Early Childhood Education

Development, Cognitive


During an interview in the 1950s, newsman and radio personality Art Linkletter tried to catch five-year-old Tommy off guard by pointing out that he was about to interview a woman who was an octogenarian. Looking a bit puzzled, the child asked, “What is an octogenarian?” Linkletter replied that it is someone who is 80 years old. The child thought a bit and then said, “She must be really tall.” As Linkletter, the showman, anticipated, the studio audience laughed, charmed by the child’s “error.”

Lost on the audience was Tommy’s remarkable thinking. These types of “errors” whet the appetites of psychologists and educators. Rather than laughing, or at least rather than simply being charmed by a child’s insights, developmental scientists and practitioners ask several questions about the nature of Tommy’s thinking in this context. First, how is Tommy’s thought structured so that he believes that age denotes height? Second, how might Tommy’s thinking change over time so as to protect him from inappropriate intuitions in the future? Finally, how do Tommy’s interpersonal/intrapersonal realities mutually construct both his inaccurate insight at age 5 as well as move him toward a new, more accurate, representation of the relation of age and growth?

Contemporary theories of cognitive development have much to offer with respect to the three questions attributed to our scientist-practitioner. More precisely, recent theoretical developments coupled with new research provide new understandings of questions that have challenged developmental psychologists for much of the past century: “What is cognition?” “How does cognition develop?” That is, over time, is there a pattern or form to changes in thinking? And, finally, “What are the biological, psychological and social constraints on the nature and development of thought?”


What Is Cognition?

The fact that cognition, as a construct, permeates so many contemporary fields within psychology and education suggests there must be consensus on its meaning. That is not the case. A substantial body of work on cognition examines various theoretical perspectives on cognition, often pitting one against another. Although there is no denying that these theories are incompatible on some, even fundamental, points, it is possible and fruitful to view them as complementary perspectives. Pragmatically, these perspectives provide lenses through which to view the complexity of intellectual life.

For many cognitive developmentalists, Jean Piaget’s genetic epistemology is their historical touchstone when addressing the question, “What is cognition?” In fact, it was his training in biology that brought both a scientific orientation to the study of mental life and a conceptualization of psychological functioning as adapting. Adapting entails more than functioning, it implies structure, that is, the functioning of a structured organism. Cognition is an active organizing, indeed, an active constructing, of experience. Piaget coupled his scientific training with his interests in philosophy, and specifically, a fascination with epistemology. He viewed cognition as an epistemological function; thinking is the way in which we come to know or construct our understanding of realities. A more contemporary view of epistemology would recast his goal of specifying the structures that shape knowing as a question of how the mind is designed. Piaget would not be too interested in five-year-old Tommy’s specific knowledge of age or growth. Indeed, Piaget and contemporary developmentalists would see through Tommy’s conclusion to focus on the logic of Tommy’s thinking that functioned as the backdrop to his inference that the 80-year-old woman must be very tall. They see Tommy’s insight as a way of making sense of the fact that someone could be 80 years old.

More recently, cognitive sciences, and more specifically those interested in human developmental science, have shifted from cognition as an epistemic function to a metaphysical activity. This view changes our focus from how do we come to know, to what do we know. Rather than looking through Tommy’s understanding of age and growth to the study of abstract structures, cognitive scientists of a metaphysical persuasion view aging and growth as ontological or natural categories; more simply put, as basic conceptualizations of theories about what we mean by living things. Focusing on children’s conceptualizations of their realities shifts our theoretical focus from cognition as domain general to an analysis of domain-specific cognitive functioning. The goal of metaphysical analyses is to characterize children’s “theories” of number, physical and biological realities as well as fundamental interpersonal activities among others. From a metaphysical perspective, Tommy’s insight of the height of the 80-year-old woman is guided by his intuitive knowledge of, or intuitive theories about, biological aging and physical growth. Metaphysical theorists would assume that his “errors” were predicated on a theory that “over time, biological things grow” and “to grow means to get taller.” Any questions asked by teachers or researchers would try to uncover his “theory of” biological growth.

