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Discuss Piaget's theory of cognitive development

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Introduction

Discuss Piaget's theory of cognitive development (9+16 marks) The first comprehensive theory detailing cognitive development in children was proposed by Jean Piaget. His theory is inherently biological in approach, i.e. mainly a consequence of maturation and development of innate structures. Piaget suggested that intelligence depends on these innate structures being able to acquire and store knowledge. He was interested in how children learn and adapt to the world, suggesting for adaptation to occur, there must be constant interaction between the child and the world. This happens through the two key processes of accommodation and assimilation. Whereby the individual adjusts to the environment by using existing schemas, assimilation, or creates new schemas because new information cannot be assimilated, accommodation. Piaget's theory consists of four main stages of cognitive development, which he states all children pass through. In regard to testing this stage theory, he was sceptical about the value of the typical experimental approach based on strict use of methods. Instead, he preferred a less structured and formal approach.

Middle

However, this is challenged by Wheldall and Poborca (1980) who argue that children possess more knowledge of conservation than seemed to be the case in Piaget's liquid conservation studies. They claim children often fail on the task because they don't fully understand the question; accordingly they created their own non-verbal test and found 50% of children showed conservation. Piaget studied egocentrism in the pre-operational stage by using the three mountains task. Children were shown a model from one angle, then shown photographs from other viewpoints, and asked to choose which view someone standing at the other labelled points would see. Pre-operational children usually selected the view from the point at which they were looking themselves. According to Piaget, this error occurred because young children can't escape from an egocentric perspective. However Hughes argued children in fact performed poorly because the task doesn't relate to their experience. He constructed his own version of the experiment which involved a boy doll and two policemen dolls, and found that 90% of children tested performed the task successfully.

Conclusion

Therefore, the cognitive abilities associated with formal thought resemble those assessed by traditional intelligence tests. General criticisms of Piaget's theory surround his use of methodology. He was fond of using case studies, where an individual was studied in great depth. This provides rich information about that particular child but is very subjective in its content, therefore cannot be generalised to entire population. This is an important point as Piaget claims that every child passes through the same stages, which are based on innate structures and therefore are present in everyone. Furthermore, Piaget often observed the behaviour of children, namely his own. This has obvious methodological setbacks, primarily lacking in representativeness and highly questionable as to be free from bias. On the other hand he sometimes used cross-sectional studies i.e. used groups of children from varying ages and compared them on the same task to judge performance. This could be seen as a positive use of qualitative methods, as performance can be directly compared to variation of age groups, although negative aspects concerning sample size and representation can still apply.

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