Cognitive Development in Children

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In this essay we are going to look at the topic area of cognitive development, which is concerned with how cognition changes i.e. the ways in which human thinking develops & changes. The two psychologists we are going to look at are Jean Piaget & Lev Vygotsky.
It is common knowledge that intelligence increases with age. Cognitive reasoning is primitive at birth & changes from infancy to adulthood. Additional experiences & extended cognitive development lead to more sophisticated & accurate analysis of the world. But the mechanics & extent of this change are not common knowledge & before the studies of Jean Piaget they were hardly even considered.

Piaget (1896 1980) was a Swiss psychologist who became a leading cognitive theorist in the 1930's. The fundamental question he asked was "How does a child's knowledge of the world develop?"
Lev Vygotsky (1896 1934) was a Russian psychologist & a contemporary of Piaget, though they never met. His work remained unknown for years because it was banned by Stalin & only came to view much later after his death & collapse of the iron curtain.
Piaget proposed that humans are innately programmed to adapt to their environment. This leads to developing the cognitive ability to understand / have a more accurate view of the world (knowledge). Piaget saw development as preceding learning & in some way genetically determined whereas Vygotsky saw learning as preceding development he accepted the general stages of development but rejected the underlying genetically determined sequence put forth by Piaget.

Piaget's central assumption was that children's cognitive abilities grow as a result of their active participation in the development of knowledge. Thus they construct their own understanding. In fact they continually construct more advanced understandings of the world. These "understandings" are in the form of structures he called schemas (i.e. the basic units of intellect). Schemas are frameworks that develop to help organise knowledge Looking at something is a looking schema, touching something is a touching schema, holding something is a holding schema. Therefore a scheme (schema) is the action of categorising rather than a category itself. A schema contains all your information, experience, ideas & memories about something. A baby, Piaget suggested, is born with very simple sensory schemas e.g. tasting, touching etc., as the child becomes a toddler the simple sensory schemas are combined with more complex mental schemas as the child learns to compare, contrast, etc. for example when a baby first learns to hold something (a grip schema) it uses its whole hand/fist. This grip schema develops as mental operations come into play. Soon the child knows how to grip small objects in contrast to large objects etc.

For schemas to be formed three basic processes are thought to be involved

1. Assimilation
2. Accommodation
3. Equilibrium

Piaget (1954) believed that we adapt in two ways: assimilation & accommodation Assimilation occurs when individuals incorporate new information into their existing knowledge. Accommodation occurs when individuals adjust to new information. (Life Span Development Ninth Edition; Santrock, John W. p48). Piaget gives the example consider a circumstance in which a 9-year-old girl is given a hammer & nails to hang a picture on the wall. She has never used a hammer, but from observation & vicarious experience she realises that a hammer is an object to be held, that it is swung by the handle to hit the nail & that it is usually swung a number of times. Recognising each of these things, she fits her behaviour into the information she already has (assimilation). However, the hammer is heavy, so she holds it near the top. She swings too hard & the nail bends, so she adjusts the pressure of her strikes. These adjustments reveal her ability to alter slightly her conception of the world (accommodation). Piaget thought that assimilation & accommodation operate even in the very young infant's life. Newborns reflexively suck everything that touches their lips (assimilation), but, after several months of experience, they construct their understanding of the world differently. Some objects, such as fingers & their mother's breast, can be sucked, but others, such as fuzzy blankets, should not be sucked. (Life Span Development Ninth Edition; Santrock, John W. p48). A person must assimilate or/& accommodate information to reach equilibrium. When new information does not fit into a particular schema a state of disequilibrium is produced. Piaget also believed that we go through four stages in understanding the world

1. Sensorimotor Stage
(Birth to 2 years of age)
The infant constructs an understanding of the world by coordinating sensory experiences with physical actions. An infant progresses from reflexive, instinctual action at birth to the beginning of symbolic thought toward the end of the stage.
(Life Span Development Ninth Edition; Santrock, John W. p49)

2. Preoperational Stage
(2 to 7 years of age)
The child begins to represent the world with words & images. These words & images reflect increased symbolic thinking & go beyond the connection of sensory information & physical action.
(Life Span Development Ninth Edition; Santrock, John W. p49)

3. Concrete Operational Stage
(7 to 11/12 years of age)
The child can now reason logically about concrete events & classify objects into different sets.
(Life Span Development Ninth Edition; Santrock, John W. p49)

4. Formal Operational Stage
(11/12 years of age onwards)
The adolescent reasons in more abstract, idealistic & logical ways.

