Cognitive competence and performance in everyday environments

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    In a state-of-the-art paper on "Cognitive Styles and Reading Performance," Nathan Kogan concludes, after a comprehensive review of investigations to date, that the cognitive style-reading connection is a case of still unfulfilled promise. He offers a number of suggestions, however, for research that could "bridge" the domains of cognitive styles and reading performance, including a suggestion for combining cognitive styles with other cognitive measures.

    But research in cognitive development still faces, at the very least, serious procedural problems. Sheldon White makes this clear in his paper on "Cognitive Competence and Performance in Everyday Environments." After an impressive discussion of Piaget's influence on the study of children's thinking, Dr. White points to some of the limitations in Piaget's investigations (limitations that apply broadly to other investigators as well). The limitations he cites range from the studies of children's thinking only about physical objects to studies where the locus of the experiment is only within a quiet and controlled environment. In fact, children learn to think and perform in many ways and usually in relatively noisy and crowded and uncontrolled non-laboratory environments. The task now for research is to find out how this happens.

    Herman T. Epstein follows a different path in his exploration of cognitive development. He not only emphasizes the biological bases of cognitive development but also of language, and he presents evidence that both are linked to stages of brain growth. In persuasive argument, Dr. Epstein presents his view of the development of language, logic, and reading as functions related to the development of the brain. He warns that ignoring their correlated growth with the brain imperils our understanding of all three functions.

    Two other papers complete this section. Kees van den Bos explores cognitive abilities in children with learning disabilities and questions some of the prevailing notions about them. Of particular interest is the comparison of studies of Dutch children with studies of children in the United States. C. Addison Stone reports on his research in the cognitive development of adolescents with learning disabilities. Studying a population drawn from the diagnostic center at Northwestern University, he presents findings in the use of cognitive strategies that appear to differentiate a subgroup with generalized conceptual difficulties from another subgroup that appears to exhibit the characteristics of the "classic" dyslexic. Dr. Stone makes the point that as the child moves into adolescence, learning disabilities manifest themselves in new ways.


  • Cognitive Competence and Performance in Everyday Environments

    Sheldon H. White

    Harvard University

    Over the past 20 years, the study of children's thinking has more and more been influenced by Piagetian research and ideas directed towards a theory of the growth of children's intellectual competence. Perhaps 30-40 percent of current published research on children's cognition is in some way connected with Piaget's work. His influence spreads beyond Psychology. More than a dozen books in print offer short courses on Piagetian theory for students in Psychology or Education. The longest "short course" (and one of the best) is The Essential Piaget, a set of commentaries and excerpts from Piaget's writings by Gruber and Vondche (1977) that runs to 881 pages. Eight hundred and eighty one pages make up a lot of essence but, of course, we are dealing with the work of a scholar who has to date published some 50 books and hundreds of articles..At the moment, his productivity is not faltering.

    There are mixed judgments about Piaget's work among American psy- chologists. Some tender him respect bordering on the reverential, but the number of psychologists who base their work completely and uncritically upon that of Piaget is really rather small. Those who see him as providing an important map of children's cognitive development generally concede that other mappings, such as those of Freud, Erikson, Bowlby, Werner, and Vygotsky, reveal important aspects of children's development not treated by Piaget. Piaget's map says that there are broad stage changes in children's cog- nitive development, from sensorimotor intelligence to preoperational thought to concrete operations to formal operations. But careful studies have shown that the idea that children's thought advances in broad leaps is, at best, a very approximate picture of what is going on in children's cognitive development (Brainerd 1978; Gelman 1978).

    Presented at the 30th Annual Conference of the Orton Society at Indianapolis, November 1979.

    Bulletin of The Orton Society, Vol. 30, 1980, Copyright 1980 by The Orton Society, Inc. ISSN 0474-7534.



    Piaget's work is not simply psychological research as we usually tend to think about it in this country. We have a tendency to regard psychological research on 'children as properly an attempt to establish "the facts" about child development. This is simplistic. Piaget has studied children with an eye to basic biological problems of evolutionary theory and some classic philo- sophical questions about epistemology. His work is complex and cannot easily be judged by the conventional disciplinary standards of Psychology. 1 The mixed reception that psychologists now give to his work resembles the mixed reception that was once given to Freud's work after it was introduced to this country near the turn of the century. Perhaps because the case of Freud lies behind as an example, I would expect that Piaget is going to have a slow, sustained positive impact on American research work for some decades to come. To an interesting extent, Sigmund Freud's writings remain today an influential primary source for a variety of scholars in the behavioral and social sciences. The voluminous writings of the psychoanalysts and per- sonality theorists who have come after Freud have modified, but do not yet obscure, Freud's salience as a theorist. It seems to take a scientific community some time to "digest" the writings of a broad and prolific theoretical writer. In Piaget's case, there is ample reason to believe that there is much of his contri- bution that has not yet been fully explored by other research workers. As large as the American response to Piaget's work has been, it remains true that one can open his books and easily find a wealth of studies, findings, observa- tions, and theoretical suggestions that have so far not been exploited by others.

    Of course, Freud's work has been transmitted forward in time in asso- ciation with a wave of changed social practices. Freud bequeathed to the present not just a theory but a therapy, the practice of psychoanalysis. The theory and the therapy have differentiated to form the nuclei of dozens of contemporary schools of psychotherapy. Not only psychiatry, but social work, clinical psychology, and counseling have been heavily influenced by

    iPiaget is one of those grand systematists that have traditionally found much acceptance in Europe but a smaller audience in the United States. He sees the analysis of children's cognitive development as a means of studying evolution and the analysis of evolutionary sequences as a means of arriving at a :universal logic of knowing sys- tems. There are others who treat the problem of knowledge along the large lines of Piaget. In a just-published book, Bateson, the anthropologist, holds:

    It is the Platonic thesis of [this] book that epistemology is an indivisible integrated meta-science whose subject matter is the world of evolution, thought, adaptation, embryology, and genetics -- the science of mind in the widest sense of the word. (Bateson, 1980, p. 97.)



