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


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