Term Paper On Developmental Theories

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The term cognitive development describes the way in which individuals learn about and perceive themselves and their environment. The major theorist of the field is Jean Piaget, who contributed stage independent and stage dependent, but other theorists have built upon his work with theories like information-processing, social cognition, and sociocultural perspectives. Biological and cultural factors can also affect cognitive development across the lifespan. Educators can apply these theories to the classroom as they work with both young and adult learners to develop higher order thinking.

Keywords Cognitive Development; Concrete Operational Stage; Emerging Adulthood; Formal Operational Stage; Information-Processing; Operations; Piaget, Jean; Post-formal Thought; Preoperational Stage; Schemata; Sensori-motor Stage; Socio-cultural; Social Cognition; Socio-cultural Approaches to Cognitive Development; Structures; Theory of Mind

Educational Psychology: Cognitive Development


At the heart of the study of cognitive development are the questions: "What do we know?" and "How did we come to know it?" Answering these questions involves examination of the multiple processes that influence mental and intellectual functioning across the lifespan. In that regard, it is of interest to explore aspects of cognitive development such as cognition, which entails thinking and perception, language, memory, and attention as they pertain to individuals from infancy and throughout adulthood.

The current investigation of cognitive development begins with the seminal work of Jean Piaget. It then addresses other theories and recent work in cognitive development such as socio-cultural approaches and theory of mind. Some applications of cognitive development theories are discussed in relation to moral development and classroom strategies. Issues of culture and life-stage are also explored in relation to cognitive development.

Piaget on Cognitive Development

Jean Piaget was a Swiss scholar who, though untrained in psychology, made a tremendous impact on the field-particularly in the areas of cognitive, developmental, and educational psychology. Among his many contributions, Piaget posited theories on cognitive development that were stage-independent and stage-dependent (Muuss, 1996). At the heart of his theories of cognitive development was the understanding that knowledge could be innate, learned, or developed through a self-regulated process (Egan, 1982). Piaget's stage-independent theory presents a number of concepts integral to understanding the process of cognitive development detailed in his stage-dependent theory.

Stage-Independent Theory

Schemata, structures, equilibration, and operations are the constructs of interest in Piaget's stage-independent theory on cognitive development (Muuss, 1996). A schema is a cognitive representation of concepts or behaviors that have meaning in people's everyday lives. Schemata, or more than one schema, are adapted repeatedly over the lifespan due to maturation and experience. Structures arise as schemata become more complex and organized in relationship to one another. Cognitive development proceeds as individuals engage with structures in their environment and mature as a result of these experiences. Aiding this process is what Piaget referred to as equilibration.

Equilibration is characterized by dual practices of assimilation and accommodation. When an individual encounters unfamiliar information in their environment they must address the disruption to their equilibrium that results by making accommodations to existing structures. Adapting to new information by integrating it into current structures is assimilation. The actions taken in the equilibration process, and many other processes, are what Piaget termed operations. Operations are extensions of schemata and structures and are integral to Piaget's stage-dependent theory of cognitive development.

Stage-Dependent Theory: The 4 Stages of Cognitive Development

As Muuss (1996) details, according to Piaget, the four broad stages of cognitive development are the:

• Sensori-motor,

• Preoperational,

• Concrete operational

• Formal operational stages.

The time frame for the stages ranges from birth through adolescence with stages ordered sequentially. From birth through the age of 2, the sensorimotor stage sees children move from reflex actions to intentional movement. Children also become aware of object permanence and begin to use schemata to explore new situations. In the preoperational stage, children from age 2 to 7 see their language skills grow and learn based on how things appear to them at a surface level. Children in this stage remain egocentric for the most part but do begin to internalize representations (Piaget 1972/1999).

The concrete operational stage involves children age 7 to 11 who develop abilities such as classifying objects and seeing how such objects relate to one another. Conservation is probably the hallmark of the concrete operational stage and it entails the recognition that manipulating an object in different ways does not change its properties. The most well-known example of the principle of conservation is recognizing that pouring all of the water from a short, wide glass into a tall, thin glass does not increase the amount of water.

The final stage in Piaget's stage-theory of cognitive development is the formal operations stage. This stage is thought to begin at adolescence and entails abstract and logical thought. It also involves youth being able to reflect about what they are thinking (also known as metacognition), create theories on various topics, and explore the relationship between reality and possibility (Muuss, 1996). Piaget (1972/1999) suggested that formal operations might be experienced by adolescents in diverse ways based on their unique abilities, proclivities, and skills.

Other Perspectives on Cognitive Development


The information-processing approach to cognitive development focuses on how individuals respond to stimuli in their environment. Integral aspects of this theory are:

• Attention,

• Memory

• Processing speed (Arnett, 2004).

Information-processing can occur consciously or unconsciously and involves individuals creating and acting upon cognitive representations of stimuli (David, Miclea, & Opre, 2004). At any given time there are myriad stimuli at play in the environment. When individuals encounter these stimuli they must make decisions as to what they will pay attention to in that moment; this information will then exist at the sensory memory level.

Processing information using perceptual and learning skills helps transition it into either short-term or long-term memory. Information stays in short-term memory for brief periods of time while it can be stored for retrieval at any time in long-term memory. Processing speed refers to the length of time it takes an individual to attend to stimuli, work with information in their memory, and then offer a response of some sort. The components of the information-processing approach-attention, memory, and processing speed-operate in continuous and concurrent ways. As individuals mature, they are able to attend to more than one stimulus at a time, hold more information in their short- and long-term memory, and process information more quickly and, hopefully, more accurately (Arnett, 2004; David et al., 2004).

Social Cognition

Albert Bandura is a social psychologist whose contributions to the field of psychology span across decades and topics. His perspective on cognitive development is one that emphasizes social learning or social cognition. By social cognition, Bandura meant the process by which individuals think about and subsequently act within the social environment (Grusec, 1992). Social cognition relates to how people-from childhood through adulthood-regulate, reflect upon, and reinforce their behavior as they interact in the world at large (Muuss, 1996). Another integral concept in social cognition is self-efficacy, or an individual's belief in their ability to exert control on their environment (Bandura, 1993).

Cognitive, motivational, affective, and selection processes exert influence in social cognition. Selection relates to what individuals attend to and engage with in their environment. Affective states, such as anxiety or depression, are what Bandura (1993) refers to as "emotional mediators" and they can impact all facets of social learning particularly self-efficacy. Motivational processes include the attributions made, expectations held, and goals set by individuals (Bandura, 1993). Of relevance to the motivational process is vicarious reinforcement, or the impact that the observation of others' behavior and the response to that behavior has on an individual's thoughts and actions (Muuss, 1996). Forethought, or the ability to think into the future in regard to goals and expectations, is a salient cognitive process in the realm of social cognition (Bandura, 1993).

Socio-cultural Approaches

Lev Vygotsky was a Russian psychologist whose work from the early part of the twentieth century has grown in impact in recent decades (Arnett, 2004). For Vygotsky, development was "the transformation of socially shared activities into internalized processes (John-Steiner & Mahn, 1996, p. 192)." History and language are examples of the "socially shared activities" Vygotsky believed were internalized by individuals as they lived and acted within particular cultural contexts.

Vygotsky's constructs of scaffolding and the zone of proximal development have been major contributions in the area of cognitive development (Arnett, 2004). The zone of proximal...

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