There are five broad questions that cognitive psychology addresses when looking at cognitive development. These include: What kind of cognitive abilities does a newborn have? At what age do we begin to show certain cognitive abilities? Are there critical periods in development when these skills must be acquired? What causes differences in peoples cognitive skills? What is the bigger influence – environment or biological influences? Is development stagelike or smooth? Is development an all over process or do specific areas develop faster than others?
The two main concepts in cognitive development is maturation and learning. Maturation is any permanent change in thought or behaviour that occur through the biological process of aging without regard to environmental influences. Learning is any relatively permanent change in thinking or behaviour that is a result of experience. Maturation is programmed – it will happen regardless of the environment. Things that occur through maturation include reflexes. Learning will only take place is an individual has a particular experience. The question of maturation versus learning is an age old debate – but today most psychologists believe that maturation and learning influence cognitive ability. We may be born with a particular biological capability, but the extent to which it will be brought out depends on the environmental cues we are exposed to. Certain environments may bring out different cognitive abilities.
The next question that concerns psychologists is whether development occurs in a series of stages or whether it is a continuous progression that gradually unfolds. Stages occur in a sequence – one must happen before the other can, for example crawling before walking and language development. Each stage is associated with a specific set of abilities used in thinking. Therefore, when in a certain stage a child will think and reason differently than if they were in a different stage. Given these characteristics of stages – do children exhibit stage-like development? Different psychologists believe different things. And those that believe that stages do exist also realize that these stages are not clear cut.
The third controversial question addresses whether development occurs generally through out the brain or whether certain specific areas develop at different paces. For example, does a child learn how to remember the alphabet at the same time they learn to remember numbers? Since the 1970’s many psychologists have come to believe that the brain develops in specific areas rather than generally.
The next question that psychologists are concerned with is what ages do infants; children and adults demonstrate various kinds of thought and behaviours? It is important to know this as we need to know the normal stages of a child’s development and what they should know when. The age that a child first acquires motor skills does not predict later intelligence; however, the one thing that does predict this is an infant’s preference for novelty – stimulus that is moderately different from that that they already know. Most developmental psychologists would agree that the key to understanding cognitive development is not the identification of the specific stages that a child will acquire new skills, but rather an understanding of how there abilities progress and unfold.