It was once believed that newborns lacked the ability to form complex thoughts or think and remained in a state of no cognition until they learned the language. This was until cognitive development was established by renowned psychologists like Jean Piaget. Cognitive development is an area of study in psychology and neuroscience that focuses on a child’s development in terms of language learning, perceptual skills, information processing, and other aspects of cognitive psychology and brain development (Galotti, 2010). Cognitive development is defined as the human development process through which infants become intelligent as thy grow by gaining knowledge and improving their capability to make decisions, solve problems, reason, think, learn, and abstract from infancy through adolescence to adulthood.
Cognitive development has enabled psychologists and other experts to recognize that infants are conscious of their surrounding from the time they are born. From birth, infants begin to learn by gathering, sorting and processing information from their surrounding, and use the information to develop their thinking skills and perception (Flavell Miller & Miller, 20010). As stated above, Psychologist Jean Piaget was a key force in the founding of cognitive development through his “theory of cognitive development.” Despite the fact that some of his claims have since fallen out of favor, many of Piaget’s arguments such as the conservation in school going children and permanence in childhood are real and still elicit the interest of researchers.
Traditionally, cognitive development has been studied in various ways, the oldest one being through intelligence test. Nonetheless, many people have come to associate cognitive development with Piaget’s theory. At the center of this theory is the belief that cognitive development takes place in a sequence of four discrete and universal stages that are characterized by abstract and increasingly sophisticated levels of thought. Note that the four stages take place in the same order, with each building on what has happened in the previous stages. These stages are sensorimotor, preoperational, concrete operation, and the formal operational stages.
Throughout his sixty years of study, Piaget wanted to understand how knowledge develops in human beings, and he named his theoretical framework “genetic epistemology.” This theoretical framework established that the cognitive structure of human organisms change via the processes of assimilation, accommodation and cognitive adaptation (Flavell, Miller & Miller, 2001). These processes are explained below:
Adaptation: this term is a Piaget’s term that would otherwise mean learning to most of us. However, Piaget saw adaptation as a fundamentally biological process that human organisms go through. He is of the opinion that all living organisms adapt to the environments they live in even if they lack a nervous system or brain. He posits that humans adapt to the world around them and to their existence through accommodation and assimilation. To Piaget, even a person’s grip must be accommodated to an object like a stone; whereas an object like clay must be assimilated into a person’s grip.
Assimilation: according to Piaget’s theory, assimilation is the interpretation of actions in terms of the cognitive structures at hand. He is of the opinion that anything that is perceived from the outside world can be interpreted in relation to something that is already known. For instance, a child is familiar with how to grab and thrust his favorite toy into his mouth; a knowledge that Piaget calls a schema (Galotti, 2010). When this child encounters a different object, say its father’s watch, it transfers the grab and thrust schema to the new found object. This child is said to have adapted to the new object without changing its world view.
Cognitive adaptation: in Piaget’s theory, cognitive adaptation occurs when a person’s internal world has to transform to adapt to new phenomena in the external world. When cognitive adaptation occurs, it is because the person’s world view is not able to fit with the external reality. Therefore, the internal world should shift so that it can correlate with reality. For instance, when a child leaves his favorite toy and finds a ball, it will try to employ the grab and thrust schema without achieving the expected result. Through the process of assimilation the child will be compelled to learn another approach so as to interact wit the ball. This whole process of establishing a suitable approach of interacting with the ball is known as cognitive adaptation.
In his theory, Piaget posits that adolescents and adults reveal a degree of hypothetical thoughts that involves reasoning over intentions that may or may not mirror reality. With that in mind, the dual-process models of cognition as proposed by Piaget are analytic and intuitive. In adolescents and adults, intuitive thoughts start with prior beliefs, common assumptions, and past experiences, instead of starting with a logic premise. Intuitive thoughts arise from hunches or emotions that are beyond rational explanation. It is believed that cultural assumptions, sudden impulses and past experiences are precursors of intuitive thoughts intuitive thoughts. On the other hand, analytic thoughts are formal, hypothetical-deductive and logical. They result form analysis, such as risks and consequences, systematic rankings of pros and cons, and possibilities and facts.
One of the characteristics of post-formal thought is that it is more complex as it involves making important decisions based on situational circumstances and constraints. It also involves integrating emotions with logic with the aim of forming context dependent principles. The above discourse reveals that cognitive development is a process that starts at birth and runs through adolescent. As Piaget assert, this whole process undergoes a sequence of four discrete stages that involve Piaget’s genetic epistemology, which is characterized assimilation, adaptation and Cognitive adaptation. After infancy, human beings enter the adolescent and adulthood stage that are defined by the ability of the two groups to exhibit Intuitive and analytic thoughts.