The following theories take the area of cognitive development, which focuses on the processes of the mind, including thinking and learning, as their major focus.
1. Jean Piaget’s Cognitive Developmental Theory:
Jean Piaget was a Swiss scientist whose theory has been very influential in the way we think about child development. Like Freud, Piaget was honored by Time magazine as one of the 100 most influential people of the 20th century. Piaget studied children’s thinking through what he called the “clinical method.” He encouraged children to talk freely and learned about their thoughts from a detailed analysis of what they said.
What is a Schema?
Piaget believed that we are constantly adapting to our environment. In order to do so, we use our minds to organize the world in ways that we can understand. This organization is based on the development of “schemas.” A schema is a cognitive framework that places a concept into categories and associations.
For example, we all have a schema for gender, which contains all the expectations and associations that we activate when we see women and men. In one interesting study, children looked at either pictures that would be consistent with gender expectations or pictures that might not be consistent with gender expectations.
When they later tried to remember what they had seen, those children who had a very stereotyped schema for gender were more likely to change the gender of the people in the gender-inconsistent pictures; that is, they remembered a man working under a car and a woman washing dishes. The stereotypical nature of these children’s schemas even affected their memory, so they believed that what they had seen conformed to their expectations.
Piaget set out two processes of adaptation- assimilation and accommodation. In assimilation, we take new information and fit it into a schema, whether it really fits there or not. Take the example of a little boy who goes to the zoo and sees an elephant for the first time.
He turns to his mother and says, “Look, it’s a big doggy with two tails!” In this case, the child has a schema for doggy but not one for elephant, so he does his best to make sense out of seeing an animal with both a trunk and a tail by trying to fit this new experience into what he already knows.
Will he always think the elephant is a strange dog? Of course not, and this is where the process of accommodation comes in. As his mother explains to him about elephants, pointing out their unique features, he accommodates this new information by creating a new schema, one for elephants.
Piaget described a process he called equilibration as a constant seesaw between assimilation and accommodation. We are constantly experiencing and learning more about our world, and we must make sense out of what we see as best we can, using concepts we understand.
We assimilate new information into existing schemas if we can make that work. If the new information cannot be assimilated, that throws us into a state of disequilibrium. By creating a new schema to accommodate the new information, we are returned to a steady state of equilibration.
If you have ever worked very hard to understand something you found difficult and finally had a “breakthrough” or “aha” experience, then you know the sensation of opening up your mind in a new way, which is indicative of accommodation. The frustration you felt when you didn’t understand gives way to a sense of resolution, or equilibrium.
Stages of Development:
Like Freud and Erikson, Piaget believed that children change in qualitative ways from one age period to the next. The stages that he described were based on how he believed the mind works at each age level.
The first stage is the sensorimotor stage, which begins at birth and ends at about 2 years. As the name of this stage implies, Piaget believed that infants organize their world by means of their senses and their physical action upon it. Therefore, action schemas determine their understanding.
For infants, objects do not exist in and of them but exist only in relation to the infant’s action on them. He termed this a lack of object permanence. For an infant, out of sight is literally out of mind. By the end of this stage, infants have learned that objects continue to exist, and they have begun to represent objects, people, and events in their minds.
The second stage is the preoperational stage, which lasts from 2 to 7 years of age. For Piaget, the term “operations” refers to logical thought processes. The name of this stage implies that preschool children do not yet have logical thinking. The major accomplishment of this stage is the ability to think using symbols—that is, a representation of something that is not there.
Toddlers can think about and refer to objects that are not in their immediate vicinity because they can represent them in their minds. They can tell you about an apple they ate yesterday, unlike the infant who must show you the actual apple.
Another important characteristic of preoperational thought is egocentrism. Be careful in understanding this term. It is not the same as selfishness or egotism (thinking you are the greatest). It really means that children of this age are unable to understand that someone else’s perspective could be different from their own. The result may be a “selfish” child who grabs toys from others, but the reason is that the child cannot yet understand that someone else wants the same toy just as much as she does.
The third stage is concrete operations, which lasts from 7 to 12 years of age. By 7 years of age, most children have begun to think logically. The limitation of this period is that thinking is concrete rather than abstract. For example, how would you explain the saying “Don’t put all your eggs in one basket”? As an abstract thinker, you might say, “Don’t count on only one plan to work out.
Have some backup plans.” Now compare what a concrete thinker might say – “When you go to the store, take two baskets and put half your eggs in one and half in the other.” Concrete thought is very much in the here and now. This is probably why we don’t start teaching subjects that involve abstract thinking such as political science or philosophy to children until they are at least in middle school.
The fourth and final stage is formal operations, which begins at 12 years of age and, according to Piaget, describes cognitive abilities in adulthood as well. As adolescence begins, children develop the ability to think both logically and abstractly.
Modern Applications of Piaget’s Theory:
Although Piaget’s theories have received a good deal of criticism about specifics, his legacy may lie in his concept of constructivism. He understood that we do not operate like video cameras, taking in what is around us passively and indiscriminately. Instead, Piaget believed that we are active learners, always working to construct our understanding of the world. Piaget saw children as being like “little scientists,” always actively experimenting on the world to increase their understanding of it.
These ideas have had a great impact on educational practices, taking the focus away from rote learning of facts and fostering a teaching style that promotes the child’s active approach to constructing his own learning. Many teachers use Piaget’s ideas as the basis for their teaching style and research in this area is ongoing.
For example, Constance Kamii and her colleagues examined the efficacy of active, constructive learning. They gave low- socioeconomic status, low-achieving students in first grade active, math-related activities to explore instead of traditional math- assignments. At the end of the year, these students scored higher on tests of mental arithmetic and logical reasoning than did similar students who had received teacher-directed, pencil-and-paper instruction.
2. Lev Vygotsky’s Sociocultural Theory:
Lev Semenovich Vygotsky, a Russian psychologist, had somewhat different ideas about cognitive development. Instead of seeing children as “little scientists” who carry out informal experiments to figure out the world around them, Vygotsky emphasized the importance of the social world and of culture in promoting cognitive growth.
According to Vygotsky, learning first takes place in the interaction between people. The individual then internalizes that learning, and it becomes a part of her own, independent thinking – “First it appears between people as an inter-psychological category and then within the child as an intra-psychological category”.
Vygotsky believed that looking at what the child is capable of learning in interaction with a skilled helper is a better indicator of his level of cognitive development than just testing what he already knows. He was more interested in what the child could become than in how he currently functioned.
Vygotsky developed the concept of the zone of proximal development, which he defined as “the distance between the actual developmental level as determined by independent problem solving and the level of potential development as determined through problem solving under adult guidance or in collaboration with more capable peers”.
Proximal refers to being near or close. A good teacher stays close to what children already know but then helps them take the next step. Of necessity, this involves a dialogue between the teacher and learners, as the teacher probes what the children know in order to shape the next step.
The process by which this learning happens is referred to as scaffolding. A scaffold is a structure put around a building to allow people to work on it. In like fashion, adults help the “construction” of the child’s understanding by providing guidance and support. Just as the scaffold comes down when a building is completed, so too the adult can step back when the child fully understands.
For example, if you have a jack-in-the-box and want to play with a 6-month-old baby, you will likely just turn the handle for him and watch his reaction. When the child is 2 years old, you might hold his hand on the handle so he can learn to turn it. When he is 4, you might just give him the toy and watch- Your input is no longer needed, and your “scaffolding” can come down.
In the 1950s, experimental psychologist Donald Broadbent and others were struggling with the issue of how people work with machines. They found that the behaviourist stimulus-response paradigm was not adequate for their study because they had to understand all the steps that came between the environmental stimulus and the individual response.
In the late ’50s, Broadbent published a paper in which he brought together the ideas about these intervening processes, such as attention, memory, and decision making, which became the basis for the theory of information processing.
The information processing approach likens the mind to a computer. Just as a computer has both hardware and software, so does the human mind. The “hardware” is the storage device, such as the hard drive, which is equivalent to human memory storage in the brain. The “software” is the computer program that processes the information that enters the storage device.
This is equivalent to cognitive processes such as attention, organization, and retrieval strategies. People take in information through their senses, process this information so that some of it enters into memory, and later try to remember what they have learned when they need it. One characteristic of information processing is breaking down the way we understand and use information into steps, such as the steps in memory described above- acquiring information, storing it, and retrieving it.
Continuing this analogy of human memory as a computer, there are three structures, each of which serves a different function- sensory memory, working (or short-term) memory, and long-term memory. As information comes in through our senses, it is retained for a very brief period of time in its raw form. This is known as sensory memory.
