Cognitive Development

‘Understanding Child Development - from synapse to society’
2nd October 2018

Cognitive Development Essay - 
Three significant theories
‘The emergence of thinking and understanding’ 

There are three significant and influential viewpoints on cognitive development that are important to consider when trying to understand the development of cognition. However what is equally pertinent, is that the studies outlined here may have been conducted on animals so consideration needs to be given to the differing social and cultural environments and Brain capacity, which is widely considered to be more substantial in humans.

The three theories are:
  1. Jean Piaget’s Theory of Cognitive Development
  2. Vygotsky’s Sociocultural Theory
  3. The Information Processing Theory

Jean Piaget’s Theory of Cognitive Development
Piaget proposed that there are four stages to development. What is also important about his ideas is that he believed children are naturally inquisitive and that throughout their development they are “continually seeking to understand the world around them and explore possibilities” and in doing so learn and develop cognition. Piaget called this knowledge a “cognitive schema” - “building blocks of intelligent behavior”. Piaget defined Schema as “a cohesive, repeatable action sequence processing component actions that are tightly interconnected and governed by a core meaning” (Piaget and Look 1952, ‘The origins of intelligence in children’). Thus, as we grow and gain more schema, a progressive reorganization of elaborate schemas then comprises our cognition and will determine our cognitive ability.
Simplified, it could be defined as: ‘Children learn by doing’ or “discovery learning”.

The four stages are outlined here and correlate to the age of the child.
  1. 0-2years: sensorimotor stage: sensory and motor actions only.
  2. 2-7years: pre-operational stage: developing ideas of symbolism. Ego centric.
  3. 7-11years: concrete operational stage: turning point- development of thought as logical, flexible and organized. The child is able to use multiple perspectives and moves away form an egocentric interpretation.
  4. 11years: formal operational stage: abstract, systematic and scientific or hypothetical thinking. 
Critics of Piaget’s Cognitive Development Theory state that it is not guaranteed that all children will progress to the final stage.

To summarize - Piaget believed that thought preceded language and that this was universal across cultures. Piaget conducted the research on his own by observing his own and his friend’s children - his notes on observations were his source of findings and as such are considered unreliable. Piaget focused on development and not learning - he hoped to explain the “mechanisms and processes by which the infant (and then the child) develops into an individual who can reason and think using [skills of] hypothesis” ( Piaget does not distinguish between performance and competence. Thee are some schema that are neonatal, for instance, the sucking reflex and grabbing reflex, which suggests that some schema are genetically programmed.

Vygotsky’s Sociocultural Theory
Unlike Piaget, Vygotsky hypothesized that children learn by copying a “more knowledgeable other” (MKO)  and then through practice in their “zone of proximal Development” (ZPD). As a result, there is more emphasis given to the context, of the social environment, the child grows up in. He believed that cognitive development was a social process and that a persons development is determined by the scaffolding provided by others. So, in his theory, social learning precedes individual development. Consequently this will vary across cultures.
Vygotsky also believed that thought and language developed together; the origin of reasoning or “meaning making” is to do with our ability to communicate and interact. Following this strain, Vygotsky explained that language is “mankind’s greatest tool” and the foundation for all of the higher level cognitive processes, I.e.: controlled attention, abstract reasoning, self reflection.

The Information Processing Theory
The main argument of this theory is that “the mind is like a computer”. As such, our cognitive development is hinged on two factors:
  1. Our hardware
  2. Our software
As we grow older, our minds upgrade as we learn and experience more. So cognitive  development is viewed as continual process and one where our learning is updated. In this theory there are three types of memory that work together and compliment one another to enable successful cognitive development:
  1. Sensory memory 
  2. Working memory
  3. Long term memory 
For instance, let’s imagine a parent/carer spells out a word to heir child. A child who has experienced before and can recognize the spelling with the use of their working memory, e.g. dog, will understand the parent/carer. The long term memory will then find associated memories (experiences, prior learning, like images, facts etc) associated with that word.
During development the sensory memory capacity increased only slightly, the working memory capacity and efficiency increases dramatically and it is unknown what happens to the long term memory - it is believed that this has limitless capacity - however, as we develop he retrieval of memories should become easier.
This is linked to the period of time in our brain development when myelination occurs: during this time the synaptic connections in the brain are reinforced and enable signals to travel faster through neurons. Then, as the synaptic pruning takes place, this increases the efficiency of the networks of connections between neurons. This all results in faster processing skills leading to “more complex cognitive operations, more efficient strategies for information processing, more connections of information  and a greater development of cues for retrieval”. 
All of these stages are heavily influenced by external factors (that stimulate or hinder cognitive development). As such, childhood experiences and circumstances can affect the performance of working memory.

How can this be applied in the classroom?
With consideration of Vygotsky’s theory, successful development might look like this:
  • activities where the child moves through these processes: summarizing > questioning > clarifying > scaffolding 
  • Apprenticeships > where an MKO supports a peer, putting support in play where it is needed and facilitates the learning and development, this could be a teacher or peer.
  • Collaborative learning > supports the students development in the ZPD.
When considering the impact of learning on an individual and their cognitive development, one must remember that according to Piaget ‘intellectual growth is a process of adaptation’ achieved through:
  • assimilation: using existing schemas 
  • accommodation: the need for new schemas 
  • equilibrium: the force which moves development along.
Assimilation and accommodation require an active learner; there needs to be a “readiness” (in other words the child must be at the correct stage to learn something news - ZPD) for the child to be successful at developing new schemas and achieving equilibrium, when we schemas suit situations, rather than being in a state of disequilibrium, when new information does not fit the schemas.

In a word - Yes. Research shows that children who are born into or brought up in a high socio-economic status family (e.g. high wealthy, safe, provided for, warm, fed and watered) are more likely to have more cognitive and linguistic stimulation and quicker use of internalized private speech and greater and more successful social exchanges. Children born into or brought up in a lower socio-economic family are likely to have less input for their cognitive abilities and skills and be slower; it’s is likely there will be delays in their development. 

How can animal model studies support our understanding of child development?
Unlike with children, you can control environments much more easily with animals. The ethics and morals of these tests are questionable however less so than if we were to inflict them on humans. Also, it is not socially acceptable to ‘investigate’ families for research, without consent, and so we face the problem that we can only work with those families with a willingness and an interest in child development. This could mean that those hard to reach families, who maybe most need to be supported and understood, are untouchable.
For instance, in rats that were in deprived conditions it was observed that the prefrontal cortex (most important for cognition and cognitive development) did not develop healthily. Could we then assume that then same might be same for human development? And how can we see this in children - could behavior reveal synaptic changes? Is there a correlation between personality and cognitive development? And what can be done to support healthy development and reduce deprivation and subsequent unhealthy development?

What are the influences on Cognitive Development in humans, from a multi-disciplinary perspective?
Information from:
  • sensory
  • Motor activity
  • Immediate environment
  • Geography
  • Culture
“Embodied cognition” = interactions between motor and perceptual systems.
The mind and body cannot be separated; there is an interdependence and multi model link between perceptive, motor and cognitive systems.

The environment a baby/infant/child grows up in and the experiences they have is strongly dependent on the environment; cognitive development and culture (social, ecological setting) are inseparable. As such, it’s important to note that difference cultures put different emphasis on different cognitive, motor skills and perception systems. Equally, what is meaningful to one culture is different to another because of Geography.

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