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Chapter 6: Theories of Cognitive Development
SETTING THE STAGE: PIAGET’S THEORY
Basic Principles of Piaget’s Theory
• Piaget investigated the nature and origin of knowledge by studying how children learned. Children are
innately curious, like scientists creating theories to understand the world.
• Constructivist theory emphasizes role of the active child, who are intrinsically motivated to learn,
generating hypotheses, performing experiments, and drawing conclusions. There is both a biological
drive to make sense of the world (nature) in terms of adaptation response to environment, and impact of
learning and experience (nurture)
• Assimilation occurs when new experiences are readily integrated or understood in view of an existing
theory. Accommodation occurs when a child’s theories are modified based on experience.
• E.g. After identifying monarch as butterfly, so is zebra swallowtail; however, learns moth is not a
butterfly and must change theory of butterflies to be more precise.
• In the middle of a stage, there is more assimilation than accommodation; when changing stages, more
accommodation. Between stages, there may be brief transitional periods where kids waver back and
• When disequilibrium occurs, children reorganize their theories in equilibration to restore balance with
a qualitatively different, more advanced theory.
• Cognitive development is driven by equilibration, and results in the formation of mental structures of
schemas. Schemas are active, continually changing and developing. The integration of various schema
allow organization of information into a coherent whole.
• These revolutionary changes occur 3 times for 4 qualitatively discontinuous stages of development:
sensorimotor (birth – 2), preoperational (2 – 6), concrete operational (7 – 11), and formal operational (11
• These stages must occur in this sequence, and are dependent on previous stages
• Piagetian theory consider these stages to have broad applicability, same across all types of cognition
and contexts, and to be invariant and universal
Stages of Cognitive Development
• From birth to 2 years, the infant progresses from simple reflex actions to symbolic processing. It has 6
• 1) Basic Reflexes (0-1 month): Basic responses of reflexes indicate some behavioural and cognitive
abilities, which will be built upon to become more coordinated behaviours in subsequent substages.
Accomodation of sucking
• 2) Primary Circular Reactions (1-4 months): A primary circular reaction occurs when an infant
accidentally produces a pleasing event, and then tries to recreate it, e.g. sucking not only nipple, but self-
initiation by sucking thumb. The reflex thus becomes more complex and intentional.
• 3) Secondary Circular Reaction (4-8 months): Occurs when an infant discovers repeated actions that
involve an external object. They represent first efforts to learn about objects in the environment, to
explore properties and effect of their actions on those properties – but lack object permanence
• 4) Intentional Behaviour (8-12 months): Deliberate, intentional behaviour is apparent when the
means are distinct from the ends – but A-not-B error
• 5) Tertiary Circular Reaction (12-18 months): Occurs when infant repeats old actions with new
objects, to understand why different objects yield different outcomes. E.g. Intentionally shake objects to
see which produce sounds and which do not. This involves active exploration of the world. Page 188-220, 33 pages Page 2 of10
• 6) Using Symbols (18-24 months): Use of symbols like words and gestures, as well as pretend play.
The infant may show deferred imitation, where behaviour seen in another time and place is reproduced
– demonstrates mental representation.
• Adapting to & Exploring the Environment: Reflexes are modified by experience, interest in
environmental objects and their properties, purposeful and intentional behaviour, active experimentation
in tertiary circular reaction
• Understanding Objects: Object permanence is understanding that objects exist independently of our
actions and thoughts towards them. For infants under 12 months, objects are ephemeral, “out of sight,
out of mind”. This is evident in lack of reaching actions towards a desirable object when it is hidden by a
cloth, up to 8 months.
• They still exhibit the A-not-B error where an object is first repeatedly hidden at location A. Then, it
hidden at location B. The child, although they have observed hiding now at location B, they still search for
the object at location A and not B (although may be gazing at B). Affected by number of times object is
found at B, delay time, salience of different hiding spaces, etc.
o This shows only fragmentary understanding of objects, with lack of distinguishment between
object and actions needed to locate it.
• Using Symbols: By 18 months, infants demonstrate use of symbols in talking and gesturing (e.g.
waving goodbye). Use of symbols allows anticipation of consequences mentally rather than having to
• From 2-7 years, the child becomes proficient in use of symbols to represent objects and events, such
as words, gestures, graphs, maps, and models.
