Developmental psychologists

How successful have developmental psychologists been in their efforts to understand the development of thought in the first year of infancy? The scientific study of children’s development in which it has been deemed worthy of intellectual interest, is relatively new in the history of childhood. Up to Piaget’s time the only ‘grand theory’ of mental development of children was one derived from Darwin’s evolutionary theory. ‘The younger the child, the more primitive in an evolutionary sense are his/her mental abilities’.

Recent research has provided new understanding of the developing child and of the nature of development itself. This essay is going to discuss the complexity of researching the development of children’s thoughts by using Piaget’s theory and other research, which has extended and/or criticised his theory. In order to do this, two areas are going to be concentrated on, one the infants understanding of the nature of objects, which was considered by Piaget to be ‘the ‘linchpin’, of the child’s cognitive system’, (Bancroft, D, 1994 pg 126) and two how infants engage in conversations via imitation.

Human thought is a wide – ranging topic and encompasses such areas as concept formations, the development of schemas and scripts, the use of cognitive maps, social and environmental influences and individual characteristics. When researching developmental issues such as thought during infancy longitudinal studies, observational studies and clinical interview techniques are ususally used, which encompasses methodological issues, which will be evident throughout this essay. ‘A central problem for developmental psychologists is that cognitive phenomena or thinking processes cannot be observed directly.

‘ (Bancroft, D, 1994 pg 126) By observing what infants do in their normal relations with the world and using this as evidence of their understanding, supplemented by research of scenarios, which are carefully designed, can help us understand infant cognitive development. This is not an easy task due to how imaginative investigators can be and how rarely unambiguous evidence is obtained. This can cause bias on the part of the observer or because the categories in which behaviour are encoded are imprecise.

For developmental psychology to achieve the status of a scientific discipline, there has to be broad agreement among researchers about its basic methods and observations, and about the nature of the central questions it is to address. Only then can knowledge be reliably accumulated. Investigations, which are portrayed in this essay, show the understanding of particular infant abilities, the understanding of psychological techniques and the need to support or refute the various philosophical positions on child development.

The leading psychologist in the way that children think and to understand questions such as ‘How does knowledge grow, is Piaget (1896 – 1980, as cited by Bancroft, D 1994). His insights into children’s thinking opened up a new window into the inner working mind and as a result have carried out some remarkable studies on children that had a powerful influence on our theories of child thought. One central theme of Piaget’s theory was egocentricity, which is now regarded as quite controversial, due to its lack of social influence. This means that the infant is unable to comprehend a world outside itself, seeing the whole universe, as simply an extension of it own being. Piaget illustrated egocentricity by performing investigations regarding object permanence.

Psychologists are interested in object permanence as it shows that an infant has the ability to understand that hidden objects do not cease to exist once hidden and it is a way of discovering how children developed mental schemas. Piaget researched this by Mrs Tracey Goode. using a small toy and a cloth. Piaget’s explanation was that, for the infant, the hidden object had in effect ceased to exist, which has been confirmed by other researchers, but, Piaget didn’t take into account that ‘although infants could reach and grasp, these actions might be difficult or impossible for them to coordinate.

This could be a result of inability rather than a lack of understanding about objects. ‘ (Bancroft, D, 1994 pg 131) Bower et al (1971, as cited by Bancroft, D, 1994) believed that infants had good control over their visual system and developed an observational experiment, which did not require coordination. This included showing infants a toy train moving along a track, which had a small screen mid way. The infants showed that they appreciated the train’s reappearance and when adding two different trains one going down the track and one coming out the other side the infant registered the change.

‘In other words they had retained a memory of the object even after it had disappeared and could tell that the new object did not confirm to that memory of the original one. ‘ (Bancroft, D, 1994 pg 131) These results therefore casted doubts on Piaget’s explanation. Other research performed was constructed by Baillargeon ‘the phantom object’ which showed also that infants do have some knowledge of objects, but these investigations are more complex therefore harder to interpret. Harris (1973, as cited by Bancroft, D, 1994) then modified Piaget’s experiment by using two cloths, an object and adding an interference task of a time delay.

This experiment challenges Piaget theory as Harris (1973) found that the child without the interference task searched straight away for the object. By adding the interference task it showed that the original information was lost and the child could not remember where the toy was so did not reach for it. The overall conclusion is that ‘while infants may have some idea of the existence of objects, keeping track of objects which move from place to place is a harder problem since it makes demands on various parts of their still developing cognitive system. ‘ (Bancroft, D, 1994 pg 139)

When discussing Piaget’s experiments it has to be taken into consideration the ecological validity of the experiments. Piaget used his own children as participants, which can incorporate experimenter bias. Several aspects of Piaget’s theory have been questioned but other aspects remain influential. Even though his stage concept has not been supported by more recent research, we find most educationalists and developmentalists operate within this four part division. Piaget’s neglect of social context is considered an important reason why his research tends to underestimate children’s ability.

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