Brian D. Cox


David C. Geary


Ray Brogan


Dorothy G. Singer


Mary Gauvain


Methods of teaching are typically predicated on fixed assumptions about the mind of the child to be taught. Is the mind of the child a blank slate, upon which the lessons are written or engraved in wax? Or is the child an opening flower to be guided by the teacher as gardener? Is the development of the mind a simple build-up of habits, a continuous and gradual accumulation of information, or does the child progress through stage-like shifts in understanding, modifying information given to him or her in accordance with that level of understanding? Are those stages ordained by physiology, evolution, or genetics? Or is the mind of a child like an information-processing computer, with hardware capacity and speed of processing limitations, running software: cognitive strategies and procedures? Finally, there is the conception of the child as clay to be passively molded as contrasted with the child as active investigator, constructing reality inside his or her head with or without the help of caretakers, educational materials, cultural prescriptions and prohibitions. All of these views contain some truth, and each is also useful to educators. This entry provides an overview; specific classroom techniques can be found under the individual entry for each theory.


In Some Thoughts Concerning Education (Locke, 1693/ 1968), the British empiricist philosopher John Locke (1632–1704) provided the intellectual foundation for the dominant theory of cognitive development in England and the United States until the mid-20th century. Empiricism is the philosophy that all knowledge is ultimately based on sense experiences and cognitive reflection on those experiences. Thus, Locke's main childrearing and educational advice was to observe children behaving in their context and to be aware that they are observing their parents' behavior in turn. Rather than forcing children to memorize texts and rules and to beat them if they forgot, Locke recommended that a parent or tutor encourage practice of skills in carefully graduated steps matched to the age, experience, and temperament of the child. Children should be encouraged to work for the praise and good esteem of their parents, rather than to receive concrete bribes or to avoid punishment. Locke believed that children are born without innate ideas and thus are blank slates, but he said that each child has a unique natural temperament that once observed should be taken into account.

Thus in the empiricist school, practice followed by praise or punishment was thought to lead to a buildup of proper habits. At its best, the empiricist tradition promoted a sophisticated pragmatism. E. L. Thorndike (1874–1949), one of the founders of educational psychology at Teachers' College at Columbia University in the early 20th century, believed that education did not expand general ability. Rather, he believed that every mental task could be decomposed into a series of discrete actions or thoughts that had met with success in particular tasks. Once a process had been trained to mastery in the classroom, only those elements that were the same between the training session and the new situation would transfer. This identical elements theory of education deem-phasized massive rote learning in favor of taking care that habits should be explicitly useful in the world. For example, Thorndike suggested that quantities in all arithmetic word problems should be given with units of measurement (feet, inches, or pounds), and a child should never have to calculate 16/18ths of a dollar. No habits should be taught that would later have to be broken; thus, careful consideration should be given to the context where habits of thought would be used. Thorndike believed that once basic habits are learned so well as to be automatic, higher-level thinking would emerge. (Thorndike, 1910–1913).

Every time math problem sets are ordered so that the next problem is only slightly more complex than the previous one, the insights of this tradition are used. But the empiricists saw the child as relatively passive, and thus the brunt of learning fell on the teacher to rigorously prepare step-by-step materials. Their notion of learning as the gradual build-up of knowledge largely ignored qualitative developmental shifts in thinking. Much of the bad reputation of this method comes from the fact that its teacher-centered view was corrupted by the so-called factory school, the scale of which undermined Locke's cardinal principle of constantly observing child-teacher interactions, and instead encouraged one-way rote learning.


Philosophers, psychologists, and educators have frequently proposed metaphors based on the advanced technology of their times to understand the mind. Locke's view of the mind was really a mental chemistry model. Information processing theory sees the mind as a computer analyzing symbolic code data with strings of commands (software programs) through electronic computers with hardware components such as input devices, working memory, and long-term storage. This led to several findings concerning cognition and memory:

  1. Adult memory can be characterized by a multistoried model: A vast amount of unanalyzed information is captured for a fraction of a second (visual) to a couple of seconds (auditory) in a sensory store. Attending to information captures it and moves it to a short-term store before it fades. Children as young as 5 have a similar sensory memory size but less attention capability. Short-term memory, or working memory, holds 7 ±2 bits of information for a maximum of 30 seconds unless some strategy is used to remember it, such as chunking digits, or rehearsing, linking or grouping items in a meaningful way. Children in Western formal schools have deficiencies in these strategies (software programs) until about age 11 or 12, but they can be taught the strategies as young as first grade. Younger children who use these strategies remember more than their peers, but they may not transfer the useful strategies successfully to new settings. Use of such elaborative strategies sends information to long-term storage, which has large, indefinite size, and duration limits.
  2. Elementary school children lack the ability to deploy memory and thinking strategies effectively, even though they would be helpful, because they lack metamemory or metacognition. That is, they may not accurately think about memory or think about thinking the relevant experience to know which strategies to use in which contexts, or find it very difficult to monitor their own thinking processes while using them. However, considerable research suggests that predicting what will come next in a paragraph, estimating how many things they might remember, or the end product of a math problem, helps them learn such skills. Similarly, summarizing, checking one's work, formulating questions about reading passages or other exercises in thinking about thinking promote metacognition, which can be conceptualized as higher order programs about how to deploy strategies and which tend to promote comprehension without endangering calculation or word decoding skills. One useful method is to coax the child to compare the results of using an effective strategy with one that is not effective, rather than the procedures themselves.

The child is seen as a more active learner in the information processing approach, but the major change in development is still the content in the child's head, in terms of meaningful knowledge about concepts, strategies, and metastrategies (strategies for using strategies). Hardware changes less than software and data. In this metaphor, children are also being compared with adults as the standard, rather than taken on their own terms. (For useful summaries of this position, see Klahr & Simon, 2002; Schneider & Pressley, 1997; Siegler, 1996.)


With the advent of the science of brain physiology and the theory of evolution, strong biological theories were entertained beginning in the late 19th century, but lack of scientific knowledge of genetics, combined with race or class biases in the scientists led at first to egregious errors in interpretation. Beginning with Darwin's cousin, Francis Galton (1869), racist or classist eugenicists believed that intelligence is not only heritable, but also unchangeable, so they argued that poor and minority children cannot or should not be raised up (see Gould, 1996).

This history of biological theories of cognition should remind us to be very careful about how and what conclusions are drawn from the latest biological or genetic information. It is now believed, for example, that racial differences were added far too late in evolution to have caused biologically based racial differences in intellectual capacity, and well-designed research supports this conclusion (e.g. Dickens & Flynn, 2006). But human cognition has undoubtedly been shaped by evolution, and some cognitive differences among children are heritable, at least in part. The role of evolution in cognitive development is examined in the new subfield of evolutionary developmental psychology, and the study of the inheritance of cognitive abilities is the field of behavioral genetics.

Evolutionary developmental psychologists have proposed a counterintuitive argument: that children's inability to think like adults-for a limited time in development— may actually help, rather than harm, their chances of survival (Bjorklund, 1997; Bjorklund & Green, 1992). They start with the fact that human children are more immature at birth than any other primate. Children are therefore more defenseless, but also more flexibly open to learn than the offspring of even their nearest evolutionary neighbors. Human children must learn a lot, and fast. Preschoolers are egocentric: they tend to reason from only their own perspective. Although not seeing others' viewpoints has some obvious disadvantages, it has advantages, too. It acts as a kind of cognitive tunnel vision, shutting out all but the most relevant information. Moreover, information relevant to one's own point of view is better remembered—even by adults—than personally irrelevant information, so egocentrism aids memory. Finally, egocentric preschoolers are likely to overestimate their cognitive abilities and are blissfully ignorant of others' performance, and are thus resistant to the negative effects of failure on their sense of ability to control the world.

Evolutionary developmental psychologists note that play, common to juveniles of most mammalian species, also has survival value (Pellegrini & Bjorklund, 2004). Children learn social roles, social interaction, physical coordination, cultural stories, and, through pretend play, symbol use and creativity. (A primate without built-in instincts needs creativity to survive in varied environments.)

Behavioral geneticists are concerned with biologically based individual differences among children in cognitive, emotional, or social behavior. It would be theoretically useful to know to what degree differences in, say, reading or math abilities are inherited. This work is technically complex and requires subtle interpretation. With the exception of a few specific single-gene disorders, scientists do not yet know the specific differences in a person's genotype (DNA sequences) that underlie differences in cognitive performance, and they strongly suspect that many genes are involved in any complex intellectual skill. Instead, they must infer their conclusions from giving intelligence, vocabulary, or standardized achievement tests to large groups of related individuals, and noting the correlated similarities in their scores. Identical twins share, at least at birth, 100% of their DNA, whereas fraternal twins (and other siblings) share about 50%. If identical twins have higher correlations in achievement test scores than fraternal twins or siblings, a degree of heritability is indicated for the tested cognitive skills. For example, a recent British longitudinal study of thousands of twins (Harlaar, Dale, & Plomin, 2007) has suggested that children's reading scores are stable across elementary school, and that a large proportion of that stability can be attributed to shared genes. And, children who are good in reading are statistically likely also to be good in math (Kovas & Plomin, 2007).

The correlations due to shared environment (shared homes, schools or teachers) are considerably lower, but still significant contributors to the scores (Harlaar, et al., 2007). But interestingly, the relative importance of a good environment is greater for poor families than affluent ones. If all of a sample of children is given every advantage offered by a culture, the differences among them in cognitive ability that remain to be measured are likely due to differences in their inheritance. Poor children still will benefit from enrichment in environmental circumstances to help them reach their full innate potential (Turkheimer, Haley, Waldron, D'Onofrio, & Gottesman, 2003). Finally, and most interestingly, behavioral geneticists have wondered about the role of nonshared environment: If all this is true, why are siblings so different (Plomin & Daniels, 1987; Turkheimer & Waldron, 2000)? Even twins from the same family have nonshared experiences, and they may even strive to be different from one another. This shows up in the data, but is hard to measure accurately, because different children will subjectively experience a teacher or parent differently, or demand different things from them for a host of different reasons. This could affect their cognitive development, but scientists are not sure exactly how. For teachers, a summary of this data might be: yes, cognitive abilities are inherited, but this does not mean that enriching an educational environment cannot also make a significant difference for every child. That something is inherited does not mean it is unchangeable.


