Theory of cognitive development

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The Theory of Cognitive Development, first developed by Jean Piaget, proposes that there are four distinct, increasingly sophisticated stages of mental representation that children pass through on their way to an adult level of intelligence.

The four stages, roughly correlated with age, are as follows:

  • Sensorimotor period (years 0 to 2)
  • Preoperational period (years 2 to 6)
  • Concrete operational period (years 6 to 12)
  • Formal operational period (years 12 and up)


[edit] Piaget's four stages

[edit] Sensorimotor period

The Sensorimotor Stage is the first of the four stages of cognitive development. In this stage, infants construct an understanding of the world by coordinating sensory experiences (such as seeing and hearing) with physical, motoric actions. [1] Infants gain knowledge of the world from the physical actions they perform on it. [1] An infant progresses from reflexive, instinctual action at birth to the beginning of symbolic thought toward the end of the stage. [1] Piaget divided the sensorimotor stage into six sub-stages[1]:

Sub-Stage Age Description
1 Simple Reflexes Birth-1 month Coordination of sensation and action through reflexive behaviors [1]
2 First habits and primary circular reactions phase 1-4 months Coordination of sensation and two types of schemes: habits (reflex) and primary circular reactions (reproduction of an event that initially occurred by chance). Main focus is still on the infant's body. [1]
3 Secondary circular reactions phase 4-8 months Development of habits. Infants become more object-oriented, moving beyond self-preoccupation; repeat actions that bring interesting or pleasurable results. [1]
4 Coordination of secondary circular reactions stage 8-12 months Coordination of vision and touch--hand-eye coordination; coordination of schemes and intentionality. [1]
5 Tertiary circular reactions, novelty, and curiosity 12-18 months Infants become intrigued by the many properties of objects and by the many things they can make happen to objects; they experiment with new behavior. [1]
6 Internalization of Schemes 18-24 months Infants develop the ability to use primitive symbols and form enduring mental representations. [1]

By the end of the sensorimotor period, objects are both separate from the self and permanent.[1] Object permanence is the understanding that objects continue to exist even when they cannot be seen, heard, or touched.[1] Acquiring the sense of object permanence is one of the infant's most important accomplishments, according to Piaget.[1]

[edit] Preoperational Period

The Preoperational stage is the second of four stages of cognitive development.[2] By observing sequences of play, Piaget was able to demonstrate that towards the end of the second year, a qualitatively new kind of psychological functioning occurs.

(Pre)Operatory Thought in Piagetian theory is any procedure for mentally acting on objects. The hallmark of the preoperational stage is sparse and logically inadequate mental operations. During this stage, the child learns to use and to represent objects by images, words, and drawings.[2] The child is able to form stable concepts as well as mental reasoning and magical beliefs.[2] The child however is still not able to perform operations; tasks that the child can do mentally rather than physically.[2] Thinking is still egocentric: The child has difficulty taking the viewpoint of others. Two substages can be formed from preoperational thought.[2]

  1. The Symbolic Function Substage
Occurs between about the ages of 2 and 4.[2] The child is able to formulate designs of objects that are not present.[2] Other examples of mental abilities are language and pretend play.[2] Although there is an advancement in progress, there are still limitations such as egocentrism and animism.[2] Egocentrism occurs when a child is unable to distinguish between their own perspective and that of another person's.[2] Children tend to pick their own view of what they see rather than the actual view shown to others.[2] An example is an experiment performed by Piaget and Barbel Inhelder.[2] Three views of a mountain are shown and the child is asked what a traveling doll would see at the various angles; the child picks their own view compared to the actual view of the doll.[2] Animism is the belief that inanimate objects are capable of actions and have lifelike qualities.[2] An example is a child believing that the sidewalk was mad and made them fall down.[2]
  1. The Intuitive Thought Substage
Occurs between about the ages of 4 and 7.[2] Children tend to become very curious and ask many questions; begin the use of primitive reasoning.[2] There is an emergence in the interest of reasoning and wanting to know why things are the way they are.[2] Piaget called it the intuitive substage because children realize they have a vast amount of knowledge but they are unaware of how they know it.[2] Centration and conservation are both involved in preoperational thought.[2] Centration is the act of focusing all attention on one characteristic compared to the others.[2] Centration is noticed in conservation; the awareness that altering a substance's appearance does not change its basic properties.[2] Children at this stage are unaware of conservation.[2] They are unable to grasp the concept that a certain liquid can stay the same regardless of the container shape.[2] In Piaget's most famous task, a child is represented with two identical beakers containing the same amount of liquid.[2] The child usually notes that the beakers have the same amount of liquid.[2] When one of the beakers is poured into a taller and thinner container, children who are typically younger than 7 or 8 years old say that the two beakers now contain a different amount of liquid.[2] The child simply focuses on the height and width of the container compared to the general concept.[2] Piaget believes that if a child fails the conservation-of-liquid task, it is a sign that they are at the preoperational stage of cognitive development.[2] The child also fails to show conservation of number, matter, length, volume, and area as well.[2] Another example is when a child is shown 7 dogs and 3 cats and asked if there are more dogs than cats. The child would respond positively. However when asked if there are more dogs than animals, the child would once again respond positively. Such fundamental errors in logic show the transition between intuitiveness in solving problems and true logical reasoning acquired in later years when the child grows up.

