memory is a crucial aspect. Most theories distinguish between working memory, long-term memory and executive functions.

The working memory is a memory system responsible for actively paying attention, collecting, retaining, storing and processing information. The working memory is limited in capacity and limited in duration of storing information without updating. The long-term memory consists of remaining knowledge that people gather during their lives. This is factual knowledge, conceptual knowledge, procedural knowledge, attitudes, reasoning strategies, and so on. Executive functions control cognition. Here the prefrontal cortex plays an important role. Three important types are inhibition, improving working memory through strategies and cognitive flexibility. The quality of the executive functions at a young age often predict outcomes later in life. Training programs can help improve the executive functions.

There are three types of capacities explaining the quality and development of memory: basic processes, strategies and content knowledge.  

  • Basic processes are the simple and most used mental activities, such as recognizing objects. Encoding is a basic process in which specific and important characteristics of objects are represented in the memory.

  • The collection of strategies develops memory in another way. Between 5 and 8 years, childre will use rehearsal, the repeating of information to remember. Another strategy is selective attention, the focusing on the most relevant information for the current goal.

  • In addition, content knowledge is important. The multiplication of knowledge makes it easier to understand new material by integrating it into the existing knowledge. Knowledge can be increased with the help of improving encoding and providing associations.   

The development of the problem-solving capacity can be explained on the basis of the overlapping wave approach. An information processing approach that emphasizes the variation in the children's way of thinking. With age and experience the strategies that turn out to be more successful are used more often. Planning prior to taking action has an advantageous effect on problemsolving. The older children become, the better they can plan before they take action.       

Children from poorer families often lag behind children from richer families in terms of numerical knowledge. An information processing analysis shows that playing games with numbers can be an important factor. By playing more games with numbers, the knowledge of children with a disadvantage can also be increased.  

The characteristics of knowledge theories?

Knowledge theories state that children have innate knowledge in areas with special evolutionary importance and domain-specific learning mechanisms for quickly and effortlessly acquiring information. Studies show two important characteristics of these theories. First, they focus on areas of knowledge that have proved important through evolutionary history, such as understanding and manipulating the thinking of others. Secondly, the theories assume that in certain areas children and babies think in more developed ways than Piaget thought.   

How is the nature of the child seen?

Knowledge theories see children as active pupils. Piaget and information processing theories state that children enter the world with a general learning ability that gradually improves their knowledge. However, knowledge theorists believe that children are able to enter the world with both general learning ability and specialized learning mechanisms, in order to obtain knowledge in a quick way. Piaget sees a child as a researcher, while knowledge theorists see a child as an adapted product of evolution.     

The basic concepts proposed by knowledge theories are assumed to be domain-specific, which means they are limited to a certain area.

Which are the central development aspects?

Knowledge theoretics do not agree in how far the knowledge is innate. There are two movements: nativism and constructivism. The nativism is the theory that babies have a substantial amount of innate knowledge of evolutionary relevant domains. Spelke stated that babies start their lives with four knowledge systems: a system for lifeless objects and their interactions, a system for the mind of people and other animals able to generate purposeful actions, a system for numbers and a system for spatial divisions and geometrical relations.   

Constructivism is the theory that babies develop an increasingly advanced understanding by combining basic, inborn knowledge and experience. This theory shares three important characteristics with formal scientific theories:

Basic units are identified to distribute relevant objects and events into basic categories.

They explain many phenomena in terms of a few fundamental principles.

They explain events in terms of non-observable causes.

Supporters of the knowledge theories recognize that many fundamental concepts develop later in life. One of these concepts is natural selection, which is difficult to understand even with aging. It is moslty hard to understand because young children are essentialists, they believe that members of a race have a fixed inner essence that makes them what they are. Essentialism interferes with learning about natural selection, because having a fixed essence excludes the formation of new species from other species. According to research fictional stories can help young children to understand such concepts.  

  What do socio-cultural theories consist of?

In Sociocultural theories other people and the cultural environment are seen as a important contribution to the development of a child. Often the parents help to obtain knowledge. This is called controlled participation, a process in which more informed individuals (here: the parent) organizes activities to teach a less informed individual (here: the child). The cultural context of a child also influences it's thinking, called cultural tools, for example certain values ​​and skills.

How is the nature of the child seen?

There are quite a few differences between the theory of Piaget and the theory of Vygotsky. Vygotsky's theory sees the child as a social learner, while Piaget's sees a child as a researcher. Vygotsky's theory says a child experience quantitative changes in thinking, while a child experiences qualitative changes in thinking according to Piaget's theory.

Vygotsky's theory consists of three phases: in the first phase the behavior of a child is controlled and determined by others. In the second phase, the behavior of a child is determined by private speech. Private speech is a phase in which internalization of thoughts takes place. Children develop a self-regulation system and a problem-solving capacity by telling themselves aloud what they have to do, as the parents actually did for them in the first phase. In the final phase the behavior of a child is determined by internal private speech.

People have two unique characteristics crucial to our ability to create complex, fast-changing cultures. First, the tendency to teach others  and secondly the tendency to pay attention to and learn from such education.

Sociocultural theorists believe that many of the processes that produce development, such as controlled participation, are the same everywhere. However, the content children learn is different from culture to culture.  

Which are the central development aspects?

Intersubjectivity describes a process in which people share mutual understanding about a topic or situation. At a given moment this leads to a joint attention focusing on a specific object or situation. Joint attention is a process in which social partners focus intentionally on a common object in the external environment. Through joint attention children can also learn a lot from others.

Social scaffolding is a process in which more competent people give a temporary framework to children, to help them think at a higher level than if they would alone. For example by helping to create autobiographical memories . Meaning, the parents help the child  to learn how to make a narrative (causal) link between their own action and the reaction in the world. 

Instructions should be aimed at helping children to gain a better understanding, where learning is a cooperative activity and learning creates a desire to learn more. The community-of-learners program tries to meet this goal, while children at school worked in groups on sub-topics, where they needed each other for the whole picture. This is also called the jigsaw approach. Children were trained to come up with good solutions for problems they had to solve.   

What are dynamic system theories?

Dynamic system theories focus on how change takes place over time in complex physical and biological systems. According to these theories, there is continuous change. 

How is the nature of the child seen?

Dynamic system theories state that children are internally motivated to learn about the world around them, which is also the motivaton for development.

Which are the central development aspects?

Dynamic system theories see development as a self-organizing process bringing together components that, if necessary, adapt to a continuously changing environment. Dynamic system theories therefore focus on the thinking and development of the action, instead of thinking alone. Thinking is the action, but thinking is also shaped by the action itself. Children develop skills at different ages and in different ways. In other words: just like variation and selection cause biological evolution, they also cause cognitive development. The older a child becomes, the more attention the child has, the better the memory becomes, and the better the movements become.

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