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Developmental psychology

Developmental psychology is a field in which there are many conflicting opinions and theories. Fore example the theories of Piaget (1897-1980) to this day remain an area of great ambiguity and discussion amongst psychologists. However, no one can deny that Piaget’s theory was revolutionary of its time and changed the traditional view of the child as passive, therefore stimulating an enormous amount of research. Although this research later proved much of Piaget’s theories to be incorrect, unclear or incomplete. The essence of Piaget’s theory can be divided into a biological approach and a structural approach.

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Piaget was first and foremost a biologist and his conclusions in this aspect were that cognitive development is mainly a consequence of maturation. On the other hand his structural approach holds the theory that intelligence is a matter of inherent structures for acquiring and holding knowledge. On top of these two themes Piaget also that there were qualitative differences between child and adult thinking and that language was the outcome of a generalised cognitive ability. Piaget’s theory of genetic epistemology asserts that cognitive development is mainly a consequence of maturation.

At the centre of Piaget’s theory is his model of what he believed to be four stages in cognitive development, which all children pass through invariantly. Sensorimotor (0-2 years) is the name given to the first of these four stages; during which the child learns to master its movements and understand physical impact on its immediate surroundings. It is also marks the start of language and symbolic thought. Piaget believed that during the first few months a child’s mental life consists of nothing more than a “succession of transient, disconnected sensory impressions and motor reactions. There is no differentiation between ‘me’ and ‘not me’.

” (Gleitman) Piaget’s experimentations, involving hiding an object from a child, proved also that lack of object permanence was also evident at this stage; therefore when an object can no longer be seen it ceases to exist in the mind of a child at this stage. However it has now been suggested that such experiments might have confused the children, namely his object permanence experiment which was proved by Bower and Wishart (1972). With the modern use of infra-red light they proved that if a baby is watched after the lights have been turned out they found that the baby continues to look for the object.

Thus proving that how an object is made to disappear greatly affects the child’s response. Therefore Piaget’s conclusion of ‘out of sight, out of mind’ may not be entirely valid. The Pre-operational stage (2-7 years) follows and it is here that the child starts to organise mental representations e. g. signs and symbols, although concepts are not fully formed and there are no logical principles or operations. Piaget’s tumbler experiment proved that they are unable to conserve quantity and therefore lack abstract thoughts.

Anther feature of this stage is egocentrism due to the child’s belief that how they view the world is how the world is. They are therefore unable to appreciate that an adult might view the world differently. From seven to eleven the child is in the Concrete Operational stage, during which a more adult-like thought develops with a growing sense of relativism and a decline in egocentrism, however they are still intellectually limited. Although able to contemplate concrete events they lack the ability to think abstractly and therefore hypothetically which means that transitivity tasks are only solved with the use of objects.

The final stage is Formal Operations (11 +) where the child supposedly reaches the final stage of development and uses formal logic and abstract thought. However Dasen has argued that only one third of adolescents and adults achieve concrete operations. This is also depends greatly on where that child is from and cultural influences. For example those living in developing countries do not obtain such a high level of mental processing as it is not necessary to their simple lives and therefore never develops past its sufficient stage. Also in their culture’s perhaps Piaget’s stages of development is not a typical mode of thought.

According to Segall et al. (1999) it might be more accurate to argue that formal operational thinking is not what is valued in all cultures. However Piaget claimed his theory and model for development was universal and the only exceptions were those who were brain damaged, this can therefore be seen as quite a dated and narrow-minded theory. With regard to the conflicting arguments concerning developmental and non developmental psychology, Piaget regarded developmental changes in behaviour as essential. He therefore also believed that there were qualitative differences between child and adult thinking.

This suggests that there are variant cognitive structures which develop with age, such as schema and operations. The schema is a cognitive representation of objects and activities which the child is born with, for example grasping schema. Although Piaget also found there to be invariant cognitive structures, which means the process of adaptation remains the same throughout life. These include assimilation and accommodation. Assimilation is when a new object or idea is understood through existing schema and therefore assimilated to suit that existing schema. Accommodation is where schema is adapted to fit new situations and information.

However if existing schema are inadequate then a state of disequilibrium occurs therefore forcing a person to create new schema and thus ensuring cognitive development. Piaget also observed that not all aspects of the same stage appear at the same time which is probably due to different learning experiences this he called horizontal decalage. The argument of nature against nurture is one of the most important arguments when considering developmental psychology. However both nature and nurture are inexorably linked when it comes to cognitive learning, as a child cannot build new and complicated schema without interacting with the environment.

Many psychologists hold the view that a child is born with a tabula rasa which is later filled through learning and experience(nurture), but Piaget’s theory was that from birth all children go through the four stages of development as their genes are coded to do so(nature). It therefore assumed that influences if external factors such as social and economic were minimal, his empirical evidence was later greatly criticised for this. However anyone who holds one view on the conflicting issues of nature versus nurture is essentially wrong as intelligence can only be formed by both genetic and environmental influences.

Piaget’s theory was ground-breaking in its attitude to children not being passive but active. The traditional view was that children were passive and therefore shaped and only motivated by powerful influences for example the mechanical mirror view that every organism reflects their environment (Langer). Contradictorily to this idea Piaget believed that it is the child itself who is motivated to learn which is evident when disequilibrium occurs in cognitive development. “Central to a Piagetian perspective is the notion that children learn from action and activity rather than passive observation.

” (Smith et al. 1998) It can therefore be said that a child seeks stimulation to observe, manipulate and test in order to find things out. Miller also backs up this view by claiming that “experience is always filtered through child’s current ways of understanding. ” (Miller 1983) This has greatly affected the way of teaching, especially in primary schools, to ensure maximum cognitive development. There have obviously been many criticisms to Piaget’s theories which continue today, especially concerning his empirical evidence which is viewed by many to be lacking and bias.

Research has proved that children may develop cognitive structures much earlier than Piaget predicted; Bower (1981) proved that 5-6 month old babies show surprise if an object is hidden behind a screen and then disappears when the screen is lifted. It can therefore be said that Piaget’s approach underestimated the abilities of babies. It has also been claimed that Piaget’s experiments were open to bias and not rigidly examined by a third party. Since one of the main characteristics that we can be sure of in a child is an aim to please, perhaps they responded unnaturally to demand characteristic.

Possibly the biggest criticism of Piaget was that he only based his studies on a very small group of children and did not take into account at all cultural and social influences. Byrant and Trabasso (1971) showed, through training children that failure in transitive inference tasks could be due to memory failure as opposed to Piaget’s view that it was a lack of ability. Putting aside the critique which has arose from Piaget’s work it cannot be denied that his ideas and theories were ground breaking and his work has been and continues to be greatly influential on psychologists.

Piaget’s theory was the first all-inclusive account of cognitive development. Although he underestimated children’s early logical abilities and overestimated at later stages, his evidence often lacked scientific rigour and he failed to take many other influences into account which has put his work into question, for it’s time his theory has inspired many psychologists and removed the idea that children were passive which has forever changed the way of teaching.

There is still much respect for Piaget’s theories, although riddled with these inaccuracies, “Piaget’s theory sets the agenda for most research in this area for the past thirty years and still serves as a kind of scaffolding for much of our thinking about thinking” (Bee 2000).

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