Covered here so far, are those approaches that stress learning as a gradual filling up of habits, as in empiricism, or data and programs, as in information processing. Also touched on are nativist approaches, which rely on evolution to provide the timing for a gradual unfolding of capabilities. To Jean Piaget (1896–1980), learning was neither the mere acquisition of knowledge nor the unfolding of development. In his constructivist theory, children cannot merely copy and store what their teachers say, but they must act upon the world, first literally, by grasping it and sucking it, then symbolically, through language, and, finally, logically, through a combination of testing, experimenting, questioning, and reasoning, first with the concrete world and then with the formal logic of science and algebra. Piaget's theory is also a hierarchical stage theory. Each stage represents a qualitatively different, progressively more complex and abstract form of thought that is built on the stages that necessarily must come before it. Piaget was concerned not with child development but with the problem of epistemology, the branch of philosophy that deals with how knowledge of the world is constructed inside people's heads. Only by watching children can this process be seen from its genesis, its beginnings. Hence his theory's formal names: genetic epistemology or constructivism.

A baby cannot think aloud as adults do, because he has no language. A newborn has only senses, reflexes, limited motor activity, and the driving force of what might be called curiosity. Babies want to re-experience interesting and pleasant stimulations and gain control over them by repeating and varying certain actions. As they do so, the world becomes predictable and solid, and each baby's sense of self becomes differentiated from external experiences. Early consciousness in this sensorimotor period before the age of 2 is radically qualitatively different from that of older children and adults, and yet babies are still active, curious investigators, expanding through their own actions outward from an extreme point of egocentrism towards a self that interacts with the world. When they have constructed these self-object poles of existence, their perspective radically changes, and they cannot turn back. There is a radical shift in consciousness, passing into the preoperational period: toddlers can imitate actions that have happened in the past, integrating them into play-roles of cook or doctor, in both their play and their stories. They can name the now stable objects and people, and their language use takes off; their artwork has symbols of stick people, cartoon suns, and animals that do not look like what they are, but are labeled that way. These children assume that because they can control the world, other things are in the world because someone made them that way. They do not wait to explain the world until they understand it as adults do; they put forth the hypothesis that the sun shines because “God lighted it with a match!” Thus, the structure of reality is informed by the structure of their current state of knowledge. Each new piece of knowledge is interpreted in that light, not copied from the teacher.

Especially when explaining the major stage shifts of the elementary years (the concrete operational period) and later (formal operations), Piaget focused largely on the development of notions of space, time, objects, mathematics, logic, and scientific thinking. These areas of knowledge have a defined right answer in development, unlike those in the humanities. The details on early 20th-century research on these topics can found in other entries in this encyclopedia, but several general principles that are dealt with here.

  1. Knowledge forms self-organizing structures. Whereas an empiricist might deal with addition and subtraction separately, Piaget suggested that these two mathematical actions form two halves of the same reversible operation, for example: 3 + 2 = 5–2 = 3. Teaching addition and subtraction as separate habits obscures this relationship. Moreover, in a sense, the structure wants to be completed; the child's mind is primed for addition by subtraction, and vice versa.
  2. The child must invent to understand. Through manipulation of counters or mathematical objects, the child discovers these primed relationships through his own activity. However, it is useful to remember that children need not understand to invent; some of their inventions may be wrong, but fruitful.
  3. Contradiction speeds development and widens the “grasp of consciousness”(Piaget, 1976). The self-constructed structures of knowledge are invariably challenged by how the world is: A preschooler who is so egocentric as to think that a doll on another side of a square table sees the same perspective as the child does, is challenged if instead the doll is another child who says, “That's not what I see!” The preschooler must change her hypothesis about points of view. A child who is so focused on counting to learn addition, can skip the step later in adding 2 + 3 and can later grab groups of 3's or 2's in multiplication. The grasp has widened from 1 by 1 to three 3's. Later, in algebra (formal operations), the variable x can stand for any number at all.

The teacher must guide (steer wild inventions away from blind alleys) and challenge (contradict to gently point out illogic) and explain (because the child wants and needs explanation for active understanding). According to Piaget, childrendonot discover properlyor efficientlyon their own. Children progress through the same major stages but not at the same rates, depending upon experience and skill of educators, but that is not all that matters. Piaget thus viewed researchers who tried to disprove his theory by showing that younger children could accomplish a task, or who tried to accelerate development with disdain. AlludingtoThorndike and the behaviorist B. F. Skinner, Piaget dismissed this attempt to speed up children's growth as “The American Question” (Bringuier, 1980; general Piaget references: Gruber & Vonèche, 1977, McCarthy Gallagher & Reid, 1981; for the teacher's perspective, see Elkind, 1976, and Duckworth, 1996).


Piaget's focus on the child's self-constructed structures of knowledge, from egocentrism to abstraction ignores a central truth, which is explored in the theory of the Russian, L. S. Vygotsky (1896–1934), variously called the dialectical, sociogenetic, or cultural-historical school ofthought. Vygot-sky also criticized the empiricist school and accepted the active role of the child in cognitive development, but children are not the only active players in the drama. In his view, children are social beings from birth, born into a culture with caretakers, peers, teachers, and social structures that actively help a child's growth and hinder his or her movement into culturally prohibited patterns of behavior. Their actions do not form an environmental layer on top of biological development, nor are they stored in the child; they come to constitute thought itself over time. Language and culture are tools of thought, allowing a child to learn, memorize, and reason in different and better ways than he could without them. There are several basic tenets of socio-genetic psychology:

  1. Thought begins as social interaction and is then internalized (Vygotsky, 1978, 1986). For example, at the beginning of life, a parent must remind her child of virtually everything. Complex sequences of activity are kept in the parent's head, doled out step-by-step to the child. Simultaneously, the parent is teaching the child cultural practices such as putting the book bag by the door so that it will be remembered or, later, keeping a written list. Over time, as the child becomes responsible for larger chunks of activity, the parent might hear the child actually talking herself through the sequence aloud in private speech. The ultimate goal is for the child to use completely internalized, silent inner speech.
  2. Children are capable of more advanced behavior with help than they are alone. More advanced peers or adults stand one step ahead of a child and act as a scaffold for more advanced behavior, by sequencing, breaking into smaller steps, reminding, demonstrating, physically guiding the hands, circumscribing, explaining, and prohibiting. At any given time, the number of tasks that a child can accomplish with help is far greater than those she can accomplish alone. Intelligence, then, is partly social.
  3. Language and culture are tools for thought. Children who can talk to themselves are capable of more complex activity than those who cannot. They can rehearse steps of a process or lists of items, state hypotheses to themselves and test them. Those who can write can revise to find out better what they want to say.
  4. Culture and history are in every task, even internal cognitive ones. For example, mathematics does have an inner coherent structure, but it also has a social context. People who farm rice are expert in calculation and pricing of those quantities, but not in abstract calculation, although they can easily be taught. Eight-year-old candy sellers in Brazil are error free in complex calculations about candy that older children in formal schools cannot comprehend, but they have trouble carrying their one's (Nunes, Schliemann, & Carraher, 1993).

Thus, teachers in this school of thought promote inter-nalization of higher cognitive processes not merely by lecturing, but by encouraging problem solving through external dialogue among peers of mixed levels of accomplishment in small groups. They model higher-level internalized thought (e.g. summarizing, predicting, questioning) negotiate meaning, referee disputes, keep children on track and generally serve as a guide through the culture of classroom learning, as attached to the larger cultures. Through reciprocal teaching, teachers gradually recede, handing over their tasks to students who take turns acting the role of teacher. Children who can teach have quite sophisticated metacognition: They can consider their audience, break down explanations into steps, ensure that students communicate effectively to one another, and form questions (or else be reminded by their friends that they are unclear). These methods have been used to promote reading comprehension (Palincsar & Brown, 1984; Tharp & Gallimore, 1991), math problem solving (Taylor & Cox, 1997), and science (Hoadley & Linn, 2000).


Bjorklund, D. F. (1997). The role of immaturity in human development. Psychological Bulletin, 122, 153–169.

Bjorklund, D. F., & Green, B. L. (1992). The adaptive nature of cognitive immaturity. American Psychologist, 47, 46–54.

Bringuier, J. C. (1980). Conversations with Jean Piaget. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Dickens, W. T., & Flynn, J. R. (2006). Black Americans reduce the IQ gap: Evidence from standardized samples. Psychological Science, 17, 913–920.

Duckworth, E. (1996). The having of wonderful ideas, and other essays on teaching and learning. New York: Teachers College Press.

Elkind, D. (1976). Child development and education: A Piagetian perspective. New York: Oxford University Press.

Gould, S. J. (1996). The mismeasure of man. New York: Norton.

Galton, F. (1869). Hereditary genius: An inquiry into its laws and consequences. London: Macmillan.

Gruber, H. H., & Vonèche, J. J. (1977). The essential Piaget. New York: Basic Books.

Harlaar, N., Dale, P. S., & Plomin, R. (2007). From learning to read to reading to learn: Substantial and stable genetic influence. Child Development, 78, 116–131.

Hoadley, C. M., & Linn, M. C. (2000). Teaching science through online, peer discussions: SpeakEasy in the knowledge integration environment. International Journal of Science Education, 22, 839–857.

Klahr, D., & Simon, H. A. (2002). Exploring science: The cognition and development of discovery processes. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

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McCarthy Gallagher, J., & Reid, D. K. (1981). The learning theory of Piaget and Inhelder. Monterey, CA: Brooks/Cole.

Nunes, T., Schliemann, A. D., & Carraher, D. W. (1993). Street mathematics and school mathematics. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press.

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Pellegrini, A. D., & Bjorklund, D. F. (2004). The ontogeny and phylogeny of children's object and fantasy play. Human Nature, 15, 23–43.

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Plomin, R. & Daniels, D. (1987). Why are children in the same family so different from one another? Behavioral and Brain Sciences, 10, 1–60.

Schneider, W., & Pressley, M. (1997). Memory development between two and twenty. Mahwah, NJ: Erlbaum.

Siegler, R. S. (1996). Emerging minds: The process of change in children's thought. New York: Oxford University Press.

Taylor, J., & Cox, B. D. (1997). Microgenetic analysis of group-based solution of complex two step mathematical word problems. Journal of the Learning Sciences, 6, 183–226.

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In the fields of biology and psychology, the theory of evolution is used to help to better understand how biological influences on growth interact with experiences to shape developing traits. Examples of this approach are provided by the work of Mary Jane West-Eberhard for the field of biology and David Bjorklund and Anthony Pellegrini for the field of psychology. When applied to people, the basic idea is that there are biases and constraints on the types of knowledge children easily acquire during development, as well as an ability to learn evolutionarily novel and culturally specific knowledge. The corresponding area of evolutionary educational psychology was introduced by David Geary (1995, 2007) and represents an attempt to understand how evolved learning biases interact with the learning of evolutionarily novel knowledge in school.


