Cognitive development: The Science of Childcare

Child Development

Cognitive Development

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Cognitive development is a term used to describe incremental changes which occur as a child’s thinking and understanding unfold through the pre-school years and beyond. Though some of the most dramatic changes a child undergoes occur in this cognitive domain, it is nevertheless important to remember the ‘holistic child’ does not experience developments in isolation, but as a seamless complementary and interdependent stream of phases and events. Thus, for example, a baby’s obvious joy in recognising its mother is a strong social advance suggesting a healthy social attachment, but recognising others as ‘non-mothers’ also represents a cognitive advance in terms of the ability to classify objects, and so on…

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All cognitive advances clearly impact upon a child’s learning abilities, and much of the skilful part of a childcare professional’s role lies in recognising these progressions in reasoning as they occur, and then assessing when, and how, to introduce new concepts and initiatives to further enhance development. Professional, evidence-based assessments are essential to avoid what Fontana (1988) describes as the risk that ‘forms of thinking are demanded of children that they are incapable of supplying’. A rich field of research is available to inform such decisions and the work of landmark contributors to the study of children’s cognitive development will now be reviewed, together with significant modern additions.

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Piaget’s Theory

Jean Piaget (1967) developed a comprehensive account of child development in the context of the child’s constant interaction with the outside world. According to Piaget, the child continuously ‘accommodates’ the world by adjusting to meet its demands, and then ‘assimilates’ new situations by working out how any new knowledge fits with what is already understood. Two further key concepts – schemas and equilibration – are central to Piaget’s ideas. A schema is a model which a child develops, and continuously updates, thus adding to it’s complexity – for example, ‘mother’ and ‘father’ are similar though separate schemas which progressively become ever more divergent as the growing child adds detail. A process which he termed ‘equilibration’, Piaget thought, drives a child to reconcile each new piece of knowledge – by accommodation and assimilation – with what is already known. This theory, which is outlined in diagram form in Figure 1, explains ‘trial-and-error’ learning as the mind’s attempt to restore a balanced state whilst new learning is taking place.

Piaget equilibration
Figure 1 Piaget’s concept of equilibration

Though Piaget’s theory of child development (see Figure 2 below) identifies four distinct stages, early learning professionals will mostly encounter children at Piaget’s ‘sensori-motor‘ phase (birth to around 2 years), or else the ‘pre-operational’ phase (2-6 years). The sensori-motor phase is characterised by the child’s attempts to master the co-ordination of senses with motor responses – described by Piaget as gaining ‘intelligence through action’. During the following pre-operational phase, the child’s own knowledge and perception of the world becomes the dominating influence, with some more-advanced ‘symbolic functioning’ emerging around four years old.

piaget stages
Figure 2 Piaget’s four stages of cognitive development

Vygotsky’s Theory

Where Piaget emphasised the child’s discovery of the outside world, Lev Vygotsky (1981) held that a child’s cognitive development was primarily the result of social communication and interaction. Basically, Vygotsky points out, a growing child will always learn more from others than they learn alone – especially when the help is offered by ‘experts’, or is grounded in the child’s cultural context. Allied to this point is Vygotsky’s concept of a ‘zone of proximal development’, illustrated in Figure 3: the notion, familiar to many educators, that a child (when tested) appears not to know something but becomes altogether more capable once the social context includes a reassuring adult guide, or more advanced peers. Thus, building on Vygotsky’s work, Wood, Bruner and Ross (1976) advocated the practice of ‘scaffolding’, in which adults, for example, gave confidence-building contextual assistance which was then sensitively withdrawn as the child developed skill and self-assurance.

vygotsky ZPD
Figure 3 Vygotsky’s concept of a zone of proximal development

Bruner’s theory

Like Piaget, Bruner took the view that a child’s cognitive development took place in stages. Though more loosely age-dependent than Piaget’s theory, Bruner’s three stages are:

