IB Psychology/Options/Developmental psychology/Cognitive Development

Cognitive Development Edit

The cognitive development (CD) heading depicts the growth of how people think and understand.

There are two cognitive developments:

  • CD1: Evaluate theories of cognitive development.
  • CD2: Discuss how social and environmental variables may affect cognitive development.

Note that any example responses are not necessarily worth full marks, but exist simply to provide an idea of how an example looks.

CD1 Edit

Evaluate theories of cognitive development.

This question was last asked in the November paper in 2014 in its restricted form (evaluate one theory). The command term evaluate is a level three command term, and is asking you to make an appraisal by weighing up the strengths and limitations. This outcome is an essay and is therefore worth 22 marks, and because it is an Options it will only ever be asked as an essay.

There are two major theories that are concerned with cognitive development: Piaget's Theory of Cognitive Development, and Vygotsky's Theory of Cognitive and Sociocultural Development.

Piaget's Theory of Cognitive Development Edit

Piaget's theory of cognitive development is a stage theory of development, suggesting that we develop in stages sequentially and we must complete one stage before continuing to the next. Piaget theorises that children are active scientists who build and construct their our world based on schemas. Adaptation, the process of modifying schemas, occurs as we progress through the stages. Infants lack the skills required for categorising; however, as they age they start to form schemas in order to classify information. Piaget proposed two forms of adaptation: assimilation and accommodation. Assimilation occurs when new events can be fitted into existing schemas of what the child already understands about the world. For example, when a child sees a motorbike for the first time it fits their schema for a bike, allowing them to understand what a motorbike is. However, when they see a plane for the first time they may not have a schema for a plane. Hence, they may construct a new schema through accommodation. Accommodation occurs when new events do not fit existing schemas, thus, other schemas are modified to allow new world view or new schemas are created. When a child encounters an object that does not fit an existing schema, it causes a mental state of imbalance. Hence, processes such as assimilation and accommodation exist to equilibrate such events. There are four stages, as suggested by Piaget's theory, that we progress through as we develop. These stages are the sensorimotor stage, the pre-operational stage, the concrete operational stage, and the formal operational stage.

Sensorimotor Stage Edit

An infant is in the sensorimotor stage from around ages 0-2. At this stage, babies do not have a concept of time or of the world, they only exist for immediate sensual input and motor or movement actions. They do not have a concept of object permanence, which means that when they cannot see an object, it ceases to exist for the infant. At this stage, babies are discovering that they have hands and feet, and that they can control them. Throughout this stage, children are profoundly egocentric, as they do not have the mental capacity to understand others' perspectives. They also cannot distinguish between themselves and the environment.

Criticism: Bower (1982) was a simple experiment that had children placed in front of an object. A screen was placed between the child and the object, and then the object was removed and the screen taken away. Bower claimed that the children showed surprise at the disappearance of the object, and thus argues that object permanence was a more flexible phenomenon.

Pre-operational Stage Edit

The pre-operational stage occurs from ages 2-7. At this stage, the child begins to represent the world symbolically and relies on external appearances rather than consistent internal logic. There is a lack of conservation, which is the realisation that an object can remain the same despite a change in appearance. The child has a classification limitation: the child's ability to classify objects into the same group is restricted. This ability develops at around age 4 in basic forms, i.e. colours and shapes.

Diagram of Hughes' (1975) experimental setup.
Supporting Study: Piaget and Inhelder (1956) set up an experiment that aimed to test children's egocentrism. The children were sat on one side of a scene containing three mountains, each with a distinctive landmark on them. On the opposite side of the scene was a doll. The children were asked to select an image from a group of images that demonstrated what the doll would see. Fifty-eight percent of children of 3 years of age selected images that represented the child's own perspective, and this was the same for 33% of children of 4 years of age. Piaget and Inhelder claimed that this was a positive example of the children's egocentrism.
Criticism: Hughes (1975) made a similar experiment to Piaget and Inhelder, except that instead of a mountain, he set up the experiment so that there were two policemen dolls behind two walls. The children were asked to place another doll, so that it would not be seen by the policemen. Hughes found that the children would consistently be able to place the doll out of the views of the policemen. This study refutes the findings of Piaget and Inhelder, and Hughes suggests that if the experiment is contextualised for the children, they can perform beyond their theorised ability.
Criticism: McGarrigle and Donaldson (1974) performed the Naughty Teddy Study, which aimed to test the concept of conservation in children. The researchers set out two rows of markers so that they were the same length and contained the same number of markers. The children were asked if the two rows had the same amount of markers, and all the children said yes. Then, a doll called the 'Naughty Teddy' was used to make one of the rows appear longer than the other. The children were again asked if the rows had the same amount of markers, and a large majority of the children again said yes. This also demonstrates how when the study is contextualised to the children, they tend to be able to perform better than their predicted level.

