Cognitive Development Theory

According to the cognitive development theory, as put forth by Jean Piaget, a child goes through different stages of cognitive development from birth to adulthood. This article provides information about the four different stages postulated by Piaget.
We rarely give thought to how fearfully and wonderfully we're made. It's sad that we live our lives without understanding who we are and how we're wired! We let ourselves be squeezed into the mold that the earlier generations have made for us. Ask any scientist or researcher and they will tell you how unique and irreplaceable the human mind is.

The brain is a truly mesmerizing organ and the manner in which impulses travel across the brain and trigger thoughts and actions is simply marvelous! However, we won't get into that now. Over the centuries, there have been a few people who have devoted their lives to understanding the human mind and as a result have happened to formulate a few theories. They came up with the cognitive development theory. This study deals with our thought processes, our ability to think, remember, solve problems, make decisions, etc.

What is Cognitive Development Theory?

Jean Piaget, a Swiss psychologist (1896-1980) and philosopher earned global recognition and fame via his profound pedagogical studies (instructional theories). He was the first one to formulate the theory of cognitive development. After decades of keen observation of children in their natural environment, Piaget proposed that a child's thought development is not a smooth process, but involves certain times when the thoughts 'take off' and move into completely new areas. His observations revealed that such transitions took place in different periods of a child's life, for example, around 18 months, 7 years, and 11 or 12 years.

Piaget stated that 'children think differently than adults'. He proposed a theory involving four stages that point to a child's intellectual development. According to him, all children go through these stages in the same order. The four stages are as follows:

Sensorimotor Period (from birth - 2 years)

Once upon a time, people were of the school of thought that infants lacked the ability to think or form ideas of their own until they learned a language. However, today that thought has been replaced by the fact that babies begin to absorb data about their surroundings, and process it into information as soon as they are born. According to Piaget, a child's cognitive behavior is demonstrated via only motor activities during the first two years of his life.

From sucking objects to following moving objects with their eyes during the first couple of months of their lives, babies enter the so-called development stage. Slowly, they develop their motor skills and learn to grasp objects by coordinating hand-eye-touch-vision. By 7 months, babies attain the ability to memorize and acquire object permanence. They also develop new intellectual abilities due to their physical development, and even begin to use symbolic language to communicate.

Preoperative Period (2 to 6/7 years)

Piaget observed that after two years, a toddler's intelligence is demonstrated by the use of symbols, maturing use of language, better memory, and imaginative development. However, thinking is done in an illogical and irreversible manner. As two-year-olds, they learn to understand 100 - 150 words and begin to add ten new words to their vocabulary everyday. As they grow older, they begin to comprehend what emotions such as love, trust, and fear are. They also understand what it means to go for a ride, go to places for a holiday and carry out routine aspects of life like shopping, reading, writing, etc. However, as they continue to grow older, they become egocentric and begin to strive for more independence, which intimidates parents 90% of the time. By the age of 7, they would have tested their parents thoroughly to find unspoken limits. They learn which kind of behavior falls under the appropriate category, and which does not. They gain understanding of what discipline is and learn what manners are. They also learn how to respect limits and work within them.

Concrete Operations (6/7 to 11/12 years)

This stage can be attributed by the use of logic, and involves different processes such as development of abilities to sort objects on the basis of size, shape, etc. They are also able to comprehend logical relationships between elements in serial order, and have a better understanding of time and space. The child is able to realize how a short but wide cup contains the same amount of liquid like a narrow but tall cup. They also learn to view things from another perspective, even if it's not right. They are now able to understand more than one perspective simultaneously. They understand how to solve problems, however, their ability to solve abstract problems are limited.

Formal Operations (11/12 to adulthood)

Children in this stage are capable of thinking logically and abstractly. This ultimate stage of development in the theory begins at the age of 12 and continues way into adulthood. The child begins to think logically and formally. The limitation to abstract thinking vanishes and the child can now extend his or her understanding to a level beyond visible events. Hypothetical thinking and use of logic to solve problems comes into play in this stage. Piaget continues to put forth that although children continue to revise their knowledge base as they grow, their way of thinking is as powerful as it can get. As young adults, they begin to think about their future and get excited by their ambitions.

Various other prominent psychologists such as L. Vygotsky, Erik Erikson, Gesell, and Spock, have also given such theories which have gained popularity. While Gessel and Piaget focused more on motor and intellectual development, Spock and Erikson focused on emotional development in children. They also stress upon the importance of individual difference among children. Contemporary theorists argue that the cognitive development in children cannot be split up into fixed stages. They say that children are not always confined to concrete fixed stages.

We can only bring about positive changes in our society if we first understand the human mind. The academic system can only be altered for the better, if we understand how much pressure the human mind can withstand. There's a saying 'children are like wet cement, whatever falls on them leaves an impression'. Parents, teachers, and all those involved in molding the life of a young one need to realize how unique their role is. Understanding their emotional and mental needs can help raise them in a healthy manner. All the best!