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Cognitive Development Research Paper

Most learning theories concentrate and show particular events and conditions that are essential in the learning, that is acquisition of knowledge, language, and other specific skills. We saw this first in Classical Conditioning of Pavlov, and Operant Conditioning of F. W. Skinner, and later on in Cognitive theories of Bandura. First two theories emphasize on ‘purely instinctive’ learned operations, and explain all learning behavior in these terms (of reinforcements). Bandura on the other hand concentrates much more on the mental, cognitive operations and processes that happen inside our brains.

Cognitive Development theorists initially follow in Bandura’s steps, but depart from that road, where they first identify the capabilities that represent the highest levels of human thought, and than they describe the events and conditions necessary to attain these levels of thinking. They stress that, higher levels of human thinking cannot be taught directly.

The two cognitive-development theorists, Jean Piaget and Lev. S. Vygotsky described thinking in quite different ways. Piaget, a biologist, and philosopher concentrated on observation of child’s interaction with objects in its immediate environment, and he explained logical thinking and reasoning about complex situationsas the highest form of cognitive development. On the other hand Lev Vygotsky argued that all higher psychological processes begin as a social processes shared between people, particularly between children and adults. He identified such terms as ‘zone of proximal development (actual development level by individual problem solving vs. level of potential development), and higher mental functioning. He based his analysis in the cultural history of the human race and the child’s interaction with knowledgeable adults or more able peers/persons in its particular culture.

Jean Piaget’s Cognitive-Development Theory
Jean Piaget (1896-1980) had first degree in biology, and a doctorate in zoology. Nevertheless one of his constant interests was in the field of philosophy, especially in logic and structures of knowledge. His clinical experience included hypnosis, free association, interviews and observation, giving especial considerations to Binet’s test and critical analysis of children’s thinking. Piaget’s theory and research clearly demonstrated the message that young children’s thinking and ways of organizing experience differ qualitatively from adult thinking. One of the main aims of Piaget’s works was trying to discover the characteristics of natural logic. Discovering the characteristics of natural logic involved discovering the origins of knowledge and reasoning and the transitions from one form of reasoning to another. This goal requires the investigation of the roots of logical thinking in infancy, the kinds of reasoning that young children engage in, and the reasoning processes used by adolescents and adults. The areas covered in his theory and research include: children’s language and thought, children’s understanding of causality and the world, moral development, arithmetic reasoning, stages in infant cognitive development, a theory of adaptation, the components of logical thinking, and analysis of pre-logical thinking. Piaget’s basis or framework of this study of natural logistics was in the fields of biology, philosophy, and psychology. The basic issues, the nature of knowledge and the relationship between the knower and reality, came from philosophy. The methodology for answering the questions came from psychology, and biology was the source of Piaget’s assumptions about the nature of intelligence. Specifically, intelligence, like biological organisms, is an organized system that constantly interacts with the environment and constructs the structures essential for adaptation to the environment. Therefore, intelligence is an ongoing and changing process, and knowing is created by the activity of the learner. The key question of the psychology thus becomes the ways that the learner progresses from one stage of knowledge construction to another. The translation from one form of reasoning to another depends on four essential factors. They are the physical environment, maturation, social influences, and the processes referred to as equilibration.

Principles of Logical Thinking
In his theory of development of natural logic, Jean Piaget makes a couple of basic assumptions. Namely these assumptions are his conception of the nature of intelligence and the essential factors in cognitive development. First assumption of Piaget’s theory is that human intelligence functions in the similar way to biological organisms. Piaget means by this that they are both organized systems that constantly interact with the environment, and also construct the structures they need in order to adapt to this environment. An example is the infant’s coordination of his/her actions into the reaching-grasping-pulling scheme. She/he first learns one in order to learn another and adapt his/herself to the other. Therefore, intelligence is not a static trait that can be quantitatively measured. Instead, intelligence is active, dynamic, and changing, for it seeks explanations and understandings both to construct itself and to function effectively.

