How Has Recognising the Importance of Social Context Extended Our Understanding of Children’s Abilities and Cognitive Development?

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How has recognising the importance of social context extended our understanding of children’s abilities and cognitive development?

Jean Piaget argued that ‘individuals develop progressively more elaborate and sophisticated mental representations of the environment, based on their own actions on the environment and the consequences of these’ (Oates, Sheehy and Wood, 2005). He therefore saw cognitive development as a progression which occurred as the child acts on the environment in an increasingly competent manner as the result of the construction of mental pictures as to how the world works (Oates et al, 2005). Piaget paid little attention to social or cultural context in his research and has been criticised heavily for this. In this paper, his theory will be described together with some of the experimental tasks he employed. There will then be a description of the ways in which some of his critics modified his tasks to put them in context and the impact this had on their results. Jean Piaget’s theory of child development revolutionised thinking its day. Piaget, who began work as a biologist, approached child development with a biologist’s mind set – he was interested in knowledge and how it was observably a form of adaptation to the environment. He developed a great many of his ideas through observing his own children. The theory that developed as a result of this observation is a detailed account of cognitive development. His interest lay in how children learn and adapt to the world. To facilitate this learning there needs to be constant interactions between the child and the environment. In this theory, two key processes are: accommodation – how the individual adjusts to the environment and assimilation – how the individual interprets the environment to fit existing cognitive patterns (Eysenck 2004). Two further concepts that are key in this theory are schema – organised knowledge used to guide action, and equilibration – the process through which the individual uses assimilation and accommodation to restore a state of equilibrium. Piaget’s theory is a stage theory and he proposed that all children pass through the various stages in sequence. There is an assumption here that there will be sufficient change in cognitive development to enable the identification of the stages. The four main stages according to Piaget’s theory are the sensori-motor stage (0-2 years), the pre-operational stage (2-4 and 4-7 years), concrete operations (7-11 years) and formal operations (11 years upwards). In the sensori-motor stage the young child deals with the environment by encountering objects. During the pre-operational stage thinking becomes dominated by perception until reaching the concrete operations stage where thinking is influenced by logical reasoning. Finally, in the formal operations stage the child is able to think logically in the abstract.

It is with reference to this theory and subsequent further research that the contribution of social context to our understanding of children’s cognitive development will be illustrated. Piaget used experimental tasks, now considered classics in developmental psychology, to investigate children’s cognitive ability. According to Piaget, children in the pre-operational stage lack the concept of conservation, which can be described as an appreciation that a quantity will be the same even if the manner of its presentation alters. Rolling the play dough (Piaget and Inhelder, 1956) was a task that investigated the child’s concept of conservation of mass. In this experiment, the researcher presented each participant child with two similar sized balls of play dough. He asked the child, “Does this one have more play dough, does this one have more play dough or do they have the same amount?” The child having agreed they have the same amount, he then proceeded to roll one of the balls of play dough into a sausage shape in full view of the child. He repeated his earlier question and this time,...
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