Cognitive Development Theory And Its Effects On Human Development

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The emergence of the Cognitive Development Theory took place in the middle of the twentieth century after researchers began the Cognitive Revolution in response to popular behaviorist theories. The theory of cognitive development is a model of the evolution of thinking abilities in people, particularly children, over time. The theory of cognitive development is really a combination of many ideas by different theorists that has evolved over time. As with most theories, the theory of cognitive development is continuously being revised and improved.

The two primary beliefs about learning and teaching today are behaviorism and cognitivism. Behaviorists feel that learners are passive in the learning process, while cognitive theorists believe that learners actively seek out information to better understand their environment In a cognitive sense learning is defined as the changing of a person's mental perception of their environment which affects their behavior. With the acceptance of theories of cognitive development some of the older behaviorist theories have gone out of style. The central premise of cognitive development is that learners are actively engaged in their surroundings and attempt to process the information they receive. Cognitive development is the interaction between the learner and the environment. When a student is immersed in a situation they will try to make sense of it and this does not always mean that they will reason the situation appropriately. Depending upon their stage of cognitive development a student may interpret the same situation radically different (Kauchak, Eggen, & Carter, 2002).

Jean Piaget was one of the earliest proponents of the study of cognitive development. Additionally, Piaget helped pioneer the study of educational development and was one of cognitive developments earliest, most famous and most out spoken philosophers. Happily, unlike his decades pervious contemporary Sigmund Freud, Piaget was more concerned with the way children learn rather than their psychosexual development. The world only has room for one Freud. Another great developmental theorist is the Russian psychologist, Lev Vygotsky who is renowned for his study of the relationship between a persons sociological factors and their psychological state.

Jean Piaget- Major Cognitive Development Theorist

Jean Piaget is celebrated for his stage theory which gained popularity in the 1960's and 1970's (Flavell, et al. 1963). He has had the foremost impact on the field of cognitive development to date, although, like Freud, some of his principles have been criticized in recent times due to more recent research. Piaget studied the development of intelligence extensively and concluded that intelligence is demonstrated by the way a person interacts with their environment. Piaget's theories, or Piagetian theories as they have come to be known, can be organized into two groups: the theory of adaptation and stages of development (Flavell, et al. 1963).

Adaptation theory asserts that each person is born with certain reflexes that facilitate interaction with their environment. As the individual matures, these reflexes are replaced by developing mental processes that enable them to adapt to their environment Piaget pictured cognitive development in conjunction with a biological perspective. He proposed that two major values drive in cognitive development and growth: adaptation and organization.


Piaget believed that people desire a state of cognitive balance.

Assimilation is the incorporation of new knowledge or information with something is already known.

Accommodation is the alteration of actions or thoughts in response something.

Organization refers to a person's natural inclination to organize information into related categories. The most basic structure of developmental organization is the system.

Piaget claimed that learning follows development and that development is inspired by cognitive divergence.

Piaget proposed four chronological stages of cognitive development. According to Piaget a person must have social, physical, and logical (i.e. mathematical) knowledge in order to be successful in each of the cognitive development stages. Piaget defined the four stages of development as:

(Piaget, 2001)

Sensorimotor: (0-2 yrs)

The earliest stage of development is when the child learns about themselves and their environment through basic motor skills and reflexes. At this stage the child should be able to separate aspects of their environment from themselves. Movement facilitates knowledge acquisition at this stage. An important facet of this stage is the concept of object permanence. At around seven months infants begin to understand the idea that objects continue to exist even when they cannot be seen.

Preoperational: (2-7yrs)

The second stage of development the child should begin about the time the child begins to talk. At this stage the child tends to personify objects, but is better able to comprehend that things which are not present still exist. The child will have some difficulty in comprehending the presence of time and is influenced by fantasy. He or she takes in information and then changes it to fit his ideas-cognitive development is happening.

Concrete: (7-11 yrs)

During the third stage of Piaget's theory of cognitive development the child develops the capability of abstract thinking and rational assessing with out physically manipulating the subject.

Formal Operations: (11-15 yrs)

The final stage of Piagetian development is characterized by the presence of hypothetical and deductive reasoning. A child in the fourth stage of development will be able to consider many possibilities from a variety of perspectives.

One weakness of Piaget's stages is that he neglects to explain how and why a child progresses from one stage to another. Since his initial proposal of the four stages of development, subsequent developmental theorists have expounded on his original ideas.

