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Cognitive Development from Modern Theoretical Perspective


The present paper is devoted to the domain of human cognitive development and the way in which it is portrayed by the modern theory in the field. Cognitive development involves the “growth and change in the intellectual processing functions of children as they age and mentally develop” (Brubaker, 2016, p. 1), and the theory in the domain is still being expanded as more evidence is collected. It can be stated that the modern cognitive development theory is characterized by a diversity of views (Taylor, 2016), but they are significantly influenced by two key works: that of Piaget and that of Vygotsky. As a result, the current paper describes the two theories, considers their similarities and differences, overviews the development of the theory since then and describes the stage-based view on cognitive development that is supported by the modern scientific community. Finally, the paper makes conclusions on the value of the two major theories and the trajectory of the evolution of the theory of cognitive development, suggesting that future research is capable of contributing to the picture.

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Literature Review and Its Application

Theory Evolution

Initially, cognitive development research was focused only on the environmental factors that could affect the development of intelligence in children (Brubaker, 2016, p. 1). However, since the middle of the previous century, a new, constructivist turn in the development of the theory was discovered, and it started with the work of Jean Piaget. In fact, the domain of developmental psychology was basically introduced by Piaget and the theory of cognitive development that he had created and founded in experimentation and observation (Harris & Westermann, 2015; White, Livesey, & Hayes, 2012). The theory contains a description of four stages with a detailed explanation of the cognitive abilities that a human develops throughout them; the stages will be discussed below. Piaget’s theory was not only founding, but it was also groundbreaking, and it has set the tone to the neo-Piagetian theories that are based on the idea of the stage-related development of human cognition (White et al., 2012). For example, the Fisher’s skill theory is a three-tier theory (sensorimotor, representational, and abstract) that contains four complexity levels each (White et al., 2012, p. 174). The idea of the continuous progress from the less to more complex abilities that are also conditioned by the human biology is the key contribution of Piaget to modern cognitive development studies (Brubaker, 2016, p. 1).

Another significant theory in the field was introduced by Vygotsky who placed a particular emphasis on the factors that condition the cognitive development of a person, thus highlighting the importance of the sociocultural environment and its contribution to the process (Brubaker, 2016; Harris & Westermann, 2015, p. 31). The theory provided the ground for the development of the notion of scaffolding, that is, “social collaboration that fosters cognitive growth” by bringing the child into his or her zone of proximal development (Shaffer & Kipp, 2013, p. 233). The latter term was used to define the performance that a child can achieve with the help of an adult facilitator, for example, a parent or a teacher. This theory was of particular importance for learning and teaching theories and practice, and, apart from that, it has fostered the increase of the volumes of research that is devoted to various external factors and their impact on cognitive development (Taylor, 2016).

Theory Comparison

Both Piaget’s and Vygotsky’s works have been groundbreaking and exceptionally important for the theory of cognitive development, but there are more differences between them than similarities. It is apparent that Piaget’s and Vygotsky’s theories have different emphases: in particular, Piaget is more interested in biology-defined, internal factors of human development while Vygotsky specifically emphasizes the external ones. In this respect, the zone of proximal development is particularly illustrative: it denotes the development that is not achieved biologically; instead, it is literally conditioned by the environment (the facilitator) and is impossible without external contribution. It is not surprising, therefore, that the two theories have been used to complement each other: the neo-Piagetian theories that are based on stage-defined development have started to merge the biological factors with environmental ones to achieve a more comprehensive picture of human development (Brubaker, 2016). As a result, it can be suggested that the evolution of cognitive development theory included the pre-Piagetian period of environmental factors, the Piagetian period of biological ones, and the neo-Piagetian period that attempted to form an alliance between the two different approaches by assimilating Vygotsky’s work into their Piagetian principles.

Cognitive Development: Modern Theoretical Perspective

Nowadays, the stages of cognitive development are primarily considered in the form of the Piaget’s stages that correlate with particular ages and define certain cognitive skills evolution (Taylor, 2016). Infancy (the period between the birth and two year) correlates with the sensorimotor stage that involves six substages of the development of various simple reflexes that are first centered in the human body (“primary circular reaction”), then become extended to the environment (“secondary circular reaction”) with the final achievement of outcome-aimed control over actions (“tertiary circular reaction”) (Brubaker, 2016, p. 2). Prenatal and early postnatal periods are considered to be especially important for brain development, but it is proved that childhood and adolescence are also significant (Kellermann, Bonilha, Lin, & Hermann, 2015). Between two and seven years, the two substages of the pre-operational stage take place when language and symbolic functions take part in the development of intelligence while memory and imagination develop as well. The stage is characterized by the lack of logic and egocentricity, which begins to abate during the following, concrete operational stage (that occurs in children between seven and eleven years). Apart from that, the third stage is concerned with increasing use of mental operational thinking that is being applied to “to real, concrete problems, objects, or events” and the development of subjective morality (Brubaker, 2016, p. 2). The final stage is termed “operational,” and it proceeds through adolescence into the adulthood. It involves increasing application of logical symbols, the use of abstract thought, deduction, and hypothesis development.

