Cognitive Development of Students

A Definition of Development
The term development in its most general psychological sense refers to certain changes that occur in human beings between conception and death (Woolfolk, 2010, p. 26). There are different types of development such as physical, personal, social and cognitive. There has been plenty of debate to how adolescents develop.

Nature versus Nurture

Continuity versus Discontinuity

Critical Periods and Earlier versus Late Experiences

What is the source of development? Which is more important, the "nature" of an individual (heredity, maturation, etc) or "nurture" (education, parenting, etc)

What is the shape of development? Is there a continuous process of adding to and increasing abilities or are there leaps or moves to new stages when ability actually changes?

How does timing influence development? Are there critical stages in a person's life that they need to develop certain skills and if those skills are not attained, can the individual "catch up"?
(Woolfolk, 2010, p. 27)
Although there is a continuing debate, psychologists agree with certain principals of development:
  • People develop at different rates
  • Development is relatively orderly
  • Development takes place gradually
The Brain and Cognitive Development
The brain is an amazing and complex system that controls everything we do. As a child grows, the largest part of the brain to develop is the cerebral cortex. This part of the brain allows an individual to do complex tasks such as problem solving and language development and it is the last part of the brain to develop. Within the cerebral cortex, the tiny structures that store and transmit information are called the neurons (Woolfolk, 2010, p. 30).
Image from
This simple representation of the brain shows the cerebral cortex and how it is divided into different areas, or lobes. The parietal lobe controls all sensory information while the occipital lobe controls visual processing and both lobes are the first to develop. The frontal lobe controls higher order thinking processes, the temporal lobe controls emotions and language and both of these two lobes develop later in an adolescent's life (Woolfolk, 2010, p. 30-31). Another aspect of brain development is lateralization, or the understanding of the brain being divided into two hemispheres. Each hemisphere, the right and left, controls the opposite side of the body (Woolfolk, 2010, p. 30).

Piaget's Theory of Cognitive Development
Piaget, a Swiss psychologist, created a theory of cognitive development based on the assumption that children make sense of the world through direct experiences. In response to these experiences a children learns schemes, or basic building blocks of thinking. Children use organize these schemes through adaptation that explains the stages that a child goes through until they reach maturity. Below is an outline of his four stages but it is important to understand that not all adolescents mature at the same rate. Children mature at different rates of a variety of reasons such as differences in child rearing, resources for the child and the way the child is motivated to learn. Teacher must be aware of these differences and understand that on every child is at the same level of maturity so each child will need to be approached differently.
Sensorimotor Preoperational Concrete Operational Formal Operational
  • Involves use of motor activity
  • knowledge based on social interactions
  • Early language develops
  • language and memory develop
  • intelligence is egocentric and intuitive
  • cause and effect has not been learned
  • use of logical and systematic manipulation of symbols
  • thinking is less egocentric
  • increased awareness of external events
  • use symbols that relate to abstract concepts
  • can formulate hypotheses
  • can think about multiple variables
(Wood, et al, 2012)

 Vygotsky's Sociocultural Perspective
Lev Vygotsky's theory about a child's cognitive development stressed the fundamental role of social interactions. Vygotsky believed that children are born with basic abilities for intellectual development and they mature with assistance from the society around them. "Every function in a child's cultural development appears twice: first on a social level and later on the individual level. This applies equally to voluntary attention, to logical memory, and to the formation of concepts. All higher functions originate as actual relations between human individuals" (Woolfolk, 2010, p. 43).
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Vygotsky believed that cultural tools and psychological tools have a great influence on a child's cognitive development. Cultural tools are things that are important to a civilization such as plows to computers while psychological tools are sign and symbols systems such as numbers, art, and language. Language is a very important tool in cognitive development because it is a way for a child to express their thoughts. Even private speech, a child muttering, is an important guide through a child's thought and problem solving (Woolfolk, 2010, p. 46).
The Zone of Proximal Development
At every part during a child's development, they are on the verge of solving their problems and at times all they may need is a little help. This is the basic theory behind Vygotsky's theory of the Zone of Proximal Development (ZPD). The ZPD is the area between the child's current development level and the level the child could achieve with a little guidance (Woolfolk, 2010, p. 47).

 Implications of Piaget's and Vygotsky's Theories for Teachers

YouTube Video

This video outlines the difference between Piaget and Vygotsky's theories. (Justburrus, 2009)
  • Education should help a child on HOW to learn and not furnish their minds    
  • A teacher must understand that students mature at different rates so what works for one child might not work for another
  • Learning is a constructive process
  • Concrete experiences help with learning - more than communication
  • Disequilibrium must be right - students must not be bored with work or left behind because they do not understand

  • The discovery of learning is assisted by teachers which is called scaffolding
  • Good scaffolding includes procedural facilitators, modeling, thinking out loud, anticipating difficult areas, providing prompts, regulating the difficulty, give partially done examples, and give checklists
  •  Rearrange the environment that assists students can learn on their own
  • Give the students prompts and reminders to help them discover things on their own
  • Teachers should teach with the "Magic Middle" where teachers should neither be bored or frustrated
(Woolfolk, 2010)