Cognitive Theories

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Cognition is the process involved in thinking and mental activity. Cognitive theories are not centred on the unconscious mind of the child but emphasized the conscious thoughts. In this essay I will discuss the cognitive theories of Piaget and Vygotsky, who were both influential in forming a more scientific approach to analysing the cognitive development process of the child. I will outline Piaget’s theory of the four stages of cognitive development and Vygotsky’s theory on the sociocultural cognitive theory. I will also discuss how cognitive theories can be applied to the education of the child.

Jean Piaget (1896-1980) believed that children are active in the process of their cognitive development. As Bee and Boyd note in The Developing Child “the child is an active participant in the development of knowledge” (Bee and Boyd, 1939, p.150). Piaget said that children reason and think differently at different stages in their lives. He believed that children process through four stages of cognitive development. Each stage is characterised by an overall structure and a sequence of development. According to Piagetian theory, these structures consist of “schemes” or “schemas”, which are a way of organising experience. These schemes adapt through a continuous process of “assimilation” and “accommodation”, in an attempt to achieve “equilibrium”, which is the balance between the two. Assimilation is the process of adapting new experiences to fit into existing schemes. Accommodation is the process of adapting existing schemes to fit new experiences. (Piaget’s Theory, www. 6th February 2012).

The first of Piaget’s stages of cognitive development is the sensorimotor stage. It occurs from birth to about two years of age. This stage is divided into six sub stages: reflexes, primary circular reactions, secondary circular reactions, coordination of secondary circular reactions, tertiary circular reactions and beginning of representational thought. He believed that this stage is a period of practical discovery, which happens by interacting with the environment through the senses. Infants discover a relationship between their body and the environment. The infant develops independent thinking, a sense of self and the beginning of symbolic thought. This stage promotes that thought is based primarily on action. (Bee and Boyd, 1939). As Santrock says in Child Development “their main task is to coordinate their sensory impressions with their motor activity” (Santrock, 1982, p.188).

The second of Piaget’s stages is the pre-operational stage. It occurs from two to about seven years of age. Piaget believed that at this time children fail to “conserve”. This is the understanding that things remain constant in terms of number, quantity and volume regardless of changes in appearance. He believed that at this stage children begin to represent the world through symbols e.g. drawing, images and words. This stage is characterized by the development of symbolic thought, representation, egocentrism, centration and intuitive thought. (Bee and Boyd, 1939).

The third of Piaget’s theories is the concrete-operations stage. It occurs from seven to about eleven years of age. He believed this stage is characterized by the ability to perform operational tasks such as classification, seriation and reversibility. The child now understands the conservation of mass, length, weight and volume. As it states in Child Development “Concrete operations allow children to coordinate several characteristics rather than focus on a single property of an object” (Santrock, 1982, p.193). Children can use abstract thinking as long as they can relate back to concrete examples. In the concrete-operations stage, he believed the child is no longer egocentric; they have the ability to de-centre. (Bee and Boyd, 1939).

The fourth and last stage of Piaget’s theories is the formal operations stage. It occurs between eleven and about fifteen years of age, although Piaget says...
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