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Theories on Children’s Cognitive Development & Case Studies Illustrating Them

Gleaning insights proposed by the earliest psychologists like Jean Piaget, socio-cultural theorists like Lev Vygotsky, radical behaviorists like B. F. Skinner and other well-known psychologists like Howard Gardner, who challenged the earlier views on children’s cognitive development, can be very important.

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By drawing insights and gaining a better understanding of how children’s thought processes are formed, as well as the factors that influence them, and the overall impact on children, parents, caretakers, educators, and therapists find themselves in a better position to guide and help growing kids achieve their optimum potential.

In most of the theories set forth , factors like genetics and the environment or outside influences come into play. Swiss psychologist Jean Piaget, who formed his theories after conducting actual observations of kids, opined, “The mind of the child is not that of a miniature adult… the mind develops by forming schemas that help us assimilate our experiences and that must occasionally be altered to accomplish new information. In this way, children progress from the sensorimotor simplicity of the infant to more complex stages of thinking” (Myers 1989: 85).

This theory, which presupposes that children’s cognitive skills develop spontaneously, is highlighted by the different developmental stages to which children’s learning must adjust. Most teachers rely on Piaget’s cognitive developmental theory which, in essence, maintains that “the reasoning processes of children at various ages… cognitive development proceeds in four genetically determined stages that always follow the same sequential order” (Child Development Theories, n. d. ). The Piagetian theory boils down to the fact that children must not be forced to absorb concepts.

Instead, knowledge and learning must take place at the designated time or age of the child. Even if they undergo the same stages – infancy, early childhood, adolescence, early adulthood, and so on, individuals, of course, exhibit varying capabilities or rate of cognitive development. Piaget presupposed that children gradually find out what there is to learn about the objects and people around them through a gradual learning process. Nothing must be foisted on young minds. Instead, the young mind should be allowed to form relationships and learn through a stage-by-stage assimilation of concepts and facts.

The focus is on the knowledge learned, then. Most pre-schools find the Piagetian theory quite applicable and useful. In fact, the Piagetian theory has been widely used as underlying structure or foundation for child education & care in America and other parts of the world. There are some educators or schools, though, which combine the Piagetian concept on children’s cognitive development with other theories like the socio-cultural theory set forth by Russian developmental psychologist Lev Vygotsky, to let children realize their full potential.

Vygotsky held that “cognitive processes are formed in the course of socio-cultural activities… the individual comes into possession of a variety of cognitive processes engendered by different activities” (Kozulin, n. d. ) and with the guidance of a learned individual. “A knowledgeable person can help to add meaning to what is familiar to the child when he or she enters the child’s zone of proximal development (ZPD), that place for learning located somewhere between the child’s present understanding and potential understanding” (Steele 2001).

Simply put, children’s cognitive skills are hastened when they come into contact with more knowledgeable elders, or more experienced, older mentors. There may be cases when even other kids of the same age but with greater intellectual capacity may help shape or form a slow-learning child’s understanding of basic concepts like music or the alphabet. The difference between the child’s own cognitive development and his potential to assimilate greater knowledge is the zone of proximal development.

When schoolage kids interact and talk to and help each other learn, while also listening attentively to what their teacher says to them, they enter the zone of proximal development. In contrast to Piaget, Vygotsky laid greater emphasis in the way a child can utilize the joint approach or co-mingling with a well-informed adult in order to achieve full learning potential. Cases of teachers teaching young children to play a musical instrument like the piano may illustrate both the Piagetian concept of learning and Vygotsky’s socio-cultural theory.

A child falling under the pre-operational stage, correlating to children in the age bracket of two to seven years, who is tinkering with the piano is still in the process of mastering symbols and will not really learn how to play the instrument well on his own. An adult’s expert guidance will jumpstart the child’s learning process. On the other hand, the piano teacher must prepare lessons that will suit the age of the child, or his developmental stage.

Indeed, it can be noted that Piaget’s cognitive development theory has been used as jump-off point by his contemporaries and succeeding psychologists. One of those who challenged the Piagetian concept and maintained that a child’s cognitive ability is but one aspect of development is Howard Gardner. The latter proposed that individuals have “a number of domains of potential intellectual competence which they are in the position to develop, if they are normal and if the appropriate stimulating factors are available” (Gardner 2004: 287).

