THE MEANING OF PRESCHOOL EDUCATION

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CHAPTER  THREE COGNITIVE DEVELOPMENT IN THE PRESCHOOL YEARS AND THE TEACHING OF THINKING SKILLS

INTRODUCTION

As children develop physically, emotionally, socially and morally, they also develop the cognitive facet of their psyche. Development in one aspect influences development in the other aspects and vice versa. The questions that can be asked are: Should the development of cognition be left to maturational processes that will occur as children grow older, or should there be intervention to enhance this cognitive development? Should thinking skills be taught consciously or will children acquire them as they are taught other things? If cognitive development is left to chance will the children still develop cognitive skills optimally?
In this chapter the writer will attempt to demonstrate that conscious intervention by an adult is necessary to enhance the cognitive development of preschool children. If cognitive development is left to chance, the children may not reach their potential. The researcher would also like to point out that if young children are taught how to think, their intelligence can be increased, their cognitive development can be enhanced; and that thinking processes that come before intelligent behaviour can be taught.

Cognitive development

When the mental or cognitive processes by which knowledge is acquired, interpreted and represented develop, we may speak of cognitive development. Mwamwenda (1995:89) states that  » … cognitive development is the development of a person’s mental capacity to engage in thinking, reasoning, interpretation, understanding, knowledge acquisition, remembering, organising information, analysis and problem solving ».
Bjorklund (1989:4) maintains that cognition develops. He says that when we speak about cognitive development we are referring to  » …. some hypothetical mental construct, faculty, or ability that changes with age ». Cognitive development involves changes in mental processes by which we obtain and utilize knowledge. This implies that before we acquire knowledge or respond to an environment~!! stimulus, there are some activities that take place.in the mind. These activities precede the behaviour that will be exhibited by the person, and underlie human behaviour. These mental activities develop over time, due to maturation and also due to environmental factors.
Schwebel (1986:13) asserts that more specifically  » … cognitive development can be defined as the individual’sactive process of constructing the methods and contents of personal thought through interactions with the physical and social environment ».
These mental processes develop and change as a result of maturation to a certain extent, and also by the interactions that a person has with his or her environment.
The question is: If we teach children thinking skills as early as the preschool years, will this lead to optimal cognitive growth?

COGNITIVE DEVELOPMENT IN THE PRESCHOOL YEARS

The need for intervention in the cognitive development of the preschool child

As has already been stated, the preschool years are very important for the overall development of the individual. Most psychologists agree that the first six years of life are critical for human development, because the foundation for all future development is laid here. These years are very important for cognitive development. Beck (1985:9&30) states that the level of intelligence can be raised to a considerable extent during the first six years of a child’s life and that the child does not actually have a fixed intelligence or predetermined rate of cognitive development. The level of intelligence and the rate of cognitive development can be changed, either positively or negatively, by his environment, especially during the earliest years of his life.
Adults (for example, parents and preschool teachers), need to intervene in raising children’s thought processes and therefore leading children towards optimal cognitive development. They need to put themselves between the children and the environment, and teach the children thinking skills. In this regard Clark (1992:73) says that  » … we have a choice. We may either plan to provide the most nourishing environment that is possible within our current knowledge, or we may allow this important interaction to occur by chance. Regardless of how we choose to approach these formative years, interaction will occur and intelligence will develop. Whether that development leads to actualisation or loss of human potential depends on us ».
The implication here is that the child’scognitive development and the level of intelligence can be stimulated, for better or for worse. Furthermore this stimulation can especially be done when the child is still very young, when, according to Beck (1985:15) the child’s » … .fast-growing brain could absorb readily ».
Schwebel (1986:13) is of the opinion that significant adults in the children’slives can create environments that can facilitate their cognitive development, especially by strengthening their self regulatory, metacognitive skills. Clark (1992:74) seems to agree with this as she says , » …. we can no longer just let children be children without an awareness that we are inducing events that will have permanent effects on their lives ».
The above-mentioned writers imply that we have an option of enhancing young children’scognitive development. They also imply that the manner in which the environment is structured will have an effect on their mental growth and that the level of intelligence is not actually fixed at birth, but that it can still be raised. In fact, it appears that children do need environmental intervention in order to develop optimally

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Cognitive development of the preschool child

