Cognition and Development

  • Created by: E.16
  • Created on: 31-10-18 11:21

Piagets Theory of Cognitive Development

Cognitive development is the process of aquiring knowledge.

  • Piaget theorised that children think in different ways to grown-ups.
  • He used the concept of schemas, motivation to learn + Assimilation and Accomodation to explain how cognitive development occurs.
  • This led him to form stages of development (next part) that children go through in order to understand the world around them.
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Cognitive Development Continued

schema is a mental framework containing all the information we have about one aspect of the world. We have many schemas for different  aspects. A baby's earliest schemas are innate reflexes e.g. sucking. Schemas help them interact with the environment to discover knowledge.

Motivation to learn (E+D)

  • We are motivated to learn when existing schemas can't allow us to make sense of something new; leading to the unpleasant sensation of disequilibrium. We have to explore and learn to escape disequilibrium and reach equilibrium.

How learning takes place through Assimilation and Accomodation

  • Piaget saw the process of learning as adapting to new situations and the processes which allow adaptation of schemas are:
  • Assimilation is where we understand new experiences and equilibrate by adding more info to existing schemas.
  • Accomodation is where a dramatically new experience means a child must completely change current or form new schemas to equilibrate.
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Evaluation of Cognitive Development

+ Reliable as children do form individual schemas by discovery as Piaget theorised; Howe et al (1992) studied 9-12 year olds viewing the movement of objects down a slope. When working together, they collectively understood better after forming their own conclusions and discussing. SHows that childen learn by forming their own mental representations.

+ Applicable in modern education; Piaget's ideas made classrooms more interactive after the 60's to encourage motivation and engagement so they can develop their own understanding.

- Piaget may have overplayed the importance of equilibration;  Vygotsky proposed children learn better when with other more knowledgable people; Piaget doesn't mention this.

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Piaget's Stages of Intellectual Development

  • These are the stages Piaget formed which all children follow in the same sequence.
  • Piaget believed the stages were fixed and universal.

Sensorimotor (0-2)

  • A baby learns to coordinate sensory input (what they see and feel) through trial and error.
  • Babies learn some language and that other people are separate objects.
  • By 8 months, child understands object permanance (this is the ability to realise that an object still exists when placed out of their visual field).

Pre-operational (2-7)

  • Toddler is mobile but still makes errors in reasoning; these errors include:
    • Conservation - The ability to realise that quantity remains the same even when the appearance changes (Water task)
    • Egocentrism - The child's tendency to only see the world in their view (3 mountains task)
    • Class Inclusion - An advanced classification skillwhere we recognise classes of subsets exist ("Are there more dogs or animals?")
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Piaget's Stages 3 and 4

Concrete Operational (7-11)

  • Children have better reasoning abilities (operations) but can only be applied to physical objects
  • Piaget found most children can now conserve, perform better in egocentric and class inclusion tasks - so they can't do what's in stage 4 basically.

Formal Operational (11 onw)

  • Children become capable of formal reasoning (making decisions); able to focus on the form of an argument and not be distracted by it's content.
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Evaluation of Piaget's Stages

+ Piaget triggered interest in the area of cognitive development and his work became the starting point for follow-up theories such as Vygotsky's theory of social development.

+ No gender-bias present; cross-cultural evidence suggests that the stages are universal

+ Piaget's insights have had important applications in education with his idea of children being scientists so children learn through discovery.

- Piaget's conclusions on class inclusion may be dubious; Siegler and Svetina (2006) tested 5 y/o's in Slovenia who took part in 3 sessions of 10 class inclusion tasks; they found that children 5 y/o's couldn't understand class inclusion.

- Not biologically determined as Piaget thought; not everyone aquires formal operations (stage 4) thinking.

- Lacks reliability as Piaget believed that cognitive development could not be accelerated as it was under biological control BUT Meadows (1988) found that tuition was able to speed up development. (Vygotsky's use of a more knowledgable other too).

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Vygotsky's Theory of Cognitive Development

  • Vygotsky saw the child as an apprentice learning from a more knowledgable other VS Piaget who saw the child as a scientist. Vygotsky saw cognition as a social process.

Cultural Differences in Cognitive Abilities

  • As he saw cognition as a social process, Vygotsky placed importance on the role of more knowledgable people the children interact with, and what the children experience.
  • This is how children aquire reasoning skills; so there would be cultural differences.

The Zone of Proximal Development (ZPD)

  • This is a central idea of Vygotsky's theory. It is the area between the child's actual development level and their potential level which could be acheived with the help of adults/experienced peers.