Musical intelligence is one of the kinds of intelligence that Gardner said kids may cultivate. The example of a piano teacher giving a child his/her first set of piano lessons may encompass both the Piagetian concept, Vygotsky’s socio-cultural theory, and Howard Gardner’s theory on multiple intelligence. As far as Howard Gardner’s multiple intelligence theory is concerned, it runs counter to the Piagetian theory. Gardner believed in the vast potential each child has.

He surmised that at any one instance, the well-nurtured child can be at different stages, honing his/her latent abilities – whether in spatial reasoning or body-kinesthetic or interpersonal skills, intrapersonal sensitivity, linguistic or musical inclinations. Even at a young age, children may nurture any of these multiple intelligences. A two-year-old child, for example, may be exposed to the piano playing of parents, and a couple of years later made to attend group lessons to observe, such that by the time the same child reaches the pre-teen years, he/she would have already developed a keen musical appreciation.

Unlike the Piagetian method focus which tends to focus on test scores or the knowledge acquired per se, Gardner’s multiple intelligence theory focuses on forming “a strong, positive and attractive character” (Gardner 2004: 374). In the case of the child who grows up with musically inclined parents and eventually nurtures the talent , the resulting remarkable piano performance, is actually just a means to creating the child’s well-rounded character.

Nonetheless, Piaget’s cognitive development concept has long been considered a universal learning theory which has found its way in numerous preschools all over the world. If most preschool classroom settings vividly illustrate Piaget’s cognitive developmental concept, particularly in the pre-operational stage, a clear-cut example of Vygotsky’s socio-cultural theory is the traditional education or cultural transmission taking place in most rural communities across the world.

Let us take, for instance, the case of oral narratives about ancestral heroes and events transmitted by older males to their young in Ethiopian rural communities. “Children who sit patiently and silently on the periphery of the story-telling circle gradually absorb the cultural content and verbal technique (which) lasts for hours and constitutes an integral element of everyday life. ” (Kozulin, n. d. ). By relying on their elders for their socio-cultural assimilation of ideas, the children very well mirror Vygotsky’s socio-cultural theory.

An adult comes into the picture to impart greater learning at a quicker pace than if the children were to come across the same body of knowledge on their own. The traditional oral transmission of culture such as that perpetuated in the Ethiopian village, however, is no longer practiced in most other societies. Written records have supplanted the oral tradition. In his book, “Frames of Mind – The Theory of Multiple Intelligences,” Gardner cited numerous examples of people and situations affecting children’s cognitive learning skills.

One of these is the structured method inspired by Japanese violinist Shinichi Suzuki to teach kids to learn music. Hinged on the basic principle that kids have an innate ability which “can be developed and enhanced through a nurturing environment” (The Suzuki Method 2005), the Suzuki Method lays emphasis on other intervening factors that may affect how young students learn music or instrument playing.

These factors include starting lessons at an early age; recognizing just how important listening to music is; getting a first-hand grasp in learning how to play an instrument even before learning how to read; parental participation; well-trained teachers who instill quality teaching standard; realizing the importance of communicating and socially interacting with other children (The Suzuki Method 2005).

Gardner also cited the method of imparting learning in traditional African bush society, wherein “the youngsters are divided into groups according to ages and aptitudes and receive instruction in the assorted lore of native life…particular stress on the historical background of the population as a means of stimulating group consciousness” (Gardner 2004: 343) is made. Gardner made the distinction of such ritualistic methods from more scientific ways of obtaining knowledge. “With formal schools, we behold a transition from tacit knowledge to explicit forms of knowledge” (Gardner 2004: 345).

Such sensitivity to spoken knowledge displayed by native communities, when melded with modern methods of learning and technical requirements, may comprise what Gardner refers to as linguistic intelligence. When kids hailing from their native communities are absorbed in mainstream society, they are accorded the chance to fully develop this linguistic intelligence. Such language development also reflects or applies Vygotsky’s socio-cultural theory, which highlights the important role of language and social context in children’s cognitive processes.

Language, in the case of African communities with an oral tradition of teaching kids, is used primarily to retain key concepts in the minds/memory of the youngsters. In such scenarios, children obtain greater understanding of their roots, including their ancestors, traditions, and culture as a whole, and piece together a logical picture in their minds by internalizing the various words and concepts articulated by knowledgeable elders. Vygotsky’s socio-cultural theory likewise finds itself applied in contemporary society.

