Chapter 6: Theories of Cognitive Development

Basic Principles of Piaget’s Theory

  • Children are naturally curious and want to construct their understanding of the world.
  • Assimilation
  • Accommodation - revision
  • Equilibration
  • Schemas
  • Three times of major changes - 3, 7, 11


Stages of Cognitive Development

  • Sensorimotor
  • Basic reflex activity
  • Primary circular reactions
  • Secondary circular reactions
  • Coordination of secondary schemes
  • Tertiary circular reactions
  • Symbolic problem solving
  • Preoperational
  • Pre-conceptual
  • Intuitive
  • Concrete operational
  • Formal operational


Piaget’s Contributions to Child Development

  • The study of cognitive development itself. Before Piaget, cognition was not part of the research agenda for child-development scientists. Piaget showed why cognitive processes are central to development and offered some methods that could be used to study them.
  • A new view of children. Piaget emphasized constructivism, the view that children are active participants in their own development who systematically construct ever more sophisticated understandings of their worlds. This view now pervades thinking about children (so much so that it’s one of the themes in this book), but it began with Piaget.
  • Fascinating, often counter-intuitive discoveries. One reason why Piaget’s work attracted so much attention is that many of the findings were completely unexpected and became puzzles that child-development researchers couldn’t resist trying to solve.


Weaknesses of Piaget’s Theory

  • Piaget’s theory underestimates cognitive competence in infants and young children and overestimates cognitive competence in adolescents. In Piaget’s theory, cognitive development is steady in early childhood but not particularly rapid. In contrast, a main theme of modern child-development science is that of the extraordinarily competent infant and toddler. By using more sensitive tasks than Piaget’s, modem investigators have shown that infants and toddlers are vastly more capable than expected based on Piaget’s theory.
  • Piaget’s theory is vague with respect to processes and mechanisms of change. Many of the key components of the theory, such as accommodation and assimilation, turned out to be too vague to test scientifically. Consequently, scientists abandoned them in favor of other cognitive processes that could be evaluated more readily and provide more convincing accounts of children’s thinking.
  • Piaget’s stage model does not account for variability in children’s performance. In Piaget’s view, each stage of intellectual development has unique characteristics that leave their mark on everything a child does. Pre - operational thinking is defined by ego-centrism and centration; formal operational thinking is defined by abstract and hypothetical reasoning. Consequently, children’s performance on different tasks should be very consistent. In fact, children’s thinking falls far short of this consistency. A child’s thinking may be sophisticated in some domains but naive in others. This inconsistency does not support Piaget’s view that children’s thinking should always reflect the distinctive imprint of their current stage of cognitive development. In other words, cognitive development is not as stage-like as Piaget believed.
  • Piaget’s theory undervalues the influence of the socio - cultural environment on cognitive development. Returning to the metaphor of the child as scientist, Piaget describes the child as a lone scientist, constantly trying to figure out by herself how her theory coordinates with data and experience. In reality, a child’s effort to understand her world is a far more social enterprise than Piaget described. Her growing understanding of the world is profoundly influenced by her interactions with family members, peers, and teachers, and takes place against the backdrop of cultural values. Piaget’s theory did not neglect these social and cultural forces entirely, but they are not prominent in the theory.


The Sociocultural Perspective- Vygotsky’s Theory

  • Views cognitive development as a socio - cultural enterprise; experts use scaffolding to help a novice acquire knowledge; children use private speech to regulate their own thinking.
  • According to the socio - cultural perspective, children are products of their culture
  • Gauvain - argues that cultural contexts organize cognitive development in several ways -
  • Culture often defines which cognitive activities are valued
  • Culture provides tools that shape the way children use to solve arithmetic problems
  • Higher level cultural practices help children to organize their knowledge an communicate it to others
  • Culture penetrates human intellectual functioning and its development at many levels, and it does so through many organized individual and social practices.
  • Vygotsky - saw development as an apprenticeship in which children advance when they collaborate with others who are more skilled. Child development, according to Vygotsky, is never a solitary journey. Instead, children always travel with others and usually progress most rapidly when they walk hand in hand with an expert partner.
  • Intersubjectivity - mutual, shared understanding among participants in an activity
  • Guided participation - cognitive growth results from children’s involvement in structured activities with others who are more skilled than they.


