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Cognitive Development Theory

The development of thought processes and the various points of view regarding the manners in which they occur in a growing infant, child, adolescent, and into adulthood are known as cognitive development theories. Mastering skills such as problem-solving, memory, intelligence, development of language, and making decisions all are involved in cognitive development. This paper will discuss basic elements of cognitive development theory, and will compare the formulations of Jean Piaget and Jerome Bruner regarding this area of human development.

Originally, it was thought that infants did not have the capacity to think, or engage in complex formulation of ideas until they were able to speak. Gradually, it became clear that babies begin to explore from the time they are born and are acutely aware of their surroundings (Cognitive Development, 2011.) The way a person experiences the world, his or her environment, thinks and comes to understand that environment are all parts of cognitive development.

According to Piaget, the development of intelligence derives from an infant's basic reflexes and a collection of innate qualities that are grounded in past experiences and can be used in the development of future experiences. These abilities become more complex through the processes of accommodation and assimilation; assimilation is incorporating new ideas and information into existing foundations, and accommodation is when new information is assimilated, thus changing the foundation (Mynard.) Originally, the child's cognitive development is based on actions, but later is based more on mental processes. As a result of assimilation and accommodation, the child's intellectual capacities develop as it is able to incorporate new information. The development of intelligence, according to Piaget, combines natural givens with environmental influences. . He viewed the development of cognition as being based on mastering a series of phases or steps, each one of which needs to be completed before moving onto the next stage.

Jerome Bruner shares many of Piaget's views regarding cognitive development, and, like Piaget, he viewed the infant as progressing cognitively through developing the process of thinking. He felt that children are pre-adapted to learning, like Piaget, that they have a natural curiosity and that their cognitive development occurs over time (Mcleod, 2008.) However, unlike Piaget,, Bruner believed that the development of intellect results from a continuous process, rather than a series of stages. He believed that what determines the ability to develop intellectually is the amount of appropriate instruction given to the child, combined with practice or experience. In his view, the correct manner of explanation and delivery of information to a child will allow him or her to understand an idea that is typically only comprehended by an adult. His point of view emphasizes the importance of education and adults in the development of the child's intellect. (Mcleod, 2008.) To Bruner, some of the most important results of learning and intellectual development involve not only the culturally developed ideas, categories, and problem-solving methods, but a child's ability to create those things for himself.

Bruner and Piaget differ significantly in their viewpoints about whether or not there are certain stages of cognitive development that need to be mastered for each person. Although Bruner acknowledges that there are different stages of cognitive development, his view of them is different from Piaget's: rather than representing different and distinct manners of thought at various points of development, he envisions a gradual development of cognitive skills and abilities that transform into more integrated adult cognitive abilities (Mcleod, 2008.) Piaget, on the other hand, delineates four distinct stages of cognitive development, each one of which must be mastered before the next stage can be approached: the sensorimotor stage, from birth to two years old, in which the child is able to separate himself or herself from objects, and develops object constancy; the preoperational stage, from ages 2 to 7 years of age, in which the child begins to use language, learns to represent objects by both images and words, and is characterized by egocentric thinking; the concrete operational stage, ages 7 to 11 years of age, in which the child is able to think rationally about objects and events, and is able to group things together by common characteristics, such as size, gender, and color; and the formal operational stage, from 11 years and older, in which the child is able to think in the abstract, test out ideas hypothetically, and becomes interested in and troubled by the future and various current and ideological issues such as war and peace, death and illness, and other unknowns (Mynard.)

As stated previously, Bruner sees the cognitive development unfolding gradually, rather than requiring the completion of stages, each in succession, and mastered before moving onto the next stage of cognition.
An extremely significant aspect of Piaget's cognitive development theory to apply to the classroom would involve the development of morality: during the concrete operational stage, the child learns that there are rules which guide behavior, and that the world does not consist entirely and only of that child's needs and desires. The applicability to the classroom setting of this theory would involve students’ ability to follow academic standards, rules, and participate in classroom settings that take into account the other students and the need to share the time and space with the others in a classroom. The egocentrism that characterizes the young child can no longer be acceptable in an environment where there are many others to consider, whose words and actions are a relevant part of the learning experience rather than simply focusing on the child's own wishes.

Jerome Bruner's work emphasizes the ability of any learner, even those who are very young, to master any material as long as the material is organized appropriately and consistent with that learner’s abilities, as opposed to Piaget's belief that there are proscribed stages in which certain learning is appropriate and bound to be successful. Bruner was a tremendous proponent of "discovery learning," which refers to the process of obtaining knowledge through the actions and abilities of oneself (Program Goal II, 2011.) Often, this form of education happens through structured activities that ask students to investigate and look into materials that may cause them to discover significant standards or connections. Therefore, rather than being given the concept concretely, the students are encouraged to develop them on their own. Discovery learning happens when in the classroom, participants contribute their own perspective to learning based on their own situations and background knowledge. In addition, Bruner's discovery learning concept acknowledges that helping students to rethink their misconceptions is an essential part of the learning process (Program Goals II, 2011.)