Studying psychology, week 6: Piaget’s model of cognitive development

I feel like I’m starting to get into a groove. The first weeks of not having any clue whatsoever are somewhat over, and I’m starting to genuinely enjoy all of this.

The amount of new things that I’m learning every day is almost beyond what I can grasp, and it feels like my horizon is expanding every week.

It’s an amazing experience.

Disruptions in parent-child interactions

In our developmental psychology seminar, we discuss a paper on excessive, pervasive crying in children, as well as causes and treatment options. It’s a really difficult topic that can bring families to their limits and beyond, and poses a major risk for the child’s development. It may affect up to 20% of babies, though hard numbers are difficult to obtain. Typically, there isn’t a single cause, and consultations and therapy apply broad interventions from supporting somatic aspects, to developmental areas, interactions and communication, and the relationship between parent(s) and child.

Developmental psychology: Piaget’s model of stages of cognitive development

In our developmental psychology lecture, we learn about Piaget’s model of cognitive development. Piaget (*1896) started with the hypothesis that children are active explorers and their thinking evolves through active participation of their environment. In 1936, he published the model of stages of cognitive development. The theory models how a child constructs a mental model of the world and how their ability to understand, think about, and solve problems in the world develops.

The model

According to this model, cognition develops in 4 distinct stages from birth through the end of adolescence. Each of these stage entails a sequence of thinking patterns and a conclusive way how children understand their own experiences. Moving from one stage to another is discontinuous, it entails an intellectual jump from one way of understanding the world to another. The main drivers of these mental “jumps” are thought processes:

  • Organisation: the knowledge structure as a coherent view of the world, becoming increasingly coherent as development progresses
  • Adaptation: Linking knowledge structure and environment through two intertwined processes:
    • Assimilation: Existing schemas / concepts are used to interpret the environment (e.g. thinking that a man who’s bald on top of his head and has long frizzy hair on the sides is a clown)
    • Accommodation: Creating new schemas or modifying existing ones when thoughts don’t match experiences (e.g. learning that the man isn’t actually a clown and what actually makes a clown) ?
  • Equilibriation: All human thought seeks order and aims to avoid contradictions and inconsistencies in knowledge structures. Equilibrium means there’s a balance between assimilation and accommodation.

Criticism & challenges

Because the model has a universal claim, it fails to recognise social, cultural, and emotional aspects. The steps specifically don’t have a lot of support (development doesn’t always progress this smoothly), and Piaget also underestimated some of the skills that children already have (more criticism here).

Some strengths of the model are that it acknowledges the central role of cognition, and covers a broad spectrum between cognition, changes between developmental steps, as well as learning. Considering it was first published in the 1936 (translated to English in 1952), Piaget changed how people view a child’s world.

The model in practice

Taken out of the abstract, this model is quite interesting to see in practice (if you have children, you’ve likely seen this):

  • Under 12 months old: Lack of object permanence: Children don’t have object permanence yet, anything they can’t see is “gone forever”.
  • 12-18 months old: A-not-B error: When an object is hidden in spot A (e.g. under a blue cloth) multiple times, children will keep looking for it there, even when it was visibly hidden elsewhere (e.g. under a yellow cloth).
  • 18-24 months old: Children develop mental representations which allow them to play as-if (e.g. pretending to drink even though a cup is empty).
  • 2-7 years old: Children can’t recognise invariance. Invariance means that some physical traits of objects like matter, weight, volume, or amount remain even though their visible appearance changes. When dough is reshaped, liquid is poured into a different glass, children will insist that the quantity has changed. See for yourself:

Uni life

Covid numbers in Germany are the highest they’ve ever been, 7-day incidence rate is at 289. We still have the majority of classes in person. Masks are worn consistently, but I’m worried about the next weeks and months ? winter is only starting.

Fun facts I learned this week:

  • People recognise letters faster when the letters are presented within words as compared to isolated letters or letters within nonwords. That’s called the word superiority effect.
  • Less fun fact: Sigmund Freud (yes, the Sigmund Freud) started his scientific career as a cocaine researcher, including using himself as a study subject. He wasn’t the only one, and at the time supposed it could help with cardiac diseases or withdrawals such as from morphine (the irony…). Less fun in this fact is that Freud only stopped working on this subject once the severe effects of cocaine became clear. Later, he took a critical position of his own work in the field. This NPR interview (audio & transcript) covers more of this.

Last, but not least:

“Jede Revolution beginnt mit einem Auflauf”, German advertisement for a freezer potato casserole. (“Every revolution starts with a riot / casserole”. It’s funny because German “Auflauf” means both “casserole” and “riot”.) One of my professors had this in their slide deck this week.

By Lena

Engineering executive turned leadership coach & consultant, public speaker, and psychology student. Fast walker, avid reader, poetry fan, violinist, pianist in the making, and intersectional feminist. Writes about all the above (and, occasionally, trees).

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