Cognitive Development

Psychologists have had great difficulty deciding what topics should or should not be included under the general heading "cognition." Broadly considered, cognition includes the total process of thinking, including language, perception, learning, memory, and problem solving or decision making. The development of these activities has been shown to start even before birth and is known to continue throughout one's life.

EXAMPLE 4.13. Researchers asked pregnant women to read a particular children's book aloud twice a day during the last six weeks of their pregnancies. In postnatal tests, the children were seen to recognize and prefer the sound of the story they had heard to the sound of other, comparable stories, indicating this by varying sucking patterns.

Perceptual Development. One aspect of cognitive development is perception, the integration, interpretation, and understanding of sensory stimuli. Evidence indicates that even very young children have the capacity to receive signals and react in more than a reflexive fashion. Using measures such as heart rate, sucking behavior, and facial imitation responses, psychologists have been able to identify and document the progression of perceptual development in neonates. As with physical development, improved perceptual skills are expected throughout the formative years. (Perception and sensation are considered in more depth in Chapter 5.)

Language Acquisition. All children seem to have the potential to learn any language and, for some time after birth, generate all the sounds necessary to do so. The sequence of language development is basically the same for all languages, with environmental variables determining which language will be learned. Comprehension of language usually precedes language production. A typical pattern of language production includes cooing, followed by babbling, then one-word utterances, short "telegraphic speech" patterns, longer phrases, longer sentences, and finally, by about age 4, speech patterning that is very similar to that of adults. Many psychologists view language acquisition as the primary basis for thinking and memory.

Piaget's Theory of Cognitive Development. One of the most influential approaches to understanding cognitive development was proposed by Jean Piaget (1896-1980), a Swiss psychologist. Although the stages of development described below have been questioned, challenged, and in some cases refuted, Piaget's theory has been extremely important in prompting explorations into cognitive development.

Two concepts are crucial to all the stages in Piaget's theory: Assimilation refers to a child's ability to incorporate incoming material into already existing schema (conceptions of the world), and accommodation describes modification of the existing schema to include new information.

EXAMPLE 4.14. Because he thinks that all fluids can be ingested, Jeffrey's word for all fluids is "milk." When given the chance to drink lemonade for the first time, Jeffrey enjoys it and asks for more "milk." Lemonade is assimilated into Jeffrey's already existing schema concerning fluids. However, left alone for a moment in the garage one day, Jeffrey finds an open can of motor oil. When he tries to drink from it, he quickly finds that some fluids do not fit his schema of "milk" and perhaps develops new schema for nondrinkable fluids. New information forces such an accommodation.

Sensorimotor Stage. According to Piaget, the sensorimotor stage lasts from birth until about age 2. During this period, children are egocentric and fail to distinguish between themselves and outer reality. They have little ability to use language or symbolic representations and therefore are unable to exhibit object permanence, the awareness that people or objects continue to exist when they are not in sight.

EXAMPLE 4.15. Object permanence is truly an "out-of-sight, out-of-mind" situation. If a series of clouds blows in front of the sun so that the view is blocked, the sun no longer exists in the cognition of a child in the sensorimotor stage of development.

Preoperational Stage. During the preoperational stage, which lasts from about age 2 until age 7, a child shows considerable progress in the ability to represent things by using language, drawings, numerical systems, and symbolic play. Conceptualization and prelogical reasoning develop, although the child's viewpoint of the world continues to be primarily self-centered.

Concrete Operational Stage. From ages 7 until 11, during the concrete operational stage, a child's thoughts are characterized by logic, the understanding of relationships, and the development of coordinated series of ideas. The child's thoughts are tied to concrete or observable things, however, and abstract thought remains at a rudimentary level. This is particularly evident in testing a principle such as conservation, the knowledge that quantity is unrelated to the arrangement or appearance of objects; for example, if able to observe them, a child at this stage understands that seven pennies are seven whether they are spread across a table or grouped closely together.

Formal Operational Stage. From age 11 years until adulthood, during the formal operational stage, a child's thoughts progress to incorporate formal rules of logic. Abstract concepts become understandable, and the child can generalize from one situation to another. The child shows interest in the future and can use theories and hypotheses to propose what may happen.

EXAMPLE 4.16. Suppose a child is asked to describe the concept of heating the house. A child in the sensorimotor stage would only react with "Hot!" or "Cold!" A child in the preoperational stage might respond by saying, "My daddy can change it with the dial." A child in the concrete operational stage might understand the relationship of the thermostat and the temperature level, but this understanding would be based on the concrete operation of actually turning the thermostat's dial. At the formal operational level, the child could hypothesize relationships involving different kinds of thermostats or heating devices without necessarily having such objects available.

Piaget's theories stress the sequence of events in cognitive development. The ages are suggested as average or typical but not necessarily binding. This emphasis on sequence tends to underplay the amount of cognitive development, which usually is studied under the heading of intelligence. (See Chapter 11.)

Information-Processing Approach to Cognitive Development. An alternative explanation for the behaviors described as occurring in stages by Piaget is that of the information-processing approach. From this perspective, cognitive development is an active process of continuous increases in language and verbal fluency, numerical skills, knowledge and memory, ability to solve problems, and proficiency in applying these skills in various circumstances. Similar to Piaget's theories, information-processing approaches envision changing conceptualizations of the world as a child becomes increasingly sophisticated in cognitive skills. However, information-processing approaches do not propose stages or establish cutoff points for the behaviors being observed, emphasizing instead the changes in efficiency and understanding with which information is processed.

EXAMPLE 4.17. Younger children often do not understand that they do not understand; given a problem to solve, they may be unaware of their errors. It is only after he or she has had the opportunity to develop the necessary cognitive skills that a child will be able to say, "I don't understand what's going on here." An information-processing approach emphasizes the increases in skill learning, experiences, and abilities that allow the development of cognitive strategies and the understanding of when such strategies are missing.

Cultural Influences on Cognitive Development. Differences in attitudes toward cognitive development are recognized as affecting the patterns exhibited by children. Language skills, the importance of working hard in school, and career goals are emphasized more or less, depending on cultural background. Children moving from one location to another often confront the differences in cultural expectations, finding their cognitive patterns inappropriate for the group into which they move.

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