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Theories of Child Development Essay

“The term ‘development’ refers to the process by which an organism (human or animal) grows and changes through its life span” (Smith, Cowie & Blades, 2003). Cognitive Development therefore concerns itself with how we process information; how we learn. There has been much research into cognitive development, and as a result the theory behind it has changed and developed very rapidly over a relatively short period of time. This paper will look at arguably one of the most influential theories of cognitive development- Jean Piaget. We will examine the fundamentals of Piaget’s theory and discuss the limitations of his model; we will ask if the more contemporary models provided by both Vygotsky and Bruner have provided any solutions to those limitations, and how all of this applies to the real world. Aldridge & Goldman (2007) concluded from their research that “No one theory has proved adequate to describe and explain learning or development” (Aldridge & Goldman, 2007).

But many have tried. The progression of this field has therefore led to several different perspectives; Gesell’s ‘Maturational Theory’ (1925) and Freud’s Psychoanalytic theory (1935) were among the first approaches, with Skinners ‘Behaviourist Theory’ (1974) and Piaget’s constructivist theory (1952) being introduced later on (Aldridge & Goodman, 2007). More recently (1978) the ‘Socio-historical Approach’ belonging predominately to Vygotsky and Bruner’s ‘Information-Processing Theory’ have been some of the most prominent. Piaget’s model of cognitive development was mostly ignored for over twenty years (Wood, 1998). Nevertheless, since then, Piaget’s theory is included in most child development text books, and many argue that it has had the most influence on the subject of cognitive development (Jarvis & Chandler, 2001). Piaget’s own terminology for the area he was interested in was ‘Genetic Epistemology’; that is, the measure of intelligence and how it changes as children grow.

According to Piaget, a child’s brain develops in a structured way, passing through four stages/levels of development/intelligence in sequence- Piaget believed these stages to be Universal (not influenced by factors such as class, gender or culture) with no regression- so once a child has passed through one phase it does not go back (Gross, 2010). Piaget’s model is based upon the concept of Operations and Schemas; Schemas can be described as ‘building blocks’ of memory which we use to interpret the world around us. (Gross. 2010) Schemas are both innate and learned, for instance, a newborn baby will instinctively know how to suck or cry- these are basic instincts we are born with; tools of survival. In contrast, children have to learn how to chew. (Stanway, 2013).

Operations are the rules by which Piaget said we understand the world- according to Piaget, the operational level of the brain develops only as the brain grows; unlike Schemas which develop whenever a new experience is processed (Jarvis & Chandler 2001). This is an important part of Piaget’s theory as it underpins the reasoning behind the claim that children of a certain age are unable to perform/think/ feel certain tasks- it’s not that they are less intelligent than adults; simply that their brain works differently. The four stages of Piaget’s theory are therefore named after the operational stage/age in which they occur: Sensorimotor (birth to 2), Pre-operational (age 2-7 years), Concrete Operational (age 7 to 11 years) and finally Formal Operational stage (ages 11 onwards). Piaget said that whilst the child’s brain changes as it develops, the actual processes that facilitate change do not; According to Piaget, this process depends upon a series of ‘functional invariants’- things that occur every time the brain processes something; he identified assimilation, accommodation and equilibrium as the most important of these functions (Gross,2010) with the former two processes establishing the latter (Sternberg, 1995).

Assimilation is the process by which the brain tries to ‘fit’ an experience into an existing schema- when this can be achieved, a state of equilibrium is reached within the brain, which is according to Piaget the preferred state: “Mental development occurs because the organism has a natural desire to operate in a state of equilibrium” (Wankat & Oreovicz, 1993). However, in the case of new experiences, assimilation cannot be achieved; leaving the brain in a state of disequilibrium. The brain will therefore need to go through a process of adaptation/accommodation in order to achieve equilibrium once more. Each time adaptation occurs, the brain creates a new schema (or additional ‘building block’) which can be drawn upon next time, and thus the child’s intelligence develops in this way. Piaget’s theory is therefore based upon the assumption that learning is driven by an innate motivation to achieve an eternal state of equilibrium.

This idea makes up arguably the most revolutionary concept of Piaget’s theory; the concept that children don’t need the intervention/reinforcement of others in order to learn; That they are intrinsically motivated- a concept which contradicted earlier development theories such as Pavlov’s (1927) reinforcement/ learning theory (Wood, 1988) and also has strong educational implications- according to Piaget’s theory, children learn by experience, by trying things out for themselves. It also implies that teacher/pupil interaction should be tailored to each individual child. According to Wood; “Piaget’s theory…offers a detailed and specific account of universal stages in human development which provide a possible explanation as to when and how a child is ready to learn or develop specific forms of knowledge and understanding” (Wood, 1988).