Concrete Operational Stage Edit

At the concrete operational stage (ages 7-11) the child develops definitive rules or schemas for ordering the world called operations, that can only be applied to real objects in the real 'concrete' world. Children have a fondness for collecting information about the world, including lists of facts and extensive data about a particular topic.

Formal Operational Stage Edit

The final stage is the formal operational stage, which exists above the age of 11. When a child reaches this stage, ideas and problems can be manipulated mentally without the need for physical objects. The child can think about possible occurrences and imagine themselves in different roles without the need for dolls or play acting, and can propose and solve hypothetical problems and abstract concepts. Piaget proposed that everyone reaches this stage by at least age 20; however, a criticism of the theory (evaluation) is that only around 1/3 of people ever reach this stage.

Evaluation of Piaget's Theory Edit


  • It was the first comprehensive theory of child cognitive development.
  • Piaget modified the theory, accepting criticisms and new evidence from research.
  • It was the first to investigate whether biological maturation drove cognitive development, which is now widely accepted, and supported by cross-cultural research.
  • It developed the notion of constructivism - where children are actively engaged with constructing their knowledge of the world rather than acting as passive receivers of information.
  • It received a plethora of longitudinal, cross-section, and cross-cultural support over many years.
  • It had an important impact on educational practice, making education more effective and enjoyable.


  • Piaget's methods:
    • His experiments were over-complicated and difficult to relate to for children.
    • When the methods were changed, children often showed cognitive ability outside of their age appropriate stage.
    • Clinical interview
      • There are no set questions.
      • There is a reduced freedom for child to express themselves.
      • It can not be known how Piaget could have influenced the children or interpreted answers.
  • Small sample sizes mean caution should be used then generalising to large groups and cultures.
  • His methods lacked scientific vigour.
  • He failed to distinguish between competence (what a child is capable of doing) and performance (what a child can show when given a particular task). When tasks were altered, performance (and therefore competence) was affected.
  • Notion of biological readiness has also been questioned; further research has suggested that training does have an effect on cognitive development.
    • Piaget sees children as being totally active in their quest to understand their environment.
    • This suggests that minimum adult supervision and intervention are best for a child's cognitive development, which has been shown to not be the case.
  • Piaget under-estimated the role of social development in cognitive development.
  • The theory does not provide a detailed explanation for the stages.
  • Too rigid and inflexible - development is better regarded as a continuous process.
  • By focusing on child's limitations, he over-looked important abilities that children do possess.
  • He neglected many important cognitive factors (such as memory span, motivation, impulsiveness, practice etc.) that could have accounted for individual differences in development.
  • All experiments were conducted on Piaget's own kids, therefore there is a massive sample bias.
  • He based the stages on ages, a notion that has been rebutted by empirical research.

Vygotsky's Theory of Cognitive and Sociocultural Development Edit

While Piaget saw children as active sciences, Vygotsky saw them as apprentices. Vygotsky put emphasis on social interaction and language as major influences on child's development, and suggested that it is not possible to describe the process by which children acquire knowledge without taking into account the child's social environment or culture. He focussed on how children play and socialise; language development in the context of their understanding of the world; and culture and language in a child's cognitive development. Vygotsky put forward the idea of scaffolding], although he did not ever actually use the term. Scaffolding suggests that children can become more competent at tasks they struggle with, if they are provided with appropriate assistance from a More Knowledgeable Other (MKO). He also suggested that there is Zone of Proximal Development (ZPD), which can be defined as the distance between a child's current and potential abilities under adult supervision.