Vygotsky supported the idea that culture plays a role in cognitive development. According to Vygotsky, because the culture (in the large sense) that surrounds a child is thus a determining factor in that child's development, if one studies the development of this child in isolation, as Piaget does, one cannot adequately represent the process by which children actually acquire knowledge. Children are seen to learn through social interaction with more "expert" people i.e. anyone older & with more experience of life than themselves parents, older siblings etc.

There are three key features in Vygotsky's theory

Zone of proximal development
Learning through assistance this refers to the difference between what a child can do with help from others who have more experience & without help on their own. Vygotsky saw children's understanding as being open to learning through assistance though not being open to being fast-forwarded past what they are able to take in.

Vygotsky suggested that children learn little if left alone to struggle, neither do they learn if a more experienced person takes over & doesn't let the child contribute or make an attempt. What is needed is appropriate support that teaches new skills. Basically the best method of helping a child to learn is the gradual withdrawal of help as a child becomes more proficient & knowledgeable itself.
McNaughton & Leyland (1990) carried out an observation study. They observed mothers helping children with a jigsaw puzzle. They found that the amount of direct help given for the more difficult pieces were higher than the help given for the less difficult pieces. Direct help was operationally defined as phrases such as "try that piece there" & less help & more encouragement were defined as phrases such as "look at that piece there" or "well done".

It follows that language is the most effective means that adults have at their disposal to convey knowledge to children. As learning progresses children's language itself becomes a learning tool that they internalise & "use in their heads" to think about the world. Piaget believed language was a by-product of thought where as Vygotsky believed that language is fundamental for cognitive development & identified the private speech aspect of early childhood play. Vygotsky sees private speech as the way a child sorts out or makes sense of what is happening in the world. Talking aloud fades out as the child transforms what is happening into thoughts & thinking. Once the child realises that every object has a name thought & language are inseparable.

Piaget drew a sharp distinction between development & teaching. Development, he said is a spontaneous process that comes from the child. It comes from inner maturational growth & more importantly, from the child's own efforts to make sense of the world. The child, in Piaget's view, is a little intellectual explorer, making their own discoveries & formulating their own positions.

Piaget did not mean that the child develops in isolation, apart from the social world. Other people do have an impact on the child's thinking but they do not help the child by trying to directly teach then things. Rather, they promote development by stimulating & challenging the child's own thinking. This often occurs, for example, when children get into discussions & debates with friends. If a girl finds that a friend has pointed out a flaw in her argument, she is stimulated to come up with a better argument & her mind grows. But the girl's intellectual development is an independent process. For it is the girl herself not an outside person who must construct the new argument.

As a proponent of independent thinking, Piaget was highly critical of the teacher-directed instruction that occurs in most schools. Teachers try to take charge of the child's learning, acting as if they could somehow pour material into the child's head. They force the child into a passive position. Moreover, teachers often present abstract concepts in math, science & other areas that are well beyond the child's own grasp. Sometimes, to be sure, children appear to have learned something, but they usually have acquired mere "verbalisms"; they repeat back the teachers words without any genuine understanding of the concepts behind them. If adults want children to genuinely grasp concepts, they must give children opportunities to discover them on their own (Piaget, 1969).

In Vygotsky's view, spontaneous development is important, but it is not all-important, as Piaget believed. If children's minds were simply the products of their own discoveries & inventions, their minds wouldn't advance very far. In reality, children also benefit enormously from the knowledge & conceptual tools handed down to them by their cultures. In modern societies this usually occurs in schools. Teachers do, as Piaget said, present material that is too difficult for children to learn by themselves, but this is what good instruction should do. It should march ahead of development, pulling it along, helping children master material that they cannot immediately grasp on their own. Their initial understanding might be superficial, but the instruction is still valuable, for it moves the children's minds forward. (Theories of development: concepts & applications; Crain William C. 5th ed. p236)

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