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Didactics - 16 : The Psychology of Development III

Cognitivist Theories of Development


A : Recap:

Last Week - Freud

One fundamental instinct - the sex drive

Children pass through three basic stages

- the oral stage .

- the anal stage 

- the genital stage

Ultimately, all individuals have to work through the Oedipus complex, with its attendant Castration Complex.

Objections - because Freudism explains everything, it explains nothing.

- recent work on memory does not bear out the Freudian model of repression.

- leaves aside genetic sources of character differences - autism.

- does not situate the family firmly within a specific social context.

But - antidote to Behaviourism - stresses the importance of meaning and of symbols in human emotional and intellectual life.

B : - Piaget

A rather more serious figure in the field of developmental psychology is the Swiss philosopher and psychologist, Jean Piaget. Piaget was originally interested in the philosophical question of epistemology - how do we know what we know? - and decided that metaphysical argument needed to be grounded in a scientific understanding of how children's knowledge of the world develops. He began by studying his own children.

Piaget starts from the premise that human beings, like all other biological organisms, are active in their relationships with the world. Knowledge of the world is connected to actions in the world - thus he says -

To know an object or a happening is to make use of it by assimilation into an action schema.

Human beings know the world in selective ways - if a stimulus cannot be incorporated into an action schema, it will remain outside the domain of knowledge.

The construction of knowledge by the child, then, is an active process. At the beginning, the action is purely physical - then, through a process of internalisation, the actions become mental. Ideas are not given in the perceptive features of the brain, or encoded in language - that is, ideas are neither thoroughly mentalistic nor cultural - but are arrived at through the child's physical interaction with the world.

Piaget is centrally concerned with the development of such categories as space, time, number, causality and so on - the Kantian categories of knowledge. He sees this as going through four(1) (sometimes three) stages

a) Sensorimotor Stage

From birth to eighteen months/two years


Up to 7/9 months, the child concentrates on her own body, and then enters a second sub period in which space and objects within space are recognized under the rubric of 'practical intelligence'. At the end of the period, the child has learnt to distinguish between objects and subjects, and has grasped the idea of a causal relationship.

Initial exploration of the world through perception is followed up by active exploration, using hands and arms. The child learns to 'make interesting events last' - a rattle, at first set off accidentally, becomes the object of intentional activity. Through this, the child comes to value repetition as a strategy within the world.

At the end of the stage, the child is also capable of symbolic representation - mental activity is now possible.

b) Period of representational thought

18 months/2 years to 6 years


The advent of representation leads to a knowledge explosion. One example is the rapid growth of language - but in Piaget's scheme of knowledge, language is not all-important - it is seen as a socially derived conventional system, and subsidiary to thought.

During this period, children are said to achieve 'semilogics' - that is, their thinking appears to get stuck half-way. For example, the child confuses 'longer than' with 'goes further than' - this Piaget derives from his results on experiments in the conservation of matter.

A child is asked to ascertain whether, when liquid is poured from one container into another, there is more of it, the same amount, or less. Up until the end of this period, the child is likely to say that if the liquid is poured from a short fat container into a long thin one, then there is more of it. On the other hand, if the liquid is poured from a long thin container into a short fat one, she will say that there is less of it. Similarly, a piece of plasticine is conceived of as changing in mass as it changes in form.

c) Concrete operations

6 - 11 years

At this stage, the child acquires rules that allow them to make deductive inferences. They also emerge from their initial egoism - in this, Piaget appears to agree with Freud - and recognize the other's point of view. Thus, the child at this stage will be able to appreciate that a view seen from one angle will not look the same when seen from another angle.

Deductive inferences allow the child to conserve weight, volume, length and so on. These inferences are reversible - that is, the idea that what has been taken away can be put back, and what has been added can be subtracted.

d) Formal Operations

At this stage, the child becomes capable of applying operations to operations - second order constructions. It is now that the child is capable of reasoning through an operation rather than solving the problem by trial and error. - that is, the child is capable of constructing hypotheses and then of testing them. Essentially, it is only at this stage that the individual becomes capable of fully scientific thought.

