Education is Our Passion

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By Tim Rymel, M.Ed

The National Institute of Health

(NIH) wanted to know why there were so many more 18-year-old drivers getting in car accidents than older drivers. By all accounts, “teenagers should be the world's best drivers. Their muscles are supple, their reflexes quick, their senses at a lifetime peak” (Williamson, 2005). Researchers fully expected a completely developed brain by age 18, a theory which used to form the basis of cognitive research. Piaget’s revised theory contended that children between the ages and 15 and 20 reached a stage of being able to “reason hypothetically, logically and systematically” (Merriam, Caffarella and Baumgartner, 2007, p 326). Though neuroscience may make a difference regarding how fast cognitive development happens, there are many theories and questions about the differences in that developmental process. This paper reviews the foundational theory on cognitive development and provides a synthesis of theories and models in a relevant  summaryrelated to adult learning.

The Foundation for Cognitive Development
Jean Piaget was somewhat of a protégé as a child. At 11 years old he wrote a paper on the albino sparrow, eventually spawning over 60 books and several hundred articles (Smith, 2000). In 1955, he created the Center for Genetic Epistemology (Smith, 2000). His interest in intellectual development led him to study the development of his own children and eventually develop a cognitive theory, which has become the foundation for cognitive development (Smith,

Piaget proposed four stages of cognitive development, which he related to specific ages. The stages represent “qualitatively different ways of making sense, understanding, and constructing a knowledge of the world” (Merriam, et al, p326). Table 1 represents the way in which Piaget saw the progression of cognitive development in children. This developmental theory is based on relative stages of human development, ultimately leading the individual to be
able to think abstractly as the “apex of mature adult thought” (Merriam, et al, p326). Piaget’s

Age Stage Cognitive Ability
0-2 Sensory-Motor Reflex Actions
2-7 Preoperational Represent concrete objects in symbols and words.
7-11 Concrete Operational Understand concepts and relationships of ideas
12+ Formal Operation Reason hypothetically, logically and systematically

Table 1

theory was not intended to explain every aspect of cognitive development, nor did it take into account continuing adult maturity and change. It did, however create a foundation for cognitive theory and serves as a foundational basis for adult learning and neurocognitive studies.

Based on Piaget’s preliminary information, additional studies have been conducted. Piaget’s research was primarily based on his descriptive case studies, leading Piaget to believe that, “biological development drives the movement from one cognitive stage to the next” (Huitt and Hummel, 2003). While data on children from Western cultures seems to support this theory, similar data from adolescents, “do not support the assertion that all individuals will automatically move to the next cognitive stage as they biologically mature” (Huitt and Hummel, 2003).

Knight and Sutton, considered to be neo-Piagetian scholars, noted that moving from concrete operational thinking to more formal operational thinking “may not occur for all aspects of thinking, but rather tend to be “’local and domain specific in nature’” (Merriam, et al, p 327). Also noted was that, ”a more advanced level involves an individual’s ability not only to think logically, but also to reflect on this logical thinking” (Merriam, at al, p 327). Metacognition
allows adults to take on a dualist approach to cognitive processes. They can think about more than one way to do things and there can be more than one truth.

Another important aspect to be considered, when looking at the foundation for adult cognitive development, is the context in which the development occurs. Piaget also Jean Piaget, 1896-1980 acknowledges the relevance of context in his later work (Merriam, et al). According to Mead, “Both mind and self evolve in a social context” (Serafica, 1981 p1). Knight and Sutton, as cited in Learning in Adulthood (Merriam, et. al, 2007), note that “new learning is most robust in the
context in which it was constructed” (Merriam, et al, p328). Evidence seems to support this theory and it is used in many progressive, higher education models catering to adult learners. The University of Phoenix, for example, developed its programs so that the learner can instantly apply new theories and practices to his or her job situation (Swenson, n.d.).

Piaget set the foundation for adult cognitive development by emphasizing qualitative developmental changes in cognition, rather than quantitative; focusing on the active role of the individual in developing his or her knowledge; and offering the idea of mature adult thought, or formal operations (Merriam, et al). Neo-Piagetians added to his theories, recognizing that “people could use formal operational thought in one context and concrete operational thought in
another”, and by introducing the idea of development beyond Piaget’s formal operations theory (Merriam, et al, p329). Other models were developed, which tested and emphasized these important contributions. A synthesis and theory

There tend to be two types of cognitive thinkers, linear and categorical, as referenced in the text book, Learning in Adulthood (2007). Models fall into one of these categories, as do most people. Theorists agree with Piaget’s first three cognitive developmental stages, as listed in Table 1. The question is what happens after stage three and how does this impact learning?