  • The enactive phase (from birth to age 3), during which knowledge is acquired and stored primarily in the form of motor responses. Thus infants physically handle objects they wish to learn about. Note too that adults still perform tasks such as tying a shoelace by ‘muscular memory’ alone – i.e. without any conscious thought.
  • The iconic phase (age 3 to 8), when knowledge is primarily acquired and stored in the form of visual images. Thus young children naturally ‘look’ at picture books (and screen icons) to decode information before they can read and/or gain understanding through language instruction. This may explain why, when (all) learners approach a new topic, it can be helpful to have diagrams or illustrations which support verbal information.
  • The symbolic phase (from 8 upwards), occurs when acquired knowledge is stored primarily as words, mathematical symbols, or via other codified sign and symbol systems. According to Bruner, the major difference between symbols and the earlier-phase icons is that symbols are “arbitrary.” For instance, the word “happy” is an arbitrary label for the idea of happiness in that the word itself is inherently no happier than any other word.

bruner spiral curriculum

Figure 4 Bruner’s spiral curriculum (Bruner, 1960) – as applied to maths

Bruner stated that each mode is dominant at a certain development phase, but that all remain present and accessible at all times. One core difference with this theory is that, whereas Piaget stipulated that the child must be ready to access new learning, Bruner reverses this by insisting that all subject matter must be made accessible to the learner. His belief that the core principles of any topic can be learned at any age if the materials are adapted to match the child’s stage of cognitive development has been hugely influential in education. Here it is termed the ‘spiral curriculum’ concept, as summarised in Figure 4, which captures the essence of an educational experience tailored to the learner’s present cognitive level.

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Modern relevance

Whilst not abandoning Piaget’s insights, the modern view considers his groundbreaking work with its proposition of discrete stages of development, marked by qualitative differences, takes a somewhat restricted linear approach to child development, whereas observations suggest the reality is often a more complex matrix of multiple elements with different children progressing in different ways. On the other hand, Bruner’s conceptualisation reflects a natural, child-centred mode of learning with which most childcare professionals will be thoroughly familiar. Vygotsky’s theories have proved similarly enduring with Rogoff’s extensive research (Rogoff, 1993), for example, describing guided participation involving adults as the most effective means of promoting cognitive development, and Bronfenbrenner‘s child-centred account (Bronfenbrenner, 1979) of the interactive context of children’s development highlighting and reinforcing the importance of social and cultural elements. The latter is set out below in the diagrammatic form favoured by the author to show the network of a range of both intimate and public eco systems which can directly and indirectly influence child development.

bronfenbrenner diagram
Figure 5 Bronfenbrenner’s child-centred Ecological Systems theory of child development

Contemporary developments

And finally, turning to the thriving field of contemporary cognitive development research, books such as ‘The Scientist in the Crib’ by psychologist and philosopher Alison Gopnik reveal some of the advancing knowledge which has been gained about the real cognitive understandings of young children and the power of their rapidly developing brain. The following diagram gives a flavour of the picture which is emerging thanks to work in current fields such as biology, psychology and neuroscience.

cognitive research in numbers
Figure 6 Contemporary cognitive research in numbers

Stimulating Cognitive Development

There is universal agreement about the positive benefits of children’s play in stimulating cognitive development. It is also generally acknowledged that any play involving one or more senses similarly offers enhanced learning potential. Four-year-olds, for example, may learn a lot about the process of melting by watching what happens to cheese on bread in a microwave, but they will learn far more about the process if they are given an ice cube to hold while doing so. Bruner would no doubt also comment how this invaluable basic training can also lay the groundwork to help these future scientists understand how and why chemical reactions occur.

In some play/learning contexts practitioners can provide a rich sensory environment whilst encouraging a variety of problem solving activities, such as how to make sand stick together, or how to build a boat which will float. Piaget’s self-discovery approach would see wholesale trial-and-error engagements, which might then be followed by some light-touch adult scaffolding – of which Vygotsky would very much approve. Though the outcomes would be different, in each case there is clear potential for cognitive development.

Bronfenbrenner’s diagram shows that learning is influenced by multiple contexts, and parents too can promote a host of cognitive learning opportunities from within everyday activities. Such ‘active learning’ opportunities at home, or in the nursery, might include offering a choice of food, identifying a selected range of noises, or playing ‘Peek-a-Boo’ or age-related board games as appropriate.

Rather than offering competing or contradictory claims, the theories and research outlined above are always best considered as different perspectives on child development. For practitioners, such information provides a variety of helpful ways of viewing, describing and interpreting examples from their own practice. When considering, for instance, how a baby’s natural reflexes at birth then develop into controlled conscious movements, Piaget and Vygotsky would almost certainly account for the same progression in very different ways, while Bruner would be looking for future-oriented ways to further enhance the child’s development.

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