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  • "Development of the ability to think and know"
  • How a child understands their world and contrasting this with adult understanding
  • Many aspects including attention, learning, memory, language, executive functions (problem solving, reasoning, decision making)


  • Introduce two well known theories of cognition
    • Piaget's model
    • Vygotsky's theory of social cognition
  • Discussion about integration of Piaget's model with modern theory

Is this relevant for my practice?

  • Essential to successfully working with children
  • Match your practice and expectations to their stages of development
  • Anxious parents
  • Enables us to make distinctions between normal, age-appropriate and abnormal behaviour

Piaget's theory

  • Intelligence is not random - set of organised cognitive structures that the infant actively constructs
  • Construction occurs through adaptation to the environment
  • Assimilation
    • Interpreting environmental events in terms of existing cognitive structures and ways of thinking
    • See a new event, and explain it in terms of things they already know
  • Accommodation
    • Changing existing cognitive structures to understand environmental events
    • If you can't explain things in terms of things that you know, you need to come up with a new cognitive structure to understand it properly

Staged approach

  • Children progress through four stages of development
  • Provides a structure for understanding child cognitive development
  • Timing may vary, but sequence does not
  • Universal (not culturally specific)
  • Innate (i.e. nature, not nurture)
  • Relies on biological development (evolutionary)

Stage 1: Sensorimotor (0 to 2-3 years)

  • 6 substages
  • 0-6 weeks: Reflexes
    • Sucking, grasping, eye tracking (start to prefer carer)
  • 6 weeks - 4 months
    • Exploration of self and reaching out to environment
    • Gaining voluntary control of movement: coordinating information (e.g. visual and auditory)
    • Developing habits (repetition of movement)
    • Conditioned responses emerge (e.g. crying when caregiver leaves the room)
  • 4-9 months:
    • Attention (schemes) become outward (things in the outside world)
    • Movements include interaction with the outside world
    • Try to repeat exciting interactions with the outside world (e.g. banging a pot with a spoon)
    • Connection between vision and grasping
  • 8-9 months
    • Starts to act to obtain desired outcome (not accidental)
    • Development of object permanence
      • Lack of object permanence means the infant thinks an object has disappeared just because they can't see it (peek a boo is the perfect game for this age group)
      • 7 months: no object permanence. 10 months: object permanence evident
  • 9-12 months
    • Connections made between "means" and "ends" (intentional behaviour emerges)
    • Starts to imitate others
  • 12-18 months
    • Movements more deliberate
    • Ability to generate new ways to achieve goals ("insight")
    • Start to show understanding of the function of objects (e.g. "broom broom" with toy car) - this is lacking in autism.
  • 18 months - 2 to 3 years
    • Internal images of absent objects
    • Symbolic play (e.g. feeding a doll)
    • Combining objects in play (stacking, building etc)
    • Language development ("representation": naming an object that is not present) - thought can't develop without language
    • Understanding concepts such as size (big, little, more, less) and gender
  • Work out politically correct household things e.g. what to do if I'm a boy versus a girl

Object permanence

  • Peek a boo is the world's best game for this age group (it's exciting every time you reappear from being hidden).
  • They think you've disappeared because you've hidden
  • They learn to find the game funny
  • Before 8 or 9 months, they don't yet have object permanence
  • Not a very long timeframe (7 months no object permanence, then 10 months object permanence)

Stage 2: Pre-operation (2/3-7 years)

  • Further language development
  • Symbolic play
  • Relies on immediate perceptions
  • "Magical thinking" (rather than logical - e.g. Santa, tooth fairy etc)
  • Fantasy and reality mixed
  • Egocentric (can't imagine the experience of someone other than them)
    • Including just what you can see or what other people see (physically)
    • They assume that everyone has the same knowledge as them
  • Can't conserve - observed when attempting Piaget's conservation tasks (see below)
  • Can't process more than one dimension at a time

Lack of conservation

  • Can be in terms of volume, number and mass
    • Pour fluid from a big glass to a small glass and they think there is more fluid in the small glass (but V is the same)
    • Spread out a line of coins and because it's longer they think there are more of them
    • Break biscuits in half and they think they have more food

Stage 3: Concrete operational (7-11 years)