Piaget's work gave a basis for almost all subsequent investigation of developmental processes, and one cannot overestimate its importance. Nevertheless, there are a number of criticisms that can be made of it. in the light of subsequent research. Thus, Michael Rutter(2) makes the following comments :

1. The idea of the child as an active agent in learning is still accepted today.

Children do explore their environments, do prefer novel stimuli to familiar ones, and do take an experimental attitude towards the world. Animal studies also back this up - animals that are allowed to explore an environment actively learn far more about it than do those who perceive it passively. Indeed, rhesus monkeys reared under conditions in which little movement is possible appear to be less intelligent than their genetic peers who are reared in environments in which they can move about and play:

2. The idea that development is achieved through a series of discrete stages, at each of which overall cognition functions according to a specific structure is misleading.

In fact, it has been found that children are quite capable at being at stage four on certain tasks, while remaining at stage three on others.

3. Many of Piaget's findings on questions such as conservation appear to be as much artefacts of his experimental method as they are measures of the real abilities of children.

It has been found that, if the question is put otherwise, and if there is a clear explanation of what the experimenter expects of the child, the tasks can often be carried out quite successfully by children who, according to the stage theory, should not be able to do so.

As a corollary, we can present experiments in such a way that adults fail them. Success is often a question of context - Brazilian street-vendors are capable of doing maths in their everyday transactions that they cannot do when the same problems are presented in schoolbook style.


4. special training can lead to the development of particular skills.

- children who are very good at chess develop advanced memory skills, and Australian aborigine children who have spent their lives navigating the vast spaces of the desert have superior spatial reasoning.

Piaget ignores both individual and cultural differences, assuming that there is a unique path to development that is followed by all human beings.

C : Vygotsky

Piaget's insistence upon the autonomy of the child in the construction of knowledge is salutary - and reminds us of Chomsky. Piaget's idea of the good parent is one who does not interfere in the child's free exploration of the world. However, not all psychologists go along with this - one who did not is L Vygotsky. 

Vygotsky agreed with Piaget that the concepts used by children to order the world are not the same as those of the adult. However, whereas Piaget saw the child as developing through her own activities, Vygotsky insisted that the child functioned in a world in which she was surrounded by adults who would comment and help her in her tasks. The child's knowledge is socially constructed in interaction with significant adults, whose remarks validate the knowledge for the child. 

This means that in order to understand a child's knowledge we must also analyse her social interactions. (We will do well to remember that Vygotsky, who died in 1934, worked in Soviet Russia - his theory is explicitly Marxist). Thus he says : 

Child logic develops only along with the growth of the child's social speech and whole experience ... it is through others that we develop into ourselves and ... this is true not only with regard to the individual but with regard to the history of every function ... Any higher mental function was external because it was social at some point before becoming an internal, truly mental functioning.(3) (My emphasis)

The context provided by the adult is one in which the child can act is though she already possesses the competence of an adult, even though this is not in fact the case. At first, the child needs considerable help from the adult, and the adult indeed provides almost all the cognition necessary for completion of the task. However, as the child becomes more familiar with the situation, so the adult may begin to take a back seat.

Learning can be seen as a process of apprenticeship. As the child becomes more competent, it acquires not only the skills relevant to a specific activity, but also the meta-skills necessary to embark upon new learning, so that by the time she reaches adolescence, she has become largely autonomous when faced with new skills and new material to learn.

Specific cultures have their own ways of learning, and their own underlying organizational models - which Bruner refers to as 'cultural amplifiers' - cognitive tools such as the Arabic number system or the electronic calculating machine.

Of course, one cultural amplifier may in fact be in conflict with another - literal interpretation of the Book of Genesis may prevent someone from understanding Darwinian theory(4)

In Vygotsky's schema, language is far more important than it is in Piaget's - it is through conversations with adults that the child progresses, and it is her need to communicate with and to understand adults that presses the child to seek for the adult meanings of things that are said. Vygotsky wrote :

... it turns out that social interaction necessarily presupposes generalisation and the development of word meaning ...