Piaget considered that children primarily learn through imitation and play throughout these first two stages, as they build up symbolic images through internalized activity.[3][4]

Studies have been conducted among other countries to find out if Piaget's theory is universal.[2] Psychologist Patricia Greenfield conducted a task similar to Piaget's beaker experiment in the West African nation of Senegal.[2] Her results stated that only 50 percent of the 10-13 year olds understood the concept of conservation.[2] Other cultures such as central Australia and New Guinea had similar results.[2] If adults had not gained this concept, they would be unable to uderstand the point of view of another person.[2] There may have been discrepencies in the communication between the experimenter and the children which may have altered the results.[2] It has also been found that if conservation is not widely practiced in a particular country, the concept can be taught to the child and training can improve the child's understanding.[2] Therefore, it is noted that there are different age differences in reaching the understanding of conservation based on the degree to which the culture teaches these tasks.[2]

[edit] Concrete operational stage

The Concrete operational stage is the third of four stages of cognitive development in Piaget's theory. This stage, which follows the Preoperational stage, occurs between the ages of 7 and 11 years and is characterized by the appropriate use of logic. Important processes during this stage are:

Seriation—the ability to sort objects in an order according to size, shape, or any other characteristic. For example, if given different-shaded objects they may make a color gradient.

Transitivity- The ability to recognize logical relationships among elements in a serial order (for example, If A is taller than B, and B is taller than C, then A must be taller than C).

Classification—the ability to name and identify sets of objects according to appearance, size or other characteristic, including the idea that one set of objects can include another.

Decentering—where the child takes into account multiple aspects of a problem to solve it. For example, the child will no longer perceive an exceptionally wide but short cup to contain less than a normally-wide, taller cup.

Reversibility—the child understands that numbers or objects can be changed, then returned to their original state. For this reason, a child will be able to rapidly determine that if 4+4 equals 8, 8−4 will equal 4, the original quantity.

Conservation—understanding that quantity, length or number of items is unrelated to the arrangement or appearance of the object or items.

Elimination of Egocentrism—the ability to view things from another's perspective (even if they think incorrectly). For instance, show a child a comic in which Jane puts a doll under a box, leaves the room, and then Melissa moves the doll to a drawer, and Jane comes back. A child in the concrete operations stage will say that Jane will still think it's under the box even though the child knows it is in the drawer. (See also False-belief task).

Children in this stage can, however, only solve problems that apply to actual (concrete) objects or events, and not abstract concepts or hypothetical tasks.

[edit] Formal operational stage

The formal operational period is the fourth and final of the periods of cognitive development in Piaget's theory.[5] This stage, which follows the Concrete Operational stage, commences at around 11-15 years of age (puberty) and continues into adulthood.[5] In this stage, individuals move beyond concrete experiences and begin to think abstractly, reason logically and draw conclusions from the information available, as well as apply all these processes to hypothetical situations.[5] The abstract quality of the adolescent's thought at the formal operational level is evident in the adolescent's verbal problem solving ability.[5] The logical quality of the adolescent's thought is when children are more likely to solve problems in a trial-and-error fashion.[5] Adolescents begin to think more as a scientist thinks, devising plans to solve problems and systematically testing solutions.[5] They use hypothetical-deductive reasoning, which means that they develop hypotheses or best guesses, and systematically deduce, or conclude, which is the best path to follow in solving the problem.[5] During this stage the young adult is able to understand such things as love, "shades of gray", logical proofs and values. During this stage the young adult begins to entertain possibilities for the future and are fascinated with what they can be.[5] Adolescents are changing cognitively also by the way that they think about social matters.[5] Adolescent Egocentrism governs the way that adolescents think about social matters and is the heightened self-consciousness in them as they are which is reflected in their sense of personal uniqueness and invincibility.[5] Adolescent egocentrism can be dissected into two types of social thinking, imaginary audience that involves attention getting behavior, and personal fable which involves an adolescent's sense of personal uniqueness and invincibility.[5]

[edit] General information regarding the stages

These four stages have been found to have the following characteristics:[citation needed]

