Cognitive Theories in Psychology


Cognitive development can as the ability to think and reason. This includes all the functions of the brain in the interpretation of the information that the brain receives. This includes things like knowledge, perception and memory. Several theories have been used to explain cognitive development. Some of these theories include:

  1. Theory of Cognitive development by Jean Piaget
  2. Theory of Cognitive development by Lev Vygotsky

Theoretical concepts

According to Piaget children cognitive development occurs in four stages. The four stages are:

  • Sensorimotor: During this stage a child develops knowledge of himself/herself and the reality around him. Learning takes place through interaction with the environment, through assimilation.
  • Preoperational stage: Abstract things are not easily mastered and the child learns only through important features, learning is through assimilation.
  • Concrete operations: A child is able to create abstract and logical structures of the environment and he is able to explain his physical environment.
  • Formal Operations: By this time cognition is in its highest pick and a person does not require objects to make sense of the environment or make rational decisions. At this stage hypothetical and deductive reasoning is possible (Christine Brain 2005). Vygotsky suggests that the environment that one is exposed to influences cognitive development. He gives three major concepts for his theory
  • Making meaning: The people around the child influence meaning. The child views the world as the people around present it.
  • Tools for cognitive development: The language, culture and people around affect the rate and pattern of cognitive development.
  • Zone of proximal Development: Problem solving skills can be placed in three different groups, the one that the child performs without help; others that need help and finally some that fall between the two (Andreas Dementriou 2004).

Similarity between the two theories

  1. Both theorists agree that meaning is learnt by what the child sees. According to Piaget these are the objects exposed to the child while as Vygotsky also agrees that what the child sees influences cognitive development (John McArdle 1998)
  2. Both theorists agree that the environment influences the rate and pattern of cognitive development. If a child is exposed to as stimulating environment then cognitive development will be fast and vise versa (Christine Brain 2005).

Differences between the two theories

  1. Piagets theory of cognitive development overlooks the influence of social groups and culture on cognitive development. On the other hand Vygotsky recognizes the importance of culture and social groups that a child is exposed in relation to cognitive development.
  2. Piagets theory underestimates the abilities of children but Vygotsky elaborates that children can make meaning of their environment. He acknowledges that children can perform some tasks without help but according to Piaget this is only possible in the last stage of cognitive development (Andreas Dementriou 2004).

Cognitive theories in real life situation

Young children between the ages of 3-11 fear punishment hence they accept absolute obedience to rules. This is because they judge situation in relation to the consequences rather than the intention or motive. For instance these children think like if I talk in class, I will be punished regardless of whether I was borrowing an eraser or not. This is because their cognitive development is not at its peak.

From the above presentation:

What can be said to be the main influences of cognitive development?

Cognitive development is highly influenced by the environment that one is exposed to.

According to Vygotsky, what is most influential on a child’s learning?

Social transmission highly affects the cognitive development of a child; it is through social learning that cognitive development occurs.

What are the implications of Piagets theory especially to a teacher?

  • It requires the matching of the teaching method with the cognitive stages.
  • Understanding of the students thinking and interpretation.
  • Each individual constructs his/her knowledge.

What are the implications of Vygotsky theory especially to teachers?

  • There should be assisted learning
  • Collaborative learning is also necessary

How can a teacher enhance cognitive development?

  • Use examples and illustrations relevant to the learners.
  • Presentation strategies that appeal to the learners.
  • Giving assignments.


Andreas, Demetriou. (2004). Cognitive Development Change: theories, models and measurements. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Christine, Brain. (2005). Understanding Child Psychology. New York: Nelson Thornes.

John, McArdle. (1998). Human Cognitive Abilities in Theory and Practice. London, Lawrence Erlbaum associates.

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