As has been said, when we study development we are looking at changes over time. As children grow, changes occur in their lives, including changes to their cognitive functioning. The changes are due to maturation and also to stimulation, intervention and interaction with the environment.
According to Decoster et al (1986:151-152) during the early years cognitive development is a gradual process. The younger the child is, the more he will need help and mediation from adults. This help needs to be child-centred. Decoster goes on to say that cognitive development is the gradual acquisition, structuring and restructuring of cognitive acts and strategies.
Van der Zanden (1993:232) is of the opinion that in the preschool period cognitive development is characterised by the swift expansion of mental abilities. Children become more proficient at obtaining information, ordering it and utilizing it. Whereas sensorimotor processes largely dominate development during infancy, a significant change takes place after eighteen months toward more abstract processes of reasoning, inference and problem solving.
In this thesis particular attention will be paid to Jean Piaget’stheory of cognitive development because it is of the utmost importance and the  » … most influential child development theory of this century. Piaget’sapproach looks at how the child’s interaction with the environment leads to cognitive development » (Lefrancois 1997: 73). McShane (1991 :21) further states that Piaget’stheory was developed over a very long period. A wide range of issues concerned with cognitive development were observed and he also revisited and improved his theoretical views again and again.
According to Gordon and Browne (1989:109) Piaget’stheory depends on both maturational and environmental factors. It is maturational because it sets out a succession of cognitive stages that are influenced by heredity; and it is environmental because the experiences that the children have, will have an important effect on the way in which they develop. Because of the outstanding basic contribution made by Piaget in the field of cognitive development, his theory will be discussed briefly.
According to Piaget’stheory, people go through four developmental phases related to stages of cognitive development. They are the following:

  • Stage 1: The sensorimotor stage ( birth to 18 or 24 months )
  • Stage 2: The preoperational stage ( 2 to 6 or 7 years )
  • Stage 3: The concrete operational stage ( 6 to 11 or 12 years )
  • Stage 4: The formal operational stage ( 11 or 12 years onwards )

Gold (1987:95) points out that the age ranges were intended as guidelines only; it was noted that the figures were different for the various cultural groups and also for different children who belong to the same cultural group.
The preschool child, according to this model, functions in the second stage, that is, the preoperational stage of cognitive development. The writer will start off by referring to the sensorimotor stage because it is the phase just preceding the preoperational phase, and thus has an effect on the preoperational phase. The concrete operational stage will also be discussed because that is where the child is being led.

Sensorimotor stage (birth to 18 or 24 months)

This is the first stage of cognitive development according to Piaget’stheory. Children are in the sensorimotor stage when they acquire language, and it forms a basis for all subsequent understanding (Maier 1978:30). This means that the mental development that takes place during the very early years is very important as it is the foundation for future development. That is the reason why the writer, although discussing the cognitive development of the preschool child, has decided to start with the sensorimotor stage because it is the basis for later cognitive development.
Hatfield and Hatfield (1992:165) are of the opinion that for infants and toddlers all mental processes and all learning are tied up to their direct experience with the environment. Children experience the world through their five senses, which facilitates adaptation to the environment. They respond to stimuli and they try to organise and adapt to the environment. According to Piaget (1950:7)  » … adaptation must be described as an equilibrium between the action of the organism on the environment and vice versa ». Furthermore, Piaget (1953:5) says that there is adaptation when the child is changed by the environment and when this results in the increase in the interchanges and interaction between the environment and the child which is favourable to the preservation of the child. The cognitive functioning of the child is a way of interacting with the environment, and is important to ensure the survival of the child.
Children use the processes of assimilation and accommodation in order to adapt to their environment. « The filtering and modification of the input is called assimilation; the modification of internal schemes to fit reality is called accommodation » (Piaget lnhelder 1969:6). On the other hand, Maier (1978:21-22) agrees with Piaget and says that assimilation implies understanding new content on the basis of existing schemes or simply incorporating an experience into a person’sway of thinking. Accommodation on the other hand means modifying one’sinternal schemata. It implies making an adjustment, to change an earlier way of thinking in order to « fit » it more correctly to the requirements of the new situation. Children modify the environment to suit them (assimilation), by using that for which they already have schemata, for example sucking – children have a tendency of sucking everything that comes to their mouths. Or, they may extend, modify or create new schemata to accommodate a new situation, for example, extending sucking to chewing when something solid is to be eaten.
The acts of children during the sensorimotor stage are directed towards immediate and practical satisfaction. The success of the action as such is obviously more important to the child than gaining knowledge through the action. Sensorimotor intelligence, according to Piaget is  » … intelligence in action and in no way reflective ». The children do not think about their thinking, they just perform the act for the sake of the act and practical satisfaction (Piaget 1950:121).
Piaget and lnhelder (1969:4-5) further state that it is difficult to state exactly when sensorimotor intelligence appears. What is found is a series of substages, each marking a new developmental level.
Within the sensorimotor stage then, six substages can be described, and they are …. successive and always in the same order » (Maier 1978:30). The substages are the following:

  1. Exercise of reflexes
  2. Primary circular reactions
  3. Secondary circular reactions
  4. Coordination of secondary schemas and application to new situations
  5. Tertiary circular reactions
  6. Invention of new means through mental combinations
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a) Substage 1 : Reflexes (0 to one month)

Piaget and lnhelder (1969:6-7) observed that during the stage of reflexes young children are active and they are often involved in automatic responses that are rhythmic. The child has an inborn tendency to organize his or her world, and some of the reflexes of the child are of particular importance for later development. Furthermore, Piaget (1953:24-25) states that there is only a slight difference between instincts and reflexes. From the beginning of their most primitive functioning, one by one, or in relation to each other, the reflexes give rise to a systematization which exceeds automatization. Each one depends on the preceding reflexes and conditions those that follow.
Maier ( 1978:31) goes on to say that these reflexes are a continuation of the prenatal way of life. They are automatic and repetitive in nature. This repetition and rhythm establishes the basis for cognitive development in that schemes will later develop from them.

b) Substage 2 : Primary circular reactions (one to four months)

A circular reaction is a response pattern that tends to prolong its own existence because the acts composing it produce the eliciting stimuli. The act is repeated because of its reinforcing value (Mwamwenda 1995:90).
This substage  » … characterises the formation of the first habits » (Piaget & lnhelder 1969:8). The habits may emerge from the child’sactivities directly or they may be imposed from the outside.

CHAPTER ONE BACKGROUND AND ORIENTATION
1.1 INTRODUCTION
1.2 AWARENESS OF THE PROBLEM
1.3 SOME STUDIES ALREADY UNDERTAKEN
1.4 STATEMENT OF THE PROBLEM
1.5 AIMS OF THE STUDY
1.6 SIGNIFICANCE OF THE STUDY
1.7 METHOD OF RESEARCH
1.8 DEFINING TERMINOLOGY
1.9 THE PLAN OF STUDY
CHAPTER TWO THE PRESCHOOL CHILD
2.1 INTRODUCTION .
2.2 THE IMPORTANCE OF THE PRESCHOOL YEARS
2.3 PHYSICAL DEVELOPMENT OF THE PRESCHOOL CHILD
2.4 SOCIAL DEVELOPMENT
2.5 LANGUAGE DEVELOPMENT
2.6 EMOTIONAL DEVELOPMENT
2. 7 MORAL DEVELOPMENT
2.8 CONCLUSION
CHAPTER THREE COGNITIVE DEVELOPMENT IN THE PRESCHOOL YEARS AND THE TEACHING OF THINKING SKILLS
3.1 INTRODUCTION
3.2 THE MEANING OF COGNITION
3.3 COGNITIVE DEVELOPMENT IN THE PRESCHOOL YEARS
3.4 THINKING AND THINKING SKILLS
3.5 CONCLUSION
CHAPTER FOUR PRESCHOOL EDUCATION
4.1 INTRODUCTION
4.2 THE MEANING OF PRESCHOOL EDUCATION
4.3 THE NEED FOR PRESCHOOL EDUCATION .
4.4 PRESCHOOL INSTITUTIONS
4.5 THE PRESCHOOL TEACHER
4.6 PRESCHOOL CURRICULUM AND LEARNING PROGRAMMES
4. 7 CONCLUSION
CHAPTER FIVE RESEARCH DESIGN
5.1 AIM OF THE EMPIRICAL INVESTIGATION
5.2 PLANNING THE RESEARCH STUDY
5.3 SUBJECTS
5.4 CONCLUSION
CHAPTER SIX DATA ANALYSIS, FINDINGS AND INTERPRETATION
6.1 INTRODUCTION
6.2 DATA ANALYSIS
6.3 FINDINGS
6.4 INTERPRETATION OF THE MAIN FINDINGS AND THEMES
6.5 SUMMARY
CHAPTER SEVEN CONCLUSIONS, RECOMMENDATIONS AND GUIDELINES FOR A PRESCHOOL LEARNING PROGRAMME
7.1 OVERVIEW OF THE STUDY
7.2 VERIFICATION
7.3 VALIDITY OF THE STUDY
7.4 LIMITATION OF THE STUDY
7.5 CONCLUSIONS
7.6 RECOMMENDATIONS
7.7 IMPLICATIONS FOR FURTHER STUDY
7.8 GUIDELINES FOR DEVELOPING A PROGRAMME FOR PRESCHOOL EDUCATION
7.9 Fl NAL WORD
BIBLIOGRAPHY
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THE TEACHING OF THINKING SKILLS IN THE PRESCHOOL YEARS TO ENHANCE COGNITIVE DEVELOPMENT

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