Cognitive Development: Meaning, Stages, Factors and Educational Implications


Cognitive Development: Meaning, Stages, Factors  and Educational Implications

The child is born with primitive reflexes. These reflexes help the child deal with the immediate problem of survival. With age, primitive reflexes get elaborated into patterns of behaviour that help the child adapt to changes in the environment.

As the child grows, various perceptual abilities develop. The child increasingly understands the environment. Many wonder where the child’s knowledge comes from.

In this page, we discuss cognitive development. We examine the meaning of cognition. We outline the trends in cognitive development. We also outline the factors that influence cognitive development. Finally, we examine the educational significance of cognitive development.

At the end of this study, you should be able to:

· Explain the following terms:

(a) Cognition Development

(b) Cognitive Development

· Describe the process of cognitive growth

· Outline the trend in cognitive development from childhood to adolescence

· Highlight and explain three major factors that influence cognitive development

· Examine the educational significance of cognitive development.

Meaning of Cognition and Cognitive Development

The term cognition describes the way a child views the world. As a product, cognition refers to an individual’s view of the world. This view may include the child’s knowledge of self, their beliefs, prejudices, superstitions, fears, realities, memory, aspiration, and current and future perspectives.

As a process, cognition refers to the manner knowledge is acquired. It refers to how a child gets to know and understand the world; the manner children process information. It describes how children make judgements and arrive at a decision. Cognition as a process describes how a child explains their knowledge and understanding to another person.

A child’s cognition is a mirror of the structure and organisation of their world. A child’s cognition naturally changes with i ncreasing maturation and experience. A child’s cognition is fluid, not static.

The term cognitive development means development involving the ways that growth and change in intellectual capabilities influence a child’s behaviour. Cognitive development examines learning, memory, problem solving, and intelligence. Cognitive development seeks to

specify what children know, and the organisational structure of such knowledge.

 Cognitive Process

Jean Piaget attempted an answer to the question: where does children’s knowledge come from? He proposed that knowledge is the product of a child’s direct motoric action on the environment. Piaget emphasised the fact that the knowledge children acquire is not from facts other people communicate to them. Knowledge is also not acquired from sensations and perceptions. Knowledge is constructed as a direct consequence of a child’s actions on his environment.

Piaget assumed that all children passed through a series of universal stages of cognitive development in a fixed order. As the child  progressed through the stages, the quantity of knowledge they acquire increased. The quality of knowledge and understanding also grows.

What this means is that with increasing maturation, mastery of principles regarding the way the world operates.

Piaget noted that initially the newborn deals with the world using basic primary reflexes. These primary reflexes include: surking, rooting, grasping, kicking, biting, and others. Piaget called them schemes. A schema is an organised pattern of sensorimotor functioning. It is a script or framework representing in the nervous system the child’s action upon the world. The newborn schemes are basically physical activity. However, as the child develops, their schemes become elaborated and move to a mental level, reflecting thought. Schemes may be likened to computer programs.

They direct and determine how input information is perceived, categorised, interpreted, and dealt with. In this way, schemes help thechild to cognitively organise experience. Hence, the child’s experienceof the world is characterised by organisation – a process of grouping isolated behaviours into higher-order more functional cognitive system.

The elaboration of schemes continues throughout life. However, optimum level is reached at adolescence when the individual attains adult-level thought pattern. According to Piaget, two processes explain cognitive development. They are assimilation, and accommodation.

Assimilation is a mental process that occurs when a child incorporates new knowledge into existing knowledge. In assimilation, a child understands an experience in terms of their current stage of cognitive development and a way of thinking. That is, a stimulus is acted upon, perceived, and understood in accordance with existing pattern of thought. For example, a child who tries to understand a new rattle toy by sucking it just like they suck the feeding bottle are using assimilation to incorporate the rattle toy into their sucking scheme.

