In recent years, researchers have developed procedures involving modeling and imitation to test what children understand. With infants, they use non-verbal techniques, including monitoring of heart rate, head turning, reaching and, most importantly, looking. Technology, also, has been important in the study of cognitive growth. Eye-movement cameras, video recorders and computers have made much of this study possible. Despite these advances, researchers are still unable to precisely determine any particular child’s knowledge or abilities. This is because competence is complex, occurring in different ways and to different degrees. Children’s competence in cognition grows as they gain in the ability to use thinking skills across many content areas and to make adjustments in thinking as required in these different areas. Researchers report that, to be efficient, some cognitive skills need to become increasingly automatic, while others are more effective when individuals become consciously aware of them and can reflect on and discuss them.
Surprisingly, most of what has been discovered about cognitive development was unexpected. Children know both more and less than scientists thought. John H. Flavell, Stanford University, reports that remarkable competencies have been discovered in infants, for example. At the same time, however, researchers have founhd that children at certain ages have not acquired some skills or concepts they had been assumed to possess.
The little scientist
Researchers have come to believe that children do not passively absorb all that they are exposed to in their environment. Rather, they are active, constructive thinkers and learners. They use whatever level of cognitive structures and processing strategies they’ve acquired to select from their environment what is meaningful to them and transform it in accordance with their current abilities and understanding. Essentially, developmental researchers have come to accept Piaget’s idea that children’s cognitive structures dictate both what they notice in their environment and how they interpret it.
Much cognitive development appears to be self-motivated. In other words, children manufacture their own development by actively seeking knowledge, developing theories about the world, and continually testing and refining these theories. They do this spontaneously by performing thought and action experiments. Their knowledge may be incomplete and their logic faulty, but, like little scientists, they are continually trying to understand the world.
Changing our estimates of competence
Infants and children now seem more competent than previously thought, while adults appear less competent. Recent research indicates that infants can perceptually discriminate most speech sounds, small numbers of objects, and the difference between causal and noncausal events. They can also understand some basic properties of objects, such as distinguishing between animate and inanimate objects, and can imitate facial expressions, form concepts and categories and recall past events. Research indicates that there is greater continuity between infants’ and children’s capabilities than previously thought.
On the other hand, adult cognition is less developmentally advanced than we had assumed. It appears that, without training, high school and college students can rarely solve Piagetian formal-operations tasks. In addition, cognitive researchers have exposed a lot of naive and irrational aspects of adult thinking.
General stages in cognitive development
There appear to be important general properties of development, but most contemporary developmentalists agree that cognitive development is not as stagelike as previously believed. However, it is still assumed that there is a regular, probably maturation-based increase with age in the speed and efficiency with which children process information. This increase in capacity to process information makes possible more complex forms of cognition in all areas because it enables an individual to hold in mind and think about more things at once. This improves cognitive functioning in general and accounts for similarities in functioning across skill or content areas. However, many researchers argue that children often function at much higher developmental levels in some content areas because they have acquired expertise in that area through practice and experience. In these areas of expertise, children may be able to solve many problems by memory rather than by complex reasoning because they recognize familiar patterns.
In addition, there appears to be areas in which humans have special “biologically natural” knowledge, the most fundamental and well understood of which is language. Humans have evolved very powerful mechanisms dedicated to extracting grammatical knowledge about language. It appears that the young infant has an innate ability to discriminate subtle differences in speech sounds.
Mechanisms of development
Despite recent discoveries about what children know, researchers find it difficult to explain how cognitive development occurs. It’s possible that knowledge and cognitive development in different areas may occur in different ways. Some types of cognitive development may be more closely linked to the maturation of neural systems in the brain than others. Some development seems to be sequential, becoming increasingly sophisticated as an understanding of certain concepts grows, while the growth of other kinds of knowledge may be less sequentially structured.
Researchers stress that cognitive development is not completely situated within the child; activities and people in the child’s environment play a critical role in cognitive development. Children can learn through a process of guided participation when other people within their environment provide help tailored to the child’s current level of understanding and skill.
Recent trends in the study of cognitive development have highlighted “the cognitive competencies of young children… the cognitive shortcomings of adults and the cognitive inconsistencies of both.” Importantly, Flavell writes that some of what researchers are learning about cognitive development is being used to help children increase academic achievement by improving such things as their comprehension-monitoring activities during reading.
“Cognitive Development: Past, Present and Future” Developmental Psychology, November 1992, Volume 28, Number 6, pp. 998-1005.
Published in ERN January/February 1993, Volume 6, Number 1.