In two separate issues of “Time” magazine, the intellectual development of infants and preschoolers was analyzed with contrasting viewpoints regarding the development of their brains and the views regarding how best to encourage the cognitive abilities of these young children. In the earlier issue, dated February 3, 1997, the special report consisting of two articles titled “Fertile Minds” and “The Day-Care Dilemma” the theories of Jean Piaget’s cognitive-development are supported. In the latter issue, dated October 19, 1998, the special report titled “How to Make a Better Student” focused on refuting the theories supported in the earlier issue of this magazine. Understanding the influence of Piaget’s and other’s views on intellectual development of young children on the contrasting views of this topic and how it reflects contemporary opinions on how young children should be raised is the focus of this paper. Hopefully, these contrasting articles will provide a more holistic understanding of Piagetian theory and its application to real-life situations.
I. Children’s Intellectual Development: Preoperations
By the age of 3 and 4 years old, children have attained what Piaget called functions or “preoperations” that enable young children to perform a number of feats far beyond the capabilities of infants (Piaget, 1950). Infants concentrate on constructing a world of permanent objects. Once constructed, these objects will be known to exist even when they are no longer present to the infant’s senses. Preschool children, in contrast, are constructing a world of qualities and properties that different objects share in common. They are beginning to identify and name colors, shapes, textures, density, and so on. At this stage, children are beginning to understand same and different as these terms refer to properties.
At the same time, it is necessary to recognize that these classes are formed only on the basis of perceptual attributes such as color and form and not on the basis of any quantitative characteristics. Moreover, although children can name and identify members of different classes cow, dog, or car, they cannot as yet operate on these categories in a systematic way. That is to say they cannot logically add categories and recognize that cats, dogs, and cows are all animals. Nor can they logically multiply classes and appreciate that a cat is both a cat and an animal at the same time.
In short, the one-many or quantitative dimension of classes escapes young children. Only when they have attained the concrete operations of childhood (age 6 to 7 years) will they begin to be able to coordinate sameness and difference and arrive at the notion of a unit that is basic to all quantitative thinking. A unit, for example the number 3, is at once like every other number in that it is a number but also different in that it is the only number that comes after 2 and before 4. Once children have a notion of a unit, they can engage in numerical as well as logical addition and multiplication (Gesell, 1949).
The young child’s limitation with respect to operating on classes is most evident when we ask them to define a word. Young children routinely define words by describing their functions; an apple is to eat; a bike is to ride. Only when they attain concrete operations at about the age of 6 or 7 years will they begin to define terms by nesting them in higher order classes, where an apple is a fruit, and a bike has wheels–you go places with it. Occasionally young children may define a word by placing it within a broader context, but this is often an anticipation of later intellectual achievement, not a true reflection of the young child’s competence (Carey, 1989).
In the “Fertile Minds” and “The Day-Care Dilemma” articles, neuroscientific evidence is used to comply with Piagetian theory of preoperational stages of development. The article describes in depth how the rapidly proliferating brain cells at birth make connections that shape a lifetime of experience. Thus, the author of this article points at that the first three to four years of development are critical and that “there is an urgent need . . . for preschool programs designed to boost the brain power of youngsters” (Nash, 1997, p.51) This argument is supported by hard, quantifiable evidence in the form of PET scans. Furthermore, the use of Piagetian tools to be incorporated in the education of toddlers in day-cares is stated to be a means that society can use to promote the intellectual development of young children who live in conditions that are a threat to their brain development.
In “How to Make a Better Student,” Craig Ramey, a cognitive neuroscientist, states that PET scans have fueled unwarranted views of brain development of young children and a preoccupation with the cognitive development of their babies (Cole, 1998). The use of high contrast toys and musical cribs, for example, are frowned upon in this later article. Rather, this article stresses the importance of less input and increased protection.
II. Variability of Individual Growth Rates
In discussing young children’s intellectual growth and abilities, it is difficult to overemphasize the wide range of normal variability in the age at which they attain their new mental powers. The article “Fertile Minds” seems to downplay this variability by using scientific evidence of PET scans to quantitatively describe intellectual capability in all infants and young children. Although it is sometimes useful, as Gesell and his coworkers have done, to talk about the characteristics of the “3-year-old” or the “4-year-old,” this can be misleading. Although some temperamental characteristics are relatively unique to each age group, a great deal of intellectual variability exists (Gesell, 1949). This individual variability has sometimes been obscured by the tendency to think of young children in temperamental, rather than intellectual terms.
Benjamin Bloom has pointed out that the preschool years are a time of very rapid intellectual growth. One characteristic of periods of very rapid growth, intellectual or otherwise, is that they tend to exaggerate individual differences (Bloom, 1974). Consider early adolescence and the growth spurt associated with puberty. Girls are taller than boys of the same age, and some boys and girls mature earlier than others. The physical variability among boys and girls in a sixth or seventh grade classroom are incredible.
In the meantime, it is critical to appreciate that much of the variability among young children in readiness to learn has to do with variability in growth rate and nothing more. There is a very real danger in misdiagnosing young children as “learning disabled” when in fact their growth is such that they temporarily fall behind their peers (Nash, 1998).
Recognizing the normal variability in growth rates is particularly important today when the academic pressures for achievement and testing have been pushed downward into the kindergarten and even into the prekindergarten levels (Hoffman, 1987). One consequence of this trend is that our perception of the range of “normality” has been compressed.
The more recent view maintains agreement with the view that normal variability is “normal” and it is important to give children space and allowing them to explore their own environments. The earlier article on day-care, however, stresses the increased need of providing all children with individualized attention and specifically “remedial education” for youngsters from disadvantaged homes (Nash, 1998).
Children of 3 and 4 years of age are unique. They are at an age of increased intellectual growth, and the range of variability of that growth must be recognized and appreciated in setting educational programs and assessing educational progress. In disagreement with the special report on “How to Make a Better Student” that emphasized reducing input, ignoring cognitive-development tools, and giving children space, in dealing with young children, it is well to keep in mind their tendency to think about the world in concrete ways and to remember that their language ability often far exceeds their cognitive understanding (Cole, 1998). The socialization of young children is by means of frames that govern their behavior in repetitive social situations and adults must understand when frames are spoiled, switched, or contradicted. Young children’s emotions are simple and are expressed directly in their words and actions.
Children are most like us in their feelings and in their emotions, and least like us in their thoughts. It is, therefore, important to treat children with the same good manners we would accord to other adults. At the same time, we need to remember that young children may not understand concepts the same way we do. Put differently, we should treat young children as we might treat a visitor from another country–with good manners, but without the expectation that they will understand everything we have to say or be affected from our actions even if believed to be or not be in their best interest.
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Cole, W. (1998). How to Make a Better Student. Time, 88-89.
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