By Milton V. Uecker, Ed.D.
A discussion of cognitive development would not be complete without looking at the development of the brain itself. Brain research consistently affirms the importance of the first four years as critical to the preparation of the brain for the schooling experience. Eric Jensen, author of Teaching with the Brain in Mind, when discussing the importance of the early years quotes Felton Earls of Harvard saying, “…by age four you have essentially designed a brain that is not going to change very much more” (Jensen, 1998).
The environmental stimuli during the early years facilitate the growth of the brain’s cortex, the dendrite branches that connect the neurons along neural pathways and even the size of the cells themselves. Neural stimulation through new experiences wires the brain for those activities in the future. According to Jensen, exposure to the sounds of a language, wires for that language. Experience with an expanded vocabulary wires the brain for language skills, being read to wires the brain for learning syntax, vocabulary, and meaning. Because of the connections between motor development and later learning, crawling and other motor activities prepare the child for school success. Every experience impacts the brain. It should be noted that stressful experiences contribute negatively in that “the brain reorganizes itself, increasing receptor sites for alertness chemicals. This increases reactivity and blood pressure, and the child will be more impulsive and aggressive in school” (Jensen, 1998, p. 19). Many children who come to preschool have had inadequate language and motor experiences to prepare them for later learning. It becomes critical therefore that the focus of early childhood be on movement, creative play, and interactive language.
“The single best way to grow a better brain is through challenging problem solving” (Jensen, 1998, p. 35). Of particular importance is the rapid growth of dendrite branches in the left hemisphere between age 4 and 7. Problem-solving objectives including the ability to think independently and determining alternate solutions to problems are best realized in an atmosphere where children are encouraged in their efforts to actively explore and find alternative answers to problems (Catron, 1999). Different means toward solutions involve different areas of the brain. The solution might involve paper and pencil, a mental model, mathematics, art, or a verbal explanation. As the child engages in a variety of strategies, a corresponding variety of neural pathways are created. Pathways are created through the activity regardless of the accuracy or quality of the solutions (Jensen, 1998).
Activities that involve the students in observing, divergent and convergent thinking, predicting and testing ideas and classifying should occur frequently within the early childhood classroom (Kostelnik, 1993). These activities are supported by flexible play-oriented environments where teachers are enthusiastic and wait upon the children for answers. The teacher points toward answers through questions as opposed to providing answers through demonstration (Kostelnik, 1993).
Additional Theories of Cognitive Development
Even though Piaget and brain research have had a major impact on early education, a discussion of cognitive development would remain incomplete without considering some additional learning theorists that have influenced early childhood education. These theorists often provide answers to questions that are inadequately addressed by others. A developmental educator searches out truth from within the frameworks of all theorists. Christian early childhood educators, like their secular counterparts, understand that no one theory adequately addresses the complexities of human growth and development. God has given man the ability to observe and use his unique rational ability to search out truth. In addition to the understandings gained from man’s quest for knowledge, the Christian searches the Truth from God’s Word as a source for understanding children and as a benchmark against which to evaluate a given theorist’s ideas.
Development is viewed as synonymous with learning. Experiences shape development through conditioning. Reinforced behaviors when repeated become conditioned responses and from the behaviorist perspective, learning has taken place. Unlike stage theorists, the behaviorist sees the principles of behaviorism as consistent across all ages. Within the behaviorist framework anything can be taught at any time through the process of positively reinforcing desired responses.
Social Learning Theory (Bandura)
Albert Bandura and other social learning theorists reacted to the behaviorist’s treatment of man as a mere animal. This theory addresses man as unique and adds to the principles of behaviorism the influence of a social context on the child’s learning or development. A child is an observer of more mature models. Learning can occur through imitation rather than through pure trial and error. As in behaviorism there are no discrete stages.
Contextualist Theory (Vygotsky)
From the contextualist perspective learning drives development and learning is facilitated through interaction with more competent individuals (mediators). As children involve themselves in activities where they can achieve a task through the mediation of another, they take on the ability to do the task independently. The mediator facilitates learning (development) by pointing out relevant details, asking questions that promote thought, or modeling the thinking process needed for the new skill or activity. The child adopts the speech of the mediator and self-talks his or her way through the activity. As the speech is internalized, learning occurs. Unlike behaviorists who believe any task can be learned through adequate conditioning, the contextualist believes that there are activities that children cannot do even with assistance and should therefore be postponed.
Upon examination of these theorists certain truths from each become evident. In reality the elements discussed by each theorist are operative. Each provides factors that must be considered when addressing the complexities of learning in the young child. At the same time there emerges a pattern of instructional activity that would promote learning within each of these theoretical frameworks. It is this synthesis that characterizes the practices of a student-sensitive approach to learning.
Jensen, E. (1998). Teaching with the Brain in Mind. Alexandria, VA: ASCD.
Kostelnik, M.J., Soderman, A.K. & Whiren, A.P. (1993). Developmentally Appropriate Programs in Early Children Education. New York, NY: Macmillan Publishing Company.
Catron, C.E. & Allen, J. (1999). Early Childhood Curriculum: a Creative-play Model. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice-Hall, Inc.