    Freud's work. There is a Freudian legacy in the arts and in popular culture; Freudian ideas have become part of the "common sense" of educated people today. Although there is now a serious reconsideration of the basic presump- tions and practices of professional work oriented towards "mental health," there can be little question that Freud's work has had an irreversible impact on the practices of contemporary society.

    It would be reasonable to expect that Piaget's work ought to be having a large impact on contemporary educational practices. That impact is probably beginning, but it is curiously hard to trace. The obvious ways in which his influence might be conspicuous are not there, and the less obvious kinds of influence are hard to pin down. First, Piaget has never designed an educational method or curriculum so one cannot see Piagetianism traveling into education embodied in something tangible like a Froebelian kindergar- ten, a SummerhiU, or a "new Math." There have been a number of attempts to draw out of Piaget's work principles or maxims for educational practice. A number of authors have tried this, Piaget among them (Piaget 1935; Furth 1970; Helmore 1970; Wadsworth 1971; Schwebel and Raph 1973; Ginsburg and Opper 1979). What such efforts usually yield is a broad alignment of Piagetian with Deweyan principles, coupled with an exhortation that children should be continuously active in learning. The principle that education ought to enlist children's spontaneous activity has a history of dis- tinguished endorsement going back to Rousseau. It is an important argument, but one hardly suspects that it requires 50 volumes of rather dense research and analysis to retrieve the general principle in the 20th century. But then, perhaps it is not a fair test of a theorist to ask whether one can derive from his work some snappy little maxims or slogans for the benefit of educators.

    A third line of influence of Piaget's work on education has come through the construction of curricula for limited segments of educational practice based on trends in cognitive development suggested by his work.

    American psychologists mostly pursue a science of mind in a narrower sense than that of Piaget and Bateson. They selectively consider and use those parts of Piaget's work where he conforms most closely to American ideals of an inductive, parsimonious scientific enterprise. Piaget's work is treated in this narrower sense in this paper, because I am here trying to consider his predominant American influence. But a few Americans, not undistinguished, such as John Dewey, James Mark Baldwin, G. Stanley Hall, and Heinz Werner, have believed with Piaget that large questions and large principles are entailed in children's cognitive development.



    The only really systematic use of Piaget that I know of in this direction has been in the design of preschool curricula -- notably, the curriculum approaches built by Conskance Kamii (Sonquist, Kamii and Derman 1970), Celia Stendler Lavatelli (1970), and David Weikart and his associates at High/Scope in Ypsilanti, Michigan (Hohmann, Banet, and Weikart 1979). There has been some limited use of Piaget's work in the design of upper-level science and mathematical curriculum. It is hard to believe that these educa- tional embodiments of Piagetian principles reach many children. Of course, one can note that it is becoming routine for new textbook series and curricula to offer prefatory statements to the effect that Piagetian theory has been respected in the educational material to follow. This is the kind of invocation through which, not so long ago, textbook writers used to call upon the spirit of John Dewey. One cannot completely dismiss this kind of testimonial but, on the other hand, one cannot be sure that it betokens a serious and essential use of Piaget's work.

    Having discounted some of the conventional avenues through which Piaget's work might be easily seen has having an influence upon education -- through distinctive techniques, through special principles, or through con- structed curricula -- let me quickly state that I believe that Piaget's work is bringing into currency some rather powerful new ideas about what learning and knowing are in children. An examination of textbook discussions of these topics two decades ago as compared with today will show this. It is always hard to deal with the works of a writer who changes our sense of the obvious. . , who changes, in Piaget's phrase, our "construction of real i ty" . . . because the obvious, once it has become obvious, always feels to us as though it has now and eternally always been obvious. Yet consensual beliefs about children's learning are visibly changing (White and Siegel 1976). In this way, by first challenging our basic conceptions of what it means to know and be intelligent, and then by subsequently offering thousands of acute observa- tions to help explore the implications of some newer conceptions, I believe Piaget will have a widening effect on the organization of educational practices in years to come.

    The Yield from Piagetian Research

    What, exactly, is our yield from Piaget's research?

    In book after book, he has offered us crude maps of the successive states of children's abilities to compute problems of space, time, geometry, number, logic, causality, probability, perceptual illusions, and rule judgments. The



    maps are sketchy but nonetheless useful. Piaget's maps typify the intellectual movements of the "average child," that legendary creature never seen by a parent or a teacher. But general expectations have a place in an educational system. Teachers and textbook writers can use them to steer by until they find a place where they can begin to look for more specific expectations.

    Mixed in with the maps -- the dozens and dozens of little stage sequences -- Piaget has offered hundreds of shrewd observations about children's cognitive processing at different ages. Piaget has an extraordinary eye for suggestive detail. We are accustomed to think of Piaget, like Freud, as a grand theorist, a prince of soaring generalizations and obfuscatory abstrac- tions, flying far and high above the observational minutiae of dustbowl empiricism. It must be remembered that Piaget, like Freud, began his career as a biologist making precise observations in a finicky field. Freud's first scienti- fic papers were reports of microscopic observations in neuroanatomy. Piaget began his career with ten years of publications on naturalistic observations of mollusks. Today, Piaget's observations of children stand as items of value quite apart from his systematic theory. And one cannot help but notice that some who have been influenced by him have "caught" his eye for suggestive detail. American psychologists who before Piaget tended to "count behaviors" and "measure abilities" are now providing subtle observations of children's intellectual behavior of a quality that was not all that common in the early 1950's.



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