Deviations from Piaget’s concept of cognitive development

Lev Vygotsky
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It is clear that Piaget’s theory of learned knowledge by cognitive development (genetic epistemology, or the study of the growth of knowledge) has at its core a constructivist theory for the acquisition of knowledge. His constructivist theories are an alternative to, and strong rejection of, the behaviourist (and empiricist) theories of human development which account for development in terms of learning based on associations between stimuli and response. Rather, some initial structures are necessary to make sense of the world. Piaget’s great insight was to combine the biological notion of adaptation with a constructivist account to produce a theory of the development of adaptive knowledge – genetic epistemology.

Nevertheless, since the cognitive revolution (c. 1956) there has been an increasing amount of evidence which suggests that Piaget’s methodology may have underestimated many of the child’s abilities. Here I’d like to point up some of the competing cognitive theories of socialisation and highlight the special role played by acculturation, and also comment briefly on some of the evidence regarding the evaluation of the abilities of the sensorimotor child and the pre-operational child.

The Socio-developmentalist – Lev Vygotsky

Lev Vygotsky (b. 5th November 1896 – d. 2nd June 1934) was a Russian psychologist who developed his theories in the early years of the post-revolution Soviet republic. His thinking was deeply influenced by the ideas of the German philosopher Karl Marx, the historical development of acculturation (as cultural customs and habits), and the relation between language and thought. His work can be seen as closely linked to that of Bruner’s Constructivist Theory, which assumes than ‘knowing’ is a form of cognitive construction which is active (following Piaget) rather than passive. Though Bruner proposed the terms representation and integration he does not see Piaget’s stages as separate modes of qualitative thought, rather as a gradual integration of skills and techniques leading to the ideal position of so-called adult cognitive behaviours (cf. Bruner, 1966/1973). Vygotsky on the other hand criticised Piaget’s theory for presenting the child as an intellectually isolated ‘lone thinker’ studiously working out the true nature of the world through his or her own actions. Instead, Vygotsky emphasised and privileged the importance of acculturation, the society and culture in which the child’s thought developed. He also believed that as human cultures develop, they invent new tools for dealing with the world including psychological tools as well as technological tools. Vygotsky was interested in the way that the child constructs knowledge of the world within themselves, and also in how the child comes to use and absorb cultural tools of different kinds. In this sense, he saw thinking as partly internal and partly external to the person through the use of tools, for example, how we use a calculator.  He emphasised the role of adults in providing the child with psychological tools, suggesting that the child’s thinking develops within a zone of proximal development (ZPD). He defines the ZPD as the difference between what a child can do unaided, and what they can do with the help of an adult. It is within the ZPD that the child is exposed to and adopts the psychological tools of their culture. Another crucial area in which Piaget’s and Vygotsky’s theories differed was the role of language in development. For Piaget, language emerges at the start of the pre-operational period as the child begins to be able to use representational (symbolic) systems. Language becomes a way of expressing and communicating inner thought. Vygotsky saw language as an inextricable part of human thought. For Vygotsky, once the child has acquired language, s/he can use it to increase her cognitive abilities through inner speech (egocentric speech). Thus Vygotsky saw the development of language as an example par excellence of the development of human cognition and cognitive ability more generally.

We may recall that the ‘strong’ Whorfian hypothesis suggested that language determines how we conceive (think) about objects (see Carmichael, Hogan, and Walter 1932). Although most of Whorf’s followers now advocate the ‘weak’ hypothesis; that is to say, that different languages alter the ease with which we recognise (think) objects and the amount of attention to be paid to them. Piaget and Bruner, on the other hand, believed that thought precedes language. Piaget’s view was that a parrot may speak the words of a language, but does not ever truly understand what they are saying. Thus, in Piaget’s view, thought is the necessary forerunner of language if language is to be used properly.  Vygotsky, on the other hand, sees language and thought as having separate roots entirely, but as gradually converging, coming together in the child between 2 – 7 yrs. He proposed that inner speech (as talking or babbling utterances to oneself) of the child is qualitatively different from social speech (as talking to others), and, therefore, that inner speech should be positioned as the medium through which fully mature use of social speech and the fully mature silent speech of thought are attained, albeit separately.