• Egocentrism: Preoperational children have difficulty seeing the world from another’s viewpoint, do not
comprehend that others may have different ideas or feelings – theirs is the only view, not one of many
options. E.g. What view does the doll have of this three-mountains scene? Will choose scene of their
• However, when tasks are age-appropriate and children motivated to succeed, can demonstrate non-
egocentric thought as young as 3.
• Centration refers to the narrow focused thought that
characterizes preoperational children, focusing on one aspect
of a problem and ignoring other relevant aspects.
• Demonstrated by water volume conservation experiment –
children do not realize that volume of object stays the same
when its physical appearance is changed by being poured
into a slimmer glass. They would claim the tall, thin beaker
has more water than the original, focusing on the level of the
water being higher.
• They still lack operations and focus on static states or one dimension without transformations or
flexibility. May also confuse mental and physical events, such as assuming that thoughts reflect external
reality or that dreams are real. Show animism (attributes life and will to inanimate objects) and
artificialism (assumes environmental features are made by people).
Concrete Operational Stage
• During ages 7-11, children use mental operations to solve problems and to reason. These mental
operations are strategies and rules that make thinking more systematic and powerful.
• This includes arithmetic operations applied to both numbers and categories of objects (mothers +
fathers = parents), and to spatial relations.
• An important property is that mental operations can be reversed, to undo the effect of an operation.
This differentiates concrete operational from preoperational children on the water conservation task: if the
transformation were reversed, the volumes would be identical. Page 188-220, 33 pages Page 3 of10
• Concrete operational children are not limited by egocentrism or centration.
• However, own limits to tangible and real, here and now, taking a concrete practical-minded problem-
solving approach that fixates on the perceptible reality – abstraction and hypotheticals are beyond their
Formal Operational Stage
• From age 11 on, adolescents are able to apply mental operations to abstract entities, thinking
hypothetically and reasoning deductively. They understand reality is not the only possibility, and can
envision alternative realities and their consequences, and ponder deeper questions.
• E.g. “What would happen if gravity meant that objects floated up” can be answered
• This also allows problem-solving by creating hypotheses (sets of possibilities) and testing them. E.g.
When asked how to combine various clear liquids to create a blue liquid.
• Deductive reasoning is the ability to draw conclusions from known facts/premises. E.g. If you hit a
glass with a feather, the glass will break. Don hit a glass with a feather.
• Formal operational children will reach this conclusion despite being counterfactual to experience, while
concrete operational children will not.
• Adolescents and adults acquire more knowledge, but their fundamental way of thinking is formal
Cognitive Stage & Limitations Achievements
Sensorimotor No representational thought, no Representational, symbolic thought
Birth – 2 infernal symbols gradually emerges through intentional
Object permanence lacking early on testing
Object permanence begins to develop
Preoperational Intuitive logic leads to egocentrism, Flourishing mental representations and
2 – 7 animism, and centration symbols, such as in language, art, and play
Schemes are not reversible, not
Fail at conservation tasks due to
centration and lack of reversibility
Concrete Operational Logic limited to concrete, tangible Logical thought more objective, allows skills
7 – 11 materials and experiences like class inclusion and transivity
Schemes can be reversible, operational
Children pass conservation problems
Formal Operational Adolescent egocentrism seen in Hypothetico-deductive reasoning
12 and up imaginary audience and personal Abstract thought emerges
Lasting Contributions of Piaget’s Work
• Study of Cognitive Development: Before Piaget, cognition was not researched by child-development
scientists. Piaget showed why cognitive processes are central to development and created research
methods for it.
• New View of Children: Piaget emphasized constructivism, view that children are active participants in
their own development who systematically construct ever more sophisticated understandings of their
• Fascinating and counterintuitive discoveries: Many findings were unexpected, and their patterns of both
correct and incorrect answers became puzzles to solve. Page 188-220, 33 pages Page 4 of10
• Piaget’s theory also informed teaching practices, to facilitate rather than direct children’s learning, be
sensitive to children’s readiness to learn (slightly ahead of current level of thinking), emphasize
exploration and interaction and to examine one’s consistency of thinking
Weaknesses of Piaget’s Theory
• Estimates cognitive competence in infants & young children, overestimates in adolescents: In Piaget’s
theory, cognitive development is steady but slow in early childhood. By using more sensitive tasks than
Piaget’s, modern researchers have shown infants and toddlers as being vastly more capable than
expected. However, Piaget overestimates cognitive skill in adolescents, who often revert to less
• Vague with respect to processes and mechanisms of change: Accommodation and assimilation are too
vague to test scientifically, not convincing accounts of children’s thinking.
