Cognitive development refers to a person’s thought processes and the developemnt of mental traits.. It looks at how a person thinks, perceives, gains understanding and together with information processing, reasoning, imagination and memory it is how a person interacts with the world from childhood through to adulthood.
This development has been measured and studied in a variety of ways over many years. The widely used Intelligence Quotient (IQ) tests were introduced early in the 20th century and are based on the concept of a mental age obtained from the results of a test the subject undertakes. However, IQ tests have come under increasing criticism as they only measre a limited range of intellectial capabilities and definine intelligence too narrowly, they can also be biased with regard to culture, race and gender. In contrast researchers such as Watson and Skinner developed their learned theory which focused on the role of environmental factors in shaping the intelligence of the child and they argues that a child is malleable with the ability to learn by having behaviour’s rewarded while others discouraged.
Piaget and Bruner were two influential theorists of cognitive development and both agreed that cognitive development took place in stages. However, their theories are fundamentally different.
Piaget’s theory was first published in 1952 and he was the first to propose that there were set steps and sequences to a child intellectual development and that intellectual development results from an active, dynamic interplay between a child and her environment. His views on mind and development have been enormously influential. His theory grew from years of observational studies of children in their natural environment as opposed to laboratory experiments of others in the same field, although some experimental data was also used. Piaget believed that all children progress through four stages: sensorimotor, preoperational, concrete operational and formal operational and a child’s knowledge is composed of schemas; categories of knowledge from past experience that help us to interpret and understand new experiences. In Piaget’s view, new information is used to modify, add to, or change previously existing schemas. For example, a child may have a schema about race. If the child’s sole experience has been with white people, a child might believe that all people are white. Suppose then that the child encounters a black person. The child will take in this new information, modifying the previously existing schema to include this new information. This adaption by the child results in a change that helps in two fundamental actions Piaget terms assimilation and accommodation. Assimilation is the process of taking in new information into our previously existing schema. However, the process is somewhat subjective as we tend to modify experience or information somewhat to fit in with our preexisting beliefs. Accommodation is the changing or altering of existing schemas with the new information and new schemas developed. Using Piaget’s theory, cognitive development involves an ongoing attempt to achieve a balance between assimilation and accommodation that he termed equilibration.
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In Piaget’s view, then, cognitive development occurs in a series of four distinct stages characterized by increasingly sophisticated and abstract levels of thought. These stages always occur in the same order, and each builds on what was learned in the previous stage. Piaget believes each stage in development occurs as a result of interaction between maturation and environment. He also believes intelligence or intelligent behavior is the ability to adapt. Piaget’s theory differs from other theories in several ways: it is concerned with children rather than all learners, it focuses on development rather than learning per se so does not address learning of information or specific behaviours, it proposes discrete stages of development, marked by qualitative differences rather than a gradual increase in number and complexity of behaviours, concepts, ideas, etc.
The first sensorimotor stage occurs during the first two years of life. Knowledge of the world is limited and information is primarily obtained through sensory inputs and movement. Infants gradually learn to control their own bodies and some language abilities are developed. During this stage a child achieves a sense of object constancy, in other words, the knowledge that objects go on existing even when they cannot be seen.
The preoperational stage last from two to seven years. Children in the preoperational phase try to make sense of the world but have a much less sophisticated mode of thought than adults. Memory and imagination are developing but by adult standards, is often illogical and self-centered.
During the concrete operational stage from ages seven to ten a child will begin to deal with abstract concepts while logical, rational and operational thinking also develops (mental actions that are reversible). Egocentric thoughts diminish. A child will begin to understand other people’s perspectives and views and will build on past experiences.
Finally, the formal operational stage (twelve to fifteen) is where the child develops more adult like thought structures and processes. It is characterized by an increased independence for thinking through problems and situations and taking decisions based on these and they will begin to reason logically, systematically and hypothetically. A formal operational child is capable of meta-cognition, in other words, thinking about thinking.
