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Cognitive Development: Piagetian, Core...
Chapter Summary

Piaget’s Cognitive-Developmental Theory
According to Piaget, how does cognition develop?
  • Influenced by his background in biology, Piaget viewed cognitive development as an adaptive process in which thinking gradually achieves a better fit with external reality. Piaget’s constructivist approach to cognitive development assumes that by acting on the environment, children move through four invariant and universal stages, in which all aspects of cognition undergo similar changes. According to Piaget, infants begin life with little in the way of built-in structures; only at the end of the second year are they capable of a cognitive approach to the world through mental representations.
  • In Piaget’s theory, psychological structures, or schemes, change in two ways. The first is through adaptation, which consists of two complementary activities: assimilation and accommodation. The second is through organization, the internal rearrangement of schemes to form a strongly interconnected cognitive system. Equilibration sums up the changing balance of assimilation and accommodation that gradually leads to more effective schemes.
The Sensorimotor Stage (birth to 2 years)
Describe the major cognitive achievements of the sensorimotor stage.
  • Piaget’s sensorimotor stage is divided into six substages. Through the circular reaction, the newborn baby’s reflexes are gradually transformed into the more flexible action patterns of the older infant. During Substage 4, infants develop intentional, or goal-directed, behaviour and begin to understand object permanence. Substage 5 brings a more flexible, exploratory approach, and infants no longer make the A-not-B search error. By Substage 6, they become capable of mental representation, as shown by sudden solutions to sensorimotor problems, mastery of object permanence problems involving invisible displacement, deferred imitation, and make-believe play.
What does recent research say about the accuracy of Piaget’s sensorimotor stage?
  • Many studies suggest that infants display a variety of understandings earlier than Piaget believed. Some awareness of object permanence, as revealed by the violation-of-expectation method, may be evident in the first few months. In addition, young infants display deferred imitation, categorization, and analogical problem solving, suggesting that mental representation develops concurrently with sensorimotor schemes during the first 2 years.
  • Today, investigators believe that newborns have more built-in equipment for making sense of their world than Piaget assumed, although they disagree on how much initial understanding infants have. Furthermore, the cognitive attainments of infancy do not develop in the neat, stepwise fashion predicted by Piaget’s substages.
The Preoperational Stage (2 to 7 years)
Describe advances in mental representation and limitations of thinking during the preoperational stage.
  • Rapid advances in mental representation, including language, make-believe play, and drawing, mark the beginning of the preoperational stage. With age, make-believe becomes increasingly complex, evolving into sociodramatic play. Preschoolers’ make-believe not only reflects but contributes to cognitive and social development. During the preschool years, drawings progress from scribbles to increasingly detailed representational forms.
  • Dual representation improves rapidly during the third year of life. Children realize that photographs, drawings, models, and simple maps correspond to circumstances in the real world. Insight into one type of symbol-real-world relation helps preschoolers understand others.
  • According to Piaget, preschoolers are not yet capable of operations because they are egocentric-focused on their own viewpoint and unable to distinguish it from others’ perspectives. Because egocentrism prevents children from accommodating, it contributes to animistic thinking, centration, a focus on superficial perceptual appearances, and irreversibility. As a result, preschoolers fail conservation and hierarchical classification (class inclusion) tasks.
Discuss research on preoperational thought and its implications for the accuracy of Piaget’s preoperational stage.
  • When children are given simplified problems relevant to their everyday lives, their performance appears more mature than Piaget assumed. They recognize differing perspectives, distinguish animate from inanimate objects, and reason by analogy about physical transformations. Furthermore, their language reflects accurate causal reasoning and hierarchical classification, and they form many categories based on nonobvious features. However, not until age 6 or 7 do children do well on appearance-reality problems, which require a challenging form of dual representation.
  • These findings indicate that rather than being absent, logical thinking develops gradually over the preschool years. This poses yet another challenge to Piaget’s stage concept.
The Concrete Operational Stage (7 to 11 years)
What are the major characteristics of the concrete operational stage?
  • During the concrete operational stage, thought is far more logical and organized than it was during the preschool years. The ability to conserve indicates that children can decentre and reverse their thinking. In addition, they are better at hierarchical classification and seriation, including transitive inference.
  • School-age children have an improved understanding of distance and can give clear directions. Cognitive maps become more organized and accurate during middle childhood.
  • Concrete operational thought is limited in that children can reason logically only about concrete information they can perceive directly; they have difficulty with abstractions. Piaget used the term horizontal décalage to describe the school-age child’s gradual mastery of logical concepts, such as conservation.
Discuss research on concrete operational thought and its implications for the accuracy of Piaget’s concrete operational stage.
  • Recent evidence indicates that cultural practices and schooling have a profound effect on Piagetian task performance. Concrete operations may not emerge universally in middle childhood, and they seem to be greatly affected by training, context, and cultural conditions.
The Formal Operational Stage (11 years and older)
Describe major characteristics of the formal operational stage and the consequences of abstract reasoning powers for thinking about the relation between self and other.
  • In Piaget’s formal operational stage, abstract thinking appears. Adolescents engage in hypothetico-deductive reasoning. When faced with a problem, they think of all possibilities, including ones that are not obvious, and test them systematically against reality. Propositional thought also develops. Young people can evaluate the logic of verbal statements without considering them against real-world circumstances.
  • Early in this stage, two distorted images of the relation between self and other appear: the imaginary audience and the personal fable. Research suggests that these visions of the self result from advances in perspective taking rather than a return to egocentrism.