Evaluation of Vygotsky's Theory Edit


  • Vygotsky's work led to the concept of scaffolding, which is useful for teachers and parents.
  • His suggestion that inner speech is a key part of learning and cognitive development, received support.
    • Behrend et al. (1992) quantified inner speech by observing the amount of whispering and lip movement children engaged in when given a task, and found that children who used the greatest amount of inner speech tended to perform better.
  • He made an important contribution to developmental psychology, highlighting the importance of social interaction on cognitive development (an area lacking in Piaget's approach).
  • His theory has been successfully applied to education.
  • He inspired sociocultural approaches to learning and highlighted the importance of individual's historical social and cultural context (i.e. Cole and Scribner, 1974).


  • It is too vague in his outline of social influence
  • Wood (1998) states that Vygotsky's work is hardly a fully-fledged theory, but a perspective to look at what influenced learning, i.e. it is more of an observation than a theory.
  • There is a lack of empirical support; Vygotsky put emphasis on processes rather than outcomes (and processes are harder to test for).

Example response Edit

There is no example response yet for this outcome.

Additional Notes Edit

Due to the large amount of content in this outcome, some students choose to ignore it; however, this is a risky decision and is not recommended.

CD2 Edit

Discuss how social and environmental variables may affect cognitive development.

The command term discuss is a level three command term, is asking you to offer a considered and balanced review that includes a range of arguments, factors or hypotheses. Opinions or conclusions should be presented clearly and supported by appropriate evidence. This outcome is an essay and is therefore worth 22 marks, and because it is an Options it will only ever be asked as an essay.

Some of the social and environmental variables that may affect cognitive development that can be discussed are poverty, diet, parenting, and environment.

Poverty Edit

Poverty is the state or condition of having little or no money, goods, or means of support.[1] Poverty is a major risk factor in children's cognitive development. Poor nutrition, poverty-related health problems, home environment, parenting practices, and living in poor neighbourhood with high levels of crime and unemployment are all factors that may impact on cognitive development and are inextricably linked with poverty. Additionally, the parents' time is spread across a lot of things such as their jobs, and hence they are not spending much time with child. The child needs support and a loving environment in order to thrive and have a strong development.

Supporting Study: Wertheimer (2003) found that when comparing children from poor families to children from more effluent families, the poor families were:
  • unlikely to be identified as gifted
  • more likely to repeat a school year
  • less likely to do extracurricular activities
  • more likely to have a learning disability or a developmental delay
Additionally, he found that children whose families live in poverty have:
  • poorer academic performance
  • less likelihood to go to university
  • greater likelihood to have early unplanned parenthood
  • greater likelihood to be unemployed
All of this leads to fewer options and the likelihood that children of poor parents will become poor parents themselves, and the cycle will continue.

Supporting Study: Schoon et al. (2002) aimed to investigate the effects of long-term poverty on academic performance. The participants were 30,000 UK children aged from birth to adulthood from two cohorts, one in 1958 and the other from 1970. The researchers found that low socioeconomic status increases risk of poor academic performance, which influences future success. Also, being poor increases the probability of accumulated risk factors and the scale of the impact that this has on cognitive development

Diet Edit

Diet is the foods eaten, as by a particular person or group.[1] The effect of diet begins before the child is born, for example, seafood is the primary source of omega-3 fatty acids which are essential for neural development.

Supporting Study: Hibbeln et al. (2007) compared two groups of women. One of the groups had consumed high levels of omega-3 fatty acids during pregnancy, and the other group had consumed lower levels of the same. The researchers found that the children the lower seafood intake group had lower motor (movement and coordination) skills and lower social development and communication skills than the children of mothers who consumed the high levels of seafood.

Behavioural, emotional, and academic problems are more prevalent among children with hunger. Children experiencing hunger are more likely to be hyperactive, absent and tardy, in addition to having behavioural and attention problems more often than other children (this is because tired and bored children are more likely to become destructive and/or distractive in their behaviour). Children who are undernourished score lower on cognitive tests when they miss breakfast.