  • They apply to thought rather than children[citation needed]
  • Although the timing may vary, the sequence of the stages does not.[citation needed]
  • Universal (not culturally specific)[citation needed]
  • Generalizable: the representational and logical operations available to the child should extend to all kinds of concepts and content knowledge[citation needed]
  • Stages are logically organized wholes[citation needed]
  • Hierarchical nature of stage sequences (each successive stage incorporates elements of previous stages, but is more differentiated and integrated)[citation needed]
  • Stages represent qualitative differences in modes of thinking, not merely quantitative differences[citation needed]

[edit] Challenges to Piagetian stage theory

Piagetians accounts of development have been challenged on several grounds. First, as Piaget himself noted, development does not always progress in the smooth manner his theory seems to predict. 'Decalage', or unpredicted gaps in the developmental progression, suggest that the stage model is at best a useful approximation. More broadly, Piaget's theory is 'domain general', predicting that cognitive maturation occurs concurrently across different domains of knowledge (such as mathematics, logic, understanding of physics, of language, etc). However, more recent cognitive developmentalists have been much influenced by trends in cognitive science away from domain generality and towards domain specificity or modularity of mind, under which different cognitive faculties may be largely independent of one another and thus develop according to quite different time-tables. In this vein, many current cognitive developmentalists argue that rather than being domain general learners, children come equipped with domain specific theories, sometimes referred to as 'core knowledge', which allows them to break into learning within that domain. For example, even young infants appear to understand some basic principles of physics (e.g. that one object cannot pass through another) and human intention (e.g. that a hand repeatedly reaching for an object has that object, not just a particular path of motion, as its goal). These basic assumptions may be the building block out of which more elaborate knowledge is constructed. Additionally, some psychologists, such as Vygotsky and Bruner, thought differently from Piaget, suggesting that language was more important than Piaget implied.

Another recent challenge to Piaget's theory is a new theory called Ecological Systems Theory. This is based on the contextual influences in the child's life like his/her immediate family, school, society and the world, and how these impact the child's development.

[edit] Post Piagetian and Neo-Piagetian stages

After Piaget:

  • Postformal stages have been proposed. Kurt Fischer suggested two, Michael Commons presents evidence for four postformal stages: the systematic, metasystematic, paradigmatic and cross paradigmatic. (Commons & Richards, 2003; Oliver, 2004).
  • A "sentential" stage has been proposed, said to occur before the early preoperational stage. Proposed by Fischer, Biggs and Biggs, Commons, and Richards.
  • Searching for a micro-physiological basis for human mental capacity, Traill (1978, Section C5.4; 1999, Section 8.4)[citation needed] proposed that there may be "pre-sensorimotor" stages ("M−1L", "M−2L", … … ) — developed in the womb and/or transmitted genetically.

[edit] Postulated physical mechanisms underlying "schemes" and stages

Piaget himself (1967) considered the possibility of RNA molecules as likely embodiments of his still-abstract "schemes" (which he promoted as units of action) — though he did not come to any firm conclusion. At that time, due to work such as that of Holger Hydén, RNA concentrations had indeed been shown to correlate with learning, so the idea was quite plausible.

However, by the time of Piaget's death in 1980, this notion had lost favour. One main problem was over the protein which (it was assumed) such RNA would necessarily produce, and that did not fit in with observation. It then turned out, surprisingly, that only about 3% of RNA does code for protein! (Mattick, 2001, 2003, 2004). Hence most of the remaining 97% (the "ncRNA") could now theoretically be available to serve as Piagetian schemes (or other regulatory roles now under investigation). The issue has not yet been resolved experimentally, but its theoretical aspects have been reviewed; (Traill 2005 / 2008).

