Children’s cognitive abilities

In this essay I will examine some of the different ideas which are expressed through two of the leading theories in the field of developmental psychology. These are; Piaget’s constructivist theory of cognitive development and Vygotsky’s sociocultural theory of cognitive development. I will describe each theories’ take on child development and compare how a constructivist approach to cognitive development compares to a social constructivist approach.

Finally, I will compare and contrast the role social interaction plays within each of these theories and then analyse the nature of any differences by drawing upon experimental examples from the course material to illustrate and support my points. Jean Piaget (1896-1980) a Swiss psychologist was one of the first pioneers to use a scientific approach to understanding child development.

Piaget took a constructivists view to child development and his work gave an insight into how children construct and acquire knowledge A constructivist approach to child development is one where it is believed that understanding is actively constructed through an individuals interaction with his/her environment . Piaget developed the theory of ‘Cognitive Development’ (how children acquire and construct knowledge) through observing children during a multitude of experiments. Piaget’s theory proposed that ‘young children are not just cognitively less able than adults; rather, they think in fundamentally different ways to adults’.

(Book 1, Chapter 2, p. 69) Piaget carried out observations and experiments that involved tasks which were presented to typically developed children. He proposed from his findings that children are active learners and that there are sequential stages that children must pass through during the transition from birth to maturity, and that these stages can be identified by the transformation in the ways in which children think. He found that as children progressed through each level they began to think in different ways.

Piaget identified four stages of cognitive development which he assigned estimations of age for each of the four stages, but he did not see the process as connected to specific ages. The stages are; sensori-motor (0-2yrs), the pre-operational (2-6yrs), concrete operational (6-12yrs) and formal operational (12yrs and over). It is at this stage that children have developed the ability to deal with abstract ideas and think more like adults. Piaget viewed cognitive development as progressive and constructive and believed that children learn as a result of active involvement with their environment.

Piaget called the process of connecting ideas to reach a new understanding ‘schema’. Piaget believed that there are three fundamental processes which contributed to the child’s cognitive development. These are; assimilation, accommodation, and equilibrium. Assimilation involves the ‘the process of fitting aspects of the environment into existing schemas. ‘ (Book 1, Ch. 2, Pg. 65) Assimilation and accommodation are two processes which Piaget believed we use throughout life as we adapt to new situation, in the quest to attain equilibrium.

Lev Vygotsky (1896- 1934) a Russian Psychologist took a social constructivists view to child development and proposed that it is social interaction that profoundly influences cognitive development. A social constructivist approach to child development is one where it is believed that understanding is actively constructed through social interactions. Vygotsky theorized that knowledge is socially constructed between a child and a more able other, rather than passively received as within Piaget’s theory. Vygotsky also believed that children have two areas of development, their current level of development and the zone of proximal development.

Vygotsky describes the zone of proximal development as ‘the distance between the actual development 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’ . (Book 1, Ch. 2, Pg. 73) In other words a more able other provides guidance which enables the child to achieve a task that they could not have accomplished without support. Vygotsky refers to the process which takes place between the child and a ‘more able other’ during learning in the Zone of Proximal development as scaffolding.

Basically the Zone of Proximal Development is the gap between what is known and what can be known. An example of this scaffolding in action would be; when assisting one of the children to use a knife to cut up the banana the practitioner hand over hand guided the child and then gradually after a few cuts decreased the assistance until the child is eventually cutting the banana independently. . Piaget and Vygotsky both agreed that children are active learners who construct knowledge, although Vygotsky placed more importance on the effects that social interaction have on the child’s cognitive development than Piaget.

Piaget theorized that children learn independently through experimentation with the environment, that cognitive development is something which occurs naturally through biologically regulated changes (Piaget’s stages of cognitive development). Piaget does acknowledge social interaction as being valuable in the form of peer contact for it’s ability to assist a child to develop socio-cognitive conflict, which he believes enables the child to ‘decentre’ to move out of their egocentric viewpoint and the ability to take on the perspectives of others.

Vygotsky on the other hand proposed that socialization is absolutely necessary for a child’s cognitive development. He theorized that it is through social interaction that children are able to learn important cultural tools such as language, writing, and social rule and that it is through the internalisation of these cultural ‘tools’ (skills) that provides the child with the ability to attain a higher level of thinking.

Piaget’s stage theory of cognitive development and his beliefs regarding social interaction has been criticised by his peers, notable Donaldson (1978) who argued that children are far more capable then Piaget originally assumed. The main criticism of Piaget’s research is the lack of consideration that he gave to the social context that his experiments were presented in (they did not make human sense to the children). It has been suggested that children may take into account the social aspects of a task before they state their response to a question, inevitable altering their answer and skewing the results.

For example, in the conservation tasks Piaget asked the questions regarding the child’s opinion of the items once to confirm they were the same and then again to see if the child believed a change had taken place. This can be seen video band 1as the researcher asks “Does this one have more play dough, does this one have more play dough or do they have the same amount? Child responds: “They have the same. ” Researcher: (rolls one ball of play dough out) “Now, does this one have more play dough, does this one have more play dough or do they have the same amount?

” (Video band 1, 23:36) Donaldson believed that by an adult asking a question twice there may be the possibility that the child may presume the adult requires a different answer the second time. To prove his assumption Donaldson redesigned Piaget’s original experiments but including a reason for re-asking the question, (a naughty teddy fiddling with counters for example) this added a human context to the activities. Donaldson’s findings actually support Vygotsky’s theory of social learning as it centers on the notion that social context is a variable in the development of children’s cognitive abilities

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