One basic assumption is that natural selection has resulted in the evolution of cognitive competencies and learning biases that facilitated the survival and reproduction of human ancestors. Evolutionary psychologists such as Leda Cosmides and John Tooby argue that most of these competencies are modular and domain specific; that is, they are supported by brain and cognitive systems that are designed to process only certain types of information. There are, as an example, dedicated brain and cognitive systems that process basic language sounds (e.g., ba, pa) and different brain and cognitive systems that process other types of information, such as the visuospatial information involved in navigating from one place to the next. The extent to which these modular competencies are plastic or modifiable by experiences during development is vigorously debated and not well understood as of 2008.

Whatever the degree of plasticity, modular systems are organized around the domains of folk psychology, folk biology, and folk physics, as exemplified by the work of Scott Atran, Frank Keil, Roger Shepard, and Steven Pinker, among others. The cognitive modules associated with folk psychology appear to be organized around knowledge about the self and about other people. The competencies that allow people to interact with others include language, theory of mind (e.g., being able to make inferences about the intentions of other people), and abilities that allow people to interpret the body language and facial expressions of others. The competencies associated with folk biology include the ability to classify flora and fauna in the local ecology and learn about the associated growth and behavioral patterns. These are underdeveloped abilities in modern societies, but people in hunter-gather societies have extensive knowledge about the plants and animals in their local area. Folk biological knowledge enables people in these traditional cultures to classify and categorize local species, hunt some of these species, and use plants as medicines, for food, and in social rituals. Folk physics refers to the competencies that allow people to engage the physical world, including the abilitytonavigateinthree-dimensional space, remember the location of objects in the environment, and use objects (e.g., stones) to make tools.

In addition to folk competencies, there are more general cognitive systems that coordinate and integrate the workings of these specialized systems. Alan Baddeley's central executive component of working memory provides a good summary. The central executive is expressed as attention-driven control of information represented by one or several of the more specialized systems, such as the language system. The focusing of attention results in the information being represented in working memory and thus available to conscious awareness. An example is the intentional verbal repetition of information to be remembered, such as a phone number. The central executive also includes mechanisms for inhibiting irrelevant information from intruding into conscious awareness and for integrating information represented in different specialized systems. An example of the latter is integrating the symbol 5 with the sound five and with the conceptual knowledge that these represent a set of five items.


The long development of humans has a clear risk—death before the age of reproduction—and thus could only evolve if there were substantial benefits. In cross-species analyses of the relation between length of the developmental period, brain size, and potential factors that may have influenced their co-evolution, Tracey Joffe and many others have identified social complexity as the most important evolutionary pressure. Basically, a long developmental period is found in all social mammals and the length of this period increases with increases in the complexity of the species' social system. These patterns suggest that one purpose of childhood is to practice and refine folk psychological competencies, such as language and other social skills, although learning about other species and the physical world is also important, especially for children who are growing up in traditional societies.


In 2005 Harvard president Lawrence Summers made a statement that would ignite controversy in academic establishments around the world. Women, he suggested, may not be pursuing careers in engineering because they are intellectually inferior to their male counterparts. Summers pointed to possible biological differences between men and women as the culprit of such intellectual differences. Summers' comments brought to light a debate that has perpetually riddled social scientists: are humans primarily the product of nature (biology) or nurture (experience)?

Jean Piaget and Lev Vygotsky were two of the first theorists to examine human development in a learning context. The two have often been pitted against one another as competing for arguments that nature or nurture primarily impact human development. Over the last several decades, researchers have explored and developed these competing arguments. Importantly, even the definitions of “cognition” and “development” have evolved. Development can be understood as any process of change that is organized and adaptive. Cognition can be described as the process of making meaning of information. Cognitive development, then, is an organized, adaptive change that improves our ability to make meaning of information provided by the world around us. It should be clear from this definition that cognitive development relies both on biology and on experience. As a result, social scientists are exploring which aspects of cognitive development are indeed biological and which can be influenced by experience.

One important strand of research focuses on children's development of concepts. A concept is a mental representation of a category (e.g. people, pens, puppets) that helps recognize and organize new information. Concept researchers disagree about whether concepts are in-born or emerge from experience, but they agree that even infants must have some capacity to recognize and organize information. A second strand of research focuses on the timing of experience and its role in cognition. They ask: Does early childhood experience impact cognitive capacity more than later experience? Many argue it does. Partially based on this idea, programs such as Head Start have emerged for low-income pre-school-aged children to ensure they have access to social educational environments early. The “Mozart Effect” (coined by Alfred Tomatis), which refers to the notion that use of classical music can improve psychological disorders, has also been connected to the timing paradigm. Although peer-reviewed research does not support the idea that playing classical music for a fetus in-utero improves IQ, the practice that grew out of early 1990s theory seems to have maintained popularity through the early 2000s.

In addition to theoretical advances, technological breakthroughs have enabled psychologists to examine brain differences among people who exhibit typical and atypical behaviors. One such development has been the functional Magnetic Resonance Image (fMRI), which can highlight active areas in the brain during specific thoughts or behaviors. Although the technology is new, researchers hope it will help shed light on the possible biological causes of disorders such as Attention Deficit Disorder and Autism. Because the human brain is heavily influenced by genetic heritage, many believe brain research connects much of who people are to their genetic inheritance rather than their experiences. As Lawrence Summers discovered, however, researchers continue to disagree.

Sarah Kozel Silverman

Play, social interactions, and exploration of the environment and objects appear to be the ways emerging folk competencies are practiced and refined during development. Child-initiated social play, exploration, and so fourth are intimately linked to cognitive and brain development, in that these activities provide experiences with the social, biological, and physical world. These experiences interact with the inherent but skeletal structure of folk modules and ensure their normal development and adaptation to local conditions. In this view, children are biologically prepared to learn about other people and the biological and physical world and are inherently motivated to seek out experiences that will facilitate this learning.

It is important to note that this is a different perspective than that of Jean Piaget. Piaget proposed that children's inherent curiosity and engagement of the world resulted in broad stages of general reasoning abilities. From an evolutionary perspective, children's curiosity, play, and other developmental activities are not general but rather focused on fleshing out specific competencies in the domains of folk psychology, biology, and physics. Their interests and motivations are expected to be particularly strong when it comes to social relationships.


For evolutionary developmental biology and psychology, the developing individual and most of the associated traits emerge from an interaction between nature (genetically based programs that guide development) and nurture (experiences that influence how and when these programs are expressed). As described by Sandra Scarr and Kathleen McCartney, the relative contributions of heritable and environmental effects on children can vary from infancy through adolescence. During infancy, the environments children experience are largely controlled by their parents and thus nurture should outweigh nature. As children grow, the influence of parents begins to decline and heritable influences are more strongly expressed. These influences are expressed as children seek their own experiences and build their own niches in their peer groups and in the wider world. In other words, nature influences, to some extent, how children react to other people, how other people react to them, and how interested they are in learning about the biological and physical world, among other traits.

The result is that many estimates of heritable influences on developing traits become larger as people develop into adolescence and adulthood. However, it is not yet fully understood how the expression of heritable influences is influenced by evolutionarily expectant experiences. As described by William Greenough, James Black, and Christopher Wallace, evolution has resulted in a linking of brain development and the expected experiences that will ensure that brain, cognitive, and social development is normal for the species. As an example, human language emerges naturally, that is, without instruction, and is dependent on the maturation and functioning of an integrated system of brain regions. Though heavily dependent on nature, language will not be normal unless the child is exposed to language and social discourse: The natural language systems need experience to develop normally. Variation in language competencies may be partly heritable, but the expression of these heritable differences may also be related to differences in the types of experiences children seek as these competencies emerge.


The cognitive competencies that compose the folk domains have evolved to allow humans to function in and adapt to the social conditions and ecologies of their ancestors. In some cases, as with language, these competencies are just as useful in the 21st century as they were at earlier points in human evolution. Other competencies, such as those involved in categorizing flora and fauna, may be less useful for many people today. A more central concern in modern society is children's learning of evolutionarily novel competencies, such as reading, writing, and complex arithmetic. Evolutionary educational psychology is the study of the relation between folk knowledge as these influence academic learning in evolutionarily novel cultural contexts, such as schools and the industrial workplace. One core goal of schools and schooling is to organize the activities of children so that they acquire competencies, such as the ability to read, that are important in the wider culture but have no evolutionary history.

David Geary (1995) referred to language and other evolved folk competencies as biologically primary abilities, and skills that build upon these primary abilities but are principally cultural inventions, such are reading, as biologically secondary abilities. The mechanisms by which primary systems are adapted to produce secondary competencies are not yet fully understood, but appear to involve simultaneous activation of the frontal areas of the brain that control attention and working memory and the areas of the brain that support folk competencies.

To illustrate how these interactions might occur, consider the relation between language, a primary ability, and reading, a secondary ability. As proposed by Paul Rozin, the acquisition of reading-related abilities (e.g., word decoding) appears to involve the modification of primary language and language-related systems, among others (e.g., visual scanning). Consistent with this proposal, individual differences in the fidelity of kindergarten children's phonological processing systems, which are basic features of the language domain, are strongly predictive of the ease with which basic reading skills (e.g., word decoding) are acquired in first grade. In other words, the evolutionary pressures that selected for phonological processing systems, such as the ability to segment language sounds, were unrelated to reading, but these systems are can be modified to form the sound-letter and sound-word associations that are important components of reading ability.

Implicit knowledge is also built into the organization of folk systems. Sometimes this knowledge can aid in learning and at other times it can interfere with learning. As an example of the former, consider that the initial development of geometry as an academic discipline may have been based on access to knowledge implicit in the primary systems that support navigation in the physical world. The implicit understanding that the fastest way to get from one place to another is to go “as the crow flies,” was made explicit in the formal Euclidean postulate, that a line can be drawn from any point to any point. From an evolutionary perspective, the former reflects an implicit understanding of how to quickly get from one place to another and is knowledge that is built into the brain and cognitive systems that support navigation. The latter was discovered, that is, made explicit, by Euclid. Once explicit, this knowledge was integrated into the formal discipline of geometry and became socially trans-mittable and teachable.

An example of how implicit knowledge and inferential biases that are part of folk systems can interfere with learning in school is provided by people's näıve understanding of motion. When asked about the forces acting on a thrown baseball, most people believe there is a force propelling it forward, something akin to an invisible engine, and a force propelling it downward. The downward force is gravity, but there is in fact no force propelling it forward, once the ball leaves the player's hand. The concept of a forward-force, called impetus, is similar to pre-Newtonian beliefs about motion prominent in the 14th to 16th centuries. The idea is that the act of starting an object in motion, such as throwing a ball, imparts to the object an internal force—impetus— that keeps it in motion until this impetus gradually dissipates. Although adults and even preschool children often describe the correct trajectory for a thrown or moving object, reflecting their implicit folk competences, their explicit explanations reflect this näıve understanding of the forces acting upon the object.