You can think of this as analogous to input devices such as the keyboard or mouse on your computer. In this fraction of a second the information either moves along to the next step or is lost and does not stay in our mind. Information that moves along then enters working (or short-term) memory.
Think of this as analogous to a computer’s RAM or random- access memory. The capacity of short-term memory is limited, and information can be retained for only a brief time unless the information is processed. Working memory takes those short-term memories and processes them in a variety of ways.
Rehearsal is one of the important ways that we can do this. Repeating information to ourselves preserves it in its original form until it can be organized and moved along into long-term memory, which is thought to be capable of permanent storage.
It is all well and good to put something into our memory, but the real trick is to retrieve that information when we need it. If information has not been carefully organized and encoded in this process, it will be difficult to find in our storage when we need to use it. You undoubtedly have had the experience of knowing that you know something but not being able to bring it back into your working memory to use it. Similarly you have probably lost a document on your computer when you haven’t been careful to store it away in the correct folder.
Modern Applications of Information Processing:
As we know that, one of the strength of the information processing approach is that it breaks down cognitive processes into their component steps. This approach has been used to design better teaching techniques to help ensure student learning. For example, the process of learning to read has been broken down into its component parts.
Two important parts are the ability to name letters accurately and the ability to name letters quickly. Research has shown that the speed, with which a child can name letters, even if he makes mistakes, is more important for later reading efficiency than total accuracy of letter naming.
Processing of letters must become automatic if a child is going to be able to read fluently. With this information, teachers will have a better idea of how to develop skills that will help children learn to read.
Other applications of principles from information processing theory to classroom practice include being sure that you have the learner’s attention before you start, connecting new knowledge to other information that is already in the individual’s memory, and requiring the learner to actively process new incoming information.
You can help students make the necessary connections between old and new material by presenting a lot of examples or giving them assignments that require that they integrate new information with previous knowledge. Using discussion groups and classroom activities helps ensure that the students are actively engaged with and using newly acquired knowledge.
3. Evolutionary Theories of Development:
In 1859, Charles Darwin (1809-1882) published On the Origin of Species and introduced the idea of evolution to a wide audience. As he traveled around the world, observing animals and plants in their native settings, Darwin developed the idea that natural selection, or survival of the fittest, accounts for changes in species from one generation to the next.
The “fittest” animals or plants are not necessarily the strongest but rather those that adapt most successfully to their environment. Those who are successful are most likely to produce offspring and pass on their genes to the next generation. This theory has become a core understanding underlying much of biological science today.
The theory of evolution is illustrated by the differences in the beaks of finches that Darwin found on different Galápagos Islands, off the western coast of South America. The islands have different types of terrain. Some are dry and others are mountainous, and the type of vegetation that grows on each varies accordingly.
Although the birds that Darwin found on these islands were similar to each other, each had a different type of beak that enabled the birds to eat the type of food available on their island. It appears that, as the birds migrated from one island to another, only those who could successfully manage the food available were able to survive and pass on their genes. Eventually, the populations became different on each island as they adapted to their environment.
Modern Applications of Evolutionary Theory:
Ideas taken from evolutionary theory have influenced research on several important topics in the field of child development, including aggression, altruism, attachment, and social dominance hierarchies. Understanding the adaptive value of each of these behaviours gives us insight into the mechanisms that contribute to them.
Evolutionary approaches such as ethology and sociobiology have contributed to a newer approach known as evolutionary developmental psychology. This new approach applies the principles and ideas of evolutionary theory specifically to questions of how and why children develop as they do.
Children’s behaviour is seen as an adaptation to the environment in two ways:
(a) What children do is adaptive because it is a preparation for adult life, and
(b) What children do is adaptive at their own stage of development and in their specific life circumstances.
This newer approach places greater emphasis on the role of the environment in influencing behaviour and links the influence of the environment with the expression of genes, in a process known as epigenesis.
One example of research based on an evolutionary developmental approach has focused on the onset of puberty in girls. Age of onset is affected by many factors but is largely controlled by our genes. The age at which a girl’s mother began puberty is a good predictor of when her daughter will begin puberty.
However, research has shown that girls enter puberty at earlier ages when their parents have a high level of conflict with little support or satisfaction in their marriage or when their father is absent or severely dysfunctional. Evolutionary developmental psychologists explain this finding by pointing to built-in genetic adaptations that are set to respond to particular environmental circumstances in childhood because they have led to success in passing on one’s genes to the next generation.