It is noteworthy that Piaget did finally agree with Vygotsky’s work in the area of ‘egocentric speech’ and its function in relation to an interaction between thought and language as guiding and planning the child’s activities. One might say, then, that the interaction between thought and language made possible by egocentric speech lays the road to our becoming fully capable of social speech and symbolic thought coextensively.

Cognitive Development (Bruner 1966)

In his research on the cognitive development of children (1966), Jerome Bruner proposed three modes of representation:

  1. Enactive representation (action-based)
  2. Iconic representation (image-based)
  3. Symbolic representation (language-based)

Modes of representation are the way in which information or knowledge are stored and encoded in memory. Rather than neat age related stages (like Piaget), the modes of representation are integrated and only loosely sequential as they “translate” into each other.

Bruner’s Three Modes of Representation

Enactive: This appears first.  It involves encoding action based information and storing it in our memory. For example, in the form of movement as a muscle memory, a baby might remember the action of shaking a rattle. The child represents past events through motor responses, i.e. an infant will “shake a rattle” which has just been removed or dropped, as if the movements themselves are expected to produce the accustomed sound. And this is not just limited to children. Many adults can perform a variety of motor tasks (typing, sewing a shirt, operating a lawn mower) that they would find difficult to describe in iconic (picture) or symbolic (word) form.

Iconic: This is where information is stored visually in the form of images (a mental picture in the mind’s eye). For some, this is conscious; others say they don’t experience it. This may explain why, when we are learning a new subject, it is often helpful to have diagrams or illustrations to accompany verbal information.

Symbolic:  This develops last.  This is where information is stored in the form of a code or symbol, such as language. This is the most adaptable form of representation, for actions & images have a fixed relation to that which they represent.  “Dog” is a symbolic representation of a single class. Symbols are flexible in that they can be manipulated, ordered, classified etc, so the user isn’t constrained by actions or images. In the symbolic stage, knowledge is stored primarily as words, mathematical symbols, or in other symbol systems. Bruner’s theory suggests it is effective when faced with new material to follow a progression from enactive to iconic to symbolic representation; this holds true even for adult learners. A true instructional designer, Bruner’s work also suggests that a learner even of a very young age is capable of learning any material so long as the instruction is organized appropriately, in sharp contrast to the beliefs of Piaget and other stage theorists.

The Importance of Language

Language is important for the increased ability to deal with abstract concepts. Bruner argues that language can code stimuli and free an individual from the constraints of dealing only with appearances, to provide a more complex yet flexible cognition. The use of words can aid the development of the concepts they represent and can remove the constraints of the “here & now” concept.  Basically, he sees the infant as an intelligent & active problem solver from birth, with intellectual abilities basically similar to those of the mature adult. According to Bruner the child represents the world to himself in three different ways.

Differences between Bruner and Piaget

Obviously there are similarities between Piaget and Bruner, but an important difference is that Bruner’s modes are not related in terms which presuppose the one that precedes it. Whilst sometimes one mode may dominate in usage the modes co-exist. Bruner states that what determines the level of intellectual development is the extent to which the child has been given appropriate instruction together with practice or experience. So, the right way of presentation and the right explanation will enable a child to grasp a concept usually only understood by an adult. His theory stresses the role of education and the adult. Although Bruner proposes stages of cognitive development, he doesn’t see them as representing different separate modes of thought at different points of development (like Piaget).  Instead, he sees a gradual development of cognitive skills and techniques into more integrated “adult” cognitive techniques. Bruner views symbolic representation as crucial for cognitive development and since language is our primary means of symbolising the world; he attaches great importance to language in determining cognitive development.