As an alternative to the Piagetian concept as well as to the behaviorist schools of thought which had theorists like B. F. Skinner postulating that mental processes or learning occurred as a consequence of the individual’s response to, or interaction with, the environment… and with reinforcement and punishment playing a crucial part in molding behavior (Child development theories, n. d. ), Vygotsky’s socio-cultural theory articulated that learning is more of “a shared/joint process in a responsive social context” (Psychology applied, n. . ). Vygotsky debunked the view that learning depends or follows a child’s stage of development or maturation. Vygotsky veered away from the “biologically-based understanding of human behavior” or from the rewards and punishment concept set forth by behaviorists as main determinants of children’s thinking & behavior. Instead, he placed emphasis on the impact of social/cultural forces on human cognitive processes and activity. He discovered the connecting links between socio-cultural processes taking place in society, and mental processes taking place in the individual” (Psychology applied, n. d. ). A modern example that applies in part Vgotsky’s learning theory of having a knowledgeable adult supervise the learning process and B. F. Skinner’s behaviorist approach is a structured skills-based tutoring service that offers individualized instruction to slow or advanced learners wishing to strengthen their foundation in key subjects like math, reading, and writing.

Tutoring Club, one such company, has in its employ well-schooled and well-trained tutors who guide enrolled students who need to obtain better understanding of concepts in certain academic areas. The students work on modules of exercises designed to sharpen their cognitive skills, and every time they meet the desired output, an incentive (reward) comes in the form of a merchandise that they may get from a mini store inside the learning center, traded for chips which students accumulate for each module they complete.

Another case in point is a modern-day Mathematics teacher who is instilling basic concepts to her students. An investigative research that zeroed in on a teacher who adopted the Vygotskian socio-cultural perspective in teaching Mathematics to her students showed how helpful it can be to encourage students to share their thoughts, ideas and assumptions with their peers under the teacher’s knowledgeable guidance and prodding. As the teacher opined, “Sharing clarifies their thinking. It lets them verbalize. nstead of just having it in their minds… students become aware of how they think so that when they verbalized their thinking processes, she (the teacher) could help them with any difficulties they had” (Steele 2001). Based on the Vygotskian theory, language and communication – whether in remote rural communities or the contemporary setting, utilizes language and communication as essential tools to stimulate children’s cognitive development. The approach, of course, will vary depending on the physical state of each child.

A different approach is taken for children with defects or physical impairment. Vygotsky may also be credited with tailorfitting the teaching method to the particular needs — as well as dysfunctions – of children. “Within his general theory of child development, (Vygotsky) created a comprehensive and practice-oriented paradigm of educating children with special needs (and) introduced the notion of `primary’ defects, `secondary’ defects, and their interactions in the field of psychopathology and different disabilities” (Psychology Applied, n. . ). Vygotsky believed that because cognitive development is hinged largely on stimulation of the senses, the physically and mentally impaired child is inhibited from obtaining knowledge at a generally accepted rate. More than the physical handicap of the special child, though, it is the “social consequences” (Psychology Applied, n. d) arising from that child’s impairment which must be given focus. Cognitive developmental theories may be applied beyond the classroom, or in many other areas of children’s learning and lives.

Various other factors that come into play which influence cognitive processes, like interactive media, also cannot be discounted. The condition of the child is likewise important in determining the right approach to inculcate learning. In any case, early cognitive developmental interventions, finetuned by succeeding theorists, serve not just to enhance academic outcomes but help shape the well-rounded personalities of today’s kids. Nowadays, the sound body of knowledge aimed at the workings of children’s mind continues to evolve and grow.

In the end, it is up to parents, schools and other learning institutes, to determine which ones are truly suitable and will contribute in a healthy manner to the development of children’s cognitive skills. It can be seen that the pioneering works of such psychologists as Jean Piaget – who emphasized biologically-based or natural development of children’s cognitive skills — certainly provided good foundation or strong footing for succeeding child development theories to come out with improved concepts.

Given the numerous cognitive development theories set forth and utilized for classroom teaching and/or child care, and the distinct differences and similarities in the main points of contention of the theorists laid out for people to grasp, which have undergone further study and enhancements and complemented by other theories throughout the years, parents and educators have been able to devise new and improved methods of enhancing children’s cognitive skills and potential.