A third characterization of cognition moves away from epistemology and metaphysics, that is, away from how we come to know or what we know, and toward computer science and information processing. Knowing is processing information, and the computer is the prototypic information processor. The constituent cognitive processes are familiar psychological functions like planning, attention, and memory. A radical application of the computer model reduces RAM to working memory, hard drive to long-term memory, and software or programming to executive function, that is, the mental overseer that coordinates the flow of information between long-term and working memory. A radical information processing model does not capture cognition as human action or as intentional. A less radical model confronts that limitation by incorporating metafunctions. Human planning, attending, or remembering is not hardwired, rather, they are reflective activities that set goals, set strategies and evaluate progress toward that goal. The less radical information processing types would point out that Tommy’s asking about the meaning of octogenarian revealed a metacognitive awareness. He knew he did not have critical information, he also knew that his interlocutor had that information. His erroneous insight would be examined in terms of whether, as he encountered people of various ages, he failed to encode the fact that older people are not always taller than those who are younger, or although knowing that, Tommy had failed to access that knowledge. If the latter is the case, did Tommy fail to access that knowledge or was the capacity of his working memory too limited to allow him coordinate all the relevant information?


How Does Cognition Develop? How Does the Way We Think Change Over Time?

The form and even the extent of cognitive development vary significantly from one conceptualization to another. Those assuming an epistemological stance (e.g., Case, 1992; Fischer, 2006; Piaget, 1966) generally view the development of children’s thinking as progressive and hierarchically integrated. Case and Fischer were first identified as neo-Piagetians because they constructed theories that resembled Piaget’s in fundamental ways; however, their seminal proposals as well as their more mature theories diverge from Piaget’s theory on several significant points. Among them are their emphases on development as domain specific and, for Fischer more than Case, the idea that progress is not always linear.

Piaget’s studies of cognitive development were grounded in domains: number, geometry, logic and propositional thought. However, he attempted to identify underlying structures, ways of knowing, that were common across these domains. For that reason his theory is referred to by many as domain general. From this perspective, Tommy’s insight might be construed as symptomatic of a way of knowing, common to knowing across domains, which bridges his earlier thinking which focuses one dimension, for example, someone who is eighty is very old, to his later thinking, which coordinates three dimensions simultaneously, for example, years, aging and growth.

Fischer and Case would agree that Tommy’s thinking is symptomatic of hierarchically integrated way of coordinating dimensions; however, they would not see it as symptomatic of how children are thinking in other domains at that time. They believe that thinking progresses, at different rates across domains, often following varying pathways, yet ultimately reaching a common level of functioning (Fischer, 2006). Thus, domain theorists part with Piaget on the form of development. Piaget and stage theorists in general characterize development as a staircase. They assume that there will be pauses in development as children consolidate their gains. Those pauses do not mask the fact that when there is change it is progressive. By contrast, Fischer abandons the staircase metaphor and adopts a scalloping image of development. As stage theorists, progress in cognitive functioning is progressive over the long haul; however, new developments in thinking are followed by regressions to earlier levels of functioning. These peaks and troughs follow a common cycle of increased activity (IA) leading to reorganization (R) followed by reversals to a previous level (PL) of functioning (IA  R  PL IA  R  PL ...). The possibility, indeed the reality, of regressing to a lower level of functioning is at the heart of hierarchical development. Lower levels of functioning are built upon or modified, but they are not lost or abandoned. This movement forward with the potential for reversing suggests that cognitive functioning is economical; children work at a level of development set by their ambitions and societal demands.

Beyond the theoretical value of systematically examining the form of cognitive development through childhood, there is a practical value. As descriptions of epistemological functioning, Piaget, Case, and Fischer provide standards of development within which we can diagnose levels of cognitive functioning independent of psychological domain. Piaget’s logical-mathematical scheme provides a broad- ban diagnostic tool partitioning development into four stages from birth to adolescence. By comparison, Fischer’s skill theory offers a fine-grained scheme composed of ten levels. As Fischer (2006) points out, ordinal scales of measurement of this type allow us to view children holistically, that is, as they are functioning across a variety of significant domains at various levels, without being constrained to an age-specific stage that may not adequately describe their capabilities.