To sum up, Piaget’s theory involves the description of increasingly complex forms of cognition that move from reflexes to schemes, structures, and systems that define human behavior. The movement, among other things, involves the processes of assimilation (the incorporation of new knowledge into the already existing one) and accommodation (modification of the existing knowledge as a result of encountering new knowledge) (Brubaker, 2016). It is important to remember that Piaget’s work only proposes a theory that has been criticized for being based on a rather small sample and providing too rigid stage limits. With the development of neo-Piagetian thought, the attention to the context (including family, culture, history, language, and play) that is characteristic of Vygotsky’s work was incorporated into the stage-based development. The most modern works in the theory suggest that children begin their cognitive development with particular core principles that become changed and modified due to the experience that the child gains throughout his or her life through the interaction with the context, which reminds one of the accommodation processes described by Piaget that are complemented by Vygotsky’s focus on environmental factors (Brubaker, 2016, p. 4).

The modern cognitive development theory proceeds to evolve and receive evidence that allows making suggestions and assertions. In particular, researchers are developing the understanding of the factors that influence the process of cognition development, which include internal (for example, sexual orientation) and external (for example, community) aspects (Taylor, 2016). For example, Kellermann et al. (2015) consider the impacts of epilepsy on cognitive development and demonstrate the negative outcomes of the issue for the cognition of 127 children. Dadvand et al. (2015), on the other hand, discuss the positive effects of exposing children to green and open spaces, demonstrating that the factor appears to have affected the cognition of the 2,593 children that have been involved in the study. Similarly, Barac, Bialystok, Castro, and Sanchez (2014) demonstrate various effects of bilingualism on different aspects of cognitive development, and while this factor is internal, it is environmentally conditioned. However, all the mentioned studies have limitations, and the authors suggest proceeding to investigate the relationships between the mentioned factors and cognitive development in the hopes of receiving more solid evidence. Therefore, with time, more will be known about the stages and factors of the cognitive development in human beings.

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The present paper demonstrates the significance of Vygotsky’s and Piaget’s theories for the evolution of the cognitive development theory. In particular, it shows that while the effect of Piaget’s work might have been more extensive, Vygotsky’s research allowed complementing the ideas of the stage-based development in a way that suggests a less restricted view of human cognitive development. As a result, the paper shows that the evolution of the cognitive development theory appears to be heading towards the creation of a more comprehensive picture of the phenomenon. In particular, the blend of the two theories allowed merging the internal and external factors of human development, which is characteristic of neo-Piagetian approaches. Nowadays, more specific factors are being extensively researched to provide more details and further complement the picture of human cognitive development. It can be suggested that the diversity of the modern views of the theory are likely to form a comprehensive understanding of human development in the future, but before that, more research needs to be dedicated to the topic, and more evidence needs to be collected.


Barac, R., Bialystok, E., Castro, D. C., & Sanchez, M. (2014). The cognitive development of young dual language learners: A critical review. Early Childhood Research Quarterly, 29(4), 699-714. Web.

Brubaker, J. (2016). Cognitive Development Theory. In C. Shehan & D. Duncan (Eds.), The Wiley Blackwell encyclopedia of family studies (pp. 1-5). Chichester, West Sussex: Wiley Blackwell.

Dadvand, P., Nieuwenhuijsen, M. J., Esnaola, M., Fornsa, J., Basagaña, X., Alvarez-Pedrerol, M.,…Sunyera, J. (2015). Green spaces and cognitive development in primary schoolchildren. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 112(26), 7937-7942. Web.

Harris, M., & Westermann, G.A. (2015). A student’s guide to developmental psychology [EBSCOhost version]. Web.

Kellermann, T. S., Bonilha, L., Lin, J. J., & Hermann, B. P. (2015). Mapping the landscape of cognitive development in children with epilepsy. Cortex, 66, 1-8. Web.

Shaffer, D. & Kipp, K. (2013). Developmental psychology. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth Cengage Learning.

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Taylor, K. (2016). Diverse and Critical Perspectives on Cognitive Development Theory. New Directions For Student Services, 2016(154), 29-41. Web.

White, F., Livesey, D., & Hayes, B. (2012). Developmental Psychology: From Infancy to Development. New York, NY: Pearson Higher Education.

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