[edit] Piagetian and post-Piagetian stage theories/heuristics

  • Michael Barnes' stages of religious and scientific thinking
  • Michael Lamport Commons' Model of Hierarchical Complexity
  • Kieran Egan's stages of understanding
  • Suzy Gablik's stages of art history
  • Christopher Hallpike's stages of moral understanding
  • Lawrence Kohlberg's stages of moral development
  • Don Lepan's theory of the origins of modern thought and drama
  • Charles Raddings theory of the medieval intellectual development
  • R.J. Robinson's stages of history and theory of the origins of intelligence
  • Ashby, W.Ross (1952 / 1960) Design for a Brain. London: Chapman & Hall — gives a theoretical brain model which implies stages of development comparable to Piaget's; see Traill (1978).
  • Stafford Beer, a cybernetician and business-consultant, attempted to apply Ashby's principles to Companies and Government organizations. (e.g. Beer, 1972).
  • Biggs, J. & K.Collis (1982). A system of evaluating learning outcomes: The SOLO Taxonomy. New York: Academic Press.
  • Chapman, M. (1988). "Constructive Evolution: Origins and Development of Piaget’s Thought". New York: Cambridge University Press.
  • Cole, M, et al. (2005). The Development of Children. New York: Worth Publishers.
  • Commons, M.L. & F.A. Richards (1984). "A general model of stage theory" — and — "Applying the general stage model".  In M.L.Commons, F.A.Richards, & C.Armon (Eds.). Beyond formal operations: Vol.1: Late adolescent and adult cognitivedevelopment (pp. 120-140, 141-157). New York: Praeger.
  • Commons, M.L. & F.A. Richards (2002). "Organizing components into combinations: How stage transition works". Journal of Adult Development, 9(3), 159-177.
  • Commons, M.L. & F.A. Richards (2003). "Four postformal stages". In J. Demick & C. Andreoletti (Eds.), Handbook of adult development (pp. 199-219). New York: Kluwer Academic/Plenum.
  • Fischer, K.W. (1980). "A theory of cognitive development: The control and construction of hierarchical skills". Psychological Review, 87(2), 477-531.
  • Oliver, C.R. (2004). Impact of catastrophe on pivotal national leaders' vision statements: Correspondences and discrepancies in moral reasoning, explanatory style, and rumination. Dissertation: Fielding Graduate Institute.
  • Marcus, G. F. (2001). The Algebraic Mind: Integrating Connectionism and Cognitive Science. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
  • Mattick, J.S. (2001). “Noncoding RNAs: the architects of eukaryotic complexity”. EMBO Reports 2(11), 986-991. [1]
  • Mattick, J.S. (2003). “Challenging the dogma: The hidden layer of non-protein-coding RNAs on complex organisms” Bioessays. 25, 930-939. [2]
  • Mattick, J.S. (2004). “The hidden genetic program of complex organisms” Scientific American. 291(4), 30-37. [3]
  • Pascual-Leone, J. (1970). "A mathematical model for the transition rule in Piaget's developmental stages", Acta Psychologica, 32(4), 301-345.
  • Pascual-Leone, J. (1987). "Organismic processes for neo-Piagetian theories: A dialectical causal account of cognitive development". In: A.Demetriou (Ed.) The neo-Piagetian theories of cognitive development: Towards an integration. Amsterdam: North-Holland; pp.531-569.
  • Piaget, J. (1937 / 1954). La construction du réel chez l'enfant   /  The construction of reality in the child. New York: Basic Books.
  • Piaget, J. (1967). Biology and Knowledge, Chicago University Press.
  • Piaget, J. (1977). The Essential Piaget. ed by Howard E. Gruber and J. Jacques Vonèche, New York: Basic Books.  [An anthology of Piaget's works, with editorial comment].
  • Piaget, J. (1983). "Piaget's theory". In P. Mussen (ed). Handbook of Child Psychology. 4th edition. Vol. 1. New York: Wiley.
  • Piaget, J. (1995). Sociological Studies. London: Routledge.
  • Piaget, J. (2000). "Commentary on Vygotsky". New Ideas in Psychology, 18, 241–259.
  • Piaget, J. (2001). Studies in Reflecting Abstraction. Hove, UK: Psychology Press.
  • Seifer, Calvin Educational Psychology
  • Traill, R.R. (1976 / 2007) Short papers and letters on the 'linear micro-element' theory of mental mechanism, and related questions of scientific method. Monograph 18, Cybernetics Department, Brunel University. [4]
  • Traill, R.R. (1978) Molecular Explanation for Intelligence, including its growth, maintenance, and failings. Thesis, Brunel University, Uxbridge, Middx. [or separate chapters via ]
  • Traill, R.R. (1999) Mind and Micro-Mechanism: a Hunt for the Missing Theory. Melbourne: Ondwelle. ISBN 0-9577737-0-6
  • Traill, R.R. (2005 / 2008) Thinking by Molecule, Synapse, or both? — From Piaget's Schema, to the Selecting/Editing of ncRNA. Melbourne: Ondwelle. [5] — [also in French: [6] ]
  • Jerome Bruner's views on Cognitive development

[edit] References

  1. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l m Santrock, J.W. (2008). A Topical Approach To Life-Span Development (pp.211-216). New York, NY: McGraw-Hill
  2. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l m n o p q r s t u v w x y z aa ab ac ad ae af ag ah ai aj ak al Santrock, J.W. (2007). Cognitive Development Approaches. In Emily Barrosse (Ed.), A Topical Approach to Life-Span Development (pp. 225-230). New York, NY: Beth Mejia.
  3. ^ Herbert Ginsburg and Sylvia Opper, Piaget's Theory of Intellectual Development, ISBN 0-13-675140-7, Chapter 3
  4. ^ Jean Piaget, Play, Dreams and Imitation, 1955
  5. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k Santrock, J.W. (2008). A Topical Approach to Life Span Development (pp.221-223). New York, NY: McGraw-Hill.

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