Many of those adopting a metaphysical view of cognition focus on a restricted meaning of domain specificity. Given the fact that infants and children learn at such rapid rates, metaphysical theorists argue and provide empirical evidence that some domains are inherited modules (Carey and Spelke, 1994; Gelman and Brenneman, 1994). Modules are conceptual systems, intuitive ways of knowing that process information specific to a limited set of domains: number, biology, psychology, and physical laws. A significant body of research has focused on validating the claim of modularity of mind as well as describing what infants know about these domains. Research and theory on the manner in which children develop from these initial insights is not as well developed as the schemes identified by epistemological theorists. However, to this point they have identified questions that frame the question of what develops and what sets that development apart from the “what” of epistemological development.

From the metaphysical perspective, development is from an intuitive toward a principled understanding or theories about number, biology, psychology, and physics. From one perspective, progress within one domain is distinctively different from progress in the others because a deeper understanding of mathematics, biological, and psychological functioning as well as the laws of mechanics means knowing about categories of things of very different natures. The structure of mathematics is of a different kind than the structure of living organisms. Within this perspective Tommy’s error in relating age and physical growth appropriately is predicated on his biological intuitions. Less clear within this perspective on cognition is whether change will occur in Tommy’s thinking through the accumulation of more information about biological growth, or through a conceptual revolution that qualitatively reframes his theory of biological growth.

Cognitive modules associated with specific domains of knowing may be supplemented over development. For example, children develop social theories, which, along with biological theories, structure their thinking about gender and race (Hershfeld, 1994). Indeed, these theories compete with each other so that biological theory may override social theory leading children to assume that gender differences are natural; or social theory may override biological theory so that they believe the social segregation of races implies fundamental biological differences (Hirschfeld, 1994). Cross-fertilization may not always distort thought; there is the possibility that children may map one domain onto another analogically so that development in one area piggy-backs on advances in another area.

Information processing is directed more toward problem solving than knowing or knowledge. There is a significant amount of research indicating that working memory (RAM) increases with development. The majority of research and theory within development of information processes has focused on changes in strategic thinking, that is, the ways in which executive functioning or metacognitive functioning changes over time (Shonkoff and Phillips, 2000). If there is a common dimension over which to chart a part of development, it would be the increasing reflective capacities of children (Birney et al., 2005; Shonkoff and Phillips, 2000). For example, children’s attention becomes more focused so that they tend to pick up less information overall than younger children do. Because attention is guided by expectations, they are more likely to attend to relevant information. Further, information processing theorists postulate that, with time, children become better able to plan and to monitor the effectiveness of those plans, to identify when plans must be modified and in what ways they should be changed to achieve their goal. Tommy’s task was as much problem seeking as problem solving. He apparently wondered what it meant to be 80 years old. He framed it as a question of growth. Tommy’s inference may be due to his failure to attend to the ways in which age and growth vary in his everyday experience. As he mulled over the relation of age and growth in working memory his information may have been limited or inaccurate. Or he may not have encoded the fact that his empirical experiences do not sustain a belief that there is linear relation between the two. In all likelihood, if he had been introduced to the woman, he would not have been surprised that she was not a giant; rather he may have turned his attention to other inferences on the implication of being 80 years old.


Why Do We Develop Cognitive Capabilities the Way We Do?

Those engaged in analyses of biological and psychological development have moved away from the proposition that organisms emerge from the interaction of nature and nurture or, more specifically, genetic material and environments. For a variety of reasons, various forms of developmental systems theory have replaced this two-factor account (Gottlieb, 2003). Psychologists have recoiled from the implication that psychological functioning is the epigenetic product of the joint action of biological systems and the environments that embrace these systems. This explanatory system discredits, if not ignores, the role individual humans play in shaping their physical and social worlds, especially their proximal worlds. In the main, psychologists align themselves with Meacham’s (2004) triadic model of human functioning and development; that is, psychological activity entails the coaction of biology, environment, and self. The critical theoretical point of this position is that cognitive activity, as an aspect of self, works in consort with biological and environmental systems to form a developing system. More specifically, this dynamic view rejects the possibility that neither our biology nor our environments is a set of fixed and enduring constraints on cognitive activity and its development.