  • This is support and prompting usually provided by adults which help a child acheive cognitive tasks they wouldn't be able to complete solo.
  • Scaffolding is gradually removed as the child gains confidence.
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Vygotsky Supporting Evidence

Wood et al (1975)

  • Observed mothers using support techniques to help 4 y/o's build a model that's difficult to build on their own.
  • Most effective Mums varied support according to how well the child was doing.
  • Highlights ZPD concept; and...scaffolding is effective when matched to needs of learner.
  • Successful Scaffolding is (low - high):
    • 1 - General Prompts
    • 2 - Verbal instructions
    • 3 - Indicates materials
    • 4 - Prepares stuff for child
    • 5 - Demonstration

Freund (1990)

  • 3 and 5 y/o's help a puppet decide what furniture should go where in a dollshouse; half alone half with Mums.
  • Guided children did better which supports Vygotsky's theory that scaffolding is superior to discovery learning. 
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Summary and Evaluation

Summary: Vygotsky suggests learning is the best when done socially from a more knowledgable other. He emphasised the role of culture and context in learning. Scaffolding supports children and is gradually taken away and the ZPD is the area between actual and potential development level.

+ Vygotsky's theory is reliable; as Roazzi and Byrant (1998) asked 4/5 y/o's to estimate sweets in a jar; guided children had closer estimates than the single children. This supports Vygotsky's empirical theory that learning with a more knowledgable other improves cognition.

+ His work is heavily applicable in modern education; lessons designed to have more social interaction through group work and adult assistance has helped children cross the ZPD. Keer et al (2005) 7 y/o's taught by 10 y/o's alongside normal lessons did better at reading than those without. Supports the idea that teaching assistants are effective at enhancing the rate of learning.

- Vygotsky's theory is not generalisable as he doesnt look at individual differences in all children; Howe et al (1992) asked children to observe motion of an object going downhill; each child repsonded to what they saw. They found different children learn at different rates - suggesting scaffolding may not have the same impact on every child.

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Baillargeon's Explanation of Infant Abilities

  • "Children gain object permanance at a younger age than 8 months"

Knowledge of the physical world

  • The extent to which we understand how the physical world works - e.g. having object permanance.

Violation of Exprectation research (VOE)

  • Investigating infant knowledge of the world. If children understand how the world works they'll expect certain things to happen.
  • Research Summary (lab experiment)Variations of the procedure (Hespos et al): Support experiment where children shown that an object unsupported should fall. Infants paid more attention to impossible event.
    • Procedure: 5-6month babies shown a tall rabbit pass behind a screen with a window.Findings: Impossible event infants looked on average 33 secs. Possible event averaged 25 secs.
      • Possible condition - tall Rabbit seen passing the window but the short one can't.
      • Impossible condition- neither Rabbit appeared.
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Infant Physical Reasoning System (PRS)

  • Baillargeon's concept which explains how infants understand the world.
  • Research suggests humans are born with PRS - a basic understanding of the physical world. This awareness becomes more developed through experience.
  • Babies have an innate understanding of the world
    • Object persistence  (DIFFERENT to Object Permanance) is one way - the idea that an object remains existent and does not spontaneously change structure/shape.

VOE research is vital as it shows an impossible event increases attention as it may allow the babies to develop their understanding of the physical world.

Summary:Baillargons research undermines PIaget's research as it suggests object permanance is developed by children at around 3 months rather than Piaget's 8 months. 

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Evaluation of Baillargeon

+ Baillargeon's method of sampling was less biased (compared to Piaget) as she used volunteer sampling - newspaper ad. Allows research to be generalised to wider  higher popu. validity. The children do not just come from middle-class children.

+ Highly controlled study - Lab Experiment as parents were told to keep their eyes closed and avoid interaction with baby. This prevented unconscious communication cues from the parent. This increases validity of the study as it reduces the effects of situational variables on children's behaviour.

- Hespos and Marle (2012) found that without learning and experience, we all understand physical properties - used the dangling keys. Found that knowing this means the PRS is innate and universal (supports universality argument) - otherwise, we would find cultural differences.

- It's hard to judge what an infant understands as they lack motor skills so they may just see the events as different rather than impossible.

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Social Cognition: Selman's Levels of Perspective-T

  • Selman proposed the concept of social perspective-taking which is the ability to appreciate a social situation from the perspective of other people.
  • Different to Piaget's egocentrism - which focuses on physical perspective-taking (as seen in 3 mountains task).
  • Selman believed Physical and Social perspective taking were seperate processes.


  • Looked at the changes in children's responses to different perspective-taking scenarios.
  • Procedure:
    • 4-6 y/o's were given a task to measure role-taking; involved asking how each person felt in each scenario.
    • Kitten scenario was where Holly promised her Dad not to climb trees but she then sees her friend's kitten stuck up a tree.
    • Asked how each child felt if Holly did/didn't rescue the kitten.
  • Findings: 
    • Selman identified specific levels of role taking with age ranges.
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Selman's Levels

Stage 0 (3-6): Socially Egocentric

  • Child can't distinguish between their and others' emotions.

Stage 1 (6-8): Social Information RT

  • Child knows difference between their and others' POV but can only focus on one perspective

Stage 2 (8-10): Self-Reflective RT

  • Child can put themselves in the position of others but can only take on board 1 POV at a time.