Accommodation refers to changes in existing ways of thinking that occur in response to encounters with new stimuli or events. When existing way of behaving, thinking, and understanding become altered to fit novel experience, accommodation takes place. In the sucking scheme example cited above, the child may notice that sucking scheme does not fit the

rattle toy characteristic. The child then alters the sucking scheme to a shaking scheme. The shaking scheme reveals to the child the special characteristic of the rattle toy. The rattle toy rattles. The altering of the sucking scheme to a shaking scheme is accommodation. If the child goes on to shake and rattle other rattle toys, then adaptation of the shaking scheme has taken place. The processes of assimilation, accommodation, and then adaptation go on throughout every individual’s lifetime.

 Trends in Cognitive Development

This topic is explained under the following sub-topics.

1.                  Stages in Cognitive Development

Cognitive development progresses in an orderly sequence through four major stages from birth through adolescence. The stages are: sensorimotor, preoperational, concrete operational and formal operational.

Each of these stages is age-related and consists of distinctive ways of thinking that is qualitatively different from the earlier or the next one. It is to be noted, however, that cognitive development is a gradual process.

Infants do not suddenly shift from one stage of cognitive development to the next.

There is a steady shift in behaviour as a child moves towards the next stage. Indeed, there is a period of transition in which some behavior reflect an earlier stage, while at the same time, other behaviours reflect the next more advanced stage. Movement from one stage to the next is accomplished when the child attains an appropriate level of maturation, and has been exposed to relevant experience.

The Sensorimotor Stage

The sensorimotor stage lasts from birth to about two years of age. Sensorimotor is a compound word combining two activities – sensory experience and motor activity. Thus, the main characteristic of the sensorimotor stage is that infants construct an understanding of the world by coordinating sensory experiences with motor actions. For example, on seeing a brightly coloured toy, the child reaches with the hand to grasp it. The eye seeing is coordinated with the hand reaching.

The infant progresses from reflexive, instinctual actions at birth to the beginning of symbolic thought towards the end of this stage.

The Pre-Operational Stage

The pre-operational stage lasts from two years to about seven years of age. This stage marks the beginning of symbolic thought. That is, the ability to represent an object not present develops. The child begins to represent the world with words and images. This ability is facilitated by the emergence of language and pretend play.

The child’s use of words and images reflects increased symbolic thinking. This is a leap beyond the connecting of sensory information and physical action. Intuitive thought also appears during this stage. The child begins to use primitive reasoning.

Children at the pre-operational stage typically want to know the answers to all kinds of questions. For example, on arrival of another baby, the pre-operational child would want to know: where the baby came from; who brought the baby; when the baby will go home, and other such questions. Symbolic and intuitive thought stretch the child’s mental world to new dimensions.

The Concrete Operational Stage

The concrete operational stage lasts from about seven years to about eleven years of age. Concrete operational thought involves using operations. Piaget refers to operations as reversible mental representation. Operations are organised, formal, logical mental processes. At this stage, he thinks operationally on real concrete objects and events. Children at this stage can do mentally what they previously could only do physically. For example, simple additions and subtractions which children did by counting their fingers, they are now able to do mentally. Logical reasoning replaces intuitive thought but only in concrete situations. Classification skills appear. Children also begin to achieve conservation of number, quantity, and volume in that order. However, abstract problems present difficulties.

 The Formal Operational Stage

The formal operational stage emerges at about eleven years to fifteen years of age. It is the final cognitive stage of development. Formal operational stage corresponds to the adolescent period. Thought formal resemble adult level thought. Individuals move beyond reasoning only

about concrete, current situation to what might or could be. Thought is more abstract, idealistic, and logical. At this stage, the individual is able to keep in their head a variety of relative terms, as opposed to absolute terms. They can generate several possible solutions to anyone problem.

