Cognitive Developments through Experienced Time

We watch in awe at the intellectual developments of children. They seem to learn so fast and comprehend so much in so little time. But cognitive development does not develop on at a consistent rate. Some children develop faster while others lag behind thus making cognitive development one of the hardest psychological aspects to pinpoint when studying the individual mind. Jean Piaget’s (1896-1980) model for cognitive development provides us an excellent base for this kind of study. In his model, Piaget matches the cognitive developments of an individual with the periods that these developments usually take place.

According to Jean Piaget, children like scientists observe regularities and make generalizations.  Human thought or intelligence is the product of a dynamic equilibrium between two processes, namely, assimilation and accommodation. The process of assimilation happens when a child incorporates new information into existing cognitive structures. These cognitive structures are called ‘schemas’ that can be generally understood as a pattern of action or a mental structure used to acquire and organise knowledge. A child ‘assimilates’ new information into existing schemas to solve problems faced when finding the answer to a mathematical question (problem) after having mastered arithmetic (schema).

On the flipside, a child is said to go through the process of accommodation when he or she forms a new cognitive structure or schema to incorporate new information. This means that a child must create new ways to respond to an object in order to understand it. The formation of new cognitive structures usually happens as a result of transforming old existing schemas to better accommodate the task at hand. For example, a child transforms his existing understanding for numbers (existing schema) into the knowledge of arithmetic (modified schema) in order to solve a mathematical question (problem).

From the processes of assimilation and accommodation, Piaget identified four periods of cognitive developments. The first stage is the sensorimotor stage that occurs when a child is newly born to around 2 years of age. Roughly during the first month, one can observe that a child is repeating behaviour that is pleasurable on purpose like sucking his/her thumb. By the third to fourth month, a child is fascinated by his/her arms and legs and begins to modify reflexes to make them more adaptive (open and closing his/her palms). By the fourth to eighth month, a child begins to coordinate actions in order to produce a certain reaction, thus hinting the basic understanding of cause and effect relationships. At 8 to 12 months old, a child begins to be able to represent objects mentally (object permanence) and begins searching for an object even after you remove it from sight. In contrast, a child of 6 months would be unable to retrieve hidden objects because he/she is unable to represent objects mentally.

The second stage, the preoperational stage, happens when a child is around 2 to 7 years old. This stage is distinctively set apart from the sensorimotor stage because a child develops language and mental imagery (this includes colour and size). This can be evidently seen through a child’s use of words and symbols to represent objects and relationships. Be warned however, that a child at this age may use the same words but imply a different meaning compared to the way adults use them. Besides that, this period of cognitive development is dominated by one-dimensional thinking like; egocentrism, animism, and artificialism.

Examples of Preoperational Thought
Type of Thought Sample Questions Typical Answers
Egocentrism Why does the sun shine? To keep me warm.
Animism Why do trees have leaves? To keep them warm.
Artificialism Why is the sky blue? Somebody painted it blue.

Another important aspect of the pre-operational stage is the ability to understand and apply the law of conservation. A child begins to understand that the basic properties of substances, for example, mass, weight, and volume, would remain the same regardless of the shape and the arrangement of the object. Given a flattened pancake-like piece of dough and a rolled-up piece of dough, a child would still be able to infer that both seemingly different objects are actually the same. Another more important experiment is the one that involves two beakers of different shape containing equal amounts of water. A child in the sensorimotor period would choose the taller beaker when asked which of the two beakers contained more water. On the contrary, a child in the pre-operational stage would be able to apply the law of conservation and point out that both beakers contain the same amount of water. Moral judgement during this stage however, would be still confined to objective responsibility based on the amount of damage done without taking into account criminal intents and motives.

At 7 to 12 years of age, a child reaches the concrete-operational stage. This stage is unique due to the ability of a child’s capacity to utilise adult logic. However, this ability is restricted mainly to tangible objects and not abstract ideas. An equally important development at this stage is the understanding of the concept of reversibility. A child recognizes that some things can be undone or restored to its previous state. To illustrate, a child tears apart a house made of Lego bricks and recognises his/her ability to reconstruct the house from its broken pieces. In terms of perspectives, the child is less egocentric and better able to understand another person’s point of view instead of just a one-dimensional way of thinking. Moral judgement can also be seen to incorporate more subjective views based on criminal intentions and motives.

The last stage in Piaget’s cognitive development model is the formal-operational stage. This stage of cognitive development starts roughly around age 12 and continues throughout an individual’s life. At this stage, an individual is able to acquire thinking skills that incorporate all logical combinations much like any adult mind. The ability to think in terms of abstract concepts also becomes increasingly evident and the ability to adopt strategies to systematically solve problems is present. For example, when asked to determine all the possible orderings for the numbers 3-7-5-8, a child in the formal-operational stage would adopt the strategy of systematically varying the alternations of digits, perhaps starting with the last digit and working towards the first.

Jean Piaget’s Stages of Cognitive Development
Stage Period Details
Sensorimotor Birth – 2 years At first, the child lacks language and does not use symbols or mental representations of objects. In time, reflexive responding ends, and intentional behaviour – as in making interesting stimulation last – begins. The child develops the object concept and acquires the basics of language.
Pre-operational 2 – 7 years The child begins to represent the world mentally, but thought is egocentric. The child does not focus on two aspects of a situation at once and therefore lacks conservation. The child shows animism, artificialism, and objective responsibility for wrongdoing.
Concrete-operational 7 – 12 years Logical mental actions – called operations – begin. The child develops conservation concepts, can adopt the viewpoint of others, can classify objects in series, and show comprehension of basic relational concepts (such as one object being larger or heavier than the other).
Formal-operational 12 years and older Mature, adult thought emerges. Thinking is characterised by deductive logic, considerations of various possibilities (mental trial and error), abstract thought, and the formation and testing of hypotheses.

Having seen the four stages of Piaget’s cognitive development model, we must bear in mind that no model of cognitive development should be taken as an absolute model. Among the shortcomings of Piaget’s model includes, the lack of intuitive and aesthetic cognitive developments. Taking a closer look at the four stages, one finds that Piaget only deals with scientific and logical modes without regard to other areas like those of music. Other theorists have pointed out a fifth stage called the problem-finding stage whereby adults not only solve problems but find problems worth solving.

Perhaps more unforgivable is the fact that Piaget’s model left out the development of memory capacity throughout the four stages. Since the ability to remember is probably the most important factor for cognitive development, Piaget’s model is much in need of further expansion in this respect. Furthermore, the model also fails to include another important aspect of knowledge in development. There seem to be evidence pointing toward correlations between the heightened abilities of reasoning and problem-solving with the extent of an individual’s knowledge. Other psychologists have also pointed out that the accuracy of the timing for the different stages may vary from one individual to another while others have argued for different cognitive bases as a factor to benchmark cognitive abilities.

All these arguments are, in my opinion, valid. However, I still advocate the use of Piaget’s model as the foundation for the study of cognitive development with the reminder that the developments in cognitive abilities when one experiences time would be different than when one measures time. This means that cognitive development should be viewed more as a gradual and continuous development rather than a step-by-step movement from one separate stage to another stage. The matching of cognitive developments with the period that it occurs is an approximation and not an absolute direct relationship.

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