Cognitive Development

I am fascinated with neurological research and cognitive processes (specifically the IP and Constructivist theories), so I was very engaged throughout the readings. I am particularly interested in the amazing neuroplasticity of the brain; we know that the brain is malleable, especially in early development but also throughout the lifespan. One salient piece of research that astounds me is the study by O’Leary and Stanfield (1989). They were able to differentiate neural cells by transplanting neurons of the visual cortex to the parietal lobe, and the resulting switch resulted in those neurons processing somatosensory rather than visual information. This seems to imply strong evidence for the influence of environmental inputs on the developing brain.  Another interesting study by Wiesel and Hubel (1965) stressed the negative effects of early sensory deprivation, this time with cats. Although it seems a little unethical, it does provide strong evidence for the necessity of the type and amount of sensory stimulation and the interactive nature of neurons with experience. Although the research area is controversial, and although this particular research was performed on animals, it may provide valuable implications for our human brain functioning as well. These examples stress the importance of the coaction of factors, especially during sensitive—or critical—prenatal and early postnatal periods of development.

In Application, this information is important for parents, teachers, and counselors, as it reminds us of sensitive periods, during which we must provide the necessary experience dependent stimuli for developing children. By ensuring proper experiences we can hopefully increase the strength of neural connections and support cognitive development! For example, experience dependent conditions help explain the variability in synaptic growth and the individual differences children bring to the classroom. Teachers may be able to expose children to sensory, exploratory, nurturing, or verbal experiences of which they may be deprived in the home. It seems use it or lose it is the case when considering synaptic connections and the effects on the cognitive development of the child.

Despite the extensive research in the area, I am not yet convinced by habituation findings. I do, however, advocate both Piagetian theory and the sociocultural ideas of Vygotsky. I believe that children are active in their construction of knowledge and, although Piaget’s stage theory is controversial to some (and most of his research was with his own children, so generalization may be questioned), from my experience as an educator, I see a general agreement between his ideas and student capabilities in various points in development. I also believe this is part of the reason why students struggle with some of the expected objectives—specifically mathematical concepts—at early stages of development; this also lends support to the domain specific ideas presented in the text.

Although the implication is that students must be intrinsically motivated to learn, it is the responsibility of the teacher (parent, caregiver, etc.) to provide the necessary situations to provoke that motivation and to facilitate learning. This is where I make the connection to Vygotsky’s work. As the video cited, Vygotsky believed that development cannot be separated from social context and language is crucial to mental development. I think the child’s cognitive development occurs as a result of internal constructive thought (through organization and through adaptation) but also by the interaction with others and according to cultural ascriptions to ideas or beliefs within the context of the learning. So, for example, teachers would assist children learn how to use new strategies, such as identifying main ideas in text, through a co-constructive environment; ultimately children will learn to organize and internalize that new information through this social process of interacting with the expert (teacher) who provides scaffolding for the novice (child).

I also can’t dismiss the information processing ideas. In fact, I would consider these as the most essential elements of cognition—if we don’t have the cognitive capacity, or mechanics, to attend, encode, store, and retrieve information, we really can’t construct anything. I like the neo-Piagetian idea of marrying the best components of both Piagetian and Information Processing approaches (Blewitt & Broderick, 2010, p. 184), and I would include Vygotskyian ideas in the marriage as well.

In application, Piaget, Vygotsky, and Information Processing theories are all important, particularly in the educational context. So, to marry all perspectives, teachers should provide students wide a variety of hands on, exploratory experiences in a co-operative learning context, while providing proper scaffolding. Coming back to the example of finding main ideas in text, we can apply theories from all three areas. First, educators should be aware of cognitive mechanics, understanding how to maximize student level of attention and memory for information, without taxing cognitive load. Additionally, it is important to not only understand the development of strategic methods of improving memory, such as elaboration in Levels of Processing Theory, and metacognition. So, questioning and establishing main ideas are two strategies to elaborate, and chunking the text into manageable units is a third strategy, which reduces cognitive load on memory systems. Further, you would scaffold learning through strategic processes, such as highlighting important key terms to identify main ideas, through modeling, thinking out loud, and demonstration, so that students can more easily internalize them. Educators must also be cognizant of a student’s zone of proximal development, to provide instructional support at the appropriate level. So, for example, ensure that the text being examined is on the student’s instructional Lexile level. Further educators must appreciate the individual and cultural differences, as well as students’ prior knowledge in the domain. So, if students lack prior knowledge in a domain, or with cultural ideas expressed in the text, give them some background knowledge before reading the text. Obviously both social context and internal processes are necessary for cognitive development, so, understanding the relationship between these multiple dimensions will help serve students’ in becoming better self-monitors when encountering new contexts.








2 thoughts on “Cognitive Development

  1. Lori,

    Thank you for sharing. I also found the sections on the developing brain and it’s neuroplasticity pretty amazing. I never really thought of the brain being experience-expectant, and the example that you brought up of the kittens really helped me understand the importance of certain stimuli in order to initiate neuron development. I found this video of footage of the original experiment ( ). Thank you for bringing up the importance of teachers (and also counselors) to create an environment that facilitates learning and not to rely only on the intrinsic motivation of children. I also appreciate your comments on INformation Processing, and how it compliments Piaget’s stage theories. I think the addition of Vygotstky’s ideas of inner speech and the effect of culture and society would also make it a better rounded theory. Thank you so much for sharing!

  2. Hi Lori – thank you for your comprehensive post! I like that way you discussed multiple blocks of information, and then related your learnings to how a teacher could apply to the best advantage of the child. I appreciated how you balanced “appropriate scaffolding” and application of cognitive mechanics with being careful not to tax a child’s cognitive load. You actually mentioned this potential of “cognitive overload” twice in you post – so I took notice and reflected. I’m not a teacher, but your post caused me to think about this…I’ve heard my daughter (junior in high school) mention more than once that sometimes in class there’s so much information coming so fast that she unconsciously “turns it off”. I’m guessing that it takes quite a skilled educator to know when too much is too much in order to maximize teaching without causing temporary burn-out. Good luck with your Doctoral pursuit…hmm….maybe the fine line of constructive stimulus vs overload would make for a fine thesis! Neal

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