Focusing on cognition is conceptually risky because that isolates it from the biological and environmental aspects of developing systems. The advantage is to allow us to view the nature of cognition and the form of its development that dominates thought in contemporary cognitive development. Within this narrow view, the parameters of agency as determinates of change emerge vividly. For example, Piaget’s theory emphasizes the constructive nature of cognitive activity. Cognitive activity both constructs our everyday conscious experience of knowing, or being bewildered, as well as reconstructing our underlying structures of thought. Within Biology and Knowledge Piaget (1971) suggests that cognitive activity rewrites biological activity. On one hand this view anticipates Fischer’s hypothesis that psychological and biological activity develop in parallel. However, Fischer is more cautious than Piaget; he leaves open the question of how these systems mutually constrain paths of development.

Those adopting a metaphysical approach or information-processing approach to cognition suggest a different relation between psychology and biology. In the main, they hypothesize that cognitive systems are hard wired. These systems launch development; they do not set limits on its paths or extent. Rather, consistent with the triadic view, these seminal systems regulate the way infants act as they are socially engaged, as they respond to changes in stimulation, and how they partition their world in the physical, biological, and psychological kinds. Because the hard wiring is a biological system, it develops as well, changing as infants engage their worlds and as their world responds to them or draws them out.

Thus far in the discussion the social worlds of children have not been examined formally, much less the dynamic relation of child and society. Informally, they have been evident in the hypothetical exchanges between Tommy and inquiring epistemologists, metaphysicians, and information processors. In each case, Tommy’s inference provoked hypotheses about why Tommy came to his conclusion and questions about how to proceed to gain evidence pertinent of those hypotheses. These exchanges are structured both by how Tommy thinks and what we think about that thinking. At a practical level, which theoretical perspective adopted by the adult interlocutor is not critical; that the interlocutor has a perspective is critical because it structures the exchange and the potential path of the child’s development. Structured exchanges between an adult and a child need not be an imposition of the elder’s beliefs onto the child’s. Rather, by encouraging and assisting children to ask good questions (Forman, 1989), the adult nudges and even urges the child to become an active thinker, and move to a new level of understanding (Fischer, 2006).

Too frequently, developmental psychologists have been content with the claim that “context matters.” Yet a growing number of researchers now believe that context is not captured adequately by differentiating, for example, cultures into collectivistic or individualistic; or social institutions, like schools, into demographically separate rural, suburban or urban; or social agents like teachers in terms of years of training. More useful information would be to know how these sociological distinctions translate into different opportunities for thinking and learning. Addressing this challenge transforms the importance of “context” as essential to the triadic system of development, to the importance of a decidedly richer construct, culture. Psychologists have begun to embrace the notion by adopting a sociocultural perspective. Culture, unlike context, cannot be reduced to something out there or something that contains the child. Rather, it is socially constructed and experienced through our participation. Within this view, cognition is viewed as an interpersonal activity. Returning to our example of Tommy, a sociocultural theorist would say that he is engaged in thinking through conversation with Art Linkletter and that conversation is mediated by language, the primary cultural tool for thinking (Rogoff, 2003). There are different conventions for conversations with preschool children from those characteristic of conversations with older children and these differences are often justified in terms of developmental appropriateness. However, views of when it is appropriate to talk about growth and aging, for example, mediate the opportunities for children to participate in conversations and also structure and delimit opportunities for children to think about human development.

Clearly if we construe cognition as a sociocultural activity, we are moving cognition from an intrapersonal accomplishment and activity to a psychological function that is socially distributed. Tommy’s knowledge involves more than an inference about the relation between age and growth. In all likelihood he is aware of this relationship not simply by taking note that older people are taller than he is, but because older people tell him how important this relationship is when they observe, “Tommy, you have grown so much since I last saw you;” or when remarking, “You are so big for a five-year-old!” Tommy learns that height is important and the conversations with him about age give him ways, or symbolic frameworks, of expressing the relation between growth and time or age.

