Children younger than about 8 months of age do not understand object permanence.
At about 2 years of age, and until about 7 years of age, children move into thepreoperational stage. During this stage, children begin to use language and to think more abstractly about objects, but their understanding is more intuitive and without much ability to deduce or reason. The thinking is preoperational, meaning that the child lacks the ability to operate on or transform objects mentally. In one study that showed the extent of this inability, Judy DeLoache (1987) 1 showed children a room within a small dollhouse. Inside the room, a small toy was visible behind a small couch. The researchers took the children to another lab room, which was an exact replica of the dollhouse room, but full-sized. When children who were 2.5 years old were asked to find the toy, they did not know where to look—they were simply unable to make the transition across the changes in room size. Three-year-old children, on the other hand, immediately looked for the toy behind the couch, demonstrating that they were improving their operational skills.
The inability of young children to view transitions also leads them to be egocentric—unable to readily see and understand other people’s viewpoints. Developmental psychologists define the theory of mind as the ability to take another person’s viewpoint, and the ability to do so increases rapidly during the preoperational stage. In one demonstration of the development of theory of mind, a researcher shows a child a video of another child (let’s call her Anna) putting a ball in a red box. Then Anna leaves the room, and the video shows that while she is gone, a researcher moves the ball from the red box into a blue box. As the video continues, Anna comes back into the r oom. The child is then asked to point to the box where Anna will probably look to find her ball. Children who are younger than 4 years of age typically are unable to understand that Anna does not know that the ball has been moved, and they predict that she will look for it in the blue box. After 4 years of age, however, children have developed a theory of mind—they realize that different people can have different viewpoints, and that (although she will be wrong) Anna will nevertheless think that the ball is still in the red box.
After about 7 years of age, the child moves into the concrete operational stage, which is marked by more frequent and more accurate use of transitions, operations, and abstract concepts, including those of time, space, and numbers. An important milestone during the concrete operational stage is the development of conservation—the understanding that changes in the form of an object do not necessarily mean changes in the quantity of the object. Children younger than 7 years generally think that a glass of milk that is tall holds more milk than a glass of milk that is shorter and wider, and they continue to believe this even when they see the same milk poured back and forth between the glasses. It appears that these children focus only on one dimension (in this case, the height of the glass) and ignore the other dimension (width). However, when children reach the concrete operational stage, their abilities to understand such transformations make them aware that, although the milk looks different in the different glasses, the amount must be the same.
Video Clip: Conservation
Children younger than about 7 years of age do not understand the principles of conservation.
At about 11 years of age, children enter the formal operational stage, which is marked by the ability to think in abstract terms and to use scientific and philosophical lines of thought. Children in the formal operational stage are better able to systematically test alternative ideas to determine their influences on outcomes. For instance, rather than haphazardly changing different aspects of a situation that allows no clear conclusions to be drawn, they systematically make changes in one thing at a time and observe what difference that particular change makes. They learn to use deductive reasoning, such as “if this, then that,” and they become capable of imagining situations that “might be,” rather than just those that actually exist.
Piaget’s theories have made a substantial and lasting contribution to developmental psychology. His contributions include the idea that children are not merely passive receptacles of information but rather actively engage in acquiring new knowledge and making sense of the world around them. This general idea has generated many other theories of cognitive development, each designed to help us better understand the development of the child’s information-processing skills (Klahr & McWinney, 1998; Shrager & Siegler, 1998). 2 Furthermore, the extensive research that Piaget’s theory has stimulated has generally supported his beliefs about the order in which cognition develops. Piaget’s work has also been applied in many domains—for instance, many teachers make use of Piaget’s stages to develop educational approaches aimed at the level children are developmentally prepared for (Driscoll, 1994; Levin, Siegler, & Druyan, 1990). 3
Over the years, Piagetian ideas have been refined. For instance, it is now believed that object permanence develops gradually, rather than more immediately, as a true stage model would predict, and that it can sometimes develop much earlier than Piaget expected. Renée Baillargeon and her colleagues (Baillargeon, 2004; Wang, Baillargeon, & Brueckner, 2004) 4 placed babies in a habituation setup, having them watch as an object was placed behind a screen, entirely hidden from view. The researchers then arranged for the object to reappear from behind another screen in a different place. Babies who saw this pattern of events looked longer at the display than did babies who witnessed the same object physically being moved between the screens. These data suggest that the babies were aware that the object still existed even though it was hidden behind the screen, and thus that they were displaying object permanence as early as 3 months of age, rather than the 8 months that Piaget predicted.
Another factor that might have surprised Piaget is the extent to which a child’s social surroundings influence learning. In some cases, children progress to new ways of thinking and retreat to old ones depending on the type of task they are performing, the circumstances they find themselves in, and the nature of the language used to instruct them (Courage & Howe,2002). 5And children in different cultures show somewhat different patterns of cognitive development. Dasen (1972) 6 found that children in non-Western cultures moved to the next developmental stage about a year later than did children from Western cultures, and that level of schooling also influenced cognitive development. In short, Piaget’s theory probably understated the contribution of environmental factors to social development.
More recent theories (Cole, 1996; Rogoff, 1990; Tomasello, 1999), 7 based in large part on the sociocultural theoryof the Russian scholar Lev Vygotsky (1962, 1978), 8 argue that cognitive development is not isolated entirely within the child but occurs at least in part through social interactions. These scholars argue that children’s thinking develops through constant interactions with more competent others, including parents, peers, and teachers.
An extension of Vygotsky’s sociocultural theory is the idea of community learning, in which children serve as both teachers and learners. This approach is frequently used in classrooms to improve learning as well as to increase responsibility and respect for others. When children work cooperatively together in groups to learn material, they can help and support each other’s learning as well as learn about each other as individuals, thereby reducing prejudice (Aronson, Blaney, Stephan, Sikes, & Snapp, 1978; Brown, 1997). 9