Careful observation, use of the scientific method (secondary knowledge itself), and use ofinductive and deductive reasoning, are necessary to move from an intuitive folk understanding to scientific theory and other forms of secondary knowledge. Isaac Newton did just this, and in fact he noted: “I do not define time, space, place and motion, as being well known to all. Only I must observe, that the vulgar conceive those quantities under no other notions but from the relation they bear to sensible objects” (1995, p. 13). The “vulgar” individuals only understand physical phenomena in terms of folk knowledge, and Newton intended to and did go well beyond this. Newton corrected the pre-Newtonian beliefs about the forces acting on objects. In doing so, he helped to create the evolutionary novel field of scientific physics. These discoveries, as well as those of many others before and since Newton, have created a gap between children's intuitive, folk understandingof the physical world and modern understanding of these same phenomena. Teaching the latter is made all the more difficult by evolved human biases.


One important implication is that the motivation to acquire school-taught secondary abilities is based on the requirements of the larger society and not on the inherent interests of children. Given the relatively recent advent of near universal schooling in contemporary societies, there is no reason to believe that the skills that are taught in school are inherently interesting or enjoyable for children to learn. In other words, one important difference between primary and secondary cognitive abilities is the level and source of motivation to engage in the activities that are necessary for their acquisition. This does not, however, preclude the self-motivated engagement in some secondary activities.

Even though reading is a secondary ability, many children and adults are motivated to read. The motivation to read, however, is probably driven by the content of what is being read rather than by the process itself. In fact, the content of many stories and other secondary activities (e.g., video games, television) might reflect evolutionarily relevant themes that motivate engagement in these activities, such as social relationships and social competition. Furthermore, the finding that intellectual curiosity is a basic dimension of human personality suggests there will be many intellectually curious individuals who will pursue secondary activities. Euclid's investment in formalizing and proving the principles of geometry and Newton's work on motion and gravity are examples. However, this type of discovery typically reflects the activities and insights of only a few individuals, and the associated advances spread through the larger society only by means of informal (e.g., newspapers) and formal education. The point is that the motivation to engage in the activities that will promote the acquisition of secondary abilities is not likely to be universal.


The combination of inherent, built-in brain and cognitive systems and children's inherent motivation to seek out evolutionarily expectant experiences, for example through social play, ensures the appropriate development of biologically primary folk systems. In contrast, there is no inherent structure supporting the acquisition of secondary abilities, nor are most children inherently motivated to engage in the activities that are necessary for all of the different aspects of secondary learning that are necessary for functioning in modern societies. From this evolutionary perspective, one essential goal of schooling is to provide content, organization, and structure to the teaching of secondary abilities, features that have been provided by evolution to primary abilities.

Furthermore, it cannot be assumed that children's inherent interests, such as social relationships, and preferred learning activities, such as play, will be sufficient for the acquisition of secondary abilities, even though they appear to be sufficient for the fleshing out of primary abilities. Instruction must, therefore, involve engaging children in activities that facilitate the acquisition of secondary abilities, whetherornot children are inherently interestedinengaging in such activities. This does not mean that play and social activities cannot be used to engage children in some forms of secondary learning. It does, however, mean that it is very unlikely that the mastery of many secondary domains (e.g., reading or algebra) will occur with only these types of primary activities.

In fact, research in cognitive and educational psychology indicates that some forms of secondary learning will require activities that differ from those associated with the fleshing out of primary abilities. These would include, among others, direct instruction, in which teachers' provide the goals, organization, and structure to instructional activities and explicitly teach basic competencies, such as how to sound out unfamiliar words or manipulate algebraic equations. The mastery of secondary domains also requires extensive exposure to the material, distributed over many contexts and oftentimes over many years, as well as extensive practice in using any associated procedures (e.g., to solve mathematics problems). Extensive exposure and practice also appear to be needed for the development of primary abilities, but this exposure and practice automatically occur as children engage in social discourse, play, and exploration. In contrast, most children will not automatically engage in the practice needed to master secondary domains, and, as a result, this practice needs to be built into instructional activities. For some domains, such as in the biological and physical sciences, mastery will also require many hands-on activities, as in conducting experiments, although more traditional methods will be needed as well (e.g., learning basic facts and principles, such as the theory of evolution).

In summary, the core assumption of a biological perspective on children's learning is that evolution has provided a basic brain and cognitive structure to a suite of primary domains. These primary abilities allow people to negotiate social relationships (folk psychology) and the biological (folk biology) and physical (folk physics) world. Children have an inherent bias to seek out and engage in the experiences, such as social play, that will adapt these domains to the nuances of their social group and biological and physical world. However, humans also have an evolved ability to create evolutionarily novel knowledge and to pass this knowledge from one generation to the next (e.g., through books). The cross-generational accumulation of this biologically secondary knowledge has created a gap between knowledge represented by folk domains and that needed to function in modern-day society. Schools emerged in these societies to help children to bridge this gap. In school settings, it cannot be assumed that the cognitive, motivational, and activity biases that support the fleshing out of primary abilities during development will be sufficient for the learning of secondary abilities in school.


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Information processing theory explains human thinking by relating cognitive processes to the workings of a computer. The model presents the basic components of a computer as mechanical representations of the components of the human mind used in thinking. The basic components in information process are the sensory receptors, the working memory, and the long-term memory. These relate to the computer's data input device, the data processing area, and the data storage, respectively. Along with these components are the executive functions, such as metacognition, related to the computer's operating system. Research in information processing has helped to develop improved strategies for learning and memory.

Robert Sternberg (1987) claims that information processing is an improvement over traditional views of intelligence because it resolves some long-standing issues. Through information processing theory, any observed deficit in intelligence, such as learning and reasoning ability, can be identified at a process level and improved through training. Deanna Kuhn (2006) recognizes that information processing is an improvement over Piagetian theory because information processing explains how children acquire strategies.

Ann Brown (1997), a sociocultural theorist, integrates ideas from information processing theory. She claims information processing addresses the issue of “what it is that children are ready to learn easily and what (it is that) is resistant to … instruction (however) exquisitely designed” (Brown, 1997, p. 400). She emphasizes that information processing explains Vygotsky's zone of proximal development in which children can perform beyond their developmental abilities if they are given the proper instruction for strategies. Children do not lack the capacity of learning at a higher level than their stage. Often, they are not effectively using the capacity they have. They need education to understand what strategies they have and how to apply them effectively.


Piagetian theory and information processing theories agree on several points. Both view a child as an active agent in development and learning. Both approaches recognize age-related differences in cognitive abilities and try to explain these differences. Both are concerned with how later advanced understandings can develop from the earlier rudimentary ideas. Finally, both recognize that current understanding can either aid or hinder the development of new understanding.

Differences in the two approaches are based on the explanations of the age-related changes. One of the ways that information-processing theorists account for age-related differences focuses on the increased capacity of the working memory. Kail (2003) notes that “Age-related change in working memory contributes to improved reasoning and problem solving during infancy, childhood, and adolescence” (p. 74). Contrary to this, Piaget felt that changes in performance are due to qualitative changes in developmental stages. Piaget attributed little value to repeated exposures or the capacity of memory. Although later in his research career Piaget conceded that there is a relation between memory and strategies, for most of his career he tried to separate memory from understanding.

Piaget emphasized the need to study children's reasoning as exemplified by the broad strategic changes in their approach to problem solving. He felt that older children, having grown into a higher developmental stage, have better logical frameworks and strategies. He did not associate the older children's greater knowledge base and more associations with their improved performance.

Many information processing theorists hold that much developmental change can be explained by greater use of memory strategies, including faster and more efficient diagnosis of memory tasks and monitoring of strategies. Greater task-relevant knowledge also improves the performance based on age. Maturation and experience play an interactive role in the age-related differences observed by information processing theorists (Kail, 2003).


Some of the key concepts of information processing used to explain developmental changes include the processes involved in memory, thinking, and metacognition. Memory has the functions of encoding, storage, and retrieval. Thinking involves forming concepts and solving problems. Metacognition constitutes the functions bringing about a continuous analysis of one's thinking.

Research in age-related differences conducted from an information processing perspective has discovered phenomena similar to those described by Piagetian theorists. However, there are some new discoveries about children's abilities from information processing research that challenge the Piagetian perspectives. Information process researchers have shown that some skills are developed earlier than suggested by Piaget. Also, some developmental changes previously thought to be qualitative in nature have been shown by information process researchers to progress quantitatively.

An important process of memory is encoding— fitting information into long-term memory so it can be retrieved when needed. The age-related differences in encoding involve children's use and application of attention. From infancy until school age, there are distinct differences in the degree to which children are willing or able to attend to an event or activity. Infants quickly habituate to a familiar stimulus; they lose interest in the familiar and look for something new. Infants demonstrate their processing of information by recognizing that a stimulus is familiar. Infants need change and novelty. Toddlers are also interested in novelty and are not focused very long on any one discovery.

From age 3 on, children spend more time in an activity or challenge that holds their interest. However, the preschool child is easily distracted from an activity by something more sensory arousing than the essential aspects of the task. The child at this age cannot always distinguish the relevant from the irrelevant. In listening to a story or solving a puzzle, children at this age may focus on some inconsequential aspect, distracting them from the essential. After the age of6 or 7, the child is more efficient at focusingon the relevant characteristics of a task or challenge. Also, at this age children become less distracted and more easily stay on task in their activities. Developmentalists and information processing theorists attribute this change to a cognitive control of attention. The information processing approach explains that the child is learning the importance of developing strategies for concentrating and focusing mental resources.

The grade school child is more efficient at attention tasks than the preschool child because the older child is more likely to plan an effort in maintaining attention. The activities that older children are involved in at school help them recognize the need for organization. When younger children are taught the attentional strategies, they have been able to apply them effectively. However, they do not usually apply them spontaneously. Older children, through experience or maturation, learn to use their minds actively and effortfully. They learn that investing resources produces better results than a passive effort to retrieve available information.

Another age-related difference in encoding is the use of rehearsal, the act of repeating information in the working memory to keep it from fading. Children discover this technique around the age of 5. Before this age, rehearsal is not usually observed. Even when children below the age of 5 are taught this strategy, they usually do not apply it effectively. After the age of 7, children recognize that rehearsal is not the most effective technique for learning and remembering important information. They tend to use it less except in specific circumstances such as remembering a phone number until they can write it down. Information processing theorists explain that the mental effort involved for the younger child is not worth the small return. In addition, younger children who are successful with rehearsal often do not recognize that their success is due to the strategy. Children older than 7 recognize the inefficiency of rehearsals because they have a better repertoire of strategies for remembering, including depth of processing and elaboration.

