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1. Evaluate theories of cognitive development

We will attack a theory or two from each lens…lets start with…

Cognitive Theories (CLA) of Cognitive Development

The big guy here is JEAN PIAGET…..

Piaget based his theory on observations and open-ended interviews. This clinical method enabled Piaget to gain insight into the children’s judgment and explanations of events. He presented children with a number of tasks designed to discover the level of logical reasoning underpinning their thinking. He was interested in the way they arrived at their conclusions. His method has been criticized for:

  • using a small and non-representative sample
  • lack of scientific rigor and cross-sectional design which makes it difficult to make conclusions about changes over time (a longitudinal design would be better to do this)
  • asking questions that are too complex for children.

OK…his theory…..

According to Piaget, there are qualitative differences between the way adults and children think. Action and self-directed problem solving are at the heart of learning and cognitive development in children. Formal logic is seen as the highest and last stage in intellectual development.

The child is seen as an active “scientist”: He or she actively constructs knowledge about the social and physical world as he or she interacts with it (constructionist approach). Each child builds his or her own mental representation of the world (schemas) used to interpret and interact with objects, people, and events. Piaget used the term “operation” to describe physical or symbolic manipulations (thinking) of things.

Stage theory: Children’s cognitive development progresses through stages over time. According to Piaget,

the content and sequence of stages in cognitive development is the same for all humans (universal theory). Children cannot learn or be taught how to function at higher levels of cognition before they have passed through the lower levels.

Now we move on to…

Sociocultural Theories of Cognitive Developement

The big guy here is Vygotsky.

Vygotsky’s sociocultural approach to cognitive development

Vygotsky was a Russian psychologist. Like Piaget he thought that children’s thinking is different from adults’.


  • Children grow up in a specific historical, social, and cultural context and their knowledge and intelligence develop within the framework of that culture’s characteristics (e.g. history, artifacts, language, science).
  • The historical and cultural characteristics of each society influence the way people come to act upon and think about the world. Vygotsky talks about “cultural tools” that individuals must learn to handle in order to function in that culture. For example, today an important cultural tool in the West could be the computer.
  • Vygotsky emphasizes language and instruction as the most important factors in intellectual and personal development. Instruction through cooperation and interaction is the main vehicle for the cultural transmission of knowledge. This is a contrast to Piaget’s view of children,, who must discover everything by themselves through concrete or mental “operations”.
  • If children receive instructions from other, more skilled individuals they can understand and accomplish things that they would not be able to achieve alone. The “zone of proximal development” refers to the gap that exists for an individual child between what he or she is able to do alone (zone of competence) and what he or she can achieve with help from someone who has more knowledge. The concept of “scaffolding” refers to the assistance that a more skilled individual can provide to increase a child’s performance on a particular task.

OK…now lets move on to

Biological Theories of Cognitive Development

Brain development and neuroplasticity

Developmental cognitive neuroscience is an area of research that studies the relationship between brain development and cognitive competence. Research in this field explores the developing brain in order to understand healthy development but also how various factors may interfere with normal brain development and lead to problems in cognitive functioning.

  • The basic functional elements of the brain are neurons that connect to each other (synaptic growth) to form a network of neurons (information processing networks). Neuronal networks change as a result of learning, experience, and age. Each human brain has a unique neural architecture due to differences in individual experience.
  • The neural connections (dendritic branching) in the brain grow in size and complexity after birth and myelination (covering the neuron with myelin – white matter) is accelerated. Synaptic growth is most significant in childhood and adolescence.
  • Interaction with loving and responsive caregivers contributes to healthy brain development. Various factors such as early social deprivation, inadequate nutrition, or living in a polluted environment may interfere with normal brain development. This can have adverse effects on cognitive, emotional, and social development.

Brain development and cognitive functioning

  • The brain doubles in size from birth to young adulthood and the brain’s surface folds become more complex, especially in the areas that process cognitive and emotional information. The growth in complexity of the neuronal network permits the neurons to process increasingly complex information.
  • Developmental neuroscientists use brain imaging (e.g. PET and MRI) to study the relationships between brain development and cognitive processes in infants and young children.

Chugani (1999) used PET scans to investigate glucose metabolism in the brains of newborn human babies.

He found:

  • There was little activity in the cerebral cortex (executive function)


  • There was activity in the brain stem and the thalamus (inborn reflexes such as grasping)


  • There was activity in the limbic system (amygdala, hippocampus, and the cingulate cortex). These areas are associated with emotional processing, memory, and bonding. They are used in observing and reading the emotional content of faces and in communicating via facial expressions and eye contact. Lack of stimulation in these areas in early life can lead to abnormal behavior and attachment difficulties.

The research found that the lower levels of the brain are developed first (measured as activity) and over time glucose consumption can be registered in higher levels of the brain. For example, from age six to nine months there is increasing activity in the frontal lobes, prefrontal areas of the cortex and evidence of improved cognitive competence.

Giedd (2004) performed MRI scans in a longitudinal study of healthy children. He found that 95% of the brain structure is formed when the child is around five or six years old, but areas in the prefrontal cortex (PFC) start growing again in adolescence. The PFC is the last part of the brain to mature. It is responsible for cognitive processes such as planning, impulse control, direction of attention, and decision making.

Chugani et al. (2001) found that Romanian children who had spent time in institutions before being adopted showed deficits in cognitive tasks dependent on prefrontal function such as attention and social cognition.