Theories of Child Development

We will examine the fundamentals of Piglet’s theory and discuss the limitations of his model; we will ask If the more contemporary models provided by both Boycotts and Burner have provided any solutions to those limitations, and how all of this applies to the real world. Aldrich & Goldman (2007) concluded from their research that “No one theory has proved adequate to describe and explain learning or development” (Aldrich & Goldman, 2007). But many have tried.
The progression of this field has therefore led to several different perspectives; Gel’s ‘Maturational Theory (1925) and Fraud’s Psychoanalytic theory (1935) were among the first approaches, with Skinners Behaviorism Theory (1974) and Piglet’s constructivist theory (1952) being Introduced later on (Aldrich & Goodman, 2007). More recently (1978) the ‘Socio-historical Approach’ belonging predominately to Boycotts and Burners ‘Information-processing Theory have been some of the most prominent.
Piglet’s model of cognitive development was mostly ignored for over twenty years (Wood, 1998). Nevertheless, since then, Piglet’s theory is included in most child development text books, and many argue that it has had the most Influence on the subject of cognitive development (Jarvis & Chandler, 2001 Piglet’s own terminology for the area he was interested in was ‘Genetic Epistemology; that is, the measure of intelligence and how it changes as children grow.

According to Piglet, a child’s brain develops in a structured way, passing through four stages/levels of development/intelligence in sequence- Piglet believed these stages to be Universal (not influenced by factors such as class, gender or culture) with no regression- so once a child has passed through one phase It does not go back (Gross, 2010). Piglet’s model Is based upon the concept of Operations and Schemas; Schemas can be described as building blocks’ of memory which we use to interpret the world around us.
Gross. 2010) Schemas are both innate and learned, for instance, a newborn baby will instinctively know how to suck or cry- these are basic instincts we are born with; tools of survival. In contrast, children have to learn how to chew. (Castaway, 2013). Operations are the rules by which Piglet said we understand the world- according to Planet, the operational level of the brain develops only as the brain grows; unlike Schemas which develop whenever a new experience is processed (Jarvis & Chandler 2001).
This is an important part of Piglet’s theory as it underpins the reasoning behind the lain that children of a certain age are unable to perform/think/ feel certain tasks- it’s not that they are less intelligent than adults; simply that their brain works differently. The four stages of Piglet’s theory are therefore named after the (age 2-7 years), Concrete Operational (age 7 to 1 1 years) and finally Formal Operational stage (ages 11 onwards).
Piglet said that whilst the child’s brain changes as it develops, the actual processes that facilitate change do not; According to Piglet, this process depends upon a series of functional invariants’- things that occur every time the brain processes something; he identified assimilation, accommodation and equilibrium as the most important of these functions (Gross, 2010) with the former two processes establishing the latter (Sternberg, 1995).
Assimilation is the process by which the brain tries to fit’ an experience into an existing schema- when this can be achieved, a state of equilibrium is reached within the brain, which is according to Piglet the preferred state: “Mental development occurs because the organism has a natural desire to operate in a state of equilibrium” (Want & Revolver, 1993). However, in the case of new experiences, assimilation cannot be achieved; leaving the brain in a state of disequilibrium.
The brain will therefore need to go through a process of adaptation/accommodation in order to achieve equilibrium once more. Each time adaptation occurs, the brain creates a new schema (or additional ‘building bloc? ) which can be drawn upon next time, and thus the child’s intelligence develops in this way. Piglet’s theory is therefore based upon the assumption that learning is driven by an innate motivation to achieve an eternal state of equilibrium.
This idea makes up arguably the most revolutionary concept of Piglet’s theory; the concept that children don’t need the intervention/reinforcement of others in order to learn; That they are intrinsically motivated- a concept which contradicted earlier development theories such as Pavlov’s (1927) reinforcement/ learning theory (Wood, 1988) and also has strong educational implications- according to Piglet’s theory, children learn by experience, by trying things out for themselves.
It also implies that teacher/pupil interaction should be tailored to each individual child. According to Wood; “Piglet’s theory… Offers a detailed and specific account of universal stages in human development which provide a possible explanation as to when and how a child is ready to learn or develop specific forms of knowledge and understanding” (Wood, 1988). This to some extent is true. For instance, most people know that its common sense that we can’t teach a young baby to walk before it can sit up.
Similarly, if we look at the situation in reverse, from studies of cases of extreme social deprivation such as the feral child Genie (1970) who was discovered at the age of 13 and had been in isolation from the GE of twenty months old, we see that despite continued attempts to teach Genie to speak (via intensive therapy sessions) she never achieved full language acquisition, suggesting that there is indeed a time period for at least certain areas of cognitive development (Stone,2010).
Because Piglet’s theory has dominated the discipline of child development for so long, it is somewhat unsurprising that a lot of his research has been challenged. The most controversial issue seems to lie in the rigidity of Piglet’s stages, and their timescales. For instance, Bower (1982) disproved Piglet’s incept that children in the earlier seniority stages (there are 6 in total) lack the ability to perceive object permanence by demonstrating younger children looking for objects, and Balladeer & Devon (1991) further corroborated Bower’s findings.
Similarly, Meltzer & Moore (1994) found that in babies as young as six weeks old images can be stored and retrieved at a much younger age than Piglet said. (Boyd & Bees 2014). The Pre-operational stage of Piglet’s has probably received the most criticism- in particular his concept of centralization and egocentrics (that is, that pre- operational children have the inability to perceive the world from another person’s perspective).
