Wednesday, January 2, 2008

Cognitive Development in Children...Piaget

In the coming weeks, I'll be posting some short papers I have written for my Cognitive Development in Children class, on various relevant topics. Since I like to blog about my research and things related to my research, and my research is in Cognitive Development, I thought it appropriate to do so.

Here is the first one, on Piaget and Neo-Piagetian Theories of Child Development:

Though Jean Piaget founded the field of cognitive development and made more important empirical discoveries than anybody else in the field of development psychology, some of his beliefs regarding development in middle childhood and adolescence and into adulthood have been subsequently modified by further empirical observations. Piaget’s preoperational period spans age 2 through age 7. The period of concrete operations, which involves the use of symbols and logic, occurs between age 7 and 11. The final period of formal operations, which is fully developed by age 16, is characterized by the ability to make and test hypotheses, to introspectively examine the thought process, and to think abstractly.

Piaget believed that he was evaluating children’s actual abilities and thought processes (i.e. competency), and not just task-related performance. However, subsequent empirical observation has shown that Piaget’s model of formal operations overestimates how adults actually think on a day to day basis (that is, their competency).

In 1979, Capon and Kuhn used a simple task to determine whether adults tend to use formal operational abilities. The researchers gave fifty women shopping in a supermarket the task of judging which of two sizes of the same product was a better buy; in this case, it involved bottles of garlic powder. The smaller bottle of garlic powder contained 1.25 ounces (35 grams) and was sold for forty-one cents. The larger bottle contained 2.37 ounces (67 grams) and was sold for seventy-seven cents. The women were provided with pencil and paper to use to aid their calculations and in justifying their answers.

To solve this problem, proportional reasoning is the most direct approach, and according to Piaget, characteristic of formal operations. In general, formal operational thinking was not observed for a majority of the women. While these adults could easily have used formal operational thinking under other conditions, they did not use them in this common task. Perhaps it is more evolutionarily adaptive for people to make a quick judgment regarding size and cost, relying on experience, than to spend the time doing the mental arithmetic. Perhaps Piaget’s picture of adolescent cognition was really performance-based.

While Piaget conceded that the environment had some contribution to the cognitive development of children, he minimized its importance, and placed the child as the principal cause of development. In contrast, many developmental psychologists, including Kurt Fischer, take a position that cognitive development hinges on the dynamic interaction between the child and the environment. Fischer constructed a study in which he examined the relationship between the relative power in alpha EEG in an occipito-parietal area of cortex (in this case, this is the environment) and the child’s behavior. He found that changes in the electroencephalography over time is not continuous, but occurs in stages, and corresponds quite nicely to the various stages of his theory from age 1 to 20. This empirical finding suggests that the child is not the principle cause of development, and environmental factors play a significant role.

While Piaget’s theory is clearly not the final word on cognitive development and his theories have undergone intensive examination and criticism, Piaget is still highly influential to contemporary developmental scientists. In 1992, Harry Beilin stated Piaget’s contributions nicely, when he said “assessing the impact of Piaget on developmental psychology is like assessing the impact of Shakespeare on English literature or Aristotle on philosophy – impossible."

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