Does Knowledge Understanding and Competence Progress Through a Succession of Stages?

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The question of how we develop has been one of much argument over the past decades. Jean Piaget (1896-1980) has done ground breaking research when it comes to understanding how we develop. As import he radically changed our perception of children. The tendency was to overlook them as if they were incapable of thinking and performing any logical tasks. Piaget found that children were not incapable of thinking as such, they merely think and reason differently and at a lower level. His view is that we develop in stages, and he identified four stages every child goes through, all of them with their individual characteristics limits and new abilities. He found that children either had certain abilities or not and that this showed in their level of reasoning. He also found that the age-group and type of task which a child could perform were related. The other theory is that development is continuous and that children don't gain abilities all at once they develop them over time, possibly well into their adulthood. This understanding is presented in mechanistic theories, this is mostly supported by challenging earlier finding, going over old experiments to see how sound they actually are and challenging the conclusions drawn from those data. I will be comparing the different theories concerning how knowledge, competence and understanding develop. I will look at various research that has been conducted by i.e. Piaget et al, Mitchell, Wimmer and Hartl, and I will look at how these experiments set ups have been challenged and changed to see if they would obtain new results. I will contrast both theories in an attempt to find out how development progresses.

Piaget presented a theory which explained how development actually proceeded. He was a constructivist who believed that children through experience gained new skills which allowed them to deal with more complex tasks but also to build upon that. When we talk about discontinuous development the general assumptions are that we mean that we move through a hierarchy of stages where a child's reasoning skills are qualitatively different in every stage and that you either have a skill or you don't. Also it means that stages are identifiable different from each other and that they are roughly the same for everyone. Whereas continuous development implies that there are no identifiable stages as everyone is different and will acquire different skills at different speeds. They oppose Piaget's theory on the various points. They find he overestimates the difference between stages and underestimates he development within stages. Also if development is based on experience than it would be impossible for development to proceed as systematically as Piaget and alike suggests. Finally the experiments proving the stage theory require a certain level of language and other non-cognitive skills, which can lead to biased results.

Piaget tested his subjects on their ability to solve logical problems, and based on these results he developed his stage theory. Piaget distinguished four, sensorimotor period (birth to approximately 2 years old), preoperational period (approximately 2 to 7 years old), concrete operational stage (approximately 7 to 11 years old) and the formal operational stage (from approximately 11 years on). Every stage builds upon the one preceding allowing for more complex behaviour. The tests which he carried out focused on several areas of development; appearance-reality distinction, special cognition, conservation, class inclusion, transitive interference and perspective taking. He found that in every area children are able to arrive at more complex solutions as they progress through the stages. A well known task to test children's ability to conserve (Piaget and Inhelder, 1956) is to present a child with two glasses, one wide and short the other thin and tall but both of the same volume. While the child watches the researcher pours the water from the short glass into the tall...
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