Cognitive Thinking

One of the most influential theories on the growth and development of cognitive thinking in children was proposed by Jean Piaget (1896-1980).

Piaget was initially interested in how the child’s biology influenced the development of the cognitive processes, based on the concept of maturation, but he was also interested in epistemology (the study of knowledge). Putting the two together, Piaget argued that biology influences how children gain and organise their knowledge of the world.

Piaget’s main methodology was through clinical interview, mainly using his own children as case studies. He asked the children a series of questions to test their knowledge of the world, but was not interested in the correctness of the answers, but the reasoning behind it. This method led him to discover a wealth of information relating to children’s thinking, but his method cannot be classified as being of scientific rigour.

However, Piaget did outline some important concepts that relate to the biological origins of the development of children’s thinking. One of the underlying factors that he felt was important was the idea of adaptation. He argued that an organism had to adapt successfully to its environment in order to survive and that this was a relevant to human survival as it was to any other species.

He argued that adaptation consisted of two interrelated processes:

He gives the example of eating an apple: you first assimilate the apple by eating it and then the body performs certain physiological changes in order to accommodate the apple. Relating this to knowledge: first the information or knowledge is assimilated and then some kind of process occurs in which the brain organises and accommodates the information.

Important to this concept of assimilation is the idea that knowledge (and therefore memories) are organised in schemas or shemata. A scheme for a young infant might be a set of actions associated with sucking, which initially is the bottle or the breast and is then widened to include sucking the thumb, a dummy and other objects (note how this fits in with Freud’s idea of the oral stage). By sucking various objects, the infant finds that some things are nice to suck, but some things are nasty — this results in the accommodation of the information about what is suckable and what is not!

Piaget argues that thinking is an active process and this concept informed the way that children were educated, especially in the 1960’s and 1970’s. Piaget argued that children have an internal drive to explore the world around them (note that the concept of a drive is a biological one).

Piaget’s theory was based around stage development — that children go through 4 broad stages of cognitive growth from birth through to adolescence. These stages are outlined below:

Sensori-motor Stage

0-2 years It is at this stage that children develop their senses of the world in general through movement such as sucking, grasping, crawling, standing and walking. Children also use their senses of touch, taste, smell, sight and sound in order to develop schemata of the world. In this way children put together a picture that incorporates these elements. Piaget sees the adult as being important during this stage in terms of providing the stimulus needed to help the child gain a variety of experiences. One of the key stages is the development of object permanence. Piaget argues that the child cannot grasp the concept that objects still exist when hidden or taken away until the age of 8 months. Up until that point, out of sight is literally out of mind.

Piaget tested for object permanence by hiding a toy that the child was playing with under a blanket. He found that the child under 8 months did not search for the object, seeming to lose total interest in it. After 8 months, however, children would attempt to find the object after it had been hidden from them. This view has that a child does not have object permanence until 8 months has been challenged by Tom Bower in the late 1970’s and early 1980’s. Bower carried out a series of studies at Edinburgh University on infants under 8 months. One of his studies is outlined below:

Bower argued that if the children did not possess object permanence, they should show no surprise when the object disappeared. In fact the heart rate showed that the highest level of surprise was found in the infants where the object had been removed, demonstrating that they had some idea of what was missing. Bower ‘s study showed that infants as young as 5 months had some idea of object permanence.

Bower’s findings do not negate the concept of object permanence, it is still an important milestone in child development, he just argues that it takes place at an earlier age than 8 months.

Pre-operational Stage

2-7 years At the age of 2 children have usually developed their ability to express themselves using language. This means that they have developed some form of Symbolic Representation. This is a key feature of this stage of development. Children do not only develop language as symbolic representation, they also develop other skills such as drawing, dance, modelling, number and music. Symbolic function develops through 4 stages:

1. Deferred imitation

2. Verbal evocation

3. Symbolic or make believe play

4. Symbolic drawings

Deferred imitation and verbal evocation are demonstrated by the following passage taken from Piaget’s observations:

"At one year and four months, Jacqueline had a visit from a little boy aged 1 year and 6 months, whom she used to see from time to time, and who, in the course of the afternoon got into a terrible temper. He screamed ads he tried to get out of a play-pen and pushed it backwards, stamping his feet. Jacqueline stood watching him n amazement, never having witnessed such a scene before. The next day, she herself screamed in her play-pen and tried to move it, stamping her foot lightly several times in succession. The imitation of the whole scene was most striking, Had it been immediate, it would naturally not have involved representation, but coming as it did after an interval of more than twelve hours, it must have involved some representative of pre-representative element."

