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Cognitive Development Theory, Cognitive Learning Theory
and my sad discovery that I am not always right
    Remember I said that the school where I used to teach moved away from a behavior modification perspective? Well, they did not move to humanism. I tried that in my own classroom, figuring that, after all, it had worked at the alternative school I had attended as an adolescent,  and look how great I turrned out, right? Except that I learned what I think is one of the first lesson every aspiring psychologist or teacher or counselor must take to heart, "Everyone is not you!" and no matter what worked for you as a child, it may not be right for everyone. I suppose that's why we need more than one theory. So, let's briefly review two more.
    The best known part of Piaget's theory is his stages, perhaps because these are so easy to define, memorize and design test questions on. From birth to two years children are in the _______________ stage.


This theory also provides useful information and practical suggestions. For example, children during the sensorimotor period should be exposed to a variety of shapes, colors, sounds, smells and textures. 

(We will discuss practical applications of Piaget's theory at each age level throughout the course - until adolescence, that is. Piaget assumed that by somewhere between eleven and fifteen we had all progressed cognitively about as far as we are going to get. Scary thought and you will be happy to know that many, if not most, developmental psychologists disagree with that aspect of Piaget's theory.)

Piaget made some important general points that are worth remembering as well.

1. Childen and adults think DIFFERENTLY. It is not just that the quantity of information known by adults is different but the whole quality of their thinking is different as well. Let me offer just a couple of examples:
 2. People develop cognitive structures, or schemes, for dealing with types of problems that arise. Just think how inconvenient it would be for you if every time you came across a problem you had to come up with a completely new way of dealing with it. When her baby cries, it maybe very anxiety-provoking for a new mother. Soon, however, she has developed a scheme for thinking  about this, something like:

    Possible reasons the baby cries            Things to do when the baby cries
       |                  |                    |                |                    |                        |
    wet            hungry            tired    change her        feed her        put her to bed
      |                        |                            |_______________________________________^
      |                        |________________________________________^
Not only does the mother have knowledge about possible reasons babies cry and what to do, but she also has created logical CONNECTIONS in her mind about the relations between those to sets of facts. If the reason is this, she should do that.

These structures can be very complicated. In the example above, the children have learned MANY other things, ranging from "put parentheses around the mathematical operation to be performed first" to "stand in line and wait your turn".

3. According to Piaget, people are, by nature, motivated to understand their environment. To talk about motivating a child to learn is as silly to Piaget as talking about motivating a bird to fly. They just do it because it is part of their nature. Think about it, don't YOU feel uncomfortable when you are in a situation where you don't know what's going on? When what you know does not match up with new information, you are in the state of DISEQUILIBRIUM (literally, you feel off-balance). So, you either accommodate, that is, change how you think about the world to fit new information, or assimilate, which is taking in new information and fitting it in your existing scheme.

    For example, before I moved to North Dakota, I had never met an Indian person who hadn't been to college. The few Native Americans I did meet were all people I was in college with or worked with, had all attended Indian boarding schools, or been adopted by white families. Most of them had never been to a reservation, at most they had heard their parents or grandparents talk about living on the reservation. None of them spoke any language but English. When I moved here, and heard people talking about the low educational level of Native Americans, the high drop out rate in schools on the reservations, and bilingual education, I was very confused.  So, I started reading books and articles, talked to some of the faculty and graduate students I met who had grown up on reservations, and went with some people who were kind enough to invite me to the reservations where they had grown up. I had to change my scheme of what Native Americans were like to accommodate this new information.
    The first time I drove through Fort Berthold, I saw a bird walking around on the ground and asked the person riding with me if it was a roadrunner, because, living out on the edge of the desert for many years, the only birds I was very familiar with were crows and roadrunners. Since it wasn't black, and you don't see crows walking around much, I assumed it was a roadrunner, assimilating it into my existing scheme of birds. As my passenger pointed out, once she stopped laughing, there are no roadrunners in North Dakota. (It was a pheasant, in case you are wondering.)

4. People are active learners, in more ways more than one. First, notice how I actively sought out information, to try to understand what people were talking about, rather than just accepting whatever information happened to present itself. Second, information is actively interpreted. Not everyone will receive the same "messages" even though they are exposed to the same stimuli. (I'll bet YOU wouldn't mistake a pheasant for a roadrunner. On the other hand, since I used to be a programmer, I could identify at a glance whether a program is written in BASIC, FORTRAN or C++).

    These are just a few of the important points of Piaget's theory. As with Erikson, we will cover this theory in depth at each stage of development.

Just a comment - as important as Piaget's work is, I had to agree with the student's book review I once graded which said, "Reading this book was a lot like reading the instructions for assembling my stereo components".  Personally, sentences like "Mine is a theory of epistemological ontology," convinced me that Piaget was a much better theorist than writer.

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