No single human is alike, nor does anyone think exactly the same. Therefore, one cannot realistically exalt one theory or explanation over another. The models of adult cognitive development are relevant and applicable, though perhaps not to every individual. Most interesting are the models developed using a single demographic. For example, Perry’s developmental scheme, as cited in Learning in Adulthood (Merriam, et. al, 2007), focused on white male college students. King and Kitchener conducted a ten-year study on male and female students at various educational levels. Belenky, Clinchy, Goldberger, and Tarule conducted research on women of varying backgrounds. Not surprisingly, each set of researchers developed their own cognitive theories.

To that end, it is impossible to accurately develop a cognitive theory without meshing biological and psychological factors. Piaget, himself, was a biologist. He considered himself a genetic epistemologist (Huit and Hummel, 2003). This writer’s theory is based in part on other theorists, biological factors, and speculation.

Most theorists agree that in the early years, knowledge comes from authority figures and people of influence around an individual’s life. King and Kitchener call this prereflective thinking. Piaget calls this the preoperational stage. However, it is when a person becomes more aware of the surrounding world that these influences become most pronounced.

Piaget was correct to emphasize qualitative developmental changes in cognition. There are many influencing factors in a person’s life that agree with this theory. A child from an abusive home is probably going to view life differently than a child from a more stable environment. Each environment will impact how that child learns and what that child learns in the future. As an adult, the individual brings those experiences into his or her learning environment. One person may see the world as more black and white, while the other sees gray areas. The difficulty is guessing which person sees life which way. There appears to be a major biological component regarding one’s view of the world and how he or she learns.



More and more research reveals how people make decisions based on brain function. Those decisions can be influenced by more or less of brain chemicals. For example, MSNBC reported that certain individuals are more susceptible to overeating because of neurohormonal changes in the brain (Alexander, 2009). It has long been proven that depression is also caused by low serotonin levels in the brain. If brain chemicals are responsible for behaviors, then they must also be responsible for changing the way people develop cognitively. Looking at Perry’s position 6, the individual says, “I see I’m going to have to make my own decisions in an uncertain world with no one to tell me I’m Right….” (Merriam, et al, p330). This person’s decisions may not always be logical to an observer if, for example, he or she suffers from depression. But those decisions are right, based on his or her cognitive processes and biological influence.

According to King and Kitchener, “Decisions and judgments people make…should remain open to evaluation and reevaluation” (Merriam, et al, p 333). Assuming an individual doesn’t reach these stages of thinking, does that mean this person is not capable of full cognitive thought? Or could there be mitigating biological factors that exclude him or her from reaching those stages? How does this person learn and/or move forward into the next phase of development?

There is no substitute for contextual learning. Regardless of an individual’s biological or environmental influences, contextual application transcends most cognitive dysfunctions. Labouvie-Vief noted that “one key factor in being able to adapt to [the realities of adult life] is the ability to accept and even thrive on contradiction,” which, “leads to acceptance of the notion of inherent relativity of knowledge and the ability to be self-regulating in choosing one’s
worldview” (Merriam, et al, p347).

People learn contextually throughout the developmental process. New ideas are based on personal relevancy, regardless of age and regardless of culture. A 9-year-old in a third-world country is focused on staying alive. Teaching him to type is not relevant, nor is it contextual. However, perhaps teaching him hunt is relevant and contextual. A 9-year-old in the U.S. is more likely to see the relevancy of learning to type. She may be a victim of abuse, or prone to depression, yet typing relates to the world around her. She will continue to build on this new information as more information becomes relevant.

Piaget laid the foundation for cognitive development. Neo-Piagetians built a solid system on top of his theories, stating dualistic thought processes and showing evidence for continual adult learning development. A number of theories have been proliferated, researching specific demographics and producing interesting results. No single theory, however, can be applied to all demographics. Biological influence also must be considered when researching cognitive development, as there is a larger influence than previously understood. The contextual perspective is inclusive of all cognitive development and allows learning to occur at all levels.

℗© Tim Rymel, March, 2008
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