Verbal evocation is the same thing but carried out using words:

"At one year and seven months, Jacqueline told her mother about a grasshopper she had just seen in the garden. 'Hopper, hopper, jump boy', meaning that he grasshopper had made her jump as a boy had made her jump. A boy cousin had in fact made her jump two days earlier. "

Both symbolic play and drawings have been the subject of much psychological investigations and highlight the conceptual thought of pre-school children. During symbolic play, children demonstrate their knowledge about the roles of adults and other children that they see and seem to rehearse these roles through play.

Drawings are of great interest as they seem to highlight two quite different poles of children’s thinking. One the one hand , children seem to be expressing their imaginations to the full, without having to take account of reality, but on the other hand, they also seem to be expressing the reality of the world as they see it. Piaget argues that the way children combine reality and imagination through drawings as a halfway stage between play and learning to represent the real world .

Reversibility of thought was lacking at this stage and another factor that Piaget thought demonstrated the child’s cognitive limitations. They fail to understand that form can change, but the object remains the same — e.g. a tall, thin glass which holds half a litre and a smaller, fat glass of half a litre capacity actually are the same in terms of volume. You can demonstrate water being poured from one glass to another and children will still insist that the tall glass hold more!

One of the other factors that Piaget felt was important in understanding children’s thinking was the fact that he saw them as being Egocentric. This means that the child can only experience the world through their own point of view — they cannot take on board that other people may see it differently. For example, a four year old may know that she has a sister, but cannot see that the other child thinks of her as a sister also.

Concrete-operational Stage

7 -11 It is not until the age of about 7 that Piaget sees children as being able to think logically and in the abstract. In the late pre-operational stage children are only just developing the idea of class inclusion — the ability to understand that objects can be grouped together according to type. Piaget states that while the child is able to understand that when playing with farmyard animals, horses are different from cows and chickens are different from pigs, what they cannot understand until they reach the concrete operational stage, is that all of the animals belong in a category of ‘farm animals’. Linked with this is the ability to order objects in a logical series such as largest to smallest. Children also develop the concept of number invariance. If you put out ten smarties in two identical rows of five, children in both stages would state when asked that the rows contained the same number of sweets. If you then made one row longer by widening the spaces between the smarties, the pre-operational children would state that there were more smarties in the longer row, despite previously arguing that they were the same. The concrete-operational children would tell you that the number still remained the same. His has important implications for the way we teach children maths and science based subjects at school.

Concrete Operations Stage — 7-12 years

Again, children make another leap as they begin to become less egocentric and start to understand and use new concepts. They can now classify things into categories, deal with numbers, take all aspects of a situation into account and understand reversibility. Children become much better at seeing the world from another person’s angle and this has implications for the development of moral behaviour. Children also develop CONSERVATION during this stage. This is the ability to understand how two equal quantities of the same matter remain equal despite changes in their appearance. Piaget tested for this using balls of clay. He rolled one ball of clay into a sausage and left the other as a ball. Children below the concrete operations stage would be unable to understand that the quantities remain equal, despite the change in appearance.

Children develop the ability to conserve the different dimensions at different times. At 6-7, they learn to conserve mass, or substance; at the age of 9-10 they can conserve weight; and by the age of 12, volume.

Formal Operations Stage — 12 years and older

Once children reach the formal operational stage, they develop the ability to think more abstractly. They can usually solve a problem that is not physically present, work out an hypothesis and test it out systematically. This has obvious implications regarding what children can be taught at school. At the age of 12, most children have started at secondary school and are embarking on subjects such algebra and chemistry. But some people do not always develop the ability to think in this way.

Piaget’s theory has been criticised on several counts. His method of study focused only on his own children and is therefore very ethnocentric. Can these ideas be translated cross-culturally? He concentrated on the average child and did not pay enough attention to how different children develop at different rates. Piaget also placed little emphasis on the role of education or culture.

Other psychologists have tried to reproduce studies on aspects of Piagetian theory, such as egocentricism and have found that the kind of tasks that Piaget set the children influenced whether or not they could perform the task and therefore the children did not show the ability to understand another’s viewpoint because they could not understand what they were supposed to do.

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last update April 5, 2003

© L.Cryer/Northern College 2000