Elaboration is the mental process of taking new concepts and relating them to personal examples or other meaningful knowledge or experiences. Elaboration gives the new information more meaning and value. This makes retrieving the information more easy because the memory trail is more distinct. In trying to recover information from long-term memory, encoded among a multitude of code, the memory with the distinct code will be easier to find.

There is a developmental pattern in the use of elaboration. Adolescents tend to use it spontaneously when motivated to remember or learn something new. However, grade school children are not likely to apply it in most circumstances. Grade school children may apply elaboration if they are taught the strategies for a given subject, but will not generalize the skill beyond the given subject. According to Pressley (1982), second graders and fifth graders show little difference in learning vocabulary words without elaboration. With elaboration, the second graders can improve more than 2 times and fifth graders nearly 3 ½ times.

Constructing images is a form of elaboration in which a child creates a mental picture of a concept being learned or remembered. Children 9 years old and older benefit more from being encouraged to use constructing images as a learning strategy than younger children do. Encoding is more effective through organization. Organization involves recognizing and categorizing information based on a hierarchy of the most important characteristics. Organization can be compared to a network in which multiple connections are established based on categories and subcategories of characteristics, properties, and abilities. These various connecting points to a concept can be used as retrieval cues. Children show increased use of organization in middle and late childhood. As with many other strategies, the younger children are much less likely than the older children to apply organization strategies even when taught. Furthermore, the quality of groupings tends to be better among the older children. This is another strategy that is not effort-effective for younger children. “Knowledge (based on networks) can aid memory because it provides special codes that simplify memorization … Children's growing knowledge … provides more retrieval cues … alternative ways to gain access to a concept” (Kail, 2003, p. 72).

Memory time frames are measures of how long relevant information can be retained in sensory and working memory. Sensory memory holds the information from the sensory receptors for only a brief period. Because this information is fleeting it has to be encoded to be saved. A comparison of children's time frame to adult's time frame reveals that adults encode sensory information only relatively faster than children do. However, the small advantage that adults have over children multiplied by the huge amount of information produces an extremely different cumulative effect.

Short-term memory, also known as working memory, has a limited capacity. Most researchers prefer the latter term because the processes are actively applied (as implied by “working”) rather than passively stored (as implied by “short-term”). Information is retained for about 30 seconds in the working memory if not preserved through strategies or encoded to long-term memory. Age-related differences in working memory are attributed to an increased capacity in the working memory and an increased speed of processing. Measures of working memory capacity demonstrate that the increase is based on age. However, there is a wide range of variability at every age because of individual differences. Before age 5, all children are slow at processing. From 5 years old through about 15 years old, speed is closely correlated with age.

Reading is a skill that relies on the working memory. Each word read must be saved in the working memory until the whole sentence is scanned, putting all the words together to form a coherent concept. Kail (2003) notes that “age-related changes in working memory are due primarily to age-related increases in the speed with which children can execute basic cognitive processes” (p. 74).

In a 1989 study by Siegel and Ryan, reading ability and capacity of the working memory were shown to be related. Normal readers and problems readers from age 7 to 13 years old were given a task of working memory. Both groups increased their working memory performance at the same rate, as a function of age. However, they maintained their original group differences in performance gaps.

There is little age-related difference in the capacity of the long-term memory. However, retrieval rates increase with age based on more effective encoding and retrieval strategies. Kail (2003) says “As the capacity of working memory increases with age, children have more resources available to storing and processing operations during reasoning and problem solving resulting in improved performance” (p. 74).

The research into the development of a theory of mind in young children is of interest for various fields of psychology. The finding that a preoperational child can understand another person's point of view contradicts Piaget's theory of egocentrism in the preoperational child. Furthermore, researchers have shown a continuous age-related function in acquiring a theory of mind. This means a change more quantitative than the qualitative change that Piaget expected. That there is a wide range of variability in the age that one acquires a theory of mind implies that the change is a function of maturation interacting with experience. Information processing theory takes into consideration the maturation influences and experiential influences more completely than Piaget's theory does. As with many other strategies and developmental tasks, the child's spontaneous application is limited by the working memory. However, the child's effectiveness can advance based on important experiences or strategy instruction.

Robert Siegler's 1976 work demonstrates that the application of rules is an age-related function. In solving a problem, young children between the ages of 5 and 9 focus on the most basic rule incorporating only the most visible influence. Children in late childhood recognize that there can be more than one influence but do not necessarily allow for the interaction of influences. Adolescents recognize the influences and the interaction of influences, but rely on guessing in unfamiliar settings. Adolescents stop short of developing and applying a formula that could guarantee success. There is a relationship between the “relative difficulty of the problem-types” and the “developmental trends in performance on them” (Siegler, 1976, p. 518). Illustrative of this is the “balance scale task.” To determine if the arm of a scale balanced on a fulcrum will tip to the right or the left or will balance, the child has to have a concept of the influence of not only the weight of both sides but also the distance of the weight from the fulcrum. The weight of each side multiplied by the distance from the fulcrum determines whether the scale will tip or balance. In reaching a decision young children will only consider the equality of weight on both sides. Older children understand the influence of the distance from the fulcrum but do not fully apply this understanding. Adolescents will apply the influence of the weight and the distance effectively except when one side has more weight and the other side has more distance; they will then guess. Interestingly, the adolescents who have had experience calculating weight by distance will not necessarily apply this solution if they have not had previous experience with this type of scale (Siegler, 1976).


Among many lines of research that have been inspired by information processing theory, three that are relevant to education include (1) metacognition, (2) critical thinking, and (3) classroom applications.

Kuhn (2006) stresses there is more to know about metacognition and its contribution to improved thinking and reasoning. She notes that Flavell's seminal research on metacognition in the late 1970s was focused on the underlying strategies that make up memory tasks. However, research since that time has expanded the understanding of the concept of metacognition and increased the theoretical implications needed to be tested. There is still so much that is not known about the development of strategies relying on metacognitive process. Research needs to study metacognition processes because they help to “explain how and why cognitive development both occurs and fails to occur” (Kuhn, 2006, p. 68). Research has to be increased even in areas in which metacognition has been shown to increase efficiency, such as text comprehension, problem solving, reasoning, and memory. Research in the early 21st century focuses mostly on the effects of metacognition. Kuhn proposes more research on the actual application of metacognition in the process of acquiring new knowledge. Since it is established that individuals change existing ideas to accommodate new knowledge, research should identify the metacognitive processes involved in evaluating the components of the existing ideas in comparison with the components of the new information (Kuhn, 2006).

Critical thinking is another increasing area of research in which the principles of information processing can be applied. Critical thinking involves the active evaluation of the incoming information, questioning the accuracy of information, and verifying the authority of those making the salient statements. Critical thinking leads to more complete analysis of information which in turn leads to (1) a comparison of principles and strategies across domains, (2) an elaboration of information expanded by analogies, richer associations and a hierarchy of accuracy; (3) a willingness to receive and consider the opinions of others, and (4) a higher level of questioning. Other benefits include an intellectual curiosity, effective planning and accurate understanding (Santrock, 2006).

An interesting classroom application of information processing principles is Ann Brown's 1997 Community of Learners. This program incorporates strategies of metacog-nition and strategic thinking. The Community of Learners is designed to foster reflection and discussion. Three basic strategies that the students use include teaching each other, consulting with experts through email, and using adults to model how to think and reflect. Students teach each other by sharing insights on the material being studied and seeking more understanding from the others. The experts that the children interact with online encourage the students to think more deeply about the study material through stimulating questions and intriguing discussions. When a visiting expert is expected, the children draw up a number of questions to ask; the teacher helps them organize the questions according to topics and subtopics. Brown's work is based on the information processing principles she has recognized in her sociocultural research. She has been motivated to help passive students learn strategies to become active agents in their own learning. In addition, she has wanted to demonstrate how learning strategies can be generalized across domains.


Brown, A. (1997). Transforming schools into communities of thinking and learning about serious matters. American Psychologist, 52, 399–409.

Kuhn, D. (2006). Metacognitive development. In Karen L. Freiberg (Ed.), Annual editions: Human development (34th ed.). Dubuque, IA: McGraw-Hill.

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Pressley, M. (1982). Elaboration and memory development. Child Development, 53, 296–309.

Santrock J. W. (2004). Child development (10th ed.). New York: McGraw-Hill.

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Siegel, L. S., Ryan, E. B. (1989). The development of working memory in normally achieving and subtypes of learning disabled children. Child Development, 60, 973–980.

Sternberg, R. J. (1987). Information processing. In R. L. Gregory (Ed.), The Oxford companion to the mind. New York: Oxford University Press.


Jean Piaget (1896–1980), a Swiss psychologist, centered his work on cognitive developmental processes such as perceiving, remembering, believing, and reasoning in children. Piaget was influenced by his experience in the Paris laboratory of Alfred Binet (1857–1911) where he worked on standardizing a French version of a British intelligence test. His studies at the Sorbonne in abnormal psychology, epis-temology, mathematics, and the history of science are reflected in his approach to understanding how children think. Piaget used observational methods as well as experimental methodology in developing his theory of intelligence.

Piaget defined intelligence as the individual's ability to cope with the changing world by continuing to organize and reorganize experiences. He believed that the mental structures necessary for intellectual development are genetically determined and include both the nervous system and sensory organs. These structures set limits on what a child may do at each stage of development. Children are born without logic and construct their own intellectual development based on what they learn at an earlier stage through their informal experiences with the environment. Adaptation, according to Piaget, is the most important principle of human functioning and involves two major processes: assimilation and accommodation. Assimilation occurs when children take in new information from the environment and fit it into a preconceived notion or plan. Babies assimilate food by

Jean Piaget in a classroom.Jean Piaget in a classroom.BILL ANDERSON / PHOTO RESEARCHERS, INC.

licking and chewing, but they must also open their mouths to accommodate the size and shape of a spoon. If children once ride on a hobbyhorse and then, in play, use a broom as a hobbyhorse, then assimilation has occurred. However, if children sweep the floor with the broom, then accommodation has occurred. Through accommodation, children adjust to new and changing conditions in the environment. Pre-existing patterns of behavior are changed or modified in order to deal with new situations. Thus, individuals achieve equilibration, a regulatory process whereby a balance is achieved based on the demands of assimilation and accommodation.


Piaget conceived of intellectual development as a series of fixed and sequential stages that all children pass through. Although children may go through these stages at different rates, no stage is skipped. The ages at which each stage is entered and completed, however, is somewhat arbitrary. A child, for example, may be in transition—in one stage in language usage and at another stage in the understanding of mathematical concepts.


The first stage, the sensory-motor stage, consists of six substages. In substage one, random and reflex actions (birth to one month), the newborn uses innate reflexes such as sucking, grasping, blinking, crying, vocalizing, and random movements of arms and legs. Babies may suck their own fingers or even one of a baby near him. Gradually, these movements become more refined and directed, displaying rudimentary intelligence as when babies grasp a rattle and shake it, rub a blanket, tug at their ear, and suck on a nipple when hungry, rather than on a pacifier.

