Cognitive Development and Children’s Thinking Process

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Cognitive Development and Children’s Thinking Process

Cognitive Development and Children’s Thinking Process


Melanie Perkins

Leslie Lovell

Jennifer Miller

Crystal Dunnermann

Katie Ross

Sandra Scott

Stacy Wegrzyn

David Edgington

Jamie Potts

EDPS 383 The Psychology of Teaching and Learning

Mrs. Amy Salvo

Spring 2012

Table of Contents


The purpose of our study was to determine if age and academic ability levels had an influence on cognitive development. We hypothesized that those of an older age had a higher cognitive development than those of a younger age. Also, that those of a higher academic ability had a higher level of cognitive thinking. Three children were tested; one the age of five and two the age of eight, who had varying academic abilities. The test score relied upon their range of cognitive development and the answers varied greatly. The test results showed that age and academic ability levels do effect a child’s cognitive development. We also were able to determine that each individual has a different level of cognitive development and thinking.



“It is with children that we have the best chance of studying the development of logical knowledge, mathematical knowledge, physical knowledge, and so forth.” Jean Piaget

The research being conducted for this project was designed to identify whether age and academic ability levels had an influence on children’s cognitive development. Our action research team located a reliable cognitive development test to administer to our selected three children. The background information on our selected three children is as follows: Student 1 is a five year old female in kindergarten, Student 2 is an eight year old male in the third grade, and Student 3 is an eight year old male in the second grade. It was our goal to establish if age and academic ability levels affected the cognitive development of children.

Statement of Problem:

As teachers, it is important to know that with the span of ages in your room, there is also going to be a span of cognitive development and thinking. It is our goal to learn how age effects children’s cognitive development and how to adapt our teaching to meet the needs of all children in our classroom. By investigating the influence age and academic ability has we will be better able to identify variances and work to meet the needs of all the cognitive levels in our room.

Need for the Study:

The research implicated in this project was noteworthy to parents, teachers, and support staff. As teachers we need to understand the impact age plays in cognitive development of children. It is important to remember the different stages of cognitive development. For these reasons teachers need to mold their teaching and activities to meet the needs of all their students on their own unique cognitive level.

Research Questions and Hypothesis:

For this case study, it was our objective to determine the cognitive development of three different children that are separated by age or academic ability. As a group we believe that this material will help us in aiding the children we are/will be teaching. It is the belief of this group that the older children would maintain a higher cognitive level than those younger and out of the two older children the one of higher academic ability would have higher cognitive thinking skills.

Limitations and Delamination of the Study:

The results of our tests were concluded with very helpful information of how age affects the cognitive development of children. The objective of this study was to observe two children that were the same age and one child at a younger age. The results of the test narrowed because of the small quantity of children studied and the lack of diversity. The three children chosen came from similar soco-economic backgrounds. The results could also be limited due to the fact that the two older children were males and the younger child was a female. The study also neglected to include any participates with physical disabilities.

Definition of Terms:

  • Schemes: a set of linked mental representations of the world, which we use both to understand and to respond to situations

  • Assimilation: Fitting new information into existing schemes.

  • Accommodation: Altering existing schemes or creating ones in response to new information.

  • Equilibration: Search for mental balance between cognitive schemes and information from the environment


This research project set out to identify whether age and academic ability had an effect on the cognitive level and thinking skills of children. To test our hypothesis, we ran a series of tests on three children, two at the age of eight and one at the age of five. The procedure tests run on the three children consisted of activities that involved interpretation of an Aesop’s fable, classification of objects, conservation of beads, and combination logic with one-digit numbers. These test allowed us to determine based on our individual study which children were of higher cognitive ability.

By performing this research, we will as future educators be aware and sensitive to the varying cognitive levels that will be present in our classrooms. It will help teachers to incorporate specific teaching methods, strategies, activities, and atmospheres that will best suit the students in the classroom individually and at a whole group level. There were a number of limitations that a raised after the group revved the testing procedure of the study. Although biases in soco-economic standards and other levels of diversity were found the results show an introductory level of results which could be carried further into more diverse situations upon further studying.
Literature Review


This action research project was designed to investigate the way children think in order to determine their cognitive development levels. The research set out to observe and discover the varying cognitive levels of thinking for three children. There were two children at the age of eight, but at varying academic levels and one separate child at five years of age. Upon the completion of this action research, it is our goal to see how age and academic ability might affect the children’s cognitive thinking abilities. The hope for this action research finding is that it will benefit others and help educators to have a better understanding of the varying cognitive development levels that are part of every classroom.

Cognitive Development Theory:

This theory was developed by Jean Piaget and it “described stages that children pass through in the development of intelligence and formal thought processes” (Cherry, n.d.). Based on Piaget’s theory we were able to find out that children do vary in cognitive thinking from adults. We discovered that it wasn’t that children were less knowledgeable, rather just different in their thinking ability (Eddy, 2010). In order to fully understand the theory, we thought it would also be necessary to give a true definition of cognitive development, it is “the development of intelligence, conscious thought, and problem-solving ability that begins in infancy” (Medical Dictionary, 2012).

From further study of the cognitive theory, we discovered that there are factors that influence thinking to change and go thought different stages. These factors include biological maturation, activity, social experience, and equilibration (Woolfolk, 2010, p.32). Children must be able to explore, interact with their environment, and make mistakes, in order to learn and develop their thinking. From these experiences children will learn to organize information into what Piaget calls schemes. Schemes are “a set of linked mental representations of the world, which we use both to understand and to respond to situations” (McLeod, 2009). These schemes become “mental maps” and are used to categorize experiences. The categorization goes like this, if a child approaches an object or a situation that they are familiar with it will fit into their already determined schema and assimilation occurs. If the child runs across something they are unfamiliar with they have to accommodate the new experience and make new schemes or adjust them, which will result in the child going back into equilibration (Funderstanding, n.d.). Assimilation is defined as, “fitting new information into existing schemes” and accommodation is defined as, “altering existing schemes or creating new ones in response to new information” (Woolfolk, 2010, p. 33). Equilibration is extremely important to Piaget’s cognitive development theory because it is through the desire for the mind to be at equilibrium, that the changes in thought occur and therefore the advancement in thinking occurs and progresses.

According to Piaget’s Cognitive Theory, there are four stages of thinking. These stages range from newborns to adults and go in sequential order. The first stage is Sensorimotor and the age range is usually 0-2 years old. During this stage infants learn, “about themselves and their world through their developing sensory and motor activity” (Papalia, 2009, p.146). This stage is vital to understanding extremely low functioning thinkers, but mainly babies and toddlers.

The next two stages are Preoperational, which usually ranges from ages 2-7 and Concrete-Operational, which ranges from 7-11. These two stages of cognitive development are going to vital for elementary teachers. The understanding of how differently these two stages of thinkers are is what sets apart teaching styles for older and younger grade levels. The Preoperational thinkers expand upon symbolic thought, one way logic, simple categorization, and tend to be egocentric (Woolfolk, 2010, p. 34-35). Egocentric means, “Assuming that others experience the world the same way they do” (Woolfolk, 2010, p.35). They also struggle with conservation and decentering. Teacher’s for this level of thinkers will need to use visual aids, make instruction time short, help students understand another’s perspective, understand that students have varying meanings for the same word, and allow hands-on learning (Woolfolk, 2010, p.36-38). The Concrete-Operational thinker’s use reasoning to solve problems, think and problem solve only here and now situations, master classification, grow in math, use inductive reasoning and understand conservation (Woolfolk, 2010, p. 35-37). Teacher’s for this level of thinkers will need to use visual aids, cut instruction time to medium to short lengths, explain complex ideas, and give students logical problems to think about and solve (Woolfolk, 2010, p. 36-38).

The Preoperational and Concrete-Operational stages vary in skill level and ability. Two ways that they vary is in the ability to understand conversation and the level at which they classify. In the Concrete-Operational stage most children have the ability to conserve numbers, length, and liquid volume. Conservation is the idea that a quantity remains the same though it changes in appearance. “If you show a child four marbles in a row, then spread them out, the preoperational child will focus on the spread, and tend to believe that there are now more marbles than before” (Boeree, 2009). Piaget believed that children’s intellectual development is based on physical development and is affected by their interactions with their environment (Garhart 2000). He believed that everyone fits into one of his four stages of development. A key concept of Piaget is classification. Classification refers to the ability to group objects together on the basis of common features (Atherton, 2011).

The final stage is going to mostly concern middle school, high school, and college teachers but there are times that upper elementary teachers may run across students thinking in this range. The final stage is the formal stage of thinking, which is represented by those who use abstract thinking and who are capable of both inductive and hypothetical-deductive reasoning (Piaget, 1964, p. 4). Students at this age can make a hypothesis about something that is not right in front of them and can do experiments to test the accuracy of it.

During our study we tested three children in four types of Piaget’s experiential tests. They consisted of reading an Aesop Fable, a classification experiment, a combination logic and conversation activity. Combination logic is the ability for a student to consider all possible combinations of a set of elements (Cook & Cook, 2010). This type of behavior can develop in the Concrete-Operational stage. For example, having a 3rd grader write all the possible numbers out comes using their phone number. An Aesop Fable is a short fictitious story that is meant to describe a moral lesson (Guralnik, 1968). Aesop’s famous book of fables is dated back to the 5th century B. C. The stories are short to keep the attention of children and features animals as characters that speak as people. The fable used in this research review was, The Lion and the Mouse. This story is about a lion that caught a little mouse. The little mouse asked the lion to let him go and states that he will help him in some way in the future. The lion agrees and later is found captured. The mouse chews away the ropes, freeing the lion. The moral of the story according to is “little friends may prove great friends” (2011).