 2. Development of Cognitive Abilities

Several cognitive abilities appear and develop with increasing age and maturation of the child. Among these are:

(i) Control of Attention

The ability of a child to tune in to certain stimuli, while at the same time tuning out of others, is termed cognitive control of attention. As children get older, attention span improves. Older child are more able to hold their attention longer on one particular activity than younger


(ii) Planning

Planning is cognitive allocation of attentional resources on the basis of goals mapped out for attainment. With increasing age, children not only learn to control their attention in the face of distractions, they also become more proficient at mapping out or devising strategies for using their attention effectively. They become better at planning. This means that the ability to consider what one must do, and at the same time, what one must not do, increases as the child becomes older.

By the time adolescence is reached, most children would be able to not only to control their attention, they would also be able to allocate their attentional resources to more than one stimulus at a time. For example, it is common to find an adolescent student listening to their favourite music track on the compact disc and at the same time studying for their examination.

(iii) Memory

Memory is the ability to remember past events. Evidence from literature indicates that the basic processes that underlie memory, retention and recall, are similar throughout one’s lifespan. People, regardless of their age, gradually lose memories. They may, however, regain them if

reminders are provided. Also, the more times a memory is retrieved, themore enduring the memory becomes (Rovee-Collier, 1993).

(iv) Working Memory Capacity

The working memory capacity improves with age. This is due mainly to improvements in the operating efficiency or executive control of the working memory (Case and Okamotor, 1996). In practical terms, the number of chunks of information that can be held in the working memory increases with age.

(v) Speed of Information Processing

As the child attains higher maturational levels, their speed of information processing increases rapidly. The efficiency of information processing also improves. That is, less effort is needed to process any bit of information.

(vi) Memory Control Strategies

With increasing maturation, the child’s memory control strategies become more sophisticated. The child’s conscious and intentional use of memory tactics increases. There is evidence of increasing use of rehearsal, repetition and practice to aid memory as children become older.

(vii) Growth of Meta-memory

Meta-memory increases with age and increasing maturation. Meta memory is the understanding and knowledge children have about memory and memory process. As children become older, they become more aware that memory can fail (Lewis and Mitchell, 1994). They realise that forgetting occurs frequently when children come to this awareness; they consciously spend more time studying or rehearsing any material they wish to remember in future.

(viii) Content Knowledge

With age, the quantity of information a child stores and recalls in virtually all domains of knowledge increases remarkably. Increase in content knowledge leads to increases in how children recall as well as what they can remember. As the amount of information on a given topic stored in the memory grows, it becomes easier to learn new, but related material. Prior memories provide a context for new information.

Factors that Influence Cognitive Development

Several factors influence cognitive development.

We discuss three factors, namely: maturation, experience and social transmission.


Maturation is the natural unfolding of a person’s biological potential. It is a sequence of changes in the body systems that are governed by a genetic blueprint. Maturation defines the readiness of an individual to develop specific tasks. Thus, the level of maturation delimits the level of cognitive functioning. This means that the nature of the cognitive tasks a child is able to benefit from at any stage of development will depend on their biological readiness or maturation. Maturation is important because before any stimulus can set off a response, the child must be capable of exhibiting that response.

As stated earlier, the child’s initial schemes of the world develop from the child’s motor actions. Primarily, motor actions are genetically prewired.

Maturation gets them expressed. Equally, the appearance of some specific mental operations, such as conservation, relativity, proportional and propositional reasoning requires some level of maturation.

More specifically, the five year old child cannot represent their route to the school on paper. The same child goes to and returns from the school without an escort. A ten year old child can mentally represent their route on paper. A seven year old child will not grasp the significance of

Newton’s first law of motion:

An object that would move on a physical surface and not experience friction does not exist in the seven year old’s experiential world. The task is a propositional problem. Also, the seven year old child can only memorise the definition of density of an object. Density is a derived quantity – the ratio of mass to volume of the object. Most adolescents would understand these concepts. This means that some basic mental structures must exist in a child’s schemes before they are able to benefit from some kinds of knowledge. In other words, maturation limits what cognitive abilities a child develops and when they are developed.


Basically, experience has to do with environmental stimulation.

