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Cognitive Development Theory in Children

Educational psychologists have made tremendous attempts to understand and explain human growth and development together with the learning process. Consequently, a number of different theories have been developed with an aim of providing the vast approaches of comprehending how human beings develop and learn. In the teaching career, educational psychology involves the study of the teaching and learning process and the students’ attributes which are directly related to the learning environment (Bruner, 1977). Learners’ individual differences as well as instructional time in school learning are of great concern to an educational psychologist. This paper seeks to describe the basic premises of cognitive development theory and to compare and contrast the views of the French psychologist, Jean Piaget and those of Jerome Bruner, an American psychologist, as far as cognitive development is concerned. It will also focus on the various classroom applications of their approaches.

Cognitive development can be defined as the process of constructing thoughts, which include problem solving skills, remembering, and the ability to make decisions, right from childhood through adolescence to maturity (Cole, 2005). Cognitive development theory has some premises which help in its understanding of the learning process. Cognitive theorists have realized that infants are conscious of their environment and actively engaged in exploring it from the time of birth. They propose that the learning process starts once a child has been born. This is achieved through gathering, sorting, and processing of information from the environment. The data is then used in the development of perception and skills of thinking. Key areas that are central to cognitive development include; processing of information, reasoning ability, intelligence, development of language, and memory development.

There are several ways through which cognitive development in children has been studied. As mentioned earlier in the introduction section, there are several cognitive theorists who have advanced various perspectives of explaining cognitive development.

Jean Piaget (1896-1980) studied cognitive development by observing children interact with their natural environment. His perception of the nature of a child’s cognitive orientation was that of schemas, which is composed of basic units of knowledge required in the organization of previous experiences necessary for the understanding of new learning experiences (Wadsworth, 2003). These basic units are continually being reshaped, according to Piaget, by assimilation and accommodation which are two complementary processes. The process of assimilation refers to the incorporation of new experiences into the already existing schema while accommodation refers to a situation when the schema changes to take in new knowledge. He considered cognitive development as the process of trying to achieve a balance between accommodation and assimilation.

Jerome Bruner, on the other hand proposed that cognitive development involves the construction of new concepts using both past and current knowledge. He said that a child deliberately rely on a cognitive orientation to transform information, formulate hypotheses, and to make relevant decisions. He believed that mental models or schema are responsible for the provision of meaning and in the organization of various experiences that enables individuals to transcend the information provided. Bruner believes that individuals interpret their environment in terms of differences and similarities. Furthermore, he proposed two major modes of thinking; the paradigmatic and narrative modes of thought. Paradigmatic mode occurs where the mind goes beyond particularities to attain an organized, categorical cognitive development while narrative thought involves orderly, action-oriented, and thought driven by details.

Piaget distinguished cognitive development into four main levels (Wadsworth, 2003). The first is the sensorimotor stage which occurs at infancy. This involves all coordinated physical and motoric activities like hearing and seeing. During this stage, the infant advances from simple reflexive actions to the commencement of symbolic thought as this level ends. This stage has six other sub-stages which are distributed from birth through the first two years. The most important accomplishment of this stage is the realization that objects continues to be in place even when they are invisible, cannot be touched or heard.

The preoperational stage is the second one where a new psychological functioning starts. It involves mental processes that are logically insufficient where a child can form image representation by the use of words, images, and illustrations. During this stage, the child is very egocentric and hence cannot take others’ points of view. This stage has two other sub-stages; the symbolic function sub-stage which lasts to age 4 and is characterized by ego-centrism and animism, and the intuitive thought sub-stage occurring at age 4 and 7 during which a child tends to be very inquisitive using the reasoning that is very primitive. Centration emphasizes one characteristic of an object than others while conservation is the realization that the basic properties of an object does not change in appearance. Piaget believes that by age 7 children are still unaware of conservation where they cannot conserve volume, length, area, matter, and number. Learning in this stage, according to Piaget, occurs through imitation and play.

The third is the concrete operational stage between ages 7 and 12. During this stage, a child can use logic in an appropriate manner. Some of the notable processes include; serration, transversibility, classification, decentering, reversibility, conservation and the elimination of egocentrism. Children in this particular level cannot comprehend abstract concepts but rather the concrete events and or objects.

Formal operational stage is the fourth and is characterized by the ability to think in an abstract approach without relying on concrete experiences. It starts at puberty (11 years) through adolescence and adulthood. The development of cognition attains its final form. In this stage, an individual can make rational decisions without the need for concrete objects or events. The person can reason hypothetically and deductively.

Bruner, on the other hand, proposed a different way in which cognition develops in children. His views were quite different from those of Piaget since they are not age dependent but active at all stages of growth. He believed that a child’s pattern of cognitive growth is influenced by environmental and experiential factors. Bruner argued that an individual’s intellect develops systematical from infancy through adolescence to maturity depending on how the mind is put into use (Bruner, 1996). His focus is mainly concerned with the study of human ways of representation of thought like language development.

Jerome Bruner proposed three modes of representing human cognition (Bruner, 1977). First is the enactive mode which strictly involves human motor capabilities in understanding the world. This may be through the use of various tools and physical objects. The second one is the iconic mode which focuses on the use of sensory capacities to understand the world. It involves the use of images and pictures to represent the physical activities. Symbolic mode is the third under which reasoning is of central importance and is exemplified by the use of language. In Bruner’s theories of cognitive development, language plays a key role. He believes that human’s faculty of language is not only a means for representing experiences, but also for changing them. This step of cognitive development also enables an individual to think in abstract terms.

Although the two theorists may have varying explanations, there are some clear similarities on how they view the development of human’s cognition. Both believed that cognitive development occurs in stages, a situation known as discontinuous development. They see a qualitative transformation in what a child is capable of doing with time. That the intellectual capacities develop in a step-by-step manner.

The two approaches to cognitive development have been adopted into the teaching and learning process. Piaget’s theory has influenced the schooling age and teachers have to assess the learner’s stage of development while delivering content. The discovery concept in the teaching-learning process by the provision of opportunities is supported by the Piaget’s theory (Cole, 2005). Another contribution by Piaget is the use of group work in the classroom to breakdown egocentrism. Curriculum developers have also taken into consideration the individual needs and the levels of intellectual capacity of the learners as proposed by Piaget.

Bruner’s theory impacted on the formation of educational policy in America. His view that children are actively involved in the process of solving problems has led to the appreciation of the learner-centered approach to the teaching and learning process. It emphasizes the practical aspect in the learning of anything regardless of its level of difficulty (Bruner, 1996). He also says that the arousal of interest should be a priority in any learning context. Bruner advocated for the use of proper language in the teaching-learning process since language plays a central role in the acquisition of knowledge. Furthermore, he supported the notion that learning should progress from known to unknown, or simpler to more complex content and hence the famous sequencing of curriculum (Bruner, 1977). In the above paragraphs, it is evident that the two theories have some similarities and differences as far as their application in the classroom situation is concerned.

This paper has elaborated on the Piaget’s and Bruner’s theories of cognitive development. It has compared and contrasted their views and applications. We can therefore conclude that both theories help significantly in the understanding of cognitive development in children.


Bruner, J. (1996). Actual minds: Learning possibilities. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Bruner, S. J. (1977). The process of education (2nd ed.). Harvard University Press.

Cole, M. (2005). The Cognitive Development in Children. New York: Worth Publishers.

Wadsworth, B. J. (2003). Piaget’s Theory of Development of Cognition: Foundations of Constructivism (5th ed.).Upper Saddle River, NJ: Allyn & Bacon.

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