According to Piaget, knowledge is a process that is created by the activity of the learner. ”To know is to act!” In the creation of knowledge, the individual who learns, and the object that is learned/about which it is learned are inseparable in this theory. So there are objective and subjective dimensions of knowledge. Objective are some absolute and abstract meanings, but there are subjective and personal interpretations and unique relationships of understanding and comprehending between learner and the object. Therefore this is a complex relationship and not a priori held information, or something ‘outside’ completely independent from the person. The relationship between the learner and the object is always undergoing transformation. The infant, for example, first learns about the environment by putting all the objects into its mouth and later by shaking, dropping, pushing, or pulling them.

As previously stated, four factors are necessary for the developmental transitions from one form of reasoning to another: physical environment, maturation, social influences and processes referred to as equilibrium. The contact between individual and its physical environment is main and primary source of new knowledge. Still, the individual has to have intelligence that can use the experience to develop this new knowledge. Maturation than opens up possibilities for development whereas the lack of it establishes broad limits on cognitive achievement. Although maturation is an important condition for cognitive development, the particular events are not predetermined. Development proceeds at different rates, depending on the nature of the contact with the environment and the learner’s own activity. The social environment, includes the role of language and education and, particularly, contact with others. In its absence, the child, subjectively certain in its beliefs, would be unlikely to initiate the actions required to change inaccurate ideas. Also, differences in social experiences, like physical experience, can accelerate or retard the development of cognitive structures. These three factors are not sufficient enough to explain the emergence of new forms of thinking, so Piaget included also a fourth factor, called equilibration. This is the set of processes that maintain a steady state in intellectual functioning in the midst of transformation and change. Equilibration regulates the individual’s interactions with the environment and permits cognitive development to proceed in a coherent and organized fashion.

The components of cognitive development consist of 1) the psychological structure of logical thinking and 2) the fundamental processes involved in interactions with the environment. Logical thinking in a particular domain has been achieved when the learner can simultaneously coordinate an operation and its inverse, can predict in advance the types of change that will occur, and can support his/her decision on the basis of necessity. Experiments on the conservation of quantity illustrate the phases involved in the child’s invention of an operational structure. Namely, children were shown little balls of clay that were then rolled into sausage shapes. When asked if the amount of clay was the same, three levels of development were found prior to operational thinking. Children focused only on the lengths of the sausage shape – level 1, began to notice the rolling out of clay makes it thinner – level 2, and then understood that rolling out the clay makes it simultaneously longer and thinner – level 3. Children at level 3 may also understand that the sausage shape can be returned to the ball. However, they do not yet comprehend reversibility in terms of the compensatory relations between transformations of length and width. Construction of the operational structure of conservation of quantity – level 4, means that children can predict in advance the compensatory changes in length and thickness that result from rolling out the clay. In addition, they are able to identify the constant or invariant in the process.

The fundamental processes in the development of logical thinking are assimilation, accommodation, and equilibration. Assimilation is the integration of external elements into the learner’s internal structures. Accommodation, in contrast includes both adjustments in the learners internal structures and qualitative transformations in thinking. Equilibration is the set of processes that maintains cognitive organization during the learner’s changes in thinking. A major role of equilibration is that of maintaining intellectual functioning when disequilibria or cognitive conflicts occur. However, disequilibria do not always lead to progress. The various reactions to disequilibria described by Piaget are alpha, beta, and gamma reactions. Another important aspect of equilibration is the processes by which thinking is recognized on a higher level. These processes are referred to as reflective abstraction. The key characteristic is that the subject matter is the individual’s thought processes. The alpha reaction involves either disregarding the disturbance or distorting the new information to maintain one’s core beliefs. The beta reaction involves a modification of thinking in order to accommodate the disturbance. In contrast, a gamma reaction is the anticipation in advance of possible disturbances and the treatment of them as potential transformations. A gamma reaction indicates that the individual has constructed a new cognitive structure.

According to Piaget, the qualitative differences in children’s thinking form four broad periods or stages of development. They are sensorimotor, preoperational, concrete operational, and formal operational periods. Piaget actually, made a predictive formulae in order to explain these changes in reasoning process, and to explain when about they should take place.

Sensorimotor stage (birth – 1 ? years) – presymbolic and preverbal intelligence involves the development of action schemes. Inference begins when the infant develops relations among actions. An example is constructing the container-content scheme from the ‘insert-in-the-mouth’ scheme.
Preoperational stage (2-3 to 7-8 years) – partially logical thought begins; e.g., water poured into another container is the same water: a = a. However, the child reasons from one particular to another and decisions are made on the basis of perceptual cues. Young child does not differentiate between reality, possibility, and necessity in problem-solving situations.

