Cognitive Development Theory: 4 Key Concepts

There are many contributors to Cognitive Development Theory, but the main contributor is considered to be Jean Piaget. Piaget’s work is covered in it own article here, but this article covers four other important concepts that are just as likely to be on the EPPP. Cognitive Development is under the topic of Growth and Lifespan Development, and is weighted at 12%. This is a bit of a catch all post, but all of these topics can be categorized under Cognitive Development.

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Zone of Proximal Development TheoryVygotsky

Developed by Russian psychologist Lev Vygotsky in the 1930’s, and offered an alternative to Piaget’s theory of stages of development. At the core of Vygotsky;s theory is the impact social interactions have on development. He also viewed development as complex and fluid, as opposed to stages of development. The Zone of Proximal Development (ZPD) is basically the gap between what a child is capable of doing on their own and what a child can not do, in this gap the child is capable of doing many things with a little instruction or guidance from an adult or peer.

Unfortunately Vygotsky died at a relatively young age, but his theories have been built upon by other theorists. Jerome Bruner developed the term scaffolding which can be utilized in education.  It involves tailoring instruction to the students needs by first of all assessing what they already know and where their ZPD is, then offering support and instruction to support them to the next level, and eventually tapering off support.  Picture a parent helping their child learn to ride a bike, at first they run alongside and hold the bike up for them, but as the child learns the parent eventually offers less support until they let go altogether, allowing the child to ride the bike on their own.

Another strategy is Reciprocal Teaching, which involves the teacher engaging in conversation with a student to help facilitate problem solving.  This is as opposed to simply lecturing or just giving the answer, and is often used to improve comprehension.

Information Processing Theory

The information processing theory describes the human mind much like a computer.  For every environmental stimulus that is experienced, there is a process that inputs the information (such as the 5 senses), a process that stores the information (such as memory), and a process that outputs the information (such as motor neurons).  In order for this system to run as efficiently as possible stimulus from the external environment is altered to fit into our already established system (much like a computer breaking information down into binary code).

When it comes to human development, rather than a stage approach to development information processing views development to be smooth and continuous.  Development occurs simply through the continuous exposure to the environment.  As a child ages he or she has more qualitative exposure to the environment, and develops more advanced and sophisticated ways of processing this information.  This process takes time and experience, which explains why as children age they improve in physical, cognitive, and social development.

Cognitive Development Through the Lifespan

While there is a lot of dramatic change in early childhood development, it does not simply stop once a child hits puberty.  Development continues to change all the way into old age


There are a few characteristics seen universally among adolescents, and one of these characteristics is that all adolescents believe they are somehow unique and special (a little ironic).  This is know as the Personal Fable which not only causes adolescents to believe they are special but also that rules do not apply to them.  Despite the best education adolescents often believe they are immune to the negative effects of drugs and alcohol, or incapable or contracting sexually transmitted diseases of becoming pregnant.

Another common theme with adolescents is the Imaginary Audience which is the belief that everyone thinks the same way they do, and this self-consciousness can cause the adolescent to “perform” as if they are are a stage being observed by this audience in their mind, and this audience thinks the way they do.  David Elkind identified several typical adolescent behaviors which include self-consciousness, invulnerability, hypocrisy, finding fault with people in authority and argumentativeness.

Aging Adults:

Cognitive abilities vary greatly from person to person as people age.  Typically verbal skills remain unchanged yet performance skills decline (the old saying “you can’t teach an old dog new tricks” applies here).

aging cognition

Crystallized Intelligence: This refers to learned
skills that have been practiced, typically language, and tends to remain intact in older adults.  Speech fluency and comprehension may decline though, which can give the impression that verbal skills have been impacted.

Fluid Intelligence: This is the ability to problem solve, particularly in new situations.  Studies show this starts to decline shortly after adolescence.

Attention: Older adults seem to be able to pay very good attention to simple tasks, but may start to struggle with complex tasks (where there is more than one type of stimulus being presented).

