Cognitive development theory - relationships and social interaction
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Cognitive development theory

By Charlie Lewis and , Jeremy I. M. Carpendale and , | October 2018 

Modern cognitive development theory emphasises relationships, seeing social interaction as the crucible in which children’s cognitive development takes place.

Cognitive development theory: a relational approach

To take a modern approach to cognitive development theory it is important to emphasise relationships, and view social interaction as the crucible in which children’s cognitive development takes place. In other words, the mind forms through being part of and contributing to social interaction, a process charged by emotion. Growing up within families provides for a long period of intense social interaction.

(Other cognitive development theories include “nativist” approaches that regard the mind as having innate abilities, growing rather like a tree does from a seed, and “empiricist” approaches that focus only on the factors that act on the mind to form it, rather than also on how the mind influences those factors.)

A relational approach can be illustrated with Donald Winnicott’s memorable quotation from 1964: “there is no such thing as a baby”. What he meant was that a baby is embedded in a complex web of interactions with others, to the extent that the boundary between the baby and parent is no longer distinct. This theory of cognitive development sees the baby and parent shaping each other’s neurological development. Babies don’t just engage with their surroundings, they influence and shape the environment in which they learn skills. Even basic gestures such as smiling emerge through a process of development.

The relational theory of cognitive development encompasses the wider societal level: the person and culture are co-created like parent and child. A person becomes a member of society by engaging in routines, traditions, rituals, and the use of objects and symbols, including language. The person both grows as part of the culture and forms the culture with others.

Nowadays, the dominant theory of cognitive development is termed “process-relational”.

Where does the biology stop and the social start? The nature/nurture argument does not apply in this worldview. For example, social experience has now been shown to influence the way genes are expressed, through epigenetic changes. DNA is the source material and is fixed, but how it is expressed can be changed by experience. This has generated a whole new branch of research, social genomics: the study of how social experience shapes gene expression.

The father of cognitive development theory: Jean Piaget

Jean Piaget (1896-1980) has had a monumental impact on cognitive development theory. Piaget proposed a developmental theory based on the view of development known as “constructivism.” That is, we come to know the world through acting on it. He wrote that, “In order to know objects, the subject must act upon them and, therefore, transform them.”

Piaget argued that babies and children learn about the world through their action on the world. In this process they develop patterns of interaction involving emotions, sensations, motor movements, and perception, known as “schemes”. Once a scheme begins to develop through particular interactions, it will be extended in slightly different situations. That is, the child assimilates new experiences to what she has previously learned, but since the experience will be different, the scheme will be modified or accommodated. Repeated many times, this process results in cognitive development.

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Piaget was interested in the stage-by-stage sequence of development that all children go through, each stage providing the foundation for the next. Through extraordinarily detailed observations of children, including his own three, he proposed four stages:

  • Sensorimotor stage (during the first two years): a stage in which babies develop action schemes like sucking, pushing, hitting and grasping.
  • Pre-operational stage (between two and seven years): the child develops the ability to think, but has limited ability to apply logic to a situation to deduce something by thought alone.
  • Concrete operational stage (between seven and 11 years): the child starts working things out through logical thought, rather than just action.
  • Formal operational stage (12-15 years): the child engages in systematic experimentation, forming hypotheses, testing them out and trying alternatives.

Sociogenesis theory of cognitive development: Lev Vygotsky

Another 20th century giant of child development theory, Lev Vygotsky, is commonly regarded as the originator of the idea that the mind forms through social processes. In fact, the idea predates him considerably, but he articulated it and developed it into a major influence on the modern science of child development, a remarkable feat since he only spent 11 years working on it, moving from work on art and literature when he was 27 and tragically dying when he was only 38.

According to Vygotsky, all higher mental functions occur twice, first between people in social interaction, then within the person’s mind. In this way, he said, social interactions form the mind, they don’t just influence a process already in motion like watering a seed to grow into a plant.

A key tenet of cognitive development theory is Vygotsky’s “zone of proximal development”. This follows from his idea that thinking is first social before becoming mastered by an individual.  In the process of developing a new way of thinking there is a gap between what children can achieve alone and what they can achieve with the assistance of others. Two children may appear to be at the same level of development, but with help, one may be capable of more than the other. They differ in their ability to master a new way of thinking.

The key to cognitive development, according to Vygotsky, is the help that the more experienced adult gives the child to grow within this zone.

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Vygotsky introduced the idea of “elementary” and “higher” mental functions. Elementary functions are products of evolution and biologically explained. They include involuntary attention and the ability to make simple connections between events. In contrast, higher mental functions emerge through social interactions and culture. These include language, systems of counting, memorising techniques, art, literature, maps, and so on.