Concrete operational stage (7-8 to 12-14 years) – logical ways of thinking linked to concrete objects are developed. Child comes to understand that a given operation simultaneously and necessarily implies its inverse. Child begins to develop co-possibilities in problem-solving situations and ways to systematically exclude them. At the level of concrete operations, the child develops logical structures in four domains. They are the numerical operations (conservation of number, length, weight, area, mass, and volume), classification, categorization, and ordering relations, or seriation. Concrete operations are linked to the manipulation of physical objects.

Formal operational stage (older than 14 years) – the capability of dealing logically with multifactor situations. Individuals can deduce multiple possibilities and systematically exclude them. Reasoning proceeds from the hypothetical situation to the concrete. This means that formal operation thinkers can solve multifactor situations because they are able to begin with a theoretical synthesis, and they than can test the hypothesized relationships in systematic ways.

The focus of Piaget’s theory is the development of logical thinking; therefore, it does not include specific guidelines for instruction. However, general guidelines for instruction to facilitate student thinking may be derived from the theory. First, knowledge, particularly in mathematics and science, should not be thought as though it were a set of truths that can be relayed through abstract language. Knowledge is constructed by the learner through self-directed and peer-collaborative research. The teacher’s role is that of organizing and creating situations that present meaningful problems. Collaboration and interchange among the students also should accompany experimentation.

As Piaget suggests, any activities in the preschool curriculum can provide opportunities for cognitive development. Examples include block painting, finger painting, and musical games. Objects should be provided in the classroom that can be acted on directly by the child, and the child’s actions should produce different effects that are immediate and observable. The teacher’s role is that of asking thoughtful questions that provoke children’s thinking.

At the elementary school level, the variety of materials for measurement and experimentation can provide children with opportunities to use their developing subsystems. Experimentation in science also is important to help children confront their intuitive beliefs about scientific concepts. In addition, used appropriately, computer environments can provide opportunities for students to construct and manipulate objects and thereby confront their intuitive beliefs.

Formal operational thinking also requires self-directed exploration. Students should be encouraged to formulate explanatory hypotheses, to test them, and to address conflicting data. However, reconceptualization will be a slow process.

Critique on Jean Piaget’s theory
A major problem in the implementation of Piaget’s ideas arises from the different perspective he casts on intelligence, knowledge, and learning. Considerable effort is required to alert one’s perspective from intelligence and knowledge as products to treating these concepts totally as process.
The development of curriculum, according to Piagetian concepts, requires as Piaget himself indicated, considerable work and effort. Implementation of a Piagetian curriculum is also complicated by the fact that his theory excludes the relationships between logical thinking and curriculum basics, such as reading and writing.

Lev S. Vygotsky’s Cultural-Historical Theory of Psychological Development
Lev Vygotsky, a Russian psychologist, heavily influenced by the philosophical teachings of the Karl Marx, and supporter of the Soviet Revolution, emphasized in his learning theory the complex mental functions of categorical perception, logical memory, conceptual thinking, and self-regulated attention. He argued that the potential for development of these capabilities is determined by the cultural-historical heritage of the child’s culture and the child’s social experience. According to Vygotsky, the key to the development of complex mental functions is mastering the signs and symbols of the culture and learning to use them to direct and regulate one’s own behavior. The creation and use of arbitrary signs changes the psychological nature of processes such as perception, memory, and attention into more complex forms. However, because the meanings assigned to symbols are a product of a particular culture, the nature of the child’s cognitive functioning is socially determined.

Vygotsky maintained that psychology should study humans, rather than animals, to discover the unique aspects of human cognition. Unlike animals, humans progress beyond their biological heritage and develop complex ways of thinking. Important in this development was the invention of simple tools by pre-humans, which led to the emergence of the human species. Vygotsky, a follower of Marxist ideology, studied that Marxism maintained that tool use transforms both nature and human experience, however he modified this theory to include only psychological tools, which are the sign and symbol systems of the individual’s culture. Humans, though active adaptation of the environment to fit their goals and the need to communicate with the regulate human groups, developed complex symbol systems. Included are speech, written language, mathematical systems, musical notation, and others. Through the creation and use of these arbitrary stimuli, humans create new ways of thinking.