In sub stage two, primary circular reactions (1 to 4 months), babies discriminate among shapes and forms. They may stare at a mobile or mother's face with interest but do not reach out for the mobile to touch the dangling objects. They may not recognize their hands as part of their bodies. If they drop a rattle, they may not search for it. Only later, around 8 months, will the baby search for the rattle, signifying that a lost object is no longer out of mind.

In sub stage three, secondary circular reactions (4 to 8 months), their strategies become more complex and repetitive. Senses become sharper. Infants may gaze at an unfamiliar object for an extended period of time. They can imitate more complex actions and repeat new sounds. Although they may gaze at their mother's face, they do not purposefully reach for it to touch it. As they advance in age, an important feature of this stage gradually occurs called object permanency, the ability to recognize that when an object is moved from it visual field, the object continues to exist.

During sub stage four, coordination of secondary schemata (8 to 12 months), intentional behavior begins. If babies swat at a mobile hanging over their crib and repeat this act and the mobile moves, a connection is made. The next time they try to reach for the mobile, they do so in a more coordinated way, and a plan or schema for striking at the mobile is formed. Movements become a means to an end. The rattle or bottle may be retrieved if it falls. The notion of object permanency is now a regular part of the babies' intellectual repertoire; it is no longer so easy to divert their attention from something they find desirable. In being able to recall objects even when they are not visible, babies show that their symbolic thought is developing. Babies at this stage smile when their mother approaches the crib; they know she coming to feed or play with them.

In substage five, tertiary circular reactions (12–18 months), babies increase their capacity to explore the environment, constantly inventing new plans if old schemata do not work. Thus, if they want an object outside of the playpen, they may learn to tilt the object to get it between the bars. If they drop food on the floor, they are interested in seeing where this drops. They find it empowering to let go of the food and to repeat this act again much to their parents' consternation. Nesting blocks and shape sorters begin to interest babies who are constantly poking, pulling, pushing objects, testing their strength and trying to make sense out of the environment.

Finally, in substage six, invention of new means through mental combinations (18–24 months), toddlers start to think before they act. Some of the information they have assimilated through trial and error in the previous stages can now result in new acts. Limited speech and gestures can convey that they are thinking about a problem and about what they want and intend to do.

Play for toddlers is sensory-motor, the pleasure of using their senses, sucking, biting, touching, and moving toes, fingers, arms and legs. They babble and enjoy listening to sounds of others' voices. They imitate expressions of others such as opening their mouths, imitating hand gestures, and body movements. Ritualistic play or practice play begins in which they repeat acts for pleasure such as swatting at the mobile over the crib or dropping items into a basket. Toward the end of the end of the second year, they can use a substitute object for an item as when they use a small stick to symbolize a doll or truck. Symbolic imitation in the form of simple play occurs around this time when they attempt, as early as eighteen months, to feed a doll or toy bear.


The term preoperational signifies that the toddler has not developed the mental structures to think logically or in abstract terms. There are two substages in this period of preoperational thought, preconceptual (ages 2 to 4 years) and perceptual or intuitive thought (ages 4 to 7 years). During the preconceptual phase, children use rudimentary language and mental images and generalize in illogical ways. In the stage of perceptual or intuitive thought, they solve problems based on intuition and on appearances rather than on judgment or reasoning. This mode of thinking is called transductive reasoning—reasoning from one particular idea to another idea without any logical connection between them. If the train has a whistle, that makes the train move. This cause-and-effect relationship is a distortion of thought.

Preoperational children in the preconceptual phase may also be egocentric, acting on the assumption that the world centers on them. If their food is hot, then everyone's food is hot. If they are cold, then mother must also be cold. Moreover, it is difficult for children in this stage to recognize the difference between reality and fantasy. They believe in animism. The stuffed animals and dolls to which children talk are deemed alive and are given personalities. Sometimes they even become imaginary companions. Preoperational children also believe in arti-ficialism. For example, they may believe that a pond is a giant's footprint that has been filled with rainwater, or that human beings created the moon, sun, stars, and the natural features of the earth.

In terms of language, children who are beginning to talk use echolalia, repeating words that others say and using sounds for pleasure. In this stage they use monologues, a running commentary on what they are doing, without listening or replying to their companions. They also engage in collective monologues: Children will talk at the same time as they sit or play beside each other but not necessarily respond appropriately to each other. Onomatopoeia is often used by preoperational children who enjoy the sounds or noises that objects make such as “choo-choo,” “bow-wow,” or “meow,” long before they can say the actual words that designate the train, dog, or cat. Children in this period have difficulty with centering, the child's tendency to center or concentrate its attention on one aspect of an object at a time and its inability to shift its attention to other aspects of a situation. They do not relate parts of an object to the whole. A doorknob is a doorknob when attached to the door, but if found on the table, the child may not be able to relate it to its actual purpose. Words are taken literally; these children may interpret “blackmail” to mean that letters and envelopes are the color black, or if a father said he was “tied up” at work, they may envision him with ropes around his legs or arms. They ask many questions but may not expect an answer, or they may answer the questions themselves.

Children in the preoperational stage have difficulty with the concept of conservation of quantity, volume, and size when there are changes in their appearance. For example, when there are two rows of the same quantity of pennies placed one above the other, they look like they contain the same number to a child, but if one row is spread out, the child thinks this row has more pennies than the one that is not spread out. In the same way, two identical glasses filled with equal amounts of water will appear equal, but if one glass is emptied into a taller narrower glass, it will appear to contain more water than the original glass next to it. Two balls made of the same amount of clay look equal to children in this stage, but if one ball is spread out and flattened, the child who cannot conserve believes there is more clay in this elongated clay. Thus, perception rules over logic for the preoperational child. Adults can make the same mistake. For example, a large package of napkins may look as if it contains more napkins than a nearby compressed package. The packages may contain the same number, but adults may need to rely on the label for that information.

The preoperational child's conception of space is topological. Children can distinguish between open and closed figures, but when asked to copy a triangle or square, children in this stage will draw a circle. If shown open figures of a triangle or square, they will draw an open circle. They think that a bowl is like a dish, but a cup is like a doughnut because they both contain holes.

When preoperational children draw objects, they represent them in two dimensions and only later are able to draw using three dimensions. Young children also have difficulty recognizing and discriminating between two different perspectives of the same object, believing that theirs is the only perspective, termed spatial egocentrism by Piaget. In setting out silverware from the opposite side of a table, they may place all objects on the table from their point of view (upside down) rather than understanding that silverware must be arranged according to the view of the person who will sit at that place setting and use it.

Time is a difficult concept for preoperational children. If it takes one hour to get to a place by airplane, it must be closer in distance from their perspective than if it takes two or more hours by car. Time also is judged by a concrete action. Suppertime and bedtime are designated as periods of time without their knowing clock time. Age is confused with height. A taller child must be older than the smaller child even if they are, in fact, the exact same age.

Imaginative play is at its peak for the preconceptual child and is designated by Piaget as symbolic play. Three-and 4-year-olds engage in pretend or make-believe play and can take on many roles, doctor, prince, queen, or mail carrier. Younger children may play beside their friends without interacting, which is called parallel play, but older preconceptual children enjoy social play by interacting and conversing with each other.


Children at this stage of intellectual development can form interiorized mental operations. In terms of counting, they know that numbers stand for actual objects, and they develop one-to-one correspondence. Numbers are not simply recited in a rote manner, but actually stand for discrete quantities. Gradually, adding, subtracting, multiplying, and dividing are performed mentally. Time has more meaning for them, and some children begin to learn how to tell time. One characteristic of children in this stage is reversibility: Numbers can be counted forwards and backwards; children can trace their path to school and home again; and emotionally, they can put themselves in another's place and feel empathy.

Classification of objects by color, size, and shape is possible. Demonstrating the ability called seriation, children can arrange objects by size or by weight. Children begin to understand part-whole relationships and can classify using two or more aspects of an entity. For example, they may understand that beads can be both wooden and also be of two colors, white or brown, as in Piaget's experiments. Thus they can classify by different aspects of an object.

Euclidean geometry can be comprehended in this stage as children learn about different shapes and angles. In this stage of concrete operations, they can coordinate perspectives and rotate surfaces. They can draw a straight line without using an edge. They can understand the difference between curvilinear and rectilinear shapes. They recognize and draw circles, squares, triangles, rectangles, and hexagons.

Children are now capable of conservation, which was difficult in the previous stage; children understand that objects or quantities remain the same even if there is a change in their physical appearance. Piaget carried out various experiments to test children's awareness of changes in number, substance (mass), area, weight, and volume.

Socialized speech begins and children may use adapted information, an exchange of opinions and ideas in conversation with another child or adult. In this stage, children also begin to use criticism usually based on emotion rather than on logic or reasoning. In this way these youngsters exert their superiority over others. Commands, threats, and requests occur whereby children attempt to influence others. Children enjoy punning, making jokes, and playing with long words. They are capable of argument and use logic and facts to back up their positions.

According to Piaget in the stage of concrete operations, games with rules are enjoyed. Children may still bend the rules, but they are capable of abiding by them, insisting on fair play, and enforcing punishment if rules are broken. Play continues in all of its forms, sensory-motor, imitation, practice, symbolic, and games with rules even into adulthood. Adults use sensory-motor while playing with sand or water at the beach, practice play when trying out a golf swing of an expert, following rules in chess or bridge, and they continually use symbolic play through writing poetry or fiction, acting in a community theater, and engaging in games of pageantry.


Piaget's final stage of intelligence coincides with the beginnings of adolescence. Adolescents can think abstractly, use deductive reasoning, and are flexible, rational, and can approach a problem in a systematic way. They can think about space and time in a more abstract manner and are capable of doing more complex mathematics, even physics and chemistry; students can think scientifically. They are capable of mental operations such as drawing conclusions and can construct tests to evaluate hypotheses. The logical or formal operations include theoretical reasoning, combinatorial reasoning, functionality and proportional reasoning, control of variables, and probabilistic thinking. According to Piagetian theory most students in high school are able to exhibit these reasoning patterns. However, research studies (Huitt & Hummel, 2003) have shown that many students have not developed these reasoning abilities. About two-thirds of all people do not develop this form of reasoning fully enough for it to become their normal mode for cognition, and so they remain, even as adults, concrete operational thinkers.

