Three Theories of Cognitive Development

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Three Theories of Cognitive Development

The Swiss psychologist and philosopher Jean Piaget (1896-1980) is well-known for his work towards the cognitive sciences. Arguably one of his most important contributions involves his theory of cognitive development. In this theory, thinking progresses through four distinct stages between infancy and adulthood. Similar in scope to Piaget’s theory is Information Processing, in which human thinking is based on both mental hardware and mental software (Kail, Cavanaugh). A final theory on cognitive development was established by the Russian psychologist Lev Vygotsky (1896-1934). Vygotsky proposed that development is a collaborative effort between child and partner. While these three theories attempt to explain a similar topic in different manners, each can be considered an important aspect to cognitive development in infancy and early childhood. Through analyzing and comparing these theories, scientists are able to better understand how child development occurs and the process it takes in creating a functional human being.

Piaget’s Theory
Children are naturally curious: this is the claim Piaget proposed when explaining that children of all ages create theories about how the world around them works. They accomplish this through the use of “schemes,” referring to mental structures that organize information and regulate behavior. Infants group objects based on the actions they can perform on them. Later in development, schemes become based on functional or conceptual relationships, not action. This means that schemes of related objects, events, and ideas are present throughout development (Kail, Cavanaugh). Schemes change constantly, adapting to children’s experiences. Intellectual adaptation involves two key processes that work together: assimilation and accommodation. Assimilation is the process of taking in new information into previously existing schemes. Accommodation involves altering existing schemes in light of new information. Assimilation and accommodation are usually in equilibrium. But when disequilibrium occurs, children reorganize their schemes to return to a state of equilibrium, a process Piaget called “equilibration.” According to Piaget, revolutionary changes in thought occur three times over the life span, which are divided into four stages. Sensorimotor period (0-2 years): Infants adapt and explore their environment. Reflexes are first modified by experience. At 8 months, intentional behavior occurs. Soon, infants become active experimenters, and repeat actions with different objects for the purpose of seeing what will happen. An important aspect of the first stage is object permanence- the understanding that objects exist even if they cannot be seen. Not until at about 18 months do infants have a full understanding of object permanence. Soon after, the onset of symbols, including words and gestures, become apparent. Preoperational thinking (2-7 years): Children do not understand others’ different ideas and emotions (egocentrism). They also have trouble focusing on multiple features. A child in the preoperational stage has a narrowly focused type of thought (a term Piaget called centration). For example, in what is known as a conservation problem, children tend to focus on only one aspect of the problem. In conservation of length, they concentrate on the fact that, after the transformation, the end of one stick is farther to the right than the end of the other, when in fact each stick is similar in length. Concrete operational period (7-11 years): This stage is characterized by the appropriate use of logic. A child is able to sort objects according to its size, shape, etc. Also, children will now take into account multiple aspects of a problem. For example, a child will no longer perceive a wide and short cup to contain more liquid than a normal, tall cup. Egocentrism begins to disappear: the child can now view things from another’s...
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