Vygotsky paid much attention to how language develops and considered how children talk to themselves. According to his theory of cognitive development, children learn to talk through relationships and conversations and then use speech as a tool for their own thinking, by talking to themselves. This applies equally to hearing children, and sign language used by children who cannot hear. Research has indeed shown that children who interact more with others talk to themselves more when they are alone, and that children who are not allowed to talk to themselves perform less well in cognitive tests.

Later, speech goes “underground” to become inner speech or verbal thought, though it sometimes comes back out during adulthood. For example, when we are working out particularly difficult problems. Vygotsky theorised that children (and adults) use speech when operating in their zone of proximal development, just beyond their level of competence.

How parents can support cognitive development: scaffolding

Cognitive development theory uses a metaphor from the construction industry: scaffolding, a temporary structure around the growing building to assist its construction.

In cognitive development theory, scaffolding gives children a structure to master a skill, after which it becomes redundant. In this context, scaffolding is about supporting children within their zone of proximal development: setting goals, regulating their actions and inhibiting unhelpful responses, organising their actions and selecting strategies. It can be as simple as a series of hints and prompts that are appropriate for the child’s developmental level.

Recently, many researchers have studied scaffolding and its impact on cognitive development when variously applied. Cognitive development advances when scaffolding is applied well and constantly adjusted to the child’s progress.

Piaget versus Vygotsky

Psychologists have tried to work out how Piaget’s and Vygotsky’s contributions to cognitive development theory work together.

In reality, both of them emphasised social interaction to such a degree that even leading experts often can’t read statements from one or the other and be certain of whether it was written by Piaget or Vygotsky.

One way to see a difference is through a thought experiment: What would happen to child development if there were no adults? For Vygotsky, there would be no development, because children cannot move forward out of their zone of proximal development without more expert help. For Piaget, there could be development, albeit not a type to be recommended. Two children interacting with each other could learn more than one child alone.

Executive function: a core concept in cognitive development theory

Put very simply, executive function is a set of mental skills that helps a person gain control over their actions and thoughts. Scientists have identified four components:

  1. Working memory – the ability to hold information and recall it when carrying out a task.
  2. Inhibitory control – suppressing initial impulses in favour of more rational action.
  3. Attentional flexibility – changing from one way of solving a problem to another.
  4. Planning – using all the skills above, creating a strategy to get a task done.

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These skills develop in a sequence. Working memory typically develops in early childhood and improves during preschool and beyond. Inhibitory control and attentional flexibility develop in preschool. Planning skills develop during childhood and adolescence.

Like other cognitive development skills, executive function emerges through social interactions, particularly parental scaffolding that helps children operate effectively in their zone of proximal development. If children are specifically taught executive function skills at an appropriate level relative to their development, their skills improve.

Poverty is a key inhibitor of developing executive function skills. But its negative impacts can be mitigated if the parent-child attachment is secure and if the child has more social interaction, for example, at a daycare facility. Sadly, poverty reduces parental resources and is frequently associated with poorer relationships and more chaos.

Cognitive development theory: the role of language

Unsurprisingly, language ability is critical to the cognitive development that takes place within relationships.

Language develops in a critical early period of a child’s life. Research on feral children and on deaf children raised without sign language shows that they cannot learn normal syntax and morphology.

The first language abilities emerge shortly after birth. Babies will respond more to familiar voices, the language of their families, and books that were read aloud while they were in the womb. One-year-olds can distinguish among speech sounds that adults who have learned particular languages can no longer distinguish.

Babies understand words before speaking them. When they learn to speak in their second year, there is an explosion of understanding and speaking words.

So great is the richness and complexity of what children learn so quickly that some have proposed particular innate skills, beyond just the ability to use language that humans have but other animals don’t. Noam Chomsky has proposed an innate propensity to grasp syntax and proposed a “universal grammar” for human beings. As children develop, he argues, pre-existing on/off switches are triggered, leading the child from the universal grammar to the actual languages they learn.

Proponents of a social cognitive development theory find many problems with this version of nativism. The developmental view, based on Piaget and Vygotsky, is that children learn language through interaction with their parents and others and through learning social routines on which communication is based.

Parents typically modify language for babies and toddlers – a high intonation often called child directed speech. This is often called motherese, though fathers do it too. Parents speak more slowly and more simply (though perhaps not in all cultures). Interestingly, in some contexts, fathers tend to use more complex speech, stretching children more within their zone of proximal development. This might be why a father talking with his child correlates better with later language skills than a mother talking with her child.

Researchers have also found that simply hearing words in their environment makes no difference to their language ability. Instead, children learn words in interactions with parents and carers. Time and again, social interaction is found to lie at the heart of cognitive development.

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