Supporting Study: Raloff (1989) aimed to test the effect of having breakfast on academic performance. He tested 1023 6th-grade children over the course of one year and found that those who were given free school breakfasts improved their maths and science skills.
Supporting Study: The Food Research Action Centre (FRAC) in the USA tested whether breakfast has wide cognitive-behavioural benefits; they conducted a meta-analysis of breakfast programme studies.They found that children who skip breakfast are less able to distinguish among similar images, show increased errors, and have slower memory recall.

Teens experiencing hunger are more likely to have been suspended from school, have difficulty getting along with other children and have no friends; however, this is an extreme and rare occurrence, that will only happen after a long period of time in addition to having other environmental problems trigger such situations. Caution should be used when attributing improved cognitive functioning to a healthy diet. A healthy diet can have less quantifiably measurable effects on a child such as increased self-esteem, improved personal discipline, and a greater sense of responsibility all of which would have an effect on school grades.

Supporting Study: Northerstone et al. (2010) monitored 4,000 UK children from birth through to age eight. Children under the age of four who regularly ate processed food, fat, and sugar had a lower intellectual performance at the age of eight-and-a-half. Children's IQ scores fell by 1.67 for every increase on a chart reflecting the amount of processed fat in their diet.

Parenting Edit

Parenting is the methods, techniques, etc., used or required in the rearing of children.[1] In the USA in 2001, the Michigan Department of Education (MDE) argued that the most consistent predictors of a child's academic achievement and social adjustment were parent expectations. Parents of high-achieving students set higher standards for their children's educational activities than parents of low-achieving students, and this drove educational achievements and therefore cognitive development.

The MDE stated that when parents are involved students have:

  • higher grades, test scores and graduation rates
  • increased motivation and better self-esteem
  • better school attendance
  • lower rates of suspension
  • decreased us of drugs and alcohol
  • fewer instances of violent behaviour

It was found that family participation in education was twice as predictive of students' academic success as family socio-economic status: the more intensely parents were involved the more beneficial the achievement effects became. The MDE officials monitored out-of-school activities such as setting limits on TV-watching, checked up on children when parents are not home, arranged for after-school activities and supervised care. They model the value of learning, self-discipline, and hard work, such as communicating through questioning and conversation, demonstrating that achievement comes from working hard.

Supporting Study: Wood et al. (1976) introduced the notion of scaffolding as a development of Vygotsky's Zone of Proximal Development theory, in which the disorganised and spontaneous thoughts presented by the child are responded to with more systematic, logical and rational concepts of a more knowledgeable (usually adult) helper. These parental strategies can be seen in the Vygotskian scaffolding sense.

Environment Edit

Environment is the social and cultural forces that shape the life of a person or a population.[1] The environmental stimulation can affect cognitive development is several ways. In an enriched environment, children will thrive and learn through their stimulated experiences; alternatively, children in a deprived environment will be restricted from such benefits and will show a decrease in academic, social, and emotional performance.

Supporting Study: Farah et al. (2008) aimed to investigate the relationship between environmental stimulus and parental nurturance on cognitive development. It was a longitudinal study of 110 middle-school African-American children aged around 12 years old. Children were recruited at birth and evaluated at ages 4 and 8 years. Through the use of interviews and observational checklists, the researchers measured environmental stimulation (for example music, art, and/or a variety of experience) and parental nurturance (for example warmth, affection, and emotional and verbal responsively). The researchers also conducted lab experiments on language and memory. They found a positive correlation between environmental stimulation and language development, as well as, a positive correlation between parental nurturance and long-term memory performance. The researchers also identified that age was a factor.

Example response Edit

There is no example response yet for this outcome.

Additional Notes Edit

If the outcome is restricted to "Discuss how one social and environmental variable may affect cognitive development", then the outcome that has the most amount of research and content, i.e. diet, should be used.

References Edit

  1. a b c d DIctionary.com Unabridged. [1], 2014. Retrieved on 15 November 2014.