Lev Vygotsky- Major Cognitive Development Theorist

Lev Vygotsky was a Russian psychologist and contemporary of Jean Piaget. Vygotsky is well known for his theoretical question, "How is information from the external world transformed and internalized?" (Slavin, 1994). Vygotsky hypothesized that people encode and represent our world through language, also known as Second Signal System. According to him, language is a symbolic system by which we communicate as well as a cultural tool. Vygotsky held that language has two primary purposes: communication and regulation. Communication is used in the passing of history and culture between individuals and groups. Regulation is the principal of control over one's behavior. The goal of development is to take a person from being externally regulated, such as by parents or teachers, to self-regulated (Slavin, 1994).

Vygotsky (1978) stated that social interaction is vital to the transformation and internalization processes. He argued that development initially occurs on the social plane. According to this belief, the child first observes the parents then tried to imitate them. The parents then guide the child in their efforts at imitation. Later the child develops an internal plane, when language becomes internalized, i.e. thinking to yourself or inner speech.

Vygotsky also had an interest in human intellectual development. Vygotsky (1978) claimed that individuals have a set range of potential learning Scaffolding, the process of guiding a learner from the currently known to new material, occurs in the Zone of Proximal Development which is defined as the range between the current development level and the potential development level (Vygotsky, 1978). He believed that learners would regard a person with more understanding or intelligence as the More Knowledgeable Other and would seek out their connection to gain deeper understanding (Vygotsky, 1978). Lev Vygotsky held that society and culture are central to cognitive development as expounded in his social development theory. He saw social interaction as the structural plane on which all learning and development takes place.

This principle asserts that all higher mental functions must be filtered through the external consciousness in the form of social context first. After an external assessment is made, the subject begins to internalize the ideals of society into their own consciousness and use those judgments in decision making. As a result of this, Vygotsky held that all higher functions initiate as interpersonal relationships between individuals (1978). Vygotsky (1978) supposed that two levels of mental processing are present in people: elementary and higher. Elementary mental functions are instinctual, meaning people are born with them. Higher mental functions are formed from response to stimuli.

Comparisons and Contrasts Between Piaget and Vygotsky

Both Piaget and Vygotsky were constructivists. Constructivism is based on the idea that cognition is the result of a mental construction (Cole & Wertsch, 1996). To simplify this means that people learn by fitting new information in with what they already know. Constructivists propose that cognitive development and learning is directly affected by the context in which the information is presented. Both Piaget and Vygotsky held that society influenced the boundaries of cognitive growth. Additionally, they both believed that cognitive development could result from cognitive conflict (Cole & Wertsch, 1996).

While Piaget's theory has four distinct stages, Vygotsky held that there are no set stages at all. Piaget believed that development stems from the individual to society, while Vygotsky believed that development headed from society to the individual (Solso, 1995).

Impact on the Classroom

Since students attempt to gain understanding from their surroundings, teachers must overcome preconceived ideas that students may have formed earlier and may or may not be accurate. Students are actively engaged learners who dynamically seek to understand the environment around them. Students will link any new information to what they feel they already know. If a student believes they have knowledge and that knowledge is incorrect, then the teacher will have to either re-teach the original subject matter or find some other way to overcome that barrier. With the emergence of newer theories, such as the Cognitive Development Theory, teachers are learning that they need to provide purposeful examples and presentations in order to engage the active learner (Kauchak, Eggen, & Carter, 2002). Educators face difficulties in getting children to learn specific information, concepts and skills in ways that the children will be able to understand and retain for use later in life, because the children are already actively engaged in the learning process, these concepts must be taught to them correctly and in conjunction with what the students are already perceiving (Savin, 2006).

Because there are numerous theories it is impossible to follow a single set of recommendations when using a construnctivistic approach in the classroom. The most important thing is the development of meaning rather than many meaningless facts which will be forgotten quickly. It is important to apply only the theories that relate to the particular student.

Teachers and school systems could use either Vygotsky or Piaget's theories of cognitive development, separately or in conjunction with one another. For example a school teacher may review and use Piaget's stages of development in order to determine how to relate to a child of a particular age group. Another teacher could use Vygotsky's cognitive theory of social development to justify the recommended socialization of students with varying knowledge levels to increase the knowledge of those students on the lower end of the knowledge spectrum by means of peer learning.

Cognitive development is vital to the learning and thinking methods of children; as such, it is crucial to know in an effort to effectively teach those children. The insights of Vygotsky and Piaget provide teachers with possible ways children learn. By utilizing those theories it would be possible to enhance current teaching methods and to create an environment more conducive to learning.

Piaget (2001) strongly advocates waiting for the student to be ready to learn new information before presenting it. This would be useful in determining when to introduce a particular piece of coursework. Whether using one of Piaget's theories or Vygotsky's theories both theorists suggest connecting previous knowledge to new material in order for the new information to be retained.