Wedding a sociocultural perspective with those of cognitive development has practical implications and value. Theories of cognitive development are, themselves, culturally constructed and valued within the subculture of developmental psychologists. Scholars have their own kinds of conversations about cognition. They value these conversations and the ways in which they act to demonstrate the validity of claims made by each interlocutor, each theorist. In that sense they inform each other and sustain their culture. However, what is regarded as a theory within one society may be viewed as a tool within another; for example, a society of educators who are committed to the development of thinking. These tools shape the conversations we have with and about children. We ask very different questions when we are trying to guide children to think about how they know in contrast to the sorts of questions asked when we expect them to explain their own theories about biology, psychology, religion, society, and the world around them.

There is much more to development through guided participation as emphasized in the sociocultural perspective, but for the purpose of discussing cognitive development within the triadic developmental system, this brief review highlights the complexities of conceptualizing the environmental element of that triad. Cognitive developmentalists who heed the value of this approach must heed the warning that their epistemological trajectories and their metaphysical ontological categories may not be universal. This warning does not deny that there are universal characteristics to cognition, it only alerts us to the need to hold that idea as a hypothesis to be tested both across cultures with different languages and customs as well as within pluralistic societies where languages, customs, and values overlap or are shared. Further, theorists who adhere to each of the perspectives described in this essay must be aware of the strengths and weaknesses of all theories, not just their own. In this sense, developmentalists, and also the reader of this entry, might interpret genetic epistemology, domain theory, metaphysical theory, information processing, and sociocultural theory as complimentary to one another. As such, theorists, researchers, teachers, and the like would understand that each of these theories lends a great deal to the present and future field of cognitive development. See also Development, Language; Developmentally Appropriate Practice(s); Sociocultural Theory.

Further Readings: Birney, D. P., J. H. Citron-Pousty, D. J. Lutz, and R. J. Sternberg (2005). The development of cognitive and intellectual abilities. In M. H. Bornstein and M. E. Lamb, eds. Developmental science: An advanced textbook, 5th ed. Mahwah, NJ: Erlbaum; Carey, S., and E. Spelke (1994). Domain-specific knowledge and conceptual change. In L. A. Hirschfeld and S. A. Gelman, eds. Mapping the mind: Domain specificity in cognition and culture. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, pp. 169-200; Case, R. (1992). The mind’s staircase. Hillsdale, NJ: Erlbaum; Fischer, K. W. (2006). Dynamic cycles of cognitive and brain development: Measuring growth in mind, brain, and education. In A. M. Battro and K. W. Fischer, eds. The educated brain. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press; Forman, G. (1989). Helping children ask good questions. In B. Neugebauer, ed. The wonder of it: Exploring how the world works. Washington, DC: Exchange Press, pp. 21-24; Gelman, R., and K. Brenneman (1994). First principles can support both universal and culture-specific learning about number and music. In L. A. Hirschfeld and S. A. Gelman, eds. Mapping the mind: Domain specificity in cognition and culture. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, pp. 369-390; Gottlieb, G. (2003). On making behavioral genetics truly developmental. Human Development 46, 337-355; Hirsch feld, L.A. (1994). Is the acquisition of social categories based on domain-specific competence or on knowledge transfer? In L. A. Hirschfeld and S. A. Gelman, eds. Mapping the mind: Domain specificity in cognition and culture. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, pp. 201-233; Meacham, J. A. (2004). Action, voice, and identity in children’s lives. In P. B. Pufall and R. P. Unsworth, eds. Rethinking childhood. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, pp. 69-84; Piaget, J. (1966). Origins of intelligence in children. New York: International Universities Press; Piaget, J. (1971). Biology and knowledge. Chicago: University of Chicago Press; Rogoff, B. (2003). The cultural nature of human development. New York: Oxford University Press; Shonkoff, J. P., and Phillips, D. A., eds. (2000). From neurons to neighborhoods: the science of early childhood development. Washington, DC: National Academy Press.

Peter B. Pufall and Elizabeth S. Pufall