However, Vygotsky maintained that both biological and cultural factors contribute to human cognitive development. Biological factors, such as maturation, are responsible for the development of primitive mental functions (involuntary attention, simple perception, and simple memory). Then the particular culture to which the child belongs sets broad limits on the level of higher cognitive thinking that the child can attain. That is, for example, a culture restricted to a simple counting system lacks the tools for individuals to develop conceptual manipulations of abstract symbols.

Another theory where Vygotsky follows Marx is where Marxism describes the process of change as reflecting the processes whereby primitive cognitive functions were transformed into complex ways of thinking. Specifically, a thesis is negated by its opposite – antithesis, and the resolution of this conflict is a synthesis that is qualitatively a new phenomenon. According to this Russian classic psychologist, cognitive development involves the qualitative transformation of some forms into others and a complex process of overcoming difficulties and of adaptation. Therefore, he argues, because cognitive processes are dynamic and ever-changing, they must be studied using research methods that reveal their dynamic nature. In Vygotsky’s opinion, The aim of psychological research is 1) Process analysis rather than object analysis; 2) An accounting that reveals real, causal, or dynamic relations, rather than a tabulation of external features; and 3) A reconstruction of all the points in the development of a particular structure.

The Components of Cognitive Development
The basic functional unit which forms the structure of consciousness, according to Vygotsky, is the word. It functions in three general principles that are the components of cognitive development. First, Vygotsky described two branches of cognitive development. One involves mastering the symbol systems of the culture and the other involves developing the cultural forms of reasoning.

Second, the law of genetic development states that all complex functions begin as social interactions between individuals and gradually acquire meaning and are internalized by the learner. However, also required is practice by the learner of the behaviors that adults used with him or her.

The third principle describes the process whereby speech and other artificial symbols are first mastered as a form of communication and then become instrumental in structuring and managing the child’s thinking. The young child, for example, is unable to use pictures as cues to recall a set of words. However, adults often construct complex verbal relationships as memory aids. The lengthy process of learning to use artificial symbols to structure one’s thinking begins with learning to use auxiliary stimuli to mediate one’s memory. Gradually, over an extended period of time, the individual acquires the capability to construct symbols to aid in thinking. This process is referred to as the natural history (law) of the sign.

The use of speech also changes throughout childhood and follows the same four stages as the use of symbols in thinking. Namely, those stages are 1) preintellectual; 2) ’naively’ psychological; 3) dominance of external sign use; and 4) ‘ingrowth’ or internalization.

The Nature of Complex Thought
The higher cognitive functions are the uniquely human capabilities that are the products of cultural-historical development. Unlike the primitive psychological functions, the higher cognitive functions are characterized by conscious awareness (of the processes), abstraction, and control, and permit the individual to make use of logical relations and generalizations.

According to Vygotsky, a key factor in the emergence of higher cognitive functions is the concept referred, by him, to as the zone of proximal development. Prior theories described instruction as lagging behind development, synonymous with development, or addressing a particular skill and thereby improving all acquired abilities. Instead, as Vygotsky argues, development should be described in terms of two levels: actual and potential. Three situations that reflect potential or proximal development are the problems that the child can solve in collaboration with an adult, the imaginative play of preschool children, and independent problem solving in which the student recreates prior interaction with the teacher. The key to the development of emerging (potential) capabilities in each of these situations is imitation that recreates adult actions.

Principles of Instruction
Two issues confronting psychological analysis arise fro the concept of the zone of proximal development. One is to describe the ways in which school learning awakens new relations in internal intellectual processes. The second is to reexamine the significance of each particular subject in the curriculum from the perspective of overall mental development. The second issue, however, only can be resolved through research based on the concept of the zone of proximal development.

Some Common Ground Points in the Two Theories
Jean Piaget, like Lev Vygotsky, analyzed particular aspects of human cognitive development. Their approach to this task shares four major characteristics. They are: 1) The establishment of a theoretical framework for the study of psychological processes; 2) The identification of different psychological structures constructed during development; 3) The analysis of the psychological processes required to attain the highest levels of cognitive development; and 4) An assertion that cognitive development does not proceed through small incremental changes. Instead it undergoes qualitative transformations.


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