In the case of early puberty, Bruce Ellis has explained the association with parental characteristics this way – “In the world in which humans evolved, dangerous or unstable home environments meant a shorter lifespan, and going into puberty increased chances of surviving, reproducing and passing on your genes”.
Evolutionary developmental psychology often has been used in conjunction with other theoretical approaches, providing us with new hypotheses to test and drawing our attention to the need to understand the evolutionary functions that are served by different types of human behaviour if we hope to fully understand them.
4. Ecological Theory:
We tend to think of the study of ecology as focusing on plants and animals and their relationships to the environment. For example, on a large scale, we are learning more and more about how human impact on the earth’s atmosphere is creating global climate change, which is affecting even the survival of polar bears and penguins.
These creatures have adapted to specific environments, called ecological niches. When these environments change, the whole system of interrelationships of plants and animals changes, and some organisms will disappear.
In the 1970s, Urie Bronfenbrenner (1917-2005) applied these ideas to the field of developmental psychology to create a theory of human ecology, in which he defined development as a function of the “interaction between the developing organism and the enduring environments or contexts in which it lives out its life”.
Bronfenbrenner believed that you cannot understand the life course of an individual without understanding how that person interacts with all the different facets of his environment. He also believed that this is a dynamic process- All aspects of the environment affect the individual, and the individual affects all aspects of his environment.
Bronfenbrenner proposed that individuals grow and develop within a nested set of influences that he divided into four systems, the microsystem, mesosystem, exosystem, and macrosystem. He subsequently added a dimension of time, called the chronosystem.
These systems are embedded one within the other, each influencing the other in a back-and- forth fashion, and the relationship between systems changes as the child grows and develops. Within each system, if you change one thing it affects everything else in the system.
The microsystem includes the interaction of the person in her immediate settings, such as home, school, or friendship groups. The microsystem contains all the face-to- face interactions that include the developing person. The mesosystem consists of the interaction among these various settings.
For example, a child’s experiences at home influence her progress at school, and her experiences at school influence her interactions at home. The exosystem consists of settings that the child never enters but that affect the child’s development nevertheless. For example, even if the child never goes to the parents’ workplace, what happens in that setting can have an effect on the child.
A job that is so demanding that it leaves a parent exhausted at the end of the day affects how the parents will interact with their children when they come home. The macrosystem consists of cultural norms that guide the nature of the organizations and places that make up one’s everyday life.
For example, the macrosystem in the United States includes the ideology of democracy, as well as the value that is placed on individual achievement. The chronosystem consists of the “changes (and continuities) over time in the environments in which the person is living”.
It will be easier for you to remember the various “systems” that make up ecological theory if you are able to recognize examples of each of them.
Bronfenbrenner emphasized the importance of understanding the individual, not on her own or with one or two other people, but rather within all of these contexts. His theory is, in part, a criticism of some of the techniques of experimental psychology, in which children are tested in the laboratory with an experimenter and perhaps a parent, and the results are then assumed to be true in the child’s natural setting.
He developed the idea of “ecological validity,” meaning that research and its interpretation must take the environment into account, whether the environment is a laboratory or a natural setting. For example, a laboratory may be an excellent place to look at reactions to strange situations, but it is not necessarily a good way to look at the everyday interactions of parent and child.
Modern Applications of Ecological Theory:
In a recent study, Brophy-Herb, Lee, Nievar, and Stollak used ecological theory as a basis for understanding the development of social competence in preschoolers. Instead of looking at single variables like socioeconomic status or family stress as predictors of children’s social competence, they examined an intersecting and nested array of variables that they believed would have an influence on social competence.
One finding illustrates the complexity of the findings. Although they found that children with more stress in their lives were rated as having lower social competence, the nature of the child’s classroom modified this relationship. In a classroom in which many children had behaviour problems, a child experimenting high stress was more likely to have those problems than a stressed child in a classroom with few other children with behaviour problems.
Another legacy of human ecology is the application of theory to policy, action research, and making change happen. A human ecologist believes that all levels of society impact human development. The logical extension of this belief is involvement in the creation of social policy, including legislation and programs at all levels of government.
Bronfenbrenner himself was involved with the creation of Head Start, a program that was designed to help disadvantaged children by providing interventions at several different levels. Head Start provides an excellent educational program for children but also helps their families’ well- being by providing help with financial, social, educational, and psychological difficulties they might be experiencing. It also works hard to create links between the classroom setting and the child’s home.