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Cognitive Development and Learning

Cognitive Development and Learning

Author: Erick Taggart

Recognize various components of cognitive development.

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Source: Design Museum Denmark Arne Jacobsen, Arne Jacobsen's first chair - Chinese influence, taken by Iglazier618 Toy Blocks; Public Domain

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Hello, class. So today we're going to be talking about the cognitive development in people as well as the cognitive theory of learning. How that occurs within our minds. So the important thing here, again that we're going to be talking about, and he's a very famous figure in psychology as well as specifically in cognitive theory, is Jean Piaget. And Piaget was a Swiss psychologist in the 1920s who developed the theory of cognitive development and the stages of cognitive development through his studies of children and his interviews with parents at that time.

And through him and other cognitive psychologists, we developed the cognitive theory of learning, which says that people take in information and construct knowledge within minds. So this is a little bit different from behaviorism, where the person is a passive participant in learning. They take in information and they put out behavior. One. Two.

Different from this, is cognitive theory, which says that we're an active participant in learning. So we make the information into our internal cognitive constructs. It's also similar to gestalt theory where we're talking about the overall organization of the information our minds.

This also means that there are individual differences in our learning and our mental processes. So for example, what I think of as a chair might be a little bit different from what you think of as a chair, even though there might be similar sorts of characteristics that go along with that. And we'll explain that more in the next section.

There are several key terms that we want to know in regards to the cognitive theory of learning. The first one is schema. A schema is the basic mental structures where we construct knowledge within our mind, where we take in knowledge and we put them together in some way. So for example, we might have a schema of a chair. So there might be individual differences, as we said, but basically we all have the same sorts of ideas of what is chair, or what's chairness, which is to say a chair as three or four legs. It has a seat. And it has a back rest.

Now schema can take different kinds of forms too. It might not just be our ideas of a specific object. For example, we might have stereotypes for different groups of people, scripts for social situations. So it's what we think is likely to occur like when you're at a restaurant and a waiter asks what would you like to order, you know what your responses will be. That's a general script for that situation. As well as world views, which are general philosophies. For example I might say, everyone's looking out for themselves. So that's a philosophy I have about people and the way they interact with each other.

Now we construct this knowledge into schemas into these conglomeration of information in two different ways. First is assimilation, which is when we add new information to an existing schema, to a schema that we already have. So for example, if I have a schema for a chair. And I see a desk chair, one of those wheelie chairs you see in an office. I would all of a sudden assimilate that information into my existing idea of a chair to say, well yeah. That is a chair as well, even if it has some slight differences to it.

And the other way that we construct schema is through accommodation, which is to say we either modify an existing schema or we make a new one altogether. It sort of splits up a schema that we already have. For example, in modifying it, if I see a chair and I also see a stool, I might originally have thought of a chair as having only four legs and a back rest. But when I see a stool, I might say, ah well that's a chair as well. And I'll put it in with the same category, even thought it doesn't have a backrest. Or it might have three legs instead.

And an example of creating a new schema is, well I might see a chair and a couch. And originally I might try to group that as a chair. But I realize, well that's not a chair at all. And so I'll create a whole new category for couches as well. And so I differentiate between those two things.

Now throughout our development, it's much easier to construct schema through assimilation and accommodation much earlier in our lives. Generally children, young infants and young children, have few schema. And so they're constantly finding new information in the world and they're modifying them.

Correspondingly, children's brains are also much more flexible and elastic. They're more adaptable at that period of growth within their lives. So they're able to make those connections biologically more easily.

Later on in life, knowledge can be more solidified. And we have set schemas. So it's a lot harder to accommodate them, to create new schemas or modify them. And this sort of goes along with the proverb, you can't teach an old dog new tricks. Well psychologically there are reasons behind that, in that our brains aren't necessarily as elastic when we get a bit older or we have set schedules and schemas and scripts for different situations.

Terms to Know

Either modifying an existing schema to fit new information, or creating a new schema.


Adding new information to an existing schema, or mental pattern.

Piaget’s Theory of Cognitive Development

Jean Piaget’s theory of cognitive development explains how children’s mental processes and understanding of the world changes in four stages: Sensorimotor, Preoperational, Concrete Operational, and Formal Operations.


The basic mental structures around which we construct our knowledge.