Discuss recent research on formal operational thought and its implications for the accuracy of Piaget’s formal operational stage.
  • Recent evidence reveals that school-age children display the beginnings of abstraction, but they are not as competent as adolescents and adults. School-age children cannot sort out evidence that bears on three or more variables at once. Also, they do not grasp the logical necessity of propositional reasoning. And because they do not think carefully about the major premise, they violate the most basic rules of logic.
  • Many university students think abstractly only in situations in which they have had extensive experience, and formal operational tasks are not mastered in many tribal and village societies. These findings indicate that Piaget’s highest stage is reached gradually and is affected by specific learning opportunities.
Piaget and Education
Describe educational implications of Piaget’s theory.
  • Piaget’s theory has had a major impact on educational programs for young children. A Piagetian classroom promotes discovery learning, sensitivity to children’s readiness to learn, and acceptance of individual differences.
Overall evaluation of Piaget’s Theory
Summarize contributions and shortcomings of Piaget’s theory.
  • Piaget awakened psychologists and educators to children’s active contributions to their own development and inspired the contemporary focus on mechanisms of cognitive change. His stages offer a useful “roadmap” of cognitive development that is accurate in many respects.
  • At the same time, Piaget’s notions of adaptation, organization, and equilibration offer only a vague account of how children’s cognition develops. Also, children’s cognitive attainments are less coherent and more gradual than Piaget’s stages indicate.
  • Consequently, some researchers reject Piaget’s stages but retain his view of cognitive development as an active, constructive process. Others support a less tightly knit stage concept. Still others deny both Piaget’s stages and his belief that the human mind is made up of general reasoning abilities.
The core knowledge perspective
Explain the core knowledge perspective on cognitive development, noting research that supports its assumptions.
  • According to the core knowledge perspective, infants begin life with innate, core domains of thought that support early, rapid cognitive development. Each core domain has a long evolutionary history, is essential for survival, and develops independently, resulting in uneven, domain-specific changes. Some violation-of-expectation research suggests that young infants have impressive physical and numerical knowledge. Overall, however, findings on early, ready-made knowledge are mixed.
  • The theory theory regards children as naive theorists who draw on innate concepts to explain their everyday experiences, often in remarkably advanced ways. Then children test their naive theory against experience, revising it when it cannot adequately account for new information. In support of this view, children reason about everyday events in ways consistent with the event’s core domain. Physical and psychological explanations emerge before biological explanations. Because biological processes are more difficult to understand, young children often use psychological concepts to theorize about biological events.
Summarize the strengths and limitations of the core knowledge perspective.
  • Core knowledge researchers have enriched our understanding of children’s thinking by testing intriguing ideas about why certain cognitive skills emerge early and develop rapidly. However, critics believe that results of violation-of-expectation studies are not strong enough to show that infants are endowed with knowledge. So far, the core knowledge perspective has not offered greater clarity than Piaget’s theory on how cognition changes.
Vygotsky’s Sociocultural Theory
Explain Vygotsky’s view of cognitive development, noting the importance of social experience and language.
  • In Vygotsky’s sociocultural theory, language development broadens preschoolers’ participation in dialogues with more knowledgeable individuals, who encourage them to master culturally important tasks. These social experiences transform basic mental capacities into uniquely human, higher cognitive processes. According to Vygotsky, as experts assist children in mastering tasks within their zone of proximal development, children integrate the language of these dialogues into their private speech and use it to organize their independent efforts. As children get older and find tasks easier, they internalize private speech as silent, inner speech, which they call on for self-guidance and self-direction
Describe features of social interaction that promote transfer of culturally adaptive ways of thinking to children, and discuss Vygotsky’s view of the role of make-believe play in development.
  • Intersubjectivity, which creates a common ground for communication, and scaffolding, involving adult assistance that adjusts to the child’s current level of performance, promote cognitive development. The term guided participation recognizes cultural and situational variations in the way adults support children’s efforts.
  • According to Vygotsky, make-believe play is a unique, broadly influential zone of proximal development. As children create imaginary situations and follow the rules of the make-believe scene, they learn to act in accord with internal ideas rather than on impulse. In Vygotsky’s theory, make-believe play, like other higher cognitive processes, is the product of social collaboration.
Vygotsky and Education
Describe educational implications of Vygotsky’s theory.
  • A Vygotskian classroom emphasizes assisted discovery through teachers’ guidance and peer collaboration. When formal schooling begins, literacy activities prompt children to shift to a higher level of cognitive activity, in which they proficiently manipulate and control the symbol systems of their culture. Educational practices inspired by Vygotsky’s theory include reciprocal teaching and cooperative learning, in which peers resolve differences of opinion and work toward common goals. Western children usually require extensive training in how to work together for cooperative learning to succeed.
Evaluation of Vygotsky’s Theory
Cite strengths and limitations of Vygotsky’s theory.
  • Vygotsky’s theory helps us understand wide cultural variation in cognitive skills and underscores the vital role of teaching in cognitive development. However, verbal dialogues are not the only means, or even the most important means, through which children learn in some cultures. Furthermore, in focusing on social and cultural influences, Vygotsky said little about biological contributions to children’s cognition. It is unclear just how children internalize social experiences to advance their thinking. A broader theory might exist today had Piaget and Vygotsky had the chance to meet and weave together their extraordinary contributions.



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