Contemporary deviations from Piaget: Violation-of-expectation methods

Researchers have suggested influential findings indicating infants face numerous difficulties when searching for hidden objects which serve illustrate to what is and what is not understood (e.g. Bower 1982; Bower and Wishart 1972; Diamond 1991; 2000). Bower (1982) has demonstrated that infants as young as three or four months showed surprise when a once visible then occluded object ‘disappeared’ after only a few seconds. Immediately the suggestion was made that object permanence was present much earlier than predicted by Piaget’s sensorimotor sub-stages allowed for. Further, Diamond (1991; 2000) has utilized temporal variations between the time before switching an objects location (A to B) and the delay before the infant could reach for an object. Her findings demonstrate that immediate ‘reach’ opportunities for 7.5mth resulted in correctly identified object location. Whereas, 7.5mth could not withstand a ≤2 sec delay without incorrect location choice. 9mth infants were found to withstand a ≤5 sec delay prior to successful object location, likewise, 12mth infants a ≤10 sec delay. Once again therefore infants were demonstrated as capable of representation of occluded objects; though the infants’ working memory is demonstrably limited. It is interesting that Diamond noted motor habit (perseveration) played a significant role in the obfuscation of knowledge of the hidden object during incorrect location choice – where the eyes focused attention (B) was observed as inconsistent with where the arm and hand reached out (A). These motor habit findings were revisited and modified by Thelen et al. (2001). In this experiment no objects were hidden. Rather, an object at location A is placed within reach of the participating infants. After habituation to the first object a second object was placed at location B. Infants continued to reach toward the ‘old’ object (location A) whilst there attention was drawn to the new object (location B). Thelen et al. (2001) provides compatible support for motor habit data in support of Diamond’s (1991; 2000) findings.

Others reasoned differently (e.g. Baillargeon 1998; Spelke et al. 1992; Baillargeon et al. 1985), deciding that memory and motor habit might be circumvented altogether by utilizing infants’ well-documented tendency to stare at novel stimuli. Baillargeon et al. (1985) devised the 180o hinged-screen differential looking experiments where infants’ expectations were violated by impossible events (i.e. the hinged screen seemingly passing through a yellow box): and in so doing created an influential and revealing new paradigm for testing object permanence by way of impossible events. That is, impossible spatiotemporal events which undermined natural physical laws and, seemingly attracted a rent in the infants’ sensibilities leaving them noticeably surprised.

Of these early studies using differential-looking as the dependent variable a seminal paper by Spelke et al. (1992) is interesting and noteworthy. The principle findings garnered from six habituation trials and six control test trials indicate a non-significant looking time in experiment 4, and a significant mean looking time in experiment 5 (with those of experiment 1 (Wilcoxon-Mann-Whitney z = 2.26), experiment 2 (WMW z= 3.88) and experiment 3 (WMW z = 3.00)). It is noteworthy perhaps that ANOVA for experiments. 4 or 5 did not produce statistically significant results.

The researchers posited that their own and other similar findings (e.g. Baillargeon 1990; Kim & Spelke 1992; Spelke et al 1992) were compatible with two principles: inferences about object motion; and, inferences about object continuity and solidity are not dissimilar to those seen in common adult conceptions. The peripheral-origins thesis had been confronted with some problematic but productive sources for questioning: Might the basis of cognition develop from an innate core rather than from perception and action? Moreover, did initial (core) cognitive abilities yield appropriate conceptions that are relevant to immediate experience; that is, was it not plausible that during maturation, as knowledge grows, that conceptions might enrich and refine initial core abilities? Spelke et al. (1992) core-origins thesis provides a persuasive alternative to the peripheral-origins thesis.

Nonetheless, some researchers (Cason & Cohen, 2000) maintain that results yielding from studies using differential-looking may have misattributed cognitive ability to young infants. In a recreation of a ‘classic’ study (Baillargeon et al. 1998; Baillargeon 1985) using the 180o hinged-screen differential looking experiment with 8mth infants the researchers found that infants could be dishabituated to stare longer at novel events whether possible or impossible ((experiment 1) familiar angle novel block ≤8 secs, (experiment 4) novel angle and block ≤9 secs).

Taken as a whole, the above brief discussion opens a small aperture through which some results are demonstrably contrary to those predicted by the landmark cognitive research of Piaget (1954). Subsequent deviations from peripheral-origin theory are also seen to yield results of some interest to contemporary cognitive development researchers made possible by removing means-end coordination tasks (e.g. the differential looking paradigm using the violation-of-expectation method).