This to some extent is true. For instance, most people know that its common sense that we can’t teach a young baby to walk before it can sit up. Similarly, if we look at the situation in reverse, from studies of cases of extreme social deprivation such as the feral child Genie (1970) who was discovered at the age of 13 and had been in isolation from the age of twenty months old, we see that despite continued attempts to teach Genie to speak (via intensive therapy sessions) she never achieved full language acquisition, suggesting that there is indeed a time period for at least certain areas of cognitive development (Stone,2010). Because Piaget’s theory has dominated the discipline of child development for so long, it is somewhat unsurprising that a lot of his research has been challenged. The most controversial issue seems to lie in the rigidity of Piaget’s stages, and their timescales. For instance, Bower (1982) disproved Piaget’s concept that children in the earlier sensorimotor stages (there are 6 in total) lack the ability to perceive object permanence by demonstrating younger children looking for objects, and Ballargen & Devos (1991) further corroborated Bower’s findings.

Similarly, Meltzof & Moore (1994) found that in babies as young as six weeks old tongue gestures could be imitated 24 hours after exposure, proving that mental images can be stored and retrieved at a much younger age than Piaget said. (Boyd & Bees 2014). The Pre-operational stage of Piaget’s has probably received the most criticism- in particular his concept of centralisation and egocentrism (that is, that pre-operational children have the inability to perceive the world from another person’s perspective). This idea was concluded from the results obtained from Piaget’s famous three mountains study (Piaget & Inhelder, 1956) but Donaldson (1978) criticised the mountain experiments, arguing that the objects used (a model of mountains) and the structure of the questions were too unfamiliar to a child. Borke (1975) conducted similar studies using more familiar objects (toys) and language, concluding that children as young as 3 are capable of decentralisation (being able to see the world from another view); Furthermore, McGarrigle & Donaldson (1978) also found even slight re-organisation of questions produced much better results (Smith, Cowie & Blades, 2003).

So as we can see, Piaget’s methodology has also come under much criticism. The research is vast so it is impractical to name every study, suffice to say that because of the success of Piaget’s theory, it has been picked apart at the seams. But nevertheless its contribution to the theory of cognitive development has been great. In summary, Piaget theorised that cognitive development happens in four universal, sequential stages. He places more emphasis on the child than the environment itself- although he does recognise environmental factors play an important role in development. Many other developmental theorists have taken Piaget’s model of development as a basis for their own research; by examining the gaps in Piaget’s theory they have been able to offer alternative explanations.

The work of Vygotsky and Bruner are both quite similar to Piaget in some respects- Vygotsky’s Socio- Cultural theory is also a stage theory, however it is less rigid with the stages, and places much more emphasis on the child’s interaction with others. Unfortunately, Vygotsky’s career was cut short as he died at a young age without publishing a full theory (Gross,2010) but the work of Bruner has gone some way to expanding on Vygotsky’s ideas. Vygotsky’s theory advocated the zone of proximal development, and later, scaffolding- a concept developed by Bruner to enhance Vygotsky’s original theory; With any new learning, there is a discrepancy between what the child could learn independently and what they could learn when instructed by others- this is the zone of proximal development (Jarvis & Chandler, 2001). Scaffolding refers to the actual help given by either an adult or an expert peer (Gross,2010). Vygotsky’s theory therefore argues that children develop quicker if they are instructed, which opposes Piaget’s view that children learn more efficiently on their own, at their own pace.

Furthermore, whereas Piaget believed that the stages of development were determined predominantly by age, Vygotsky’s theory saw development as limited more by the social constraints of the culture. Cultural tools, and especially the tool of language, are key to our development according to both Vygotsky and Bruner (Gross, 2010); this is because without them we could not communicate, and without communication we could not learn; it is for this reason that Vygotsky and Bruner’s theory place much emphasis upon cultural differences; we are all social creatures- creations of our culture. Like Piaget, Bruner’s theory also identifies stages of development, however they are much less structured than Piaget’s; Bruner’s version of development hinged on the opinion that we process new information via three different stages, each stage representing a different mode of representation; Enactive (birth to 1 year), Iconic (1 to 6 years) and Symbolic (7 onwards).