One of the problems of Piaget’s theory is that it’s been understood or taken to mean that before these ages children are not capable (no matter how bright) of understanding things in certain ways. In contrast, Bruner observes that the process of constructing knowledge of the world is not done in isolation but rather within a social context and notes that “there is no unique sequence for all learners, and the optimum in any particular case will depend upon a variety of factors, including past learning, stage of development, nature of the material, and individual differences.”
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Bruner built on Vygotsky’s social constructional theory from the 1930’s which fell into three general claims; higher mental functioning in the individual emerged out of social processes (culture), secondly, social and psychological processes are fundamentally shaped by cultural tools (language) and lastly, the developmental method Zone of Proximal Development (ZPD). The ZPD is defined as the difference between problem-solving the child is capable of performing independently, and problem-solving capabilities with guidance or collaboration. Like Piaget, Bruner said that children have an innate capacity and that cognitive abilities develop through active interaction. Howver, unlike Piaget, Bruner argued that social factors, particularly language, were important for cognitive growth. These underpin the concept of scaffolding; the help given to a child that supports learning and is similar to scaffolding around a building, where a child is shown how to do something so the child can accomplish the task individually. The scaffolding is a temporary support structure which helps the child: understand new ideas, complete new tasks, motivates and encourages the child so they can achieve higher levels of development. In contrast to Piaget’s four stages, Bruner suggested three stages.
The first is the enactive mode (first eighteen months) when the childs activities are predominantly motor and related to motor nerves. The iconic mode then develops where the child is guided by mental imagery; able to form own mental images and expresses self on that basis. The final stage is the symbolic mode from about six or seven years onwards in which the child will express self in the form of words and will have a mental sense of time and distance. At this stage language learning also begins.
Bruner became interested in schooling in the USA during the 1050’s with a particular interest in the cognitive development of children and the appropriate forms of education. Bruner stressed the importance of the role of social exchanges between the child and adult and whilst Bruner’s theory is much narrower in scope that Piaget’s, Bruner’s ideas have been applied more directly to education. Bruner’s work was instrumental in the development of a range of educational programmes and experiments in the 1960s and he also became involved in the design and implementation of the influential MACOS project which was later critiqued by others and found to be difficult to implement as it required a degree of sophistication and learning on the part of teachers, and ability, motivation on the part of students. Bruner was also concerned with how knowledge is represented and organised through different modes of representation and suggested that different ways of thinking (or representation) were important at different ages which was in contrast to Piagets who emphasised that children developed sequentially through different stages of development.
During the 1960’s Bruner also developed his own theory on cognitive development. In contrast to Piaget, his approach looked to environmental and experiential factors and he crisised Piaget for his lack of attention to social and political context of his theory. Bruner suggested that intellectual ability developed in stages through step-by-step changes in how the mind is used.
Piaget suggested that children learnt in a set series of stages and could not learn things deemed too difficult, however, unlike Piaget’s, Bruner did not contend that these stages were necessarily age-dependent, or invariant. Bruner argued that any subject can be taught effectively to any child at any stage of development which underpins the idea of a spiral curriculum in education weheby a subject is revisted repeatedly, building knowledge and depth each time appropriate to the level of the child. For example, it would not be appropriate to teach a three year old complex physics, however, Bruner contented that they could be taught some principles of physics (e.g., force, mass, momentum, friction) in enactive form and later repeated in iconic, then symbolic form. Bruners theories on enactive, iconic, and symbolic stages may also be applicable to adults learning unfamiliar material where in contract Piaget theories relates to children only.
Later reflections from Bruner on education in The Culture of Education (1996) show how culture impacts on cognitive development; “‘culture shapes the mind… it provides us with the toolkit by which we construct not only our worlds but our very conception of our selves and our powers” and how his thinking has changed since the 1960’s.
Aswell as Piaget and Bruner, other major theorists such as Gesell, Erikson and Spock also believe there are stages and periods of development, but each emphasizes a different approach to the study of a child’s thinking and learning patterns. Gesell’s theory is that heredity promotes development in a preordained sequence with few individual differences. He deemphasizes individual differences among children and stresses the importance of maturation following an inherited timetable; abilities and skills emerge in a preordained sequence. Although Erikson and Spock also think of cognitive development in terms of stages, in contrast, they emphasize the emotional development of children.
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