At present, most experts agree that cognition is less stage-like than Piaget suggested. They instead embrace the understanding that children are continuously modifying their thinking and obtaining new skills. Moreover, researchers typically disagree on whether cognitive development is general or specific. These challenges have led researchers to extend or modify Piaget’s work. Those who believe differently than Piaget regarding the limited cognitive capabilities of infