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Research Papers on Cognitive Development

Research papers on cognitive development begin by studying Piaget's work on human development and its stages. Paper Masters writes research on cognitive development for education and psychology courses and explains Piaget's theory on development to students.

One of the most critical facets of understanding the development of children revolves around the study of the cognitive process. The importance of this is obvious because it is this information that gives insight into the development of language, problem solving, morality, and learning. Consequently, a thorough understanding of the cognitive process allows parents and educators to better communicate with the child and to assist him or her in the development of skills that are appropriate for the child. The individual that has provided the foundation for the understanding of the cognitive development of children is a French psychologist by the name of Jean Piaget. By studying his own children at various ages, he surmised that there are approximately four stages of cognitive development. The second stage, or the preoperational stage of cognitive development occurs between the ages of two and seven. It is this stage that is the focus of this research paper.

Cognitive Development

Cognitive Development Theory

Cognitive development theory is a diverse and rich discipline of study with a great degree of relevance to the field of social psychology.  Generally attributed to Swiss psychologist Jean Piaget, cognitive development theory addresses intellectual growth by locating and defining a series of distinct stages and sub-stages along the path of the developmental process.

Piaget designed a cognitive developmental theory involving several distinct stages, each of which can be broken down into smaller units of subsidiary levels.  The four stages Piaget conceptualized include:

Each stage pertains to specific yet somewhat variable age ranges, and involves cognitive achievements and limitations distinct to that age.

The first of Piaget’s stages, the sensorimotor stage, occurs from an individual’s birth through age two.  During this stage, the child’s cognitive state begins as one in which objects are perceived to exist only when they are present and available to the infant’s senses.  Thus, when the object is removed, it no longer exists to the infant. A real life example of this object impermanence is a child’s crying over the removal of a beloved toy or caregiver. This particular phenomenon has at its root the sensorimotor stage’s major limitation of egocentrism, that is, the infant lacks the ability to perceive a difference between the self and the external world.  However, the major achievement gained in this stage is that of object permanence, in which the child eventually becomes capable of accepting an object’s existence even when it is out of sight or grasp.

In Piaget’s second stage, ranging from age two to six years, the individual is said to be in the preoperational stage.  The major cognitive achievement occurring within this stage is the development of representation systems and symbolic functioning, through play and eventually language.  During the preoperational stage, the cognitive limitation of egocentrism persists, and the child is also limited by the inability to conserve.  This lack of conservation ability involves the inability to perceive that a mass, volume, or number of items may remain the same even when the form of item or items has changed.

The third of Piaget’s stages is the concrete operational stage, which occurs from age seven to twelve years.  During this stage, the cognitive achievement exhibited involves conservation ability, and operational structures emerge.  The limitation of egocentrism persists in this stage.

The fourth and final of Piaget’s stages is the formal operational stage, beginning at twelve years of age and continuing throughout adult life.  During this stage, the individual achieves the ability to think hypothetically, but the limitation of egocentrism continues to persist.

In examining Piaget’s theory, it is perhaps important to look at the theory in its entirety. So, for example, it is a stage theory. This implies that the individual child must complete certain requirements or accomplish specific tasks prior to entering the next stage. At the same time, Piaget indicates that the stages are somewhat specific to selected age groups. Thus, it is between the ages of two and seven that a child enters and then exits the preoperational stage of development.  This suggests that the development is almost experiential. In other words, the child simply progresses through the stage and will eventually begin the next stage. He or she will have completed the previous stage in a timely fashion with all the cognitive skills necessary for the next stage. This implies a rigidity that does not necessarily exist. Children progress differently, and most likely this is true even with regard to cognitive development.

Current Research on Cognitive Development

Piaget’s theories have greatly impacted and influenced the researchers and academics that would follow in his footsteps, and there is no doubt that his work made an indelible mark on the field of cognitive development.  By way of comparison, Vygotsky’s theories regarding cognitive development were very different and yet in some ways complementary to those of Piaget.  Whereas Piaget devised stages in his efforts to explain the process of psychological maturation, Vygotsky focused on how social interaction greatly contributes to the child’s adaptation to the environment and resulting cognitive development.  Vygotsky maintained that humans achieve adaptation to the world around them through the use of social cooperation, so that social relationships determine and shape psychological growth.

Piaget and Vygotsky diverge in their positions regarding the mechanisms of achieving developmental skills.  Where Piaget speaks of the achievement of landmarks such as object permanence and the ability to conserve, Vygotsky describes the accumulation of social tools achieved through patterns of social relationships.  Vygotsky posits that cognitive development is achieved through the modeling and internalization of perceived social paradigms that shape the ways the child conceives of, reacts to, and perceives its environment. According to Kozulin, Vygotsky imagined that cultural activities such as reading and writing lead to “the radical restructuring of the entire psychological system of the child”.  In this way, Vygotsky locates significant mechanisms of developmental catalysis externally of the individual, and in the individual’s environment.  This element seems to contrast with Piaget’s formulation, which seems to describe a more internalized method of revealing the stages of psychological maturation.  Whereas Piaget conceptualized the development of cognitive abilities as dependent upon the development of cognitive structures, Vygotsky viewed their development as dependent on interaction with one’s social environment. From a multi-disciplinary perspective, cognitive development theory is closely related to and easily applied to the concepts of social psychology.  In Demetriou’s 2003 study of the interactions of mind, self, and personality, one can easily relate the investigation’s clear presentation of social psychological concepts with those of cognitive development theory.

There is an inextricable link between intelligence, mind, and personality occur in relation to environments of physical, social, and symbolic worlds.  As such, the author describes a novel theory of intelligence that is a synthesis of both Piaget’s cognitive development theories as well as models of social system interactions.  Demetriou finds that cognitive development and social environmental factors contribute to the organization and development of personality, so that the process is both dynamic and multi-faceted. In considering Demetriou’s thesis, it is clear that cognitive development theory is deeply related to social psychology.  The ways in which individuals interact with others and how relationships are perceived are directly correlated to the manner in which the individual achieves psychological maturation.

One criticism frequently directed at Piaget’s cognitive developmental theories pertains to the idea that he neglected to address the development of creativity in his stage-constructed concepts.  From a social psychological standpoint, one might assert that sociological interactions and personal relationships contribute to creativity, so that the exact location of its developmental occurrence is too vague to be defined within the developmental stages of Piaget’s design. 

Without a doubt, Piaget made a lasting contribution to the field of developmental theory.  However, the relevance of his work clearly extends beyond his immediate discipline to affect social psychology, sociology, psychology, and other fields as well.  While some aspects of his theories have been criticized, his work remains as the primary source for understanding and envisioning the complex mechanisms of human cognitive development.

Since social psychology is ultimately concerned with the individual’s perception of and reaction to interpersonal relationships, the mechanisms of psychological maturation represent a relevant area of inquiry for the student of social psychology.  Providing an insightful and thought provoking perspective from which to freshly view concepts of social psychology, the comprehensive understanding of cognitive developmental theory’s structure and main elements contributes not only to one’s understanding of the development of knowledge, but also to one’s understanding of how knowledge’s development affects and interacts with one’s socialization and interpersonal relationships.

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