• Does not account for variability in performance: Cognitive development is not as stage-like as Piaget
believed, who defines each stage with unique characteristics that inform performance on all tasks. In
fact, a child’s thinking may be sophisticated in some domains, while naïve in others.
• Undervalues sociocultural influence: The child is not a lone scientist, she is profoundly influenced by
interactions with her family, peers, and teachers, against a background of cultural values. As well, not all
cultures reach the formal operational stage.
MODERN THEORIES OF COGNITIVE DEVELOPMENT
The Sociocultural Perspective: Vygotsky’s Theory
• In the sociocultural perspective, children’s cognitive development is not only brought about by social
interaction, but inseparable from cultural context in which they live and collaborative learning. Only
humans learn culturally.
• Culture differs, so content differs: define which cognitive activities are valued (read vs. navigate by
stars), provides tools to shape the way children think (abacus, pencil and paper, hand-held calculator),
and higher-level cultural practices help children organize their knowledge and communicate it to others
(emphasis on independent thinking or collaboration).
• Vygotsky saw development as an apprenticeship, where children advance by collaborating with others
who are more skilled. This is particularly true with use of language, enabling dialogues.
• Intersubjectivity refers to the mutual, shared understanding among participants in a study. This
includes understanding of the goals, intentions, and roles to allow complementary teamwork – leads to
turn-taking, joint attention, and social referencing
• Guided participation is when cognitive growth results from children’s involvement with others who are
more skilled than they, allowing children to connect new skills with they they already know.
Zone of Proximal Development
• The zone of proximal development refers to the difference between
the child’s independent level of performance, and the higher level
possible when working under guidance of more skilled peers or adults.
• Collaborators help children perform effectively by providing structure,
hints, and reminders.
• This agrees with premise that cognition develops first in a social setting,
then gradually comes under the child’s independent control.
• Scaffolding is a teaching style that matches the amount of assistance to the learner’s needs. Early in a
new task, direct instruction is needed; as child begins to be able to do more of the task herself, the
amount of assistance decreases until she performs the task completely independently.
• Scaffolding rather than direct instruction is necessary for independent learning and performance. Page 188-220, 33 pages Page 5 of10
• Different cultures scaffold learning in different ways; study involved parents in a US city, Indian tribal
village, Turkish city, and Guatemalan rural town teaching their children to operate a novel toy.
o Parents differed in amount of verbal instruction, use of gestures, and touch and gaze – but all
try to simplify learning tasks through scaffolding.
• Scaffolding is important for transferring skills to the child both in school and in informal settings such as
at home and in the playground.
• Private Speech consists of comments intended to help children regulate their own behaviour, instead
of being directed at others. It is an intermediate step towards self-regulation of behaviour and thinking
• This first involves speaking aloud, then becomes inner speech, or thought. Vygotsky believed that
children’s language use during tasks are not egocentric or non-social, but directed at communicating with
• Observe children use more private speech on difficult over easy tasks, particularly after mistakes.
• Information-Processing Theory proposes that human cognition consists of mental hardware and
software, characterizing cognition analogous to computers, which consist of hardware (disk drives, RAM,
processing unit) and software (programs).
• This approach views humans as complex manipulators of symbols. Software consists of organized sets
of cognitive processes that allow children to complete specific tasks – e.g. to answer parent’s questions
of “Did I ask you to take out the garbage?” the child must perform:
o Understand the question: Decode sounds of speech and decipher meaning
o Search memory for list: Searches working and long-term memory for answer
o Compare questions with list: When memory information is retrieved, software compares “take
out the garbage” with each of mother’s requests
o Respond: Finding a match, software selects “yes” as answer
• Cognition includes all mental activity: attending, remembering, symbolizing, categorizing, planning,
reasoning, problem-solving, creating,