Stage 3 (10-12): Mutual RT

  • Child able to look at situations in both their and others' POV's at the same time.

Stage 4 (12 onw): Social + Conventional RT

  • Young people able to see that understanding others' views not enough to reach an agreement. SO social conventions needed to keep order.
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Evaluation of Selman

+ Reliable as there is follow up research. Gurucharri and Selman (1982) conducted longitudinal follow-up studies with children. Found perspective-taking enhances with age. Supports idea POV taking is a social process.

+ Heavily applicable in diagnosing ADHD + Autism. Marton et al (2009) found children w/ ADHD performed worse at POV tasks involving understanding scenarios and evaluating consequences tasks vs control group. Suggests Selman's research differentiates those with and without ADHD. 

- Lacks generalisability across cultures - cultural differences in POV development. Wu and Keysar (2007) found Chinese did better than Americans at perspective-taking tasks. Contradicts Selman's idea that cognitive maturity is a factor of going through these stages.

- Selman's theory may be reductionist as he fails to consider the role of empathy and opportunities children have to learn from peer interation. These internal and external factors influence the process of going through these stages.

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Social Cognition: TOM

  • Theory of Mind is our personal understanding of what other people are thinking and feeling (mind reading - Illuminati Confirmed!).
  • TOM can be investigated using false belief tasks.

Intentional Reasoning Research 

  • Used to test if toddlers understand the motives behind behaviour.
  • Meltzoff made adults place beads into a jar either easily (control condition) or by struggling (experimental condition) whilst toddlers watched; toddlers imitated how the adult demonstrated; shows young children have TOM.

False Belief Tasks

  • This is a way to test TOM in 3-4 y/o's (as its believed TOM shifts when 4 y/o).
  • The first was developed by Wimmer and Perner (1983) - Children told a story (SIMILAR TO SALLY-ANNE)
  • Most 4 y/o's answered right but 3 y/o's didn't; supporting the idea that TOM shifts and advances at around 4 y/o.
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Sally-Anne & Autism

  • Autism is a developmental disability associated w/ problems in communication + building relationships with others.
  • Sally-Anne study uses the Sally-Anne task to assess TOM. Participants need to understand that Sally will look for the marble in the original place, not in the place Anne moved it.
    • Children with ASD or very young children find this hard af.

Sally-Anne: Baron Cohen et al (1905)

  • Procedure: 20 children with ASD; 14 with Down Syndrome; 27 control. Same method as described above.
  • Findings: 85% in the control group answered correctly; Only 20% with ASD answered correctly.
  • Conclusion: Suggested deficits in TOM can be a complete explanation for ASD.

TOM as an explanation of Autism

  • Firth argued Autism was associated with mind-blindness; inability to understand others' thoughts and feelings.
  • Baron Cohen used TOM to explain mind-blindness through developing Sally-Anne study.
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TOM & ASD Evaluation

  1. Not all children with autism lack a ToM. This is a weakness as we cannot be sure that TOM deficit causes autism or whether autism causes TOM deficit. Furthermore, not all of the autistic children have a TOM deficit then it cannot be a central part of autism nor the most important symptom.
  2. Some individuals with autism have exceptional abilitiesToM fails to take into account some of the exceptional abilities shown by a number of individuals with autism. It concentrates on the impairment of cognitive functioning but does not recognise those with advanced skills.
  3. TOM is a partial explanation for ASD; TOM research has helped understand the various experiences of those on the autistic spectrum.
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Social Cognition: Mirror Neuron System

  • Mirror neurons are nerves in the brain that are activate when specific actions are performed/observed in others; allowing observers to experience the action as if they did so themselves.

How were Mirror Neurons discovered??

  • Rizzolatti et al (2002)  accidentally discovered them when studying Monkey's motor cortex
  • Researcher reached for his lunch and found the Monkey's motor cortex activated - even tho it saw not did.
  • They researched further and found the same cells fired when the monkey took a peanut and saw someone move.

Haker et al (2012) - Contagious Yawning

  • Demonstrated an area of the brain associated with contagious yawning rich in mirror neurons by using fMRI focus on "Brodman's Area 9".
  • Results: Participants showed considerable activity in Brodman's Area 9.
  • Conclusion: Suggests mirror neurons are possibly behind contagious yawning.
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Evaluation of Mirror Neurons

  • Lacks generalisability to humans as it suggests that mirror neurons are innate in all humans even though the research by Rizzolatti involved Monkeys and was accidental.
  • There is difficulty in studying mirror neuron activity - this is because fMRI scans (as the ones in Haker's research) don't allow us to measure brain activity in each individual cell. This means most activity is inferred to be because of mirror neurons.
  • There is evidence to support the role of mirror neurons. This makes the concept reliable as Haker et al (2012) used fMRI scans in her study and was able to conclude there was application of mirror neurons in contagious yawning.
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