In terms of morality, the adolescent develops an inner values system. Previously, in the premoral stage, toddlers had no obligation to follow rules. Very young children believe in immanent justice: Objects have within themselves the power to punish. Obeying rules literally occurs in the moral conventional stage from about age 4 to 7 when adults are seen as powerful and can inflict punishment. In the autonomous stage, 7- to 12-year-olds consider the purposes of rules and their consequences if not obeyed. Adolescents, however, understand the appropriateness of punishment, expect others to be fair, and adapt a codification of rules understood by all players and by society as a whole.


Piaget believed that children construct their knowledge by their own actions on the environment, whereas Lev Vygot-sky (1896–1934) placed a greater emphasis on understanding as originating in the social/cultural aspects of society. A Russian educational psychologist, Vygotsky proposed the theory that social interaction and cultural influences lead to a continuous change in children's thought and behavior. Vygotsky disagreed with Piaget's assumption that development could not be impeded or accelerated through instruction. While Piaget believed that concepts should not be taught until a child is in the appropriate developmental stage, Vygotsky suggested that adults could help children learn through scaffolding, reaching a higher level in a subject through being sensitive to their capabilities. He coined the term proximal development to refer to that zone or range of tasks that children cannot perform alone but can accomplish with the help of skilled partners, parents, or teachers. Vygot-sky criticized Piaget's link between psychology and philosophy. He believed that Piaget was not scientific enough in his methodology. Play was important to Vygotsky who believed that children learn through play, since play is a way of dealing with culture and is necessary for self-regulation and control of behaviors. According to Vygotsky, play also serves to separate thought from actions, thus promoting symbolic thinking. While Piaget discussed play in its many forms, he did not deal adequately with the influence of culture and the social environment on play as Vygotsky did.


In a scholarly article (1996), Lourenco and Machado rebut criticisms of Piaget's theories; the authors suggest that many writers misinterpret Piaget's conclusions and fail to appreciate the central issues of his theory. Lour-enco and Machado also contend that critics do not recognize the post-1970 modifications of Piaget's theories. Lourenco and Machado present in detail ten areas of criticism and their arguments against each. Concepts reviewed in their article include competence in children; age norms concerning when children are able to complete particular tasks; what critics call Piaget's negative view of children; his neglect of cultural and social influences on children; his failure to adequately explain his theory of cognitive development; the descriptive rather than explanatory quality of his work; and finally, his ignoring postadolescent development. Examples of some of the studies that are critical of Piaget appear below.

George Butterworth (1977) and Rene Baillargeon and colleagues (1985) conducted experiments with babies to demonstrate that object permanence occurs much earlier than Piaget believed. Babies appeared to understand that objects continue in existence, but they did not know what to do to find them. Andrew Meltzoff and M. Keith Moore (1983) asserted that babies can imitate human facial expressions as early as two to three weeks of age and imitate movements of others even when they do not see these movements on their own bodies. The discovery of “mirror neurons” (the same regions in the brain that control action also support perception) may be a neuro-physiological explanation for these developmental behaviors (Jaffe, 2007). Jean Mandler (1990) found that babies can determine boundaries of objects (separating a cup from a saucer) and can deal with figure and ground experiments at an earlier age than Piaget indicated. Merry Bullock and Rochel Gelman (1979) demonstrated through their studies that children in the preoperational stage could understand cause and effect earlier than Piaget had predicted but are not able to use verbal explanations. These studies suggest that babies are social from birth and that a key way to learn is by observing others, a point more in line with Vygotsky's premise.

Jean Piaget's theory, despite many studies that find fault with it, remains into the 21st century an important theoretical explanation of the emergence of logical thought in the development of children.


Baillargeon, R., Spelke, S., & Wasserman, S. Object permanence in five-month-old infants. Cognition, 20, 191–208.

Bullock, M., & Gelman, R. (1979). Preschool children's assumptions about cause and effect: Temporal ordering. Child Development, 50, 89–96.

Butterworth, G. (1977). Object disappearance and error in Piaget's stage IV task. Journal of Experimental Psychology, 23, 391–501.

Huitt, W., & Hummel, J. (2003). Piaget's theory of cognitive development. Educational Psychology Interactive. Valdosta, GA: Valdosta State University. Retrieved April 14, 2008, from http://chiron.valdosta.edu/whuitt/col/cogsys/piaget.html.

Jaffe, E. (2007). Mirror neurons: How we reflect on behavior. Association for Psychological Science, 20 (5), 22–25.

Lourenco, O., & Machado, A. (1996). In defense of Piaget's theory: A reply to 10 common criticisms. Psychological Review, 103 (1), 143–164.

Mandler, J. (1990). A new perspective on cognitive development in infancy. American Scientist, 78, 236–243.

Meltzoff, A., & Moore, M. K. (1983). Newborns imitate adult facial gestures. Child Development, 54, 702–709.

Piaget, J. (1955). The language and thought of the child. Cleveland, OH: World Publishing.

Piaget, J. (1962). Play, dreams, and imitation in childhood. New York: Norton.

Piaget, J. (1963). The origins of intelligence in children. New York: Norton.

Piaget, J. (1965). The child's conception of the world. Totowa, NJ: Littlefield, Adams.

Piaget, J. (1965). The moral judgment of the child. New York: Free Press.

Singer, D. G., & Revenson, T. A. (1996). A Piaget primer: How a child thinks (Rev. ed.). New York: Penguin Group/Plume.

Vygotsky, L. S. (1978). Mind in society. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.


The Russian psychologist Lev Semenovich Vygotsky (1896–1934) introduced a theoretical approach that emphasizes the contributions of the social and cultural world tocognitive development. In this theory, basic mental functions, which are regulated by maturation, are distinguished from higher mental functions, which integrate basic mental functions and are used to carry out purposeful, goal-directed action. For Vygotsky, higher mental functions develop from experience in the social and cultural context. He was especially interested in how more experienced cultural members help children learn about the world through the useofcultural tools and symbol systems that support and extend thinking.

For Vygotsky, social and cultural experiences transform cognitive development in that they create thought processes that would not be possible without these experiences. For instance, the cultural practice of literacy transforms the way that people approach memory-related tasks. As the developing child adopts the tools and ways of thinking of the culture, the child's thought and action become increasingly aligned with the values and practices of their community. To understand how cultural values and practices become integrated with cognitive development, Vygotsky was particularly interested in social interactions involving more and less experienced cultural members. In these interactions, the more experienced partner assists the less experienced partner in ways that support the learner's engagement in intelligent activities that extend beyond his or her current capabilities. This process is most effective when it is aimed at the learner's zone of proximal or potential development or the region of sensitivity for learning. For Vygotsky, what people do and learn in the course of collaborative cognitive activity is the foundation of cognitive development.


Four core concepts of Vygotsky's theory are the distinction between elementary and higher mental functions, the role of mediational means in higher psychological functioning, the importance of social and cultural experience in the development of these mediational means, and the significance of the developmental approach to understanding human cognition.

Elementary and Higher Mental Functions. Vygotsky distinguished two general types of mental functions: elementary and higher-level functions. Elementary mental functions are biologically based and they carry out discrete and basic cognitive functions. Higher mental functions emerge from social and cultural experience, and they are complex in that they integrate many elementary cognitive abilities. Higher mental processes are not simply more complex versions of elementary functions; they are qualitatively distinct in that they also incorporate historical properties of the culture in which cognitive development occurs. These historically based properties are instantiated in the symbol systems (e.g. language, mathematics) and material artifacts (e.g., literacy, technology) of the culture and they are passed onto children by more experienced cultural members. For example, memory has both an elementary and a higher form. The elementary form, which is constructed of images and impressions of events, is similar to perception in that it is unintentional and the environment directly influences its content. In contrast, the higher form of memory involves the intentional use of signs to carry out goal-directed action. For example, when literacy is used to elaborate on or extend the natural memory function it enables a person to carry out an activity that would not be possible without this mediational means. The signs and tools that are used to mediate higher mental functions are conveyed to children through other people in their culture who are experienced with these representational systems and artifacts.

Mediational Means and Higher Psychological Functioning. The use of cultural signs and tools to mediate mental functioning was, for Vygotsky, the single distinguishing feature of human intelligence. Whereas other primates, and human beings when they use basic mental functions, react to and use external features of the world to guide action, human beings are capable of creating signs, such as language and number systems, and tools, such as navigational systems and computer technology, that affect or mediate how people think and interact with the world. Moreover, human beings create and live in an organized social unit called culture, which devises signs and tools that support and extend human thinking and action. Culture passes these systems of representation and cognitive artifacts across generations and, thereby, creates the historical basis of human cognition.

An important part of Vygotsky's theory is the idea that signs and tools are not merely external forces or stimuli to which children learn to respond. Rather, signs and tools carry meaning and it is the meaning that is learned and adopted by children. By participating in this meaning system, the child is able to engage with others in goal-directed behaviors as well as interpret and act upon the world in ways that make sense to other people in their developmental context. Children come to understand and use cultural signs and tools largely through social interaction, especially with more experienced cultural members. Cultures also provide institutions and formal social settings, such as rituals, and less formal social settings, such as storytelling routines, which provide children with access to valued mediational forms. More experienced cultural members play significant roles in this process. They are the most immediate participants in children's lives who use the mediational means of their culture to support thinking. More experienced cultural members guide children in the development and use of these cultural systems and they model the use of these systems in their own actions.

Language plays a central role in Vygotsky's theory. The acquisition and use of language is a primary component of children's developing intellectual abilities because it provides children with access to the ideas and understandings of other people. Language also enables children to convey their own ideas and thoughts to others in meaningful ways. With development, language, which is a cultural product, comes to mediate individual mental functioning. Therefore, as children learn to use language, the cultural system of meaning is gradually incorporated into their thought processes and, as a result, it both facilitates and constrains thinking.

Researchers have studied several social processes that promote children's learning of culturally valued skills, such as observational learning, the social regulation of attention, deliberate efforts to transfer knowledge from more to less experienced partners, social coordination during joint cognitive activity, and cognitive socialization through conversation and joint narratives. Taken together, this research suggests that social opportunities for children's learning appear in many forms and that culture determines the frequency and manner with which these processes occur.

Development of Mediational Means. To examine social and cultural contributions to intellectual growth, Vygotsky focused on social interactions involving children and more experienced cultural members. In his view, these interactions provide children with opportunity to practice, and thereby develop, cognitive skills under the tutelage of more experienced partners. Because these interactions introduce children to higher-level cognitive processes, Vygotsky saw children's participation in these interactions as a better index of children's potential development than individual performance, which describes what children already are capable of doing. Vygotsky was less concerned with children's individual intellectual capabilities at any particular point in time than he was with their potential for intellectual growth through social experience.