Experience of the physical world is crucial to cognitive development. As earlier stated, knowledge is constructed from the child’s actions on the environment. That is, schemes are constructed through experiencing.

The child’s ideas about the attributes, uses, and relationships among different aspects of the environment are arrived at through their own experiences. For example, the child comes to know that the breast nipple is soft and pleasant through their experience of sucking; that a piece of stone is coarse through their experience of rubbing or biting; that a concrete block is heavier than a block of wood through their experience of lifting. These experiences and the child’s abstractions from them constitute the building blocks for cognitive growth and development. Maturation may have taken its course but without relevant experiences, specific behaviours will not appear.

Social Transmission

Children live and grow up in more than one social setting. What happens in the child’s family, school, neighbourhood, the peer group, and society at large is very crucial in defining the course and content of cognitive development.

What this means is that the social and cultural contexts in which the child lives, and the people they live among markedly influence their development.

Bronfenbrenner’s ecological theory details social systems, ranging from close interpersonal interactions to broad-based influences of culture that define what is knowable and what behaviours are allowable within the child’s social setting (Bronfenbrenner, 2000). The ecological theory draws attention to the critical role social transmission plays in child development.

In considering family influence on cognitive development, one examines the impact of the family psychodynamics: the presence for the child of one or both parents; the family size; family cohesion; poverty level of family; language structure; religion; urban-rural location; family values and aspiration, and others. The question would be: how does the interplay of these forces in the family system impact on the child’s cognitive development? The valence of the interaction will determine the direction of influence. Culture, in the ecological theory, is broadly defined in terms of ethnicity, values and customs. In Nigeria for example, some ethnic groups are battling with low enrolment of the girl child in schools; while some other ethnic groups are battling with low boy child enrolment in school. This reflects different values placed on gender role. Also, some ethnic groups in Nigeria place more premiums on inordinate quest for material wealth; while some place more premiums on education. Still some ethnic groups are laissez-faire about life generally. These are reflections of different customs and worldview. Nevertheless, they affect what is transmitted socially and same impacts on child rearing practices. Child rearing practices influence cognitive development. A very important aspect of Bronfenbrenner’s ecological theory is what he called socio-historical conditions of children’s development.

Children growing up in the present generation have some historical events peculiar to their own cohort. These include: increasing dual career marriage; and day-care for children; increasing poverty among families; increasing divorce and family disruption; decline in societal values; information and communication technology, and globalisation.

Children born ten years ago were not exposed to some of these influences in their childhood and these impacts on cognitive development.

In a nutshell, social transmission is a critical factor in determining not only the content but also the course of cognitive development. We should look at a child’s cognitive development as affected by several socio-cultural factors.


Educational Implications

From our discussions, so far, it is obvious that cognitive development is a very important aspect of human development. The amazing capacity and plasticity of the human cognitive system differentiates human beings from other beings. We note some important points here for educational practice:

· It is important that those who work with children become aware of the general stages of cognitive development, and the sequence of appearance of significant cognitive abilities. This awareness will encourage them to provide appropriate materials and experiences for children.

· Instruction should be based on evaluation of the current level of development and the next higher level to provide adequate challenge for cognitive development.

· Instruction should be individually paid to accommodate individual differences in the rate of development.

· Since direct activity is the basis of knowledge construction, instruction should be activity-based.

· Knowledge is culturally situated. Therefore, ample opportunities should be provided for effective interaction between the child and the various social systems that impact cognitive development.

· Cognitive growth often results from confronting errors, and cognitive conflicts. Hence, children should be allowed to make mistakes and learn from resolving such errors.

we explored the meaning of cognition and how the child’s cognition of their world is acquired. We were made to understand that the knowledge the child has about their world does not come from the wonderland. The child constructs knowledge of their world by themselves.

Actions children perform on aspects of their environment give rise to consequences. These consequences help children understand and adapt to changes in the environment. Therefore, our main duty as caregivers is to arrange the environment safely for the child to explore and discover knowledge.

Post a Comment