Higher Order Cognition: This refers to skills such as problem solving, reasoning, and planning.  There is mixed information because in simulated laboratory experiments it appears that older adults show a decline, but in real world non-laboratory situations older adults appear to out perform younger adults.

Memory: It is not new information that memory seems to decline in older adults, but not all types of memory.  There are 2 forms of short term memory: Primary Memory is basically being able to hold information with no manipulation and seems to remain intact in older adults (for example remember 5 numbers). Working Memory not only holds but manipulates information and seems to decline in older adults (for example repeat the same 5 numbers backwards).

In terms of long term memory, it seems episodic memory (events and what you have done) seems to decline where as semantic memory (facts) and procedural memory (motor skills) for the most part remain intact. More information on memory can be found here.

Moral Development

There are three important theories on moral development. Piaget’s Theory of Moral Development is covered here. The other two are by Kohlberg and Gilligan:

Kohlberg’s Theory of Moral Reasoning: Developed by Lawrence Kohlberg and based on the assumption (similiar to Piaget) that moral development is linked to cognitive development, but that people come to their own moral judgements rather than relying solely on the culture and social influences around them.  There are 3 stages:

  • Preconventional Morality (Ages 4-10): Involves acting out of self-interest to avoid punishment and receive rewards. Stage 1 (The Punishment-Obedience Orientation) is to avoid punishment, and stage 2 (Instrumental Hedonism) is the hope of getting a reward.
  • Conventional Morality (Ages 10 +): Conforming for social approval and rather than being self-centered people are other-centered. Stage 3 (Good Boy/Girl Orientation) focusing on being obedient to gain approval, and stage 4 (Law and Order Orientation) wants to maintain order by doing one’s duty.
  • Postconventional Morality (Ages 13 +): Some people never achieve this stage of morality. At this stage the person makes decisions based on what id fair or just rather than what is socially acceptable. Stage 5 (Individual Rights) values the welfare of society as a whole and the will of the majority, stage 6 (Morality of Individual Principles of Conscious) the individual beliefs of what is right regardless of the law or others options.kohlberg moral development

Carol Gilligan: Gilligan criticized Kohlberg’s theory for being based on boys and men only, and when taking female morality into account she argues that there are 2 perspectives.

  • Justice Perspective: Gilligan argues is typically a male preference and emphasizes fairness.
  • Caring Perspective: Gilligan argues this is more typically of women and is about balancing the needs of the self and the needs of others. There are 3 levels specific to women: Level 1 (Orientation of individual survival) the woman focuses only on what is best for her. Level 2 (Goodness as self-sacrifice) the woman sacrifices what she wants for what others want, which is driven by the desire for others approval. Level 3 (morality of nonviolence) the woman believes no one should be harmed which affects her decision making.

***Do you agree with Vygotsky’s Zone of Proximinal Development Theory and that children learn best through scaffolding? Do you think the human mind is similar to a computer like Information Processing Theory?  When you think back to your adolescence can you remember feeling that you were unique and that you were always acting for an imaginary audience?  What are your thoughts on Kohlberg’s and Gilligan’s moral theories?  Please comment below, engaging in discussion will help you with your studying!

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4 thoughts on “Cognitive Development Theory: 4 Key Concepts

  1. This is extremely fascinating. We’ve all taken it for granted the way that younger children go about learning, that environmental factors and stimuli contribute to the development of a child’s worldy learning and experience. It’s fascinating to learn about the ZPD being a very important phase of social interactions that can impact a child’s development. Thanks for the awesome article.

  2. When I was little I really did think that I was special. To make that even funnier, I did the best I could to prove that. I always tried to make people laugh and make people pay more attention to me . Eventually I overcame that and became when I am today. I do believe that people are like computers in a way where we constantly learning and store data into our brains. Hopefully when I reach old age my brain won’t decline too much though. I am crossing my fingers.

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