Three most important contributes are the concepts of

  • The zone of proximal development - the difference between what a child can do with assistance and what he can do alone. The difference between the level of performance a child can achieve when working independently and the higher level of performance that is possible when working under the guidance of more skilled adults or peers. The idea of a zone of proximal development follows naturally from Vygotsky’s basic premise that cognition develops first in a social setting and only gradually comes under the child’s independent control.
  • Scaffolding - refers to a teaching style that matches the amount of assistance to the learners needs. Mary wright- help/ assist children but the child preforms the complete process. As a child becomes capable of doing more of the task alone, the amount of assistance decreases.
  • Private speech - the behavior of a child talking to himself as he plays. Comments not directed to others but for children regulation of their own behaviour. Vygotsky viewed this as an intermediate step toward self- regulation of cognitive skills. Inner speck- as children gain more skills, private speech becomes inner speech. He argued that this is not as Piaget thought, egocentric and non-social but is in fact communication with self.


Information - Processing Theories

  • Based on the computer metaphor - view cognitive change in terms of better strategies, increased capacity of working memory, more effective inhibitory and executive processing, more automatic processing, and faster processing speed.
  • Using computer systems to explain how thinking develops.
  • Proposes that human cognition consists of mental hardware and mental software.


Mental Hardware

  • Sensory memory - Large capacity, very brief, unanalyzed form
  • Working memory - Limited capacity, rehearsal important, ongoing cognitive activities
  • Long- term memory - Unlimited capacity, permanent, access and retrieval important
  • Central executive - Directs and monitors all activities


Mechanisms that drive cognitive development

  • Better strategies - gained with development and age.
  • Increased capacity of working memory- more room for storage
  • More effective inhibitory processes and executive functioning
  • Inhibitory processes - prevent task-irrelevant information from entering working memory.
  • Executive functioning - inhibitory processes, along with planning and cognitive flexibility. Skilled problem solving- plan and flexibility.
  • Increased automatic processing - cognitive activities that require virtually no effort.
  • Increased speed of processing - Age differences in processing speed are critical when a specified number of actions must be completed in a fixed period of time.

In contrast to Piaget’s theory, according to this theory there are no abrupt or qualitative changes that create distinct cognitive stages.

Core Knowledge Theories

  • View cognitive development as an innate capability to easily acquire knowledge in such specialized domains of evolutionary importance such as language, knowledge of objects, and understanding of people.
  • Distinctive domains of knowledge, some of which are acquired very early in life.
  • According to core-knowledge theorists, some forms of knowledge are so important for human survival that specialized systems have evolved that simplify learning of those forms of knowledge. (Language vs. Calculus)
  • However, core-knowledge theorists believe that children’s theories are focused on core domains, rather than being all-encompassing as Piaget proposed. In addition, children don’t start from scratch, instead a few innate principles provide the starting point.


Understanding Objects and Their Properties

  • Object Permanence
  • Placement of objects on in front of the other
  • Distinguishing the difference between solid and liquid
  • Understanding gravity


Understanding Living Things

  • Distinguishing between a toy and an animal
  • Many four-year-old theories of biology include the following elements -
  • Movement - Children understand that animals can move themselves, but inanimate objects can only be moved by other objects or by people.
  • Growth - Children understand that, from their first appearance, animals get bigger and physically more complex, but that inanimate objects do not change in this way.
  • Internal parts - Children know that the insides of animate objects contain different materials than the insides of inanimate objects.
  • Inheritance - Children realize that only living things have offspring that resemble their parents.
  • Illness - Preschoolers believe that permanent illnesses such as color blindness or food allergies are more likely to be inherited from parents, but that temporary illnesses such as a sore throat or a runny nose are more likely to be transmitted through contact with other people.
  • Healing - Children understand that, when injured, animate things heal by regrowth, whereas inanimate things must be fixed by humans.
  • Teleological explanations - children believe that living things and parts of living things exist for a purpose. A child may explain that lions exist so that people can see them in a zoo.
  • Essentialism - children believe that all living things have an essence that can’t be seen but gives a living thing its identity. All birds share an underlying “bird-ness” that distinguishes them from dogs, which, of course, share an underlying “dog-ness.” And bird-ness is what allows birds to fly and sing


Understanding People

Naive Psychology - which refers to our informal beliefs about other people and their behavior. Allows us to predict or understand how people act.

Theory of Mind - (between the age of 2-5) a naive understanding of the relations between mind and behaviour.

Henry Wellman - Three phases

  • Children are aware of their desires and link them to their behavior, common in 2-year old. They also understand that they and other people have desires and that desires can cause behavior, by the age of 2
  • By age 3, children clearly distinguish the mental world from the physical world. They also use the verbs- remember, forget, think…
  • Age 4- mental states really take center stage in children’s understanding of their own and other people’s actions.


  • Evident in false belief task. (Sally and Anne)
  • Cross, Watson, Wellman - Sally Anne task showed that before 3 and a half children typically make the false belief error. Six months later they understand the false belief.


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