Cognitive development refers to the manner in which people learn to think, reason, and use language. It involves a person’s intelligence, perceptual ability, and ability to process information. Cognitive development represents a progression of mental abilities from illogical to logical thinking, from simple to complex problem solving, and from understanding concrete ideas to understanding abstract concepts. The most widely known cognitive theorists is Jean Piaget (1896 – 1980). His theory of cognitive development has contributed to other theories, such as Kohlberg’s theory of moral development and Fowler’s theory of the development of faith. According to Piaget, cognitive development is an orderly, sequential process in which a variety of new experiences (stimuli) must exist before intellectual abilities can develop. Piaget’s cognitive development process is divided into five major phases: the sensorimotor phase, the preconceptual phase, the intuitive thought phase, the concrete operations phase.
Sensorimotor phase, Piaget’s initial period of cognitive development, has six stages; three of which take place during the first year. From 4 to 8 months infants begin to have perceptual recognition. By 6 months they respond to new stimuli, and they remember certain objects and look for them for a short time. By 12 months infants have a concept of both space and time. They experiment to reach a goal, such as a toy on a chair. An infant’s cognitive development also proceeds from flexive ability of the newborn to using one or two actions to attain a goal by the age of 1 year.
According to Piaget, the toddler completes the fifth and sixth stages of the sensorimotor phase and starts the preconceptual phase at about 2 years of age. In the fifth stage, the toddler solves problems by a trial-and-error process. By stage 6, toddlers can solve problems mentally. For example, when given a new toy a toddler will not immediately handle the toy to see how it works, but will instead look at it carefully to think about how it works. During Piaget’s preconceptual phase, toddlers develop considerable cognitive and intellectual skills. They learn about the sequence of time. They have some symbolic thought; for example, a chair may represent a place of safety, and a blanket may symbolize comfort. Concepts start to form in late toddlerhood. A concept develops when the child learns words to represent classes of objects or thoughts. An example of a concrete concept is table, representing a number of articles of furniture that are all different but all tables.
The preschooler’s cognitive development is the phase of intuitive thought. Children are still egocentric, but egocentrism gradually subsides as they experience their expanding world. Preschoolers learn through trial and error, and they think of only one idea at a time. They do not understand relationships such as those between mother and father or sister and brother. Children start to understand that words are associated with objects in late toddlerhood or the early preschool years. Preschoolers become concerned about death as something inevitable, but they do not explain it. They also associate death with others rather than themselves. Most children at the age of 5 years can count pennies; however, the opportunity to spend money usually does not occur until they attend school. Reading skills also start to develop at this age. Young children like fairy tales and books about animals and other children.
The ages 7 to 11 years mark the phase of concrete operations. During this stage the child changes from egocentric interactions to cooperative interactions. School-age children also develop an increased understanding of concepts that are associated with specific objects, for example, environmental conservation or wildlife preservation. Children at this time develop logical reasoning from intuitive reasoning. For example, they learn to add and subtract to obtain an answer to a problem. Children also learn about cause-and-effect relationships at this stage; for example, they know that a stone will not float because it is heavier than water.
Money is a concept that gains meaning for children when they start school. By the time they are 7 or 8 years old, children usually know the value of most coins. The concept of time is also learned at this stage. By 6 years of age children enter school; the schedule in school helps them learn time periods. However, it is not until 9 or 10 years of age that children are able to understand the long periods of time in the past. Knowing the time of day and the day of the week are relatively easy for children because they relate time to routine activities. For example, a girl may go to school Monday through Friday, play on Saturday, go to Sunday school on Sunday morning, and go out with her father Sunday afternoon. Children are beginning to read a clock by the time they are 6 years old; they can learn to read both digital and numerical clocks.
Cognitive abilities mature during adolescence. Between the ages of 11 and 15, the adolescent begins Piaget’s formal operations stage. The main feature of this stage is that people can think beyond the present and beyond the world of reality. Adolescents are highly imaginative and idealistic. They consider things that do not exist but might be and consider ways things could be or ought to be. This type of thinking requires logic, organization, and consistency. In social interactions, adolescents often practice this increasing ability to think abstractly, and parents may misunderstand their child’s intent, seeing the teen as arguing or being contrary, which can lead to unnecessary confusion and conflict.
The adolescent becomes more informed about the world and environment; using new information to solve everyday problems and can communicate with adults on most subjects. The adolescent’s capacity to absorb and use knowledge is great. They usually select their own areas for learning; they explore interests from which they may evolve a career plan. Study habits and learning skills developed in adolescence are used throughout life.
Reading skills are usually well developed later in childhood, and what a child reads is largely influenced by the family. By 9 years of age most children are self-motivated. They compete with themselves, and they like to plan in advance. By 12 years they are motivated by inner drive rather than by competition with peers. They like to talk, to discuss different subjects, and to debate.
A person develops through each of these phases; each phase has its own unique characteristics. In each phase, the person uses three primary abilities: assimilation, accommodation, and adaptation. Assimilation is the process through which humans encounter and react to new situations by using the mechanisms they already possess. In this way, people acquire knowledge and skills as well as insights into the world around them. Accommodation is a process of change whereby cognitive processes mature sufficiently to allow the person to solve problems that were unsolvable before. This adjustment is possible chiefly because new knowledge has been assimilated. Adaptation, or coping behavior, is the ability to handle the demands made by the environment.
Piaget’s views are often compared with those of Lev Vygotsky. Vygotsky (1896 – 1934), referred to as a “social constructivist,” explored the concept of cognitive development within a social, historical, and cultural context, arguing that adults guide children to learn and that development depends on the use of language, play, and extensive social interaction. These ideas have been used in treatment of children with learning disorders, autism, mental handicaps, and other disabilities. These ideas also support the benefit of adult social learning opportunities via group interaction and observation. Vygotsky truly supported social learning and reinforcement through work, group discussion, and other means.
Bruner observes that the process of constructing knowledge of the world is not done in isolation but rather within a social context. The child is a social being and, through social life, acquires a framework for interpreting experiences. The learner selects and transforms information, constructs hypotheses, and makes decisions, relying on a cognitive structure to do so. Cognitive structure (i.e., schema, mental models) provides meaning and organization to experiences and allows the individual to “go beyond the information given.” Constructivism is a very broad conceptual framework in philosophy and science and Bruner’s theory represents one particular perspective; much of the theory is linked to child development research, especially Piaget.
While the stages of cognitive development identified by Piaget are associated with characteristic age spans, they vary for every individual. Furthermore, each stage has many detailed structural forms. For example, the concrete operational period has more than forty distinct structures covering classification and relations, spatial relationships, time, movement, chance, number, conservation and measurement. Piaget explored the implications of his theory to all aspects of cognition, intelligence and moral development. Many of his experiments were focused on the development of mathematical and logical concepts. The theory has been applied extensively to teaching practice and curriculum design in elementary education. For example, with children in the sensorimotor stage, teachers should try to provide a rich and stimulating environment with ample objects to play with. On the other hand, with children in the concrete operational stage, learning activities should involve problems of classification, ordering, location, conservation using concrete objects.
For educators working with children, cognitive development is facilitated by providing activities or situations that engage learners and require adaptation (i.e., assimilation and accommodation). Learning materials and activities should involve the appropriate level of motor or mental operations for a child of given age. Educators should avoid asking students to perform tasks that are beyond their current cognitive capabilities and using teaching methods that actively involve students and present challenges. Cognitive development is how we pass through predictable stages and patterns throughout the lifespan, and at each stage form a new way to operate and adapt to the world.