Upon doing further research about Piaget’s Cognitive Development Theory, we discovered some areas that have been questioned and challenged. The theorist Lev Vygotsky, challenged Piaget’s theory and stressed that Piaget failed to include the effects of social setting on cognitive development (McLeod, 2009). Others have challenged his methods of studies and claimed they were biased because of the small amount of participants, the fact that he record data alone at times, and that his test were at times confusing and difficult (McLeod, 2009). But even through these challenges Piaget’s theory has been an inspiration to those who followed him and educators of many generations.


Jean Piaget’s Cognitive Development Theory has had an impact on all areas of study that involves children, ranging from education to doctors. Although there are disputes about whether the stages are correct and if Piaget’s tests where unbiased, there is still a lot to be learned from his findings. Educators gain the understanding that some of their children may be at varying levels of thinking and that children in older grades can think in different ways than younger children. Our evaluation of the three children proved that children at varying academic levels and at varying ages do think differently which supports Piaget’s theory. As future educators, we believe this study will benefit us in establishing a classroom that is appropriate for the level of cognitive thinkers in our room. We hope that the knowledge we gained from this study will give us a better understanding and help us improve our teaching styles, techniques, and expectations of our students in our future classroom and benefit the student’s academic growth.



This group decided to execute a series of tasks to determine the cognitive development and language of three school age children. We worked collaboratively to find relevant research on the four stages of Jean Piaget’s Theory of Cognitive Development. Upon collecting information for our research study we collect multiple sources that would be applicable to our project. We tried to select unbiased participates to perform multiple assessment activities on that would test their thinking. The group used a number of different instruments to observe stages of Jean Piaget’s Theory of Cognitive Development.


We used a number of different instruments to determine the developmental stage each child was in. The first task was the interpretation of a story. We decided to use an Aesop fable, The Lion and The Mouse. The story was read to each student and then they were asked what the story meant. The group was then able to determine which stage of cognitive thinking each student was in, by how they responded. For the second task, a classification activity was performed by the three participates. Each student was given a number of items and then asked them to group those items together. The items used consisted of a picture from a magazine, pencil, magic marker, piece of chalk, notebook, paper, drawing paper, thumb tack, a pin, scotch tape, and a paper sack.

The third task involved conservation of beads which would determine the cognitive level. With a set of beads the test administer made two lines of beads side by side and asked the child if both lines have the same amount. Next one of the sets of beads were spread and then the test participates were asked which one had more. The finally part to this test involved returning the spread out beads and bunching them together and again asking which one had more. The tests administer also used two equal balls of clay, and asked if each ball had the same amount. Then the balls of clay were flattened into a pancake and the test participates were asked which one had more.

The final tasked used combination logic to determine each level. Each test participate was given five different one-digit numbers on small pieces of paper. The test participates were then asked to make as many different 3-digit numbers as they could. The test administer recorded all the results as the test participates performed the activities.

Selection of Participants:

This action research group decided to use three school age children to see if age has a direct effect on what stage of development a child is in. Two of the children were the same age but functioning at different achievement levels. Student one was a five year old female in Kindergarten, student two was an eight year old male in third grade and student three was an eight year old in second grade. The test participates were chosen by one of the group members because they fit the criteria the group had set prior and because they were easily accessible by the group member who performed the testing procedures and activities.

Collection Procedures and Data Description:

In order to accumulate our data we gave each of the three students the same four tasks to assess each students thinking. Based upon Jean Piaget’s, Theory of Cognitive Development we were able to select how we would determine each students level based upon the response each participate gave the test administer task.

Task one we asked the child what they thought The Lion and The Mouse fable meant. If they responded emotionally, on a personal level, it was considered a pre-operational response. If the student based his or her answer on the literal content of the story, we classified it as a concreted operational response. If the student went beyond the literal content of the story and showed an understanding to the moral side of the story they were considered part of the formal operational response.

Task two was a classification exercise using different objects to be grouped together based on their likeness. Early pre-operational was considered when the grouping consisted on functional relationships. Such as, tape and paper sack because the tape can shut the sack, or pencil and writing paper. The pencil is used to write on the paper. If the groupings were based on perceptual features, such as, paper and picture because they are the same shape, pin and tack because they have a sharp point. A concrete operational response was considered if the student based the grouping on a common element, such as things that were made of paper and things you can hang objects with.

For task three we decided to use a conservation task involving beads and clay. Pre-operational responses were concluded when the student indicated that one group had more than the other when changes were made. Concrete operational responses were concluded if the students responded that they still had the same amount. Also, explaining his or her answer by using identity, reversibility, or compensation as a justification to their response.

Task four was conducted using combination logic with a set of five numbers. Concrete operational responses were concluded if the child went about the task in an arbitrary unsystematic manner. A formal operational response was concluded if the student approached the task in a methodical and systematic way.


Four different kinds of tasks were given to three school age children. We were then able to decide what stage of Jean Paget’s Theory of Cognitive Development each child was in. This was concluded from our rubric we devised based on their answers. We viewed each of the student’s responses and decided collectively which stage each was in.



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