The child approaches adulthood through the deeper understanding of words and of language. This goes with Vygotsky's concept of 'mediation'. Animals may experience the world directly - human beings do not, but grasp the world through the use of psychological 'tools' or ‘signs’ that change the relationship between world and social member. Among these tools are counting systems, writing and diagrams, maps and, of course, language. We approach the world differently, and we approach each other differently because we have language - which both represents reality and acts upon it. Speech, therefore becomes primary

(The child) plans how to solve the problem through speech and then carries out the prepared solution through overt activity. Direct manipulation is replaced by a complex psychological process through which inner motivations and intentions, postponed in time, stimulate their own development and realisation.(5)

If we watch very young children, we will see their relationship to language passes through a number of stages. At first, until about 2 years old, the child does not possess language, but uses vocal activity as a means of social contact and emotional expression. Then the child uses language with simplified forms, which are not directly linked to problem solving. In the third stage, language becomes a problem-solving tool - we may hear children talking to themselves as they try to accomplish a task, just as they may use their fingers for counting upon. Finally, this form of conversation - talking to oneself, appears to go away - in fact, it has become internalised - it is what we call 'thought'.

Piaget had referred to this early form of speech - where the child talks to herself - as egotistical, implying that the child is unable to use speech to interact with others. For Vygotsky, this speech is social - it is a way of using a tool that has been learnt from others.

A central concept in Vygotsky's model is the 'zone of proximal development :

The zone of proximal development ... is the distance between the actual developmental level as determined by independent problem solving and the level of potential development as determined through problem solving under adult guidance or in collaboration with more capable peers.(6)

There are, then, at least two developmental levels

- one, which is the one usually measured by psychologists interested in intelligence and cognition, is the ability of the child to solve tasks set by an adult, but which the child tackles on her own.

The second is what the child can do with help from the adult. This second measure demonstrates the skills which the child has not yet mastered, but which she is working on now.

The teacher needs to know both of these measures, because, on the one hand, there is little point in teaching below the first measure, and on the other, there is little point in teaching beyond the second. Vygotsky says 'the only "good learning" is that which is slightly in advance of development' and which 'awakens and rouses to life those functions which are in a stage of maturing, which lie in the zone of proximal development."

Finally, Meadows refers to what she calls a 'paradox' . If, she says, learning through the kind of intense social interaction that the Vygotskian approach suggests is the best way of teaching, how is it that schools, which do not use this method, are at all successful? Her answer is that Piagetian modes, and even the old rote learning modes, so much decried by experimental educationalists must, in fact, have some value.

D : Conclusion

The disagreement between Piaget and Vygotsky is similar to that between Chomsky and Bruner. On the one hand, there is a model of the child as autonomous master of his own development, and on the other there is the model of the child set within a specific social milieu. It may be noted that Bruner sees himself as continuing the Vygotskian tradition.

But there are differences between Chomsky and Piaget. For Chomsky, language is inborn - Piaget does not altogether agree with him on this. Furthermore, Piaget saw the development of language is being dependent on general cognitive development, whereas Chomsky sees language as a specific skill that develops according to its own laws.

For our purposes, as future teachers, we may wish to derive from Piaget's work the importance of leaving the child the space within which to construct her own knowledge, and of allowing her to develop her concepts for herself. From Vygotsky, we may conclude that however large the part the individual child plays in her own learning processes, she may not be able to do it on her own, and has need of help from adults and other children. We will be looking further at the question of the social nature of knowledge in further lectures.

1. Piagetian Theory, by Harry Beilin, in Six Theories of Child Development : Revised formulations and current issues, Ross Vasta, (ed.), Jessica Kingsley Publishers, 1992, pp. 85 - 132.

2. Michael and Marjorie Rutter, Developing Minds : Challenge and continuity across the life span, Penguin, 1992, pp. 192 ff.

3. quoted in The Child as Thinker: the development and acquisition of cognition in childhood, by Sara Meadows, Routledge, 1993, p. 237.

4. Meadows, p. 239.

5. ibid, p. 244.

6. ibid, p. 247.

(If you wish to comment or ask a question, please write to tmason@timothyjpmason.com)

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