Lecture Topics

  1. The Life of Jean Piaget

    Jean Piaget lived from 1896 to 1980. He was a Swiss psychologist who did ingenious work in cognitive development. His scientific interests developed early with childhood interests in how machines worked and how animals lived. His first publication was on rare sparrow observations at the tender age of 11 years. During his high-school years he worked in a natural science museum and wrote papers on mollusks. As an adult he was considered an expert on the classification of mollusks. Perhaps it is this interest in mollusk classification that led to his exploration of how children classify objects.

    (a) Jean Piaget got a doctorate degree in biology before turning his interests to psychology and psychoanalysis. He considered himself the founder of genetic epistemology, or the experimental science of the acquisition of knowledge.

    (b) Before engaging in his own cognitive research, he worked in Alfred Binet's laboratory. But his own interests were quite different from Binet's in measuring individual differences in intelligence. His own research looked at development in six areas: circular reactions, imitation; understanding of time, space, and causality; and object permanence. His research involved careful observation of children while they engaged in tasks.

    (c) Piaget's theory became popular in Europe in the 1930s, but at that time American psychology was heavily influenced by behavioral theory. In the United States, Piaget's popularity came in the 1960s. His impact is felt in parenting ideas, educational strategies, and current cognitive research. (Sources: Evans, R. I. 1981. Dialogue with Jean Piaget. Trans. Eleanor Duckworth, New York: Praeger; Harris, P. L. 1983. Infant Cognition. In P. H. Mussen (Ed.). Handbook of Child Psychology (Vol. 2), Infancy and Developmental Psychobiology. M. M. Harth & J. J. Campos (Vol. ed.). New York: Wiley.)

  2. Cognition Observed: On How to Identify What Infants Are Thinking About

    How can we tell what infants are thinking? Or, alternatively, how can we determine what sorts of information an infant can process? What mental capacities do infants have? Review the procedures that various researchers have used to study infant cognition. You may wish to begin with Piaget's classic observations and the conclusions he drew about the progression of intellectual development during infancy. If you have already given lectures on the procedures used to study newborns and on the opportunities and limitations of observational research, this part of your lecture will be a review and extension of those topics.

    (d)Having treated Piaget, select a sample of perceptual or cognitive capacities and present techniques used to learn about them. Important processes include attention, perception, and memory. Good treatments of strategies used to pursue these issues are found in Bower's Development in Infancy, and there are more recent books by Vogel and Bornstein.

    (e)One way to focus your presentation would be to take the case of infant memory. Sketch inferences about memory from Piaget's work, then consider how more recent studies have qualified and revised Piaget's findings. Discuss the importance of the full range of approaches to this topic, from Perlmutter's use of mothers' reports (see text) to the careful, systematic procedures used by researchers such as Rovee-Collier.

  3. Research Findings on Object Permanence

    (a) Infants younger than 4 months watched as a screen blocked a toy. When the screen was removed, half the infants again viewed the toy and the other half saw no toy remaining. Those infants who were in the no-visible toy condition exhibited more surprise, suggesting a rudimentary sense of object permanence (Bower, 1982).

    (b) 4-month-old infants looked longer at impossible events (Baillargeon, 1987).

    (c) 5-month-old infants reached out in the dark to touch an object visible a few seconds before (Bower & Wishart, 1972).

    (d) Infants younger than 6-1/2 months did not withdraw an object they were grasping under a cloth. They had not yet co-located visual and tactile information (Harris, 1983).

    (e) 7-month-old infants watched as an object was moved from A to B. The immediate response was to look at B. However, with more than a second's delay, the infants searched location A for the object. At one year, infants looked at location B even after a ten-second delay (Diamond, 1985).

    (f) 7-month-old infants do better at locating objects hidden by two-dimensional objects (e.g., screen, cloth) than at locating objects hidden by three-dimensional objects (e.g., cups, boxes). By 10 months, there was no difference (Dunst et al., 1982).

