Cognitive development is a field of study that is shared by both psychology and neuroscience. Its scope is mainly acquiring of language, processing of information, skills of perception and the development of other aspects of the brain in general. Individuals in this field have gone through an extensive area of research in order to get an understanding of what cognitive stages children go through as they develop, for example, Jean Piaget who formed his own theory of cognitive development. He had a major impact in this field as some of the concepts he came up with such as object permanence are still of great interest to many researchers today.
However, new theories have come up in the present such as the neo-Piagetian theories of cognitive development, which borrowed some of Jean Piaget’s ideas where there are tested and compared with some of the recent ideas. In this field, there are a few factors that have brought a lot of controversy, such as nature verses nurture. There has been a huge debate on which one of them influences cognitive development or rather, which one influences it more than the other. Both behaviourists and biologists have produced sufficient evidence that clearly indicate both terms influence cognitive development greatly, hence the agreement that they both play a role in a person’s cognitive development.
There are very many theories concerning cognitive development that have different approaches to the subject matter. Naturists believe that individuals are born with either well developed capabilities or none, while behaviourists hold that individuals do not necessarily undergo a process of mental development, but rather experience a lot of learning. On the other hand, structuralists like Jean Piaget feel that individuals are born with structures that are weak at first, but improve with time. I feel that Jean Piaget explained cognitive development better and therefore I will use his theory as a guideline.
As mentioned earlier, child psychologist Jean Piaget contributed a lot to this subject with his interest in the mechanism by which the mind processes new information, the nature of processing and if there is a pattern in which processing information goes through from birth to adulthood. His approach is structural in that he postulated that infants are born with weak structures of reflexes, which transform with time to relatively complex mental structures. Consequently, he was able to describe four stages of cognitive development that he related to individual’s understanding and assimilation of new information. They include sensor motor stage, pre-operational stage, concrete stage and lastly formal operational stage.
Sensor motor stage
This stage runs from birth to about 2 years. The infant learns about itself and its environment through the use of motor and reflex actions. It also discovers relationships between its body and the environment through the use of its relatively well-developed sensory abilities such as seeing, touching, sucking, and feeling. During this stage, the infant realizes that the environment is separate from them, and it is marked by the child’s ability to co ordinate separate activities, for instance, I noticed that my three year old niece was unable to pick up objects at this stage. However, she was able to realise that objects could be moved by hand, which clearly shows the concept of causality, as well as the notion of displacement and events.
Towards the end of this stage, the concept of object permanence is attained. Object permanence involves the awareness that objects continue to exist even when they can no longer be seen. For example, my niece was insistent in holding the television remote controller earlier in her infancy, thereby interfering with what I was watching. So, I resorted to hiding it from her. She usually forgot about it and started playing with something else. However, at around three years of age, she would actively look for the remote whenever I hid it from her.
Once object permanence has been realised, they start groping at objects and performing motor experiments to see what would happen. The child learns that they can manipulate objects to achieve certain goals, thus seeing the effects of different actions. This means that intentionality can occur whenever they remember the success they had. For instance, the first time I opened a tin and succeeded, I tried applying the same formula that I had used when trying to open a different tin.
From about the age of four to seven years, children are seen to operate at this stage. During this stage, the child reacts to all objects that seem to look alike as though they are identical (Lefrancois, 1995). For example, when I was five years old, I used to think all my female cousins were my sisters, and they still give me grief about it. Usually at this level, the child’s thought process is transductive (Carlson and Buskist, 1997). What this means is they draw conclusions from one specific to another. For instance, I first saw a snake at the snake park when I was five and I thought it was a water hose. At this stage, children are seen to be intuitive, and it is characterised by egocentrism, perception dominated and intuitive thought, which is prone to errors in classification (Lefrancois, 1995). The egocentrisms prevents the children from understanding life from any other perspective other than their own. For example, whenever I tell my niece how tiresome my day was, she keeps insisting that we should go jogging.
According to Jean Piaget, the egocentrism makes them think that the world feels the way that they do and desires the same things as they do and as a result of this feeling, they assume a magical omnipotence; they believe that they can control the world and that nature is alive. This is a concept known as animism, and another concept closely related known as artificialism whereby they believe that the things of nature are created by human beings is exhibited. As a child, I used to think that there was someone responsible for the sun and moon’s operations; this is turning them on and off. The pre-operational child starts to solve conservation problems at age four. They have a better understanding of concepts and by that time have stopped reasoning transductively (Lefrancois, 1995), although it is more perceptual than logical. In the fourth grade, when comparing the amount of juice in two glasses that were of the same volume, I thought that a thinner glass had more juice that a thicker one despite the same volume.
Concrete operational stage
At this stage, although the children have difficulty understanding abstract concepts. They exhibit some logical reasoning and organise their thoughts coherently that have to do with physical objects. They stop thinking egocentrically and have usually mastered most types of conservation, I mean quantity or amount does not change when there is nothing that has been added or removed from it even though their shape might change. They also understand reversibility, this means they are aware that some actions are reversible or that they can trace backwards mentally, for example, by the time I was in the sixth grade, when I was asked if my sisters had any brothers, I was able to add myself as one of her brothers where as in the past I could not.
The limitations that were present in the previous stage, the per-operational stage, are over come with things such as egocentrism, perception domination of one aspect of the situation and most importantly, the inability to think logically. At the concrete operational, they are able to solve problems using logical rule. As a matter of fact, they are able to justify their answers. Concrete operational thinkers will explicitly state their logical rules in problem solving (Haris and Butterworth, 2002). Concrete operational children are able to classify object, it includes the concept of class inclusion, whereby they are now able to see objects as being part of a subset included within a parent set. This is shown in Piaget’s inclusion task where he asked children to identify out of a number of brown and white wooden beads; whether there were more BROWN beads or WOODEN beads (Piaget, 1965). They are also able to order objects with respect to a common property; this is a concept known as seriation.
Although pre-operational children can count, concrete operational children can apply mathematical operators thanks to the ability to arrange things (seriation) and classification. They are also able to compare other objects through an intermediate object, for example, in the drawing of straws game where the one with the shortest straw loses.
Formal operational stage
This stage runs from eleven years to adulthood. However Jean Piaget claims that some people never reach this stage of cognitive development. Individuals at this stage of operation are able to think abstractly and formulate hypotheses. They are able to think about metaphysical problems and problems involving improbability.
In conclusion, even though ages have been given and perhaps give the illusion of mental milestones, it is the sequence of these stages that matter and not the ages. It is my opinion that as much as these stages may apply to most individuals, they might not be in the exact order.