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Theories of cognitive development


In psychology, when we talk about cognitive development, the first thing that comes to mind is the name of the greatest precursor of developmental psychology , Jean Piaget . Although Piaget was not the only one who was encouraged to propose theories about development in children, thanks to his experimental research, I can get to analyze the development of knowledge from a very close point of view.

Who was Piaget?

Jean Piaget was a Swiss genetic psychologist and epistemologist . The first to make a systematic study of the acquisition of understanding in children, and who postulated the theory of cognitive development, which shows how children develop intellectually throughout childhood.

Before the theory of cognitive development, it was thought that children simply thought like adults, but Piaget disproved that, showing that the way children think is different from the way adults think.

Piaget’s theory, like Freud’s theory of development , were essential to the emergence of developmental psychology. Piaget and Freud agreed that human development is divided into stages. However, unlike Freud, Piaget did not believe that growth and learning were driven by repressed sexuality. Instead, from his experiments with children, adolescents, and young adults, he learned that as we grow, we gradually incorporate new skills into our cognitive repertoire.

Cognitive development and the maturation process

Jean Piaget’s theory is closely related to the maturation process . There are acquisitions that have to do with maturation achievements that have a time and therefore if they do not occur in those times there is a disorder. These necessary periods in the development of knowledge that go hand in hand with maturational achievements have to do with three pillars of the theory, namely:

  • Contents
  • Structure
  • Function

Content, structure and function

The contents are the raw data of the behavior , that is, it is what we observe and then analyze .

The structure is the way in which the different cognitive achievements are organized . Each period corresponds to a structure, they are like large boxes where the achievements of the subject are deposited. At the moment when the box is filled, the structure is in equilibrium, but as there is a continuity between the structures, it passes to another structure, where the simplest structure, that is, the previous one, is not lost but, on the contrary, is contained in the posterior.

Piaget calls structures organizational properties of knowledge .

The function are functional invariants , on the contrary of the structures and the contents that are changing. The function of the structure is what it is used for.

According to Piaget’s Theory …

Piaget argues that knowledge is a permanent construction of the individual and that it is constructed at the same time that the individual is constructed as a knowing being. It does not build a psychology but an epistemology, where knowledge is built from the action of subjects on objects.

The energy we take from the environment is metabolized and transformed into a substance. The same thing happens with knowledge, from the first movement that the infant makes – the reflex arc – and its repetition, new assimilation schemes are built. The environment in turn gives the individual things that do not serve him and the individual has to adapt to that situation by transforming himself. In this sense, this subject assimilates things in the environment and adapts while transforming.

You may also be interested in:   Neuropsychology: Definition, types and functions

There are functions that remain throughout development, such as adaptation and accommodation, which will vary throughout development. At the beginning, both functions act as if they were one, that is, when the baby cries, assimilation and accommodation are totally generalized.

Throughout the development from the repetition of the action, assimilation and accommodation differ, transforming the action into a new cognitive scheme, habit.

Similarities and differences between the theories of Vygotsky and Piaget

The Russian psychologist Lev Vigotsky in his work “Thought and Language” affirms that  social factors are central elements for the development of thought . Piaget agrees with this and suggests that relationships between individuals modify their mental structures. For this author, social life can transform nature itself.

Piaget and Vygotsky agreed that when talking about child development, great attention should be paid to social factors.

Piaget disagreed with Vygotzky on the nature of the stimulus. For Piaget, the stimulus is not a stimulus until the subject acts on it, whereas for Vygotsky the conditioned and unconditioned responses depend on the action of the environment. In this case, Vygotsky focused on the content of the stimulus, while Piaget focused on the structure of the individual who knows.

Piaget and Vigotzky disagree on the way they analyze development. The first emphasizes the underlying forms of cooperative interaction between people, as it does for the interaction of the individual with objects, and the second emphasizes the content of development.

Sociocultural theory of cognitive development

At the beginning of the 20th century, Lev Vigotzky proposed a theory about development, the Sociocultural Theory of Cognitive Development. This theory began to have an influence when his work was translated into English and the importance of the sociocultural perspective of intercultural development and research was recognized.

The sociocultural theory of cognitive development proposes that children are entrenched by different sociocultural contexts and their cognitive development advances through social interaction with more capable individuals; for example: a sociocultural context could be the child’s home , in which social interaction with important adults, such as parents, plays a crucial factor affecting their learning.

Vigotzky’s theory of education

Vigotzky’s theory specified the need to take into account the fact that the child up to the age of three learns while following his own program and that by school age (approximately 6 years) he can learn according to the wishes of the educator.

In preschool age the child does what he wants, but he wants what the adult who guides him wants. From the age of three, the child is capable of learning as the educator’s program becomes his own program.


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Hello Readers, I am Nikki Bella a Psychology student. I have always been concerned about human behavior and the mental processes that lead us to act and think the way we do. My collaboration as an editor in the psychology area of ​​Well Being Pole has allowed me to investigate further and expand my knowledge in the field of mental health; I have also acquired great knowledge about physical health and well-being, two fundamental bases that are directly related and are part of all mental health.

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