Jean Piaget was the first French psychologist who investigated the process of children’s cognitive development. He argued the idea that children were less clever than adults as it was considered at that time. Piaget tried to prove that it was impossible to compare adults and children in terms of the level of their cognitive abilities because they used different schemes in the thinking process. This psychological theory makes an attempt to explain processes and mechanisms that occur in the infant’s mind during cognition and the ways the child develops his/her inherited cognitive structures into reasoning using various hypotheses.
Piaget allocates three basic components in his theory of cognitive development. It consists of the stage of schemas when a child operates with blocks of knowledge, adaptation processes, and stages of development (concrete operational, formal operational, sensorimotor, and preoperational). The child develops his/her reasoning from object permanence stage to abstract reasoning. The psychologist mentions the age when children usually pass these stages though he writes that it is not universal and some individuals can stay on lower stages of development for their entire life (Piaget, 1936).
It is also necessary to mention that Piaget considered intellectual development to be the process of adaptation to the reality. There are three stages of such adjustment: assimilation, equilibration, and accommodation. During this process, concepts of real world objects and processes acquire new characteristics and become an inseparable part of the child’s understanding of the world.
The theory of cognitive development can be effectively applied in the educational process even though it was not originally created for this. School often becomes a difficult experience for many children, especially during the first years of studying. Students need to organize their schedule themselves and be able to concentrate during lectures. Another problem for many children is interaction with classmates and teachers. New circumstances and people might become stressful for a child and, that is why, he/she might not be able to study well. In addition, all children in the class can be on different stages of cognitive development, regardless of their similar age. This leads to differences in academic performance and lowering of children’s self-esteem.
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I know two families whose 11 year-old sons are studying in the same class, but their cognitive styles are different. The first student is disruptive in class, has problems with concentration and learning disabilities, as well as being active, so it is might be easier for him to switch from one exercise to another. His teachers and parents think that he is not very clever and do not pay much attention to him. Behavior of the second student does not cause problems at school as he is trying to perform above his potential. He has a more systematic learning style comparing to the first student. He always serves as an example the parents of the first child mention in communication with their son.
The parents of the first boy make a serious mistake considering their child to be less clever than their friends’ boy. According to the Piaget’s theory of cognitive development, there are two types of intelligence: figurative and operative. The first student who prefers daydreaming to studying in the classroom is more likely to have the figurative type of intelligence and it is not worse than an operative type of intelligence. Piaget states that biological mental abilities of different people are equal. The distinction becomes evident only in the process of studying. Geary and Bjorklund (2000) write:
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Biologically primary abilities are acquired universally, and children typically have high motivation to perform the tasks involving them. In contrast, biologically secondary abilities are culturally determined, and often-tedious repetition and external motivation are necessary for their mastery. From this perspective, it is understandable that many children have difficulty with reading and higher mathematics. (p. 63)
The process of studying at school refers mostly to the concrete operational stage of cognitive development, which means that all students have to cope with concrete tasks in a concrete way. However, the speed of work in the classroom is the speed of the majority, so both students who are not able to keep up with the tempo and those who are too quick might have problems with the educational process. The first student belongs to the first category and, that is why, he even does not try to work in the classroom (Genovese, 2003).
Impact of professional psychologist’s intervention into the school life of the first student might be serious. He has learning disabilities, does not perform to his potential, and is disruptive in class. He has a short attention span and is often off task. He also prefers daydreaming to assisting in the classroom. All these issues have a negative influence on intellectual and psychological development of the child. Problems with cognition can lead to backwardness in future and it will be more difficult to deal with this problem in teenage years.
The Piaget’s theory of cognitive development shows that all children have equal cognitive abilities. They might be on different stages of cognitive development or they might have various types of intelligence, but they cannot be divided into better and worse students. Perhaps, the first student from the example needs to study according to an individual program, which will take into consideration his traits of character, level of cognitive development and will pay more attention to subjects in which the child is talented. When a child is small and only starts learning, he/she is more perceptive in terms of behavioral correction. However, the process might be easier and more efficient if children receive help from adults and professional psychologists.