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COGNITIVE DEVELOPMENT:

Changes in our ability to understand the World around us


Introduction Do children think, reason, and remember in the same manner as adults? Until well into the twentieth century, it was widely assumed that they do. In many societies, it was assumed that while adults are superior mentally, just as they are physically, the cognitive processes of children and adults are basically very similar. These assumptions were vigorously challenged by the Swiss psychologist Jean Paiget. On the basis of careful observations of his own and many other children, Piaget concluded that in several respects children do not think or reason like adults: Their thought processes are different not only in degree but in kind as well. Piagets theory of cognitive development contains many valuable insights and has guided a great deal of research. Thus, we will consider it in detail here. Although some of Piagets conclusions have been questioned in recent years, his theory is still considered to be a uniquely valuable one by many developmental psychologists. For this reason, we will consider it carefully here.

Piagets Theory: An overview 1. All human beings move through a set series of stages; 2. They move from one stage to another at specific ages; 3. The order of such progress is unchanging (Flavell, 1985).

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The Preoperational Stage: Growth of Symbolic Activity: Sometime between the ages of eighteenth and twenty-four months, Piaget suggested, toddlers acquire the ability to form mental images of objects and events. At the same time, language develops to the point at which they begin to think in terms of verbal symbols-words. These developments mark the transition to Piagets second stage- the preoperational stage. This term reflects Piagets view that at this stage, children dont yet show much ability to use logic and mental operations. The Stage of Concrete Operations: The Emergence Of Logical Thought By the time they are six or seven (or perhaps even earlier, as we will soon discuss), most children can solve the simple problems described above. According to Piaget, a childs mastery of conservation marks the beginning of a third major stage known as the stage of concrete operations. The Stage of Formal Operations: Dealing With Abstractions as Well as Reality At about the age of twelve, Piaget suggested, most children enter the final stage of cognitive development-the stage of formal operation. The Case of The Competent Preschooler With respect to the first of these issues, growing evidence indicates that Piaget seriously underestimated the cognitive abilities of infants and young children in many respects (e.g. Slegal & Peterson, 1996). Why did this happen? Apparently, because some of the research methods Piaget used, although ingenious, made it difficult for infants and preschool children to demonstrate cognitive abilities.

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Discrete Stages in Cognitive Development Piaget proposed that cognitive development passes through discrete stages and that these are discontinuous-children must complete one stage before entering another. Most research findings, however, indicate that cognitive changes occur in a more gradual manner. Rarely does an ability entirely absent at one age appear suddenly at another. Further, these changes are often domain specific-children may be advanced with respect to some kinds of thinking, but far less advanced with respect to others. The Social Context of Cognitive Development As noted earlier, Piaget viewed cognitive development as stemming primarily from childrens active efforts to make sense out of the world around them, plus the process of maturation. In contrast, socio-cultural theory-another major theory of cognitive development, proposed by Lev Vygotsky (1987)-placed much greater emphasis on the roles of social factors and language, especially among school-aged children. Vygotsky suggested that cognitive growth occurs in an interpersonal, social context in which children are moved beyond their level of actual development what they are capable of doing unassisted and toward their level of potential development. In sum, there is now general agreement among developmental psychologists that in certain respects Piagets theory is in need of revision. Despite its shortcomings, however, there is no doubt that this theory has profoundly altered our ideas about how children think and reason (e.g. Brainerd, 1996). In this sense, certainly, Piagets work has made a lasting contribution to psychology.

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Childrens Theory of Mind: Thinking about Thinking As adults, we possess a sophisticated understanding of thoughts and the process of thinking. We realize that our own thoughts may change over time and that we may have false beliefs or reach false conclusions. Similarly, we realize that other people may have goals or desires that differ from our own and that they may sometimes try to conceal these from us; further, we realize that given the same information, others may reason to conclusions that differ from our own. In other words, we understand quite a bit about how we and other people think. But what about children? When and how- do they acquire such understanding? This has been a major focus of recent research on cognitive development, and this work has yielded some surprising findings. Lets begin with what might seen to be a fairly simple aspect of such thinking-childrens ability to recognize that others can hold beliefs different form their own, and that these beliefs can be false. Do children understand this basic fact? Not, it appears, until they are about four years old.

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