Cognitive Development

Key Concepts

Cognitive Development- age related changes, e.g. how children think and behave differently as they get older.

This development in built on thought processes or schemas. A schema is an internal representation of a specific physical or mental action. 

It is a basic building block or unit of intelligent behaviour which enables the individual to interact with and understand the world.Some are present at birth (e.g. sucking) and they follow a pattern assimilation (adding new information to an existing schema )and accommodation (changing a schema to fit in the new information) (i.e. they take on board new information and accommodate it with what they know).

Schemas or through processes are what every child uses as it interacts with it’s new, outside world

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Core Theory

Piaget found development of child’s ability when through the same stages in a fixed or invariant order. He found this pattern was universal to all children.

Piaget= children are scientists who explore the world from the moment they are born and develop in clear stages

There are four stages of cognitive development

  • Sensori motor- 0-2
  • Pre-operational- 2-7
  • Concrete operational- 7-11
  • Formal operational – 11+

Stage 1- the sensori motor stage

  • Birth to 2 years
  • Child learns from interaction with environment
  • Body schema= the infant recognizes it exists physically
  • Motor co-ordination= coordinates body parts e.g. hand to mouth to eat
  • Object permanence develop about 8 months. Object permanence is when an infant knows an object or person exists even if they can’t be seen. It takes time for a baby to develop object permanence. E.g Piaget would show a toy to a child, then the toy would be covered with a cloth. The child did not make any effort to get the toy from under the cloth.
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Piaget Core Theory

Stage 2 – Preoperational stage

  • 2 to 7 years
  • Child unable to CONSERVE
  • Animism= the child treats inanimate objects as if they too are alive
  • Reversibility= a child at this stage is unable to work backwards in their thinking
  • Child is egocentric – seeing and thinking of the world only from your point of view, unable to understand the world from another’s perspective
  • Piaget demonstrated Egocentrism with his The Three Mountains experiment
    A model of three mountains is placed on a table. A child is seated in a chair on one side of the table and a doll is seated on a chair on another side. The child is given cards with different views of the three mountains and is asked to pick the view that the doll can see. the child picks the view that they have. Piaget concluded that the child could not de-center and see things from another’s point of view.
  • Decentration means that a child can understand more than one feature of a situation or object. For example they can think of two people’s views or they can categorise objects by size and colour.
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Piaget Core Theory

Stage 3 – CONCRETE operational stage

  • 7 – approx 11 years
  • child now able to conserve and can perform quite complex operations but only if ‘real’ objects are ‘at hand’
  • Conservation= when children know that the properties of certain objects remain the same ( are conserved) even if the objects appear to change.
  • Linguistic humour- child understand word games and double meanings
  • Seriation= ability to put things in rank order

Stage 4 ‘Formal Operations

  • Aged 11+
  • The child can now perform logical operations and abstract reasoning
  • Hypothetical thinking involves solving problems logically and perhaps scientifically in an abstract way- see the big picture
  • Ability to solve problems without the use of props to help
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Critisisms of Piaget's Theory

Cognitive stages are not fixed for all children –some children reach stages sooner/ can demonstrate part of a stage at different ages – they can flick between the stages, sometimes showing abilities from a stage older than they are, without completing their current stage.

Development is based on culture – studies have shown that Aboriginal children develop faster into concrete operational stage than European children in order to enhance survival

There is no guarantees that people develop through all stages – studies show that 50% of adults have not completed formal operational stage

Piaget ignore different kinds of thinking, not thinking is logical and ignores creativity and the influence of others

Piaget does not explain WHY changes in thinking occur, he does not offer reasons why things happen, he simply says children will learn. Cases of extreme neglect (e.g. Genie) do not support this, as she was unable to speak and complete basic tasks – she needed the input of others.

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Alternative Theory - Vygotsky

Alternative Theory- Vygotsky

He argues that although children are born with thinking abilities their cognitive development takes place within their culture

Children picks up tools for thinking ( e.g. language and writing) and these are developed it their home, he called these cultural tools

Children are apprentices-children are helped to develop by people around them, they learn from others (More Knowledgeable Others)

Zone of proximal development ( ZPD)- the gap between where a child in in their learning and where they can potentially get to with the help and support of others- learning through others is called scaffolding

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Core Study

Piaget and the Conservation of number  (1952)

Aim: to see what age children are able to conserve at

Procedure:  Cross sectional study = he compared children of different ages

Children were shown 2 parallel rows of counters, counters facing each other one to one, the research then moved counters on one row- stretching them out. Children were asked one at a time which row had more counters


  • Children 2-7  ( pre operational) said the stretched row had more because it was longer  ( they could not conserve)
  • Children 7-11 ( concrete operational) got it right, know same number of counters in each row ( they can conserve)

Conclusion: Conservation happens as children progress into the concrete operational stage of development.

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Critisisms of Vygotsky's Study

Generalisability: Piaget used a small sample- it may not have represented all children (they were also his own children/their friends)

Reliability: A standardised task – however could Piaget have asked the question in such a way as to suggest the answer to the children?

Application: supports Piaget’s theories of stages of development, and can be used to inform teachers in the education system

Validity: Piaget was criticised for the way he questioned the children, they were asked the same question twice- (usually this happened if children get an answer wrong) therefore they may have changed their answer. Piaget was also criticised for the nature of the task- it did not have any meaning to children, when a toy was used to mess around the counters- 60% of children in the pre operational stage got it right

Ethics: Very little ethical issues, other than the use of children, but he was able to give consent for them.

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Applications to Real Life

Vygotsky’s influence on education

Role of the teacher- the classroom teacher should actively helps children develop understanding, the teacher helps develop the child’s ZPD

Spiral curriculum- in school difficult ideas need to be presented at first simply and then revisited at a more advanced level later

Scaffolding- teachers need to provide a scaffold for children to climb and achieve

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