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A Systematic Study of Cognitive Development by Jean Piaget

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Jean Piaget was the first psychologist to make a systematic study of cognitive development. Some of his contributions comprise of detailed observational studies of cognition in children, a stage theory of child cognitive development and a series of simple but insightful tests to reveal various cognitive abilities. Piaget (1936) explains how in his theory of cognitive development, a child constructs a mental model of the world around them. He regarded cognitive development as a process that occurs due to biological malnutrition and lack of interaction with the surrounding environment and so disagreed with the idea that intelligence is a fixed trait.

In the 1920s Piaget worked for the Binet Institute where he was responsible for creating French versions of questions in English intelligence tests. He became intrigued with the reasoning that the children gave when they answered a question incorrectly that required logical thinking. He further believed that that the incorrect answers revealed important differences between the thinking of adults and children. Piaget wanted to research how the fundamental concepts such as the idea of time, number, causality, quantity and justice etc. emerged. Before Piaget, there was the common assumption in psychology that children were merely less competent thinkers than adults.

However, Piaget brought out into the open that young children think in strikingly different ways compared to adults. The goal of this theory is to give an explanation to the mechanisms and processes by which the infant, followed by the child, develop into an individual that is able to reason and think by using hypotheses. In Piaget’s eyes, cognitive development was a progressive reorganisation of mental processes, which were a result of biological maturation and environmental experience. Children are able to create an understanding of the world around them and furthermore experience its inconsistencies between what they already know and what they uncover in their environment (McLeod, 2015). This theory differs from others in a number of different ways. It is concerned with children, rather than all learners, with a focus on development, which means it does not address the learning of information or specific behaviours.

The theory proposes discrete stages of development that is marked by qualitative differences compared to a gradual increase in number and complexity of behaviours, concepts and ideas etc. Piaget (1952) defined a schema as ” a cohesive, repeatable action sequence possessing component actions that are tightly interconnected and governed by a core meaning”. To simplify, Piaget described schemas as the building block of intelligent behaviour y being a form of organising knowledge. Wadsworth (2004) suggested that schemata should be thought of as ‘index cards’ that are filed in the brain and each one tells an individual how to react to incoming information or stimuli. In talking about the development of an individual’s mental processes, Piaget was pertaining to the increase in the complexity and amount of the schema than an individual had learnt.

It was emphasised by Piaget the importance of schemas in cognitive development and how they are either acquired or developed. The best way to describe a schema is as a set of linked representations of the world, which individuals use to understand and respond to situations. There is the assumption that individuals store these mental representations and apply them when needed. An example of having schema would be when an individual goes to a restaurant where the schema is stored in the form of a pattern where the individual looks at the menu, orders the food, eats it and then pays the bill. This type of schema is called a ‘script’ and so whenever the individual is in a restaurant they will retrieve this schema from memory and apply it to the situation.

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