  • More logical
  • Distinguishes fantasy from reality
  • Understands "rules" of physical world
  • Conservation of number mastered ~age 6
  • Conservation of length and weight mastered ~age 8 or 9
  • Beginning to understand relations between classes and transitivity
    • They can deduce that if A>B and B>C then A>C
  • Abstract thinking limited
    • They give very concrete answers to things (list out a lot of things rather than abstract)
    • "Love":
      • "When my grandmother got arthritis, she couldn't bend over and paint her toenails anymore. So my grandfather does it for her all the time, even when his hands got arthritis too. That's love"
      • "Love is when you tell a guy you like his shirt, then he wears it everyday"
      • Love is when you kiss all the time. Then when you get tired of kissing, you still want to be together and you talk more. My mummy and daddy are like that. They look gross when they kiss."
    • "Death"
      • Looking at a dead seagull: "Daddy, what happened to him?" "He died and went to Heaven", the dad replied. The boy thought a moment and then said "Did God throw him back down?"
    • "Altruism"
      • A mother preparing pancakes for her sons. The boys begin to argue. Mother's moral lesson: "If Jesus were sitting here, He would say 'Let my brother have the first pancake. I can wait." Kevin turned to his younger brother and said, "you be Jesus".

Stage 4: Formal operational stage (12+)

  • Development of abstract thinking e.g. can think about concepts such as "justice" and "love"
  • Logical reasoning
  • Testing hypotheses
  • Coincides with
    • Adolescence and
    • Sexual/moral/social maturity
  • Not all adults reach this stage (>5% of adults can’t complete skills at this stage)
  • Science/maths students are possibly stronger here; can reach this more commonly than everyone else

Criticisms: Piaget's theory

  • Piaget's scheme too rigid?
    • Children can have a mix of skills from different stages
    • Not as suggestible, operational, magical or egocentric
    • E.g. "empathy"/"social cognition" (John Flavell)
      • Ages 2-3, child understands others have their own experiences
      • Ages 4-5 child interprets others' experiences, including their thoughts and feelings
    • E.g. Conservation task: cultural expectations, context (ask them again, they usually work out they got it wrong, give a different answer)
  • "Piaget on Piaget"
    • A Youtube video talking about criticisms of his ideas - he just gave a framework, doesn't agree it entirely with it

Vgotsky's sociocultural theory of cognitive development

  • Argued that cognitive development depends on the interaction between children and culture (social interactions)
  • Child learns through problem solving with a more knowledgeable person
  • Three processes:
    • Imitation (copy)
    • Instructive learning (someone tells you something)
    • Collaborative learning (work together to learn)

Vygotsky's theory of social cognition

  • "The child's development is inseparable from social and cultural activities" (Santrock, 2009)
  • Child only learns based on the stimuli given to them (e.g. value of reading)
  • Language is the primary tool of adaptation, and then becomes internalized to regulate own behavior (the voice inside your head/voice of your thoughts)
  • "Zone of proximal development" (ZPD)
    • The difference between what a child can do on their own and what they can do with help
    • Scaffolding: changing the level of support offered for a task as the child becomes more confident (provide a strong scaffold for them to learn and allow them to be in an area they can actually master)

"Child's current achievement" < "ZPD" < "Beyond reach at present"

Piaget vs Vygotsky

  • Comparison & similarities
  • Not a war!
  • They knew each other and received each other’s work; started to collaborate as they aged
  • Piaget added more social factors (you don't have to say it's only the child or only the social/environment, there can be interplay); acknowledged importance of internal speech
  • Vygotsky changed his theory to include 4 stages (although still not sequential)
  • "There is no need to choose between the primacy of the social or that of the intellect: collective intellect is the social equilibrium resulting from the interplay of the operations that enter into all cooperation" - Piaget
  • "Activity and practice we have seen that where the child's egocentric speech is linked to his practical activity, where it is linked to his thinking, things really do operate on his mind and influence it. By the word things, we mean reality… not reality as it is passively reflected in perception or abstractly cognized. We mean reality as it is encountered in practice" - Piaget

Final comments

  • Sensible interpretation? Physical development influences what the mind is capable of, social/cultural experiences drastically accelerate or slow this development
  • Cognitive development occurs in conjunction with neurological, social, other development (e.g. blindness, or being in a hospital for months during an important time of teaching; this has a long-term impact on schooling, marital decisions).
  • Understanding basic stages of cognitive development is essential to working with well and unwell children