This idea was concluded from the results obtained from Piglet’s famous three mountains study (Piglet & Inhaler, 1956) but Donaldson (1978) criticized the mountain experiments, arguing that the objects used (a model of mountains) and the structure of the questions were too unfamiliar to a child.
Broke (1975) conducted similar studies using more familiar objects (toys) and language, concluding that children as young as 3 are capable of decentralization (being able to e the world from another view); Furthermore, Miscarriage & Donaldson (1978) also found even slight re-organization of questions produced much better results (Smith, Cookie & Blades, 2003). So as we can see, Piglet’s methodology has also come under much criticism. The research is vast so it is impractical to name every study, suffice to say that because of the success of Piglet’s theory, it has been picked apart at the seams.
But nevertheless its contribution to the theory of cognitive development has been great. In summary, Piglet theorists that cognitive development happens in four universal, sequential stages. He places more emphasis on the child than the environment itself- although he does recognize environmental factors play an important role in development. Many other developmental theorists have taken Piglet’s model of development as a basis for their own research; by examining the gaps in Piglet’s theory they have been able to offer alternative explanations.
The work of Weights and Burner are both quite similar to Piglet in some respects- Hoosegows Socio- Cultural theory is also a stage theory, however it is less rigid with the stages, and places much more emphasis on the child’s interaction with others. Unfortunately, Hoosegows career was cut short as he died at a young age without publishing a full theory (Gross,2010) but the work of Burner has gone some way to expanding on Hoosegows ideas.
Hoosegows theory advocated the zone of proximal development, and later, scaffolding- a concept developed by Burner to enhance Hoosegows original theory; With any new learning, there is a discrepancy between what the child could learn independently and what they could learn when instructed by others- this is the zone of proximal development Oarfish & Chandler, 2001). Scaffolding refers to the actual help given by either an adult or an expert peer (Gross, 010). Hoosegows theory therefore argues that children develop quicker if they are instructed, which opposes Piglet’s view that children learn more efficiently on their own, at their own pace.
Furthermore, whereas Piglet believed that the stages of development were determined predominantly by age, Hoosegows theory saw development as limited more by the social constraints of the culture. Cultural tools, and especially the tool of language, are key to our development according to both Weights and Burner (Gross, 2010); this is because without them we could not communicate, and without communication we could not learn; it is for this reason hat Weights and Burner’s theory place much emphasis upon cultural differences; we are all social creatures- creations of our culture.
Like Piglet, Burner’s theory also identifies stages of development, however they are much less structured than information via three different stages, each stage representing a different mode of representation; Inactive (birth to 1 year), Iconic (1 to 6 years) and Symbolic (7 onwards). During the inactive stage we store action based information, before moving on to the Iconic stage in which we process the information in pictures; the hemolytic stage is where we use symbols to interpret the information (for instance- language).
Burner’s modes of representation theory can be applied to both child development and also to adults of any age who encounter a new experience. Burner’s theory is therefore very different to Piglet’s in that Burner’s stages are constantly revisited each time a new skill is being learned (rather than Piglet’s concept of ‘no regression’) This theory has massive implications for education as it suggests anybody can learn anything so long as the information is presented in the erect format (McCollum, 2008).
If we now look again at the case of Genie and apply the above knowledge, it can be said that there are aspects of all three theories; Piglet, Weights and Burner which are validated by the unique case of the feral child: When discovered, Genie had the basic development of a one year old, having been in isolation since the age of 20 months, leaving her unable to speak. After over seven years of intense therapy, it was reported that: “At first Genie spoke only in one-word utterances… A little later she produced some verbs… Unlike normal children, however,
Genie never asked questions, despite many efforts to train her to do so. Nor did she understand much grammar. And her speech development was abnormally slow… Genie did not speak in a fully developed, normal way… Failed to learn grammatical principles. ” (Pines 1997) The fact that Genie was unable to achieve full linguistic function gives some credibility to Piglet’s theory of the different stages of development (e: that she had already passed the stage in which learning certain language skills was possible) however discredits it in others- because Genie was able o acquire some language skills.
Looking at Genie’s case in terms of Hoosegows theory, Genie was deprived of social interaction and therefore did not learn to speak. From Burner’s perspective however, in theory Genie should have been able to learn to speak, but due to the unique nature of Genie’s circumstances it is impossible to know if other factors were present that interrupted her cognitive development; for instance, she may have suffered other forms of abuse. (Stone,2010).
Genie’s case was so unique that we can’t make too many generalizations from it, but her case most finitely seems to support if not a ‘critical’ time period in the process of child cognitive development then at the very least a ‘sensitive’ time period during which new skills can be acquired (Boyd & Bee, 2014). In conclusion it can be said that both Burner and Weights have produced alternative theories which whilst contradictory to Piglet in some aspects are complimentary in others.
Piglet’s work has been much criticized as it does not make allowances for individual or cultural differences- Weights and Burner’s approach appears to somewhat bridge that gap (Gross,2010) y highlighting the fact that learning cannot take place without social interaction, and that different cultures socialism their children in different ways. Both Weights and Burner appear to accept the basic framework of Piglet’s theory, but reject the belief that children work better on their own, placing much more emphasis on the tool of language and communication.

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