General methodological critique of Piaget

Piaget’s clinical method may be generally criticised in the following overarching ways:

v       Studies were carried out with a handful of participants – and in the early studies Piaget used his own children

v       Studies had no set procedure and no statistical analysis

v       Studies use participants from a small sample population, therefore, strong conclusions may not be drawn about processes from stage to stage

Methodological problems with Piaget’s sensorimotor stage

A major problem with Piaget’s view of sensorimotor tasks is that they required an active response from the infant (e.g. removing a cloth and grasping an object).  The child may be limited by other factors (e.g. immature motor skills) rather than a lack of understanding of the given situation.  Recent research has used a habituation technique to probe children’s understanding of object permanence.
(see Baillargeon 2004; 1998; Baillargeon et al. 1985)

v       In these ‘classic’ experiments infants are habituated (literally made to lose interest) by a screen that moves back and forth like a drawbridge through a 180° arc;

v       a novel yellow box is placed behind the screen;

v       the infant is then shown one of two test situations:
1.) A possible event: the screen is rotated up from a flat position until it rests against the yellow box where it stops before returning to the original position.
2.) An impossible event: the screen rotated up from flat position and appeared to move through the yellow box before returning to original position.
-> Here infants as young as 3.5 months looked longer (differential looking) at the impossible event.
These findings suggest that infants were surprised at this event, and that they expected the screen to come to rest against the box even though it was out of sight.

Additional forms of object knowledge

There has in the last twenty or so years come to light evidence suggesting that Piaget’s estimation of the infant’s understanding of object permanence. Three main areas of research have provided challenges to the received wisdom handed down by Piaget and his followers (Piagetians), these areas concern: intermodal perception; physical laws and causation; and, knowledge of quantity.

Intermodal Perception

In tandem with the gradual increase in motility and motor capacity in the period from 6-12mths comes sensory perceptions with a new and important property – feel. Alongside sight and sound now the infant’s concern moves to also include how objects feel. Streri and Spelke (1988) report finding which suggest that how an object looks and how an object feels are closely linked in the perceptions of the 4mth old infant. In this study the researchers (Streri and Spelke 1988) habituate the infant to hold two rings, one in each hand. The rings are held beneath a cloth which prevents the infant from seeing the rings. For some infants the rings are connected by a rigid bar, for others the rings are connected by a flexible cord. When the infants had become habituated (lost interest) to one of the two types of ‘toy’ (i.e. rings with rigid bar or flexible cord) they were then shown both types of toy. The babies looked longer at the rings that they had been exploring with their hands. Other data on intermodal perception also confirm that infants do not have to construct an understanding for each sensory faculty. That is to say, it is assumed that infants link sensory information even without extended periods of learning (see Bahrick 2002; Rochat 2000).

Earlier the suggestion was tendered that infants’ understandings obtaining from the individuation of objects were influenced in part by spatiotemporal continuity (see Spelke 1995; Spelke et al. 1992; Xu & Carey 1996). Some researchers (Káldy & Leslie 2003; Leslie et al. 1998) have estimated these findings to be central to the suggestion that infants’ object cognition might be reliant on an object indexing system. In other words, researchers (Káldy & Leslie 2003; Leslie et al. 1998) have espoused that spatiotemporal information (either by location or feature) binds an object to an index, given that an index has been assigned for such object bindings to take place (e.g. by shape or colour). Put rather crudely, it might be called a cascade activation model with limited categorical indexes available. Here an object (O1) activates an index (I1) which remains activated for a period dependent on the infants’ object-based attention threshold. The onset of a second object (O2) activates a second index (I2). In this example, the appearance of the second object might be met with by an expectant infant seeking to match these two objects (O1 and O2) with two activated indexes (I1 and I2).

Compatible findings (Xu & Carey 1996) were found for this thesis put forward by Leslie et al. (1998) and Káldy & Leslie (2003). In Xu & Carey’s (1996) studies (N=32, x16 10mth, x16 12mth mixed-gender sample all from Greater Boston) they consistently found 10mth infants’ were unable to establish representations of two numerically distinct objects using property/kind information as a guide to success. In the spatial condition (two at a time or alternately) and in the temporal condition (one at a time) objects are shown and replaced from behind a screen by researchers. The two objects shown are always a different ‘kind’ from each other (e.g. cup and shoe). For the 10mth babies there was as a significant time difference for two-object (M=9.8 sec) over one-object displays (6.7 sec). In the 12mth babies there was a marginally significant time difference for two-object (M=9.6 sec) over one-object displays (8.4 sec). However in the 12mth babies there was also a significant interaction (at 95% confidence) between trial type and outcome (F(1,15)= 4.824, p=0.05). These findings apparently indicate that the two groups established individuation of two distinct objects using different capacities of kind/property. That is, 10mth babies used location alone to individuate objects whereas 12mth babies relied on spatial and temporal conditions. It is the finding that familiar sortals (e.g. duck, truck, cup, ball, book and bottle) do not provide sufficient criteria for object individuation which is perhaps quite interesting and requiring further research in this age range (10-12mths).

Convergent findings from object individuation/identification research (Van de Walle et al. 2000) dovetails well with differential looking time data (Xu & Carey 1996) for infants’ object individuation (at 10mths) and identification (at 12mths). Here individuation is considered as freighting detection of an object and the representation of that object, whilst identification freights the further step of taking object representation and binding it to object identity (i.e which one?) following the convention used in adult attention literature (see Leslie et al. 1998). Researchers employed for the first time the manual-search paradigm; favouring this method for its relative directness, and its ‘promise’ as a new bases from which to study object individuation (Van de Walle et al. 2000).

In the first experiment Van de Walle et al. found 9mth infants were, as predicted (Xu & Carey 1996), seen to be significant in respect of age and outcome type in their ‘reaching’ for objects (N=64, random sample population). 46 of 64 infants reached frequently or more on two-object/unexpected outcomes, and 49/64 infants reached frequently or more on two-object/unexpected than two-object-expected outcomes (Wilcoxon z = 3.90 and 4.12 respectively) at 99% confidence (p0.001).

In the second experiment Van de Walle et al. 12mth infants (N=16) reached more purposefully when only one of two possible objects had been retrieved. 10 of 16 infants reached more often on two-object/unexpected than one-object/expected outcomes (Wilcoxon z = 2.2) at 95% confidence. The one-represented-object hypothesis was seen to be unsustainable in this test. Experiment two might be said to be compatible with the suggestion that 12mth infants’ represent precisely the number of hidden objects in cases of either one or two.

Another quite interesting study (Feigenson et al. 2002) also utilized a variation of the manual-reach paradigm to some notable effect. In their study of 10 and 12mth infants Feigenson et al. focus on the underlying numerical analogue-magnitude representations in choices of more; specifically in this case, more crackers of various sizes placed sequentially to ascertain the presence or not of set-size signature of object-file representations (experiment 1. N=124, 50/50 split of 10 and 12mth; experiment 2. N=48, 18/30 split; experiment 3. N=32, 5/27 split). The results from experiment 1 showed infants from both groups choosing more over less in the 1-versus-2 condition (80% or 13/16). However in larger number conditions (e.g. 3-versus-4) there was no significant difference in ability (50% and 40% respectively). The results from experiment 2a explored failures in experiment 1 owing to motivation reasons. Results for 2a showed that infants from both groups chose more over less in the 3-versus-6 condition (80% or 13/16). This finding suggests that lack of motivation was not a factor. The results from experiment 2b explored failures in experiment 1 owing to complexity. Results for 2b showed that infants from both groups chose more over less in the 1-versus-2 condition when the stimuli received twice the usual amount of motion and presentation complexity (75% or 12/16). This finding suggests that complexity was not a factor. The results from experiment 3 explored whether choices in experiment 1 showed infants from both groups choosing more over less in the 1-versus-2 condition due to number of items or total amount of cracker. Experiment 3a was a greater-area condition and experiment 3b an equal-area condition. Results for experiment 3a showed infants choice based on quantity (a huge cracker) and not number of items (75% or 12/16) Results for experiment 3b showed infants choice based on equal-are were at chance (37.5% or 6/16). The overall pattern of both successes and failures were suggested to compliment and help make sense of the object-file hypothesis proposed by others (e.g. Káldy & Leslie 2003; Leslie et al. 1998; Uller et al. 1999).

Understanding Physical Laws and Causation

Investigators have found that between 3-9mths, sometimes earlier, infants appear to grasp a wide variety of physical laws concerned with the behaviour of physical objects. Spelke et al. (1992) in an important series of experiments demonstrated that by 4mths infants appear to believe that objects cannot move through a solid physical obstruction. Initially the infants are habituated to a hand holding a ball and the ball being dropped behind a screen. The infants are then shown the background wall and floor, whereupon the screen was lowered. The screen is then removed showing the ball at rest on the floor. After being shown this repeatedly until the infant was habituated, a low shelf is placed some small distance above the floor. The ball is now dropped and, as one might expect, the ball comes to rest on the shelf (i.e. above the ground). This continues until habituation is achieved. Finally, the ball is dropped behind the screen but, on this occasion, the ball appears below the shelf – as if it has passed through the shelf. This novel fact elicits what has become known as the violation-of-expectancies response. In other words, the infants stared longer at the ball which seemed to defy physical laws by passing through the shelf. These results have been found in a number of other researchers work with infants using ‘impossible’ events (Baillargeon 2001; Needham and Baillargeon 1993).

For Piaget the infant has very little awareness of the principle of cause and effect. For example, at 10mths his daughter famously took his hand in such a way so that his fingers would squeeze a doll to make it sing. Piaget brushed this incident off by way of arguing that it was not until the infants first birthday (12mths) that they might gain an understanding of causal relations external to themselves. However, using the violation-of-expectancies method Leslie (1994; 2002) has presented 6mth old infants with a computerized display showing one square ‘bumping’ into another second square followed by an ‘impossible’ event involving the same squares. The infants stared longer at the ‘non-causal’ events thus supporting Leslie’s contention. However, Oakes and Cohen (1990) and Cohen et al. (2002) found that when they replaced the computer for physical objects 6mth infants quickly became “overloaded” and could no longer respond on the basis of causality. These results appear to support the idea that infants learn to infer causality and will display such knowledge only under arranged circumstances.

For Piaget, when an infant sees an object it exists, but when that object is out of sight it is also out of mind. Wynn (1992) has tested this assumption, again using the ‘differential looking’ when the infant’s expectations are violated method. However, Wynn’s (1992) findings have not been replicable by all (see Wakely et al. 2000). For those that could replicate Wynn’s (1992) findings like Cohen and Marks (2002) there was also no definitive evidence showing that infants had developed the early beginnings of what might later become addition and subtraction abilities.

Methodological problems with Piaget’s pre-operational Stage

It has been suggested that Piaget’s tasks at this stage may have underestimated the child’s abilities due to a number of factors including:

v       complicated language.

v       unfamiliar materials.

v       lack of context.

v       children misinterpreting experimenter’s intention.
More recent studies have attempted to ask questions more clearly and to present situations to which children can relate more easily.

(Light, Buckingham & Robbins 1979)

v       children shown two identical beakers with same amount of food in each.

v       experimenter then points out that one of the beakers is chipped, and suggests putting the contents in a third, different shaped container for the sake of safety.
-> more children correctly say that there is still the same amount of food.
This outcome suggests that the context of the given task may be important for children’s understanding of the situation.  As far as children are concerned, adults rarely do something without a reason (e.g. they wouldn’t pour liquid from one place to another unless they wanted to change something; they would not perhaps ask a question unless something had in fact changed).  By providing a clear reason for making the change (e.g. the beaker is chipped) this allows some children to concentrate more on the materials.

(McGarrigle in Donaldson 1978)

v       Presented children with conservation tasks.

v       instead of an experimenter, a character called ‘Naughty Teddy’ performs transformation (means that the act of transforming the situation is divorced from the experimenter’s second question).
-> 70% of 4 – 6 year olds passed this version of the task.
Suggests that differences in ‘meaning’ children ascribe to situations might cause them to pass or fail task.
(McGarrigle in Donaldson 1978)

v       suggested that the class inclusion task is hard because the questioning does not make the super-ordinate category salient.

v       presented children with a modified version of the task making super-ordinate category more salient.

v       one group of children asked typical question: “Are there more black cows or more cows?”.

v       another group of children told that ALL the cows were sleeping, and then asked: “Are there more black cows or more sleeping cows?”
(note that this is still a class inclusion question).
-> only 25% of the first group answered correctly.

è      50% of the second group answered correctly.
Although performance is not perfect with the modified task, the results show that at least a proportion failed the original task because of the way it was presented.

(Hughes in Donaldson 1978)

v       devised a version of the Piagetian perspective taking task which would make ‘human sense’ to a child.

v       children shown a board with two barriers.

v       toy policemen placed at the end of each barrier.

v       child asked to place a model boy in the layout where the policeman can’t see him.

Many pre-operational children succeeded in placing model boy in section ‘d’ suggesting that they could understand the perspective of the two policemen.

(Das Gupta & Bryant 1989)

v       showed children sequences of pictures depicting simple, familiar events in which an object was transformed in some way.

v       two types of event were shown:

  1. an object goes from it’s basic state to a changed state (e.g. a cup became a wet cup).
  2. an object goes from a changed state to it’s basic state (e.g. a wet cup becomes a dry cup).

v       children asked to choose one item out of three that caused the object to change (e.g. water, cloth, feather)
-> 3 year olds generally picked the same item (water) for both transformations.

è      4 year olds generally choose different and appropriate items for each transformation.
This study suggests that 4 year olds can understand a simple, familiar transformation and follow it mentally in both directions (reversibility).

Methodological Criticisms of Piaget concerning nativism and modularity

Chomsky (1957)

Chomsky’s initial focus was on language development but he made waves for Piaget because Piagetian theory is supposed to account for all areas of learning including language. Chomsky argues that a general constructivist theory could not account for language learning as the child is exposed to degenerate linguistic data, therefore, the child must be applying linguistic structure from within. Chomsky went on to propose a Language Acquisition Device (LAD) which is a module specifically dedicated to detecting and analysing linguistic information from the child’s environment.

Gardner (1983)

Gardner collected huge amounts of data on performance relating to many different tasks. His suggestion is that the brain is divided into several specialized systems which deal with different kinds of information. Gardner proposes seven distinct intelligences that we possess:

v       Linguistic

v       Logical-mathematical

v       Spatial

v       Musical

v       Bodily-Kinaesthetic

v       Interpersonal

v       Intrapersonal

In addition, he sets forth eight criteria by which to determine if a particular ability constitutes a distinct intelligence:

v       Potential isolation by brain damage

v       The existence of idiot savants, prodigies etc.

v       Identifiable set of specific operations

v       Distinctive developmental history

v       Distinctive evolutionary history

v       Support from experimental psychology

v       Support from psychometric findings

v       Encoding as a distinct symbol system

Fodor (1979) and Karmiloff-Smith (1992)

Began his studies of development using a Piagetian framework only to recognize the problems raised from psychopathology that very specific abilities can be affected while the other cognitive systems remain unaffected (e.g. savant syndrome, Williams syndrome). However, unconvinced by Fodors (1979) strict position on modularity, Karmiloff-Smith proposed a synthesis drawn from between nativist and constructivist accounts. For Karmiloff-Smith cognition begins as generalized but specific abilities become differentiated, modularized and localized within the brain.


In seeking to satisfy the stated purpose (attending to infants’ representations of objects) concerning object individuation and identification one ought to perhaps remain mindful that the unique richness of individual difference is neither diminished nor lost sight of through reflective and responsible handling of information obtaining from the unfolding tapestry that is human patterning. Taken together, the abovementioned findings do indeed ask some difficult questions concerning the reliability of Piaget’s original experimentation. It may be that some of Piaget’s tasks were easier and others harder however, for relatively trivial reasons, such as, the child misunderstood the experimenter’s intentionality behind the given tasks, it may appear to the critically minded reader that Piaget’s scrupulous and exhaustive experiments are not without flaws. That said, as Dobson et al. (1981: p. 328) have pointed out, many of Piaget’s critics all-too “often fail to offer alternative explanations of how cognitive functions originate at whatever age, or how experience influences cognitive behaviour.”


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