During the enactive stage we store action based information, before moving on to the Iconic stage in which we process the information in pictures; the symbolic stage is where we use symbols to interpret the information (for instance- language). Bruner’s modes of representation theory can be applied to both child development and also to adults of any age who encounter a new experience. Bruner’s theory is therefore very different to Piaget’s in that Bruner’s stages are constantly revisited each time a new skill is being learned (rather than Piaget’s concept of ‘no regression’) This theory has massive implications for education as it suggests anybody can learn anything so long as the information is presented in the correct format (McCloud, 2008).

If we now look again at the case of Genie and apply the above knowledge, it can be said that there are aspects of all three theories; Piaget, Vygotsky and Bruner which are validated by the unique case of the feral child: When discovered, Genie had the basic development of a one year old, having been in isolation since the age of 20 months, leaving her unable to speak. After over seven years of intense therapy, it was reported that: “At first Genie spoke only in one-word utterances…A little later she produced some verbs…Unlike normal children, however, Genie never asked questions, despite many efforts to train her to do so. Nor did she understand much grammar. And her speech development was abnormally slow…Genie did not speak in a fully developed, normal way…failed to learn grammatical principles.” (Pines 1997)

The fact that Genie was unable to achieve full linguistic function gives some credibility to Piaget’s theory of the different stages of development (ie: that she had already passed the stage in which learning certain language skills was possible) however discredits it in others- because Genie was able to acquire some language skills. Looking at Genie’s case in terms of Vygotsky’s theory, Genie was deprived of social interaction and therefore did not learn to speak. From Bruner’s perspective however, in theory Genie should have been able to learn to speak, but due to the unique nature of Genie’s circumstances it is impossible to know if other factors were present that interrupted her cognitive development; for instance, she may have suffered other forms of abuse. (Stone,2010). Genie’s case was so unique that we can’t make too many generalisations from it, but her case most definitely seems to support if not a ‘critical’ time period in the process of child cognitive development then at the very least a ‘sensitive’ time period during which new skills can be acquired (Boyd & Bee, 2014).

In conclusion it can be said that both Bruner and Vygotsky have produced alternative theories which whilst contradictory to Piaget in some aspects are complimentary in others. Piaget’s work has been much criticised as it does not make allowances for individual or cultural differences- Vygotsky and Bruner’s approach appears to somewhat bridge that gap (Gross,2010) by highlighting the fact that learning cannot take place without social interaction, and that different cultures socialise their children in different ways. Both Vygotsky and Bruner appear to accept the basic framework of Piaget’s theory, but reject the belief that children work better on their own, placing much more emphasis on the tool of language and communication. The nature vs nurture debate, as in most areas of Psychology, is very prominent here; Piaget’s theory seems to place more emphasis on the Nature side of the debate than both Vygotsky and Bruner, but all three perspectives agree that a combination of both the forces, that is nature and nurture, combine to make human cognition possible.

Gross, R (2010) Psychology The Science of Mind and Behaviour, Sixth edition, Oxon, Hodder Education. Wood, D (1999) How Children Think and Learn Second Edition, Oxford, Blackwell Publishing Ltd. Sternberg, RJ (1995) In Search of The Human Mind, Florida, Harcourt Brace & Company. Smith, P, Cowie, H, Blades, M (2003) Understanding Children’s Development 4th Edition, Oxford, Blackwell Publishing Ltd. Jarvis, M & Chandler E (2001) Angles on Child
Psychology, Cheltenham, Nelson Thornes Ltd Boyd, D & Bee, H (2014) The Developing Child, Thirteeth edition, Edinburgh, Pearson Education Ltd. Aldridge, J, Goldman, R 2007 Excerpt from Current Issues and Trends In Education, p. 96-99.Pearson Allyn Bacon Prentice Hal, Merrill, an imprint of Pearson Education Inc. available at: http://www.education.com/reference/article/child-development-changing-theories/ accessed on 07/03/2014, Updated on Dec 8, 2010. Wankat, P, Orevicz, F (1993) Teaching Engineering, USA, McGraw-Hill Inc ,US excerpt available at: https://engineering.purdue.edu/ChE/AboutUs/Publications/TeachingEng/chapter14.pdf accessed on 06/03/2014. Pines, M. (1997). The civilizing of genie. Available at http://kccesl.tripod.com/genie.html accessed on 09/03/2014

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