    (Sources: Bower, T. G. R. 1982. Development in infancy, 2nd ed., San Francisco: W. H. Freeman; Baillargeon, R. B. 1987. Object permanence in 3-1/2 and 4-1/2 month old infants. Developmental Psychology, 23, 655-664; Bower, T. G. R. & Wishart, J. G. 1972. The effects of motor skill on object permanence. Cognition, 1, 165-174; Harris, P. L. 1983. Infant cognition. In P. H. Mussen (Ed.). Handbook of Child Psychology (Vol. 2). Infancy and Developmental Psychobiology. M. M. Harth & J. J. Campos (Vol. ed.). New York: Wiley; Diamond, A. 1985. Development of the ability to use recall to guide action, as indicated by infants' performance on AB. Child Development, 56, 868-883.; Dunst, C. J., Brovks, P. H., & Dorsey, P. A. 1982. Characteristics of hiding places and the transition to stage IV performance in object permanence tasks. Developmental Psychology, 18, 671-681.)

  4. Preschoolers' Conception of Distance

    Piaget found that preschoolers made many errors on the three types of distance judgment tasks. For example, young children usually judged that two paths that were originally identical became different if subjected to some irrelevant conservation transformation. In a second problem, 84 percent of children under 4-1/2 years old judged that two lines that began and ended at the same points were equal in length even though the lines differed in directness of path. In a third task, the interval AC was compared with the same interval with a third point, B, placed between the first two points. Young children often judged length ABC to be smaller than length AC.

    Some more recent studies, however, have found young children capable of accurate judgments on some distance tasks. For example, preschoolers can be tested on their understanding of two distance principles: (1) the direct-indirect principle is the concept that a straight route between two points is always the shortest route; (2) the same-plus principle is the concept that if two routes are the same to a point, and then only one route continues, the route that continues is the longest. Preschoolers performed better on distance transformations that involved one of these principles (74 percent) than they did a principle-irrelevant task (19 percent). (Sources: Bartsch, K. & Wellman, H. M. 1988. Young children's conception of distance. Developmental Psychology, 24, 532-541; Piaget, J., Inhelder, I., & Szeminska, A. 1960. The child's conception of geometry. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul.)

  5. Children and Holidays

    Children enjoy holiday customs starting in the preschool years. However, it takes time for children to understand the meaning of holidays. In a Playskool poll of children aged 4 to 6 years, many did not understand why Thanksgiving was celebrated. Reflecting the preoperational stage of cognitive reasoning, their explanations were often "confused'' and mixed facts and erroneous material together, e.g., "It's when Benjamin Franklin discovered pumpkins,'' or "It's when the Pilgrims invited the Italians for dinner.'' Each year parents should give explanations about important holidays to their children. (Source: Little, M. A. 1989 (November). Mother & child: Kids and Thanksgiving. Good Housekeeping, 80.)

  6. Are Young Children As Limited As Piaget Claimed? The Work of Gelman, Shantz, and Others

    Piaget's work is especially important for convincingly showing that children do not think the same way as adults. He documented the differences in diverse ways and created a comprehensive theory that unified his findings and placed them in developmental perspective. Nevertheless, many modern researchers now feel that Piaget's methods for delineating children's cognitive capacities actually underestimate children's capabilities and lead to a view of children as deficient rather than competent thinkers. These researchers have worked hard to demonstrate cognitive capacities in children at earlier ages than Piaget reported them to occur. Their findings suggest that Piaget's theory must be modified.

    Develop this theme in a lecture that first shows how Piaget came to believe that children's minds work differently from those of adults. Describe his early observations of systematic errors on intelligence test items, and proceed to illustrate how most of his tests reveal cognitive errors in the thought of toddlers.

    Choose one of Piaget's tasks and discuss how it may impose information processing difficulties on a child. Relevant work toward this end has been done by Carolyn Shantz, Thomas Trabasso, Rochel Gelman, John Flavell, and others. These researchers have shown how task analyses of Piaget's tests indicate that alternative information processing hypotheses, as opposed to Piaget's structural-functional analyses, could account for young children's failure. Thus, for example, young children may fail transitive inference tasks because they forget information, not because they lack logical capacities (see Trabasso's work).

    Work through one or two examples. Then discuss with the class the impact it ought to have on an understanding of children's thinking and on applications of research to education. For example, is it an appropriate implication that educators can begin to teach children at earlier ages? How does that fit with recommendations made in the textbook? Engage the class in an appreciation of both Piaget's work and that of the information processing researchers.

  7. Self-referential sentences

    Not until individuals are in the formal operations stage can they find humor in self-referential sentences (and the effect is better in written than oral form). Here are some examples of these sentences: This sentence contradicts itself—or rather—well, no, actually it doesn't. This sentence contains exactly three errors.

    You can't have "your cake'' and spell it "too.''

    Well, how about that—this sentence is about me!

    When you are looking at it, this sentence is in Spanish.

    The sentence would be seven words long if it were six words shorter.

    I have been sentenced to death.

    These irrational statements are also better understood once in the formal operations stage:

    As long as I have you, I can endure all the trouble you inevitably bring.

    Remember me? I'm the one who never made any impression on you.

    Why does trouble always come at the wrong time?

    Due to circumstances beyond my control, I am master of my fate and captain of my soul.

    (Sources: Hofstadter, D. R. 1985. On self-referential sentences. Metamagical themas: Questing for the essence of mind and pattern. New York: Basic Books; Hofstadter, D. R. 1985. Self-referential sentences: A follow up. Metamagical themas: Questing for the essence of mind and pattern. New York: Basic Books.)

  8. Cultural and Experiential Influences in the Development of Formal Operations

    Piaget's theory suggests that no special experience is necessary for formal operations to emerge. Biological changes in the brain coupled with normal "cognitive experience'' are said to be the key determinants of formal operational thinking.

    Nevertheless, there is considerable evidence to suggest that, in fact, special experiences play an important role in the emergence of formal operational thinking.

    The primary reason for this belief is that formal operations seems to be prevalent only in cultures that provide their youth with secondary schooling. In addition, the achievement of formal operations within a culture may be limited to areas of special interest to individual teenagers.

    Present a lecture that evaluates Piaget's original findings and theoretical claims about the emergence of formal operations in light of cross-cultural work. A good source is research done by Jacqueline Goodnow over the past 30 years. Additional material is found in work done by Pierre Dasen.

    You may wish to present this information in conjunction with information about the incidence of formal operations within a modern, industrialized country. The data suggest that formal operations are neither universally achieved nor are they uniformly expressed in all adolescents' thinking. An irony in this work is that, in contrast to his work on children, Piaget seems to have overestimated the cognitive maturity of adolescents.

    You could conclude this lecture in different ways. One is to evaluate the idea that formal operations is a discrete, unitary stage of mental development. Another is to sketch an information processing analysis of a selected formal operations task (you might review Sternberg's work on analogies) and to discuss how cultural variables such as schooling might influence various stages of problem solving. In either case, indicate how Piaget's claims need to be modified to encompass the data.

  9. Tests of Formal Operations

    Students often find the concept of formal operations difficult. One solution is to present to them diverse examples of problems that only people who have formal operations are supposed to be able to solve. One source is John Renner's book, Research, Teaching, and Learning with the Piaget Model, or you may want to demonstrate one or more of Piaget's tasks.

    Your presentation could focus on actually having students solve some of the problems, or it could offer an analysis of the skills each task requires. If you and your students are up to it, you may want to show how Piaget's INRC group is represented in each task.

    If you have students solve a number of tasks, you will probably be able to show that not all formal operational tasks are equally easy, either tasks of the same or tasks of different types. This could provide a ready basis for the suggested lectures or simply give foundation for discussion about whether the problem lies in the measurement or in the theory used to interpret the measures.

    Another tack would be to discuss the extent to which measures of formal operations represent real problems that adolescents have to solve at school and in their personal lives. This will lead to a discussion of the validity of these devices as measures of mental skills used in everyday life.


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