To assess this potential and to understand how intellectual development occurs, Vygotsky proposed the notion of the zone of proximal development (ZPD), defined as the difference between a child's actual developmental level as revealed in independent problem solving and the child's potential level of development when solving the problem with adult guidance or in collaboration with a more capable peer. For instance, a child learning how to count may be able to count to 10, but not beyond 10, on her own. When she tries to count the small collection of coins that she has saved, which exceeds 10 coins, she will not be able to do so on her own. In order to count the coins, the child may enlist an older sibling or parent to help her, or perhaps the sibling or parent may recognize the child's need and offer help. The interaction that ensues will help the child find out how many coins she has, which is her goal, while at the same time it will provide her with a chance to learn about, and practice, counting above 10. During the interaction, the more experienced partner may rely on many different techniques, such as modeling how to count the coins, suggesting ways to organize the coins to make counting easier, and instructing the child in number terms and numerical sequence.

For Vygotsky, the important features of this interaction for cognitive development are (a) the child would not be able to reach the goal of counting all her coins without the help of a more experienced partner, (b) the child is a full participant in the interaction, albeit a participant who has less understanding and skill at the task than does the more experienced partner; (c) the child's participation provides her with access to and experience with the thinking of the more experienced partner, and (d) the child is introduced to a way of solving the problem (counting beyond 10) that is valued in the culture in which the child will eventually be expected to function as a mature member. The reason this interaction helps the child advance in her understanding of counting is not solely due to the input of the more experienced partner, however. The child is able to participate in this interaction and, thereby, learn from it because she is actively engaged in the learning and is intellectually ready to embrace the new level of understanding that is introduced. In other words, the interaction is targeted at the child's zone of proximal or potential development. In contrast, if the more experienced partner were to insist that the child count up to 20 on her own before the partner provided help, the child would be unable to do so and the opportunity to learn, previously described, would not occur.

The concept of the zone of proximal development is twofold. First, it represents an alternative approach to the assessment of intelligence—examining children's intellectual potential under optimal conditions, that is, conditions that are tailored to the child's specific learning needs and that build on the child's present capabilities. These ideas were especially relevant to Vygotsky's research on the learning needs of children with disabilities and mental retardation. Second, the zone of proximal development represents a way of understanding how cognitive development occurs through social interaction with more skilled partners. As such, it builds bridges between the mind of the individual child and the minds of others.

According to Vygotsky, working within a child's zone of proximal development—that is, with the assistance of an adult or more experienced peer—allows the child to participate in the environment in more complex and competent ways. In other words, in social interaction targeted toward the child's zone of proximal development, a child has the opportunity to engage in more advanced cognitive activities than the child could undertake alone. This is because more experienced partners are able to arrange an activity in a way that makes it more accessible to the learner. More experienced partners also help the learner by modeling new strategies for solving the problem and supporting the learner's involvement in the more complex components. For Vygot-sky, the most significant aspect of social interaction for cognitive development is the fact that social experiences convey to children the mediational means for adapting basic cognitive abilities to higher cognitive functions.

Importance of the Developmental Approach. Vygotsky considered the developmental method critical to psychological study. His interest in development led him to focus on dynamics of change, both within an individual, as captured in the idea of the zone of proximal development, and in a culture, expressed in the signs and tools that are used to organize and guide intelligent action.

Vygotsky was interested in four different ways in which history contributes to the development of higher mental functions: general cultural history, ontological history, the history of higher psychological functions, and the history of a particular learning experience. General cultural history includes aspects of human social life that are passed across generations and represent collective means of acting and thinking, such as material resources or tools that support thinking and socially organized activities and institutions in which intelligent actions occur. Ontological history is a person's individual or life history, and it includes the integration of biological processes that regulate the development of basic mental functions and sociocultural processes that regulate the development of higher mental functions. The history of higher psychological functions examines how specific mental functions, such as remembering, have changed over human history as they have adapted to the circumstances and environments in which people live. The history of a particular learning experience includes change at the microanalytic level and is captured in the process described in the notion of the zone of proximal development.

Vygotsky did not believe that any single factor could explain all of mental functioning and its development. He was critical of reductionist views of his time, such as behaviorism, as well as theories that were broader in scope but nonetheless posited single explanatory forces for psychological functioning, such as Gestalt psychology with its emphasis on structural forms. Vygotsky emphasized the multiple forces underlying psychological phenomena and he argued that these forces were only apparent when they were in the process of change or development.


Vygotsky proposed that cognitive development is a product of social and cultural experience. He saw social interaction, in particular, as a critical force in intellectual development. Through the assistance provided by others, children gradually learn to function intellectually as individuals. Vygotsky defined the sociocultural environment of cognitive development in very broad terms, including social interaction, the values and practices of the culture, and the tools and symbol systems that people use to support and extend thinking. However, Vygotsky did not view individual psychology or human cognition as socially determined. He proposed that cognitive development is socially constructed. In other words, individual psychological functioning is an emergent property of the sociocultural experiences of the human organism. During social interaction that supports cognitive development, the child participates in and learns ways of thinking and acting that were not previously available to the child. The cognitive growth that emerges is initially intermental—it occurs between two or more individuals. Following the interaction, if the child's thinking and understanding change so as to resemble what occurred during the interaction, the resulting cognitive change or development is intramental or psychological. Because the child's own capabilities, interests, and goals contribute to the social interaction, what develops is not a duplicate of the partner's understanding. Rather, it emerges as the partners work and think together.

Vygotsky considered cognitive development as a process of qualitative change. He focused on changes that occur when elementary mental functions, such as involuntary memory, are transformed into higher mental functions, such as voluntary memory. For Vygotsky, higher mental functions are the result of the transformation of basic cognitive abilities into mental processes that are capable, with the aid of mediational means, of devising and carrying out conscious, goal-directed actions. To this end, he concentrated on changes in the mediational means that an individual uses to understand and act upon the world, and social phenomena are instrumental in this process.

Vygotsky was interested in a range of mediational means, both symbolic and material, including language, mathematics, mnemonic devices, artistic symbols, and literacy. For Vygotsky, when children learn how to use and eventually adopt signs and tools that support thinking, the fundamental nature of thinking changes. Furthermore, these mediational means not only support and extend an individual's intellectual functioning; they connect the individual's thinking and action with the social and cultural context in which development occurs.


In contrast to Jean Piaget's emphasis on individual functioning, Vygotsky stressed the relation between individual cognitive development and the sociocultural environment in which this development occurs. Although Piaget did consider some aspects of the social environment in his theory, in particular peer interaction, Vygotsky defined the social environment in much broader terms. Like Piaget, Vygotsky was a constructivist. However, Piaget concentrated on constructive processes in the individual's mind, whereas Vygotsky emphasized the socially constructed nature of cognitive development.

Another distinction between Piaget and Vygotsky is in their views on the relation of thought and language. For Vygotsky, thought and speech are independent in early development, but around the second year of life they join together when children begin to use words to label objects. Within a year, speech assumes two forms: social or communicative speech and egocentric or private speech. Vygot-sky's view of egocentric speech differs markedly from Piaget's concept of the same name. For Vygotsky, egocentric speech is a form of self-directed “dialogue” that the child uses as a guide in solving problems. As such, egocentric speech becomes a tool for intellectual growth. By age 7 or 8, this form of speech becomes internalized in the thought process and becomes inner speech, an internal monologue that guides intelligent action.

For Piaget, egocentric speech reflects a limitation of the preoperational stage in which the child's self-focused way of thinking leads children to explain natural phenomena in reference to the self, for example by claiming that the moon follows the child home at night. Unlike Piaget, who thought that egocentric speech served no useful cognitive function, Vygotsky considered egocentric speech as one step in the path of the development of internalized knowledge. Finally, Piaget suggested that egocentric speech diminishes at the end of the preoperational period, as the child's perspective-taking abilities improve, whereas Vygotsky thought that this kind of speech becomes internalized as thought. Much of the research evidence tends to favor Vygotsky's position; for example, children use more private or self-speech when encountering a difficult cognitive task and, as a result, their performance improves.


At the time of his death from tuberculosis in 1934 at the age of 37, Vygotsky was a prominent psychologist in Russia with a large following of students and colleagues. However, in 1936 his influence was threatened when the Stalinist regime banned his writings. Two of Vygotsky's close colleagues, A. R. Luria and A. N. Leont'ev, who also went on to become prominent psychologists, helped to sustain and advance Vygotsky's ideas during this time. In 1953 Stalin died and by 1956 Vygotsky's writings were again available in Russia. In the early 1960s, the influence of his ideas extended beyond Russia when the first English translations of his writings appeared in the book Thought and Language. Since then many other translated works have followed, and these ideas have inspired much theoretical, empirical, and applied research on cognitive development. Vygotsky's ideas are especially influential in some contemporary approaches to cognitive development, such as the sociocultural perspective and cultural psychology.

Vygotsky's theory has had considerable impact in both developmental psychology and education. His ideas have inspired much research on the contributions of adult-child and peer interaction to cognitive development. The form of instruction known as scaffolding was inspired by Vygotsky's ideas. Scaffolding is the process by which the more experienced partner or teacher adjusts the amount and type of support provided for the learner in relation to changes in the learner's needs over the course of the interaction. The concept of guided participation, introduced by B. Rogoff as a way of describing children's informal learning experiences outside of school, was also informed by Vygotsky's ideas.

Since the late 1980s educational programs that draw on Vygotsky's ideas have increased. In these programs more knowledgeable people, especially teachers, play critical roles in arranging and supporting children's learning using techniques like scaffolding, collaboration, and the provision of tools that support learning and thinking. In the method of reciprocal teaching, developed by A. Pal-inscar and A. L. Brown, the idea of the zone of proximal development is used as the basis of a tutoring program for children in reading comprehension. Another classroom application is the community of learners model, introduced by A. L. Brown and J. Campione. In this approach, the teacher uses the technique of scaffolding to support children's learning, and the students, who vary in knowledge and ability, actively help each other learn through their interchanges.


Vygotsky's theory emphasizes the culturally organized and socially mediated nature of cognitive development. This theory offers a view of cognitive development that respects the contexts in which this development occurs and, as such, it overcomes limitations in theories that focus solely on the individual or on the environment. Vygotsky's theory has made developmental psychologists more aware of the importance of the immediate social contexts of learning and it has increased appreciation of the importance of culture in cognitive development. This theory also provides a way of conceptualizing how cultural symbol systems and tools get passed across generations as they are incorporated into the developing mind. The shortcomings of the theory include lack of specification regarding age-related changes in cognition and how other aspects of development, such as physical, social, and emotional capabilities, contribute to cognitive change.

Vygotsky left developmental psychology a unique and valuable legacy of ideas. His approach to cognitive development has helped steer the field toward an important set of questions that are not found in other contemporary theories. His emphasis on mediational means as central to intellectual development provides a cornerstone for contemporary research in a wide range of areas including language development, social cognition, problem solving, educational psychology, child socialization, and cultural psychology.


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