Information Processing During Childhood

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Information Processing During Childhood
Chapter 9
Human Development
children get older. His idea that children are active explorers and constructors of knowledge, not passive recipients of input from the environment, influenced our contemporary views of child development. Piaget also inspired other psychologists to test his findings and theory with experiments of their own. The results of these experiments suggest
that Piaget’s theory needs some modification.
What needs to be modified most is Piaget’s notion of developmental stages. Several
studies have shown that changes from one stage to the next are less consistent and global
than Piaget had described them. For example, three-year-olds can sometimes make the
distinction between physical and mental events; they know the characteristics of real
dogs versus pretend dogs (Woolley, 1997). And they are not always egocentric. In one
study, children of this age knew that a white card, which looked pink to them because
they were wearing rose-colored glasses, looked white to someone who was not wearing
the glasses (Liben, 1978). Preoperational children can even succeed at conservation tasks
if they are allowed to count the number of objects or have been trained to focus on relevant dimensions such as number, height, and width (Gelman & Baillargeon, 1983).
Taken together, these studies suggest that children’s knowledge and mental strategies
develop at different ages in different areas and in “pockets” rather than at global levels
of understanding. Knowledge in particular areas is demonstrated sooner in children
who are given specific experience in those areas or who are faced with very simple questions and tasks. In other words, children’s reasoning depends not only on their general
level of development but also on (1) how easy the task is, (2) how familiar they are
with the objects involved, (3) how well they understand the language being used, and
(4) what experiences they have had in similar situations (Siegal, 1997). Research has
also shown that the level of a child’s thinking varies from day to day and may even
shift when the child solves the same problem twice in the same day (Siegler, 1994).
In summary, psychologists now tend to think of cognitive development as occurring
in rising and falling “waves” rather than in fixed stages characterized by permanent
shifts from one way of thinking to another (Siegler, 2006). Children appear to systematically try out many different solutions to problems and gradually come to select the
best of them.
Information Processing During Childhood
Why does memory improve
during childhood? (a link to
information processing The process of
taking in, remembering or forgetting,
and using information.
An alternative to Piaget’s theory of cognitive development is based on the concept of information processing described in the chapters on memory and on thought, language, and
intelligence. The information-processing approach to development describes cognitive
activities in terms of how people take in information, use it, and remember it. Developmental psychologists taking this approach focus on gradual quantitative changes in children’s mental capacities, rather than on qualitative advances or stages in development.
Research by these psychologists demonstrates that as children get older, their
information-processing skills gradually get better (Munakata, 2006). Older children
have longer attention spans. They take in information and shift their attention from
one task to another more rapidly. (This is how they manage to do their homework
while watching TV.) They are also more efficient in processing information once it is
received (Miller & Vernon, 1997). Children’s memory storage capacity also improves
(Schneider & Bjorklund, 1998). Preschoolers can keep only two or three pieces of
information in mind at the same time; older children can hold four or five. And compared with younger children, older children are better at choosing problem-solving
strategies that fit the task they are facing (Siegler, 2006).
We don’t yet know exactly what causes these increases in children’s attention,
information-processing, and memory capacities. A full explanation will undoubtedly
include both nature (specifically, maturation of the brain; Luciana et al., 2005) and
nurture (including increased familiarity with the information to be processed and
memorized). Researchers have noticed that the cognitive abilities of children improve
dramatically when they are dealing with familiar rather than unfamiliar material. In
one experiment, Mayan children in Mexico lagged behind their age-mates in the United
States on standard memory tests of pictures and nouns. But they did a lot better when
in review
Infancy and Childhood: Cognitive Development
3–4 months
Maturation of senses
Immaturities that limit the
newborn’s vision and hearing are
Reflexes disappear, and infants
begin to gain voluntary control
over their movements.
Voluntary movement
12–18 months
Mental representation
Object permanence
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Tutorial: Preoperational
Inability to Conserve
Infants can form images of objects
and actions in their minds.
Infants understand that objects
exist even when out of sight.
18–24 months
Symbolic thought
Young children use symbols to
represent things that are not
present in their pretend play,
drawing, and talk.
4 years
Intuitive thought
Children reason about events, real
and imagined, by guessing rather
than by engaging in logical analysis.
6–7 years
Concrete operations
Children can apply simple logical
operations to real objects. For
example, they recognize that
important properties of a substance,
such as number or amount, remain
constant despite changes in shape
or position.
7–8 years
Children can remember more
information; they begin to learn
strategies for memorization.
1. Research in cognitive development suggests that children form mental
than Piaget thought they did.
2. Recognizing that changing the shape of clay doesn’t change the amount of clay is
evidence of a cognitive ability called
3. The appearance of object permanence signals the end of the
*These ages are approximate; they indicate the order in which children first reach these milestones
of cognitive development rather than the exact ages.
researchers gave them a more familiar task, such as recalling miniature objects in a
model of a Mayan village (Rogoff & Waddell, 1982).
Better memorization strategies may also help account for the improvement in children’s memories. To a great extent, children learn these strategies in school. They learn
how to memorize and how to study. They learn to repeat information over and over
to help fix it in memory, to place information into categories, and to use other memory aids to help them remember.
After about age seven, schoolchildren are also better at remembering more complex
and abstract information. Their memories are more accurate, extensive, and well organized. The knowledge they have accumulated allows them to draw more inferences and
to integrate new information into a more complete network of facts. (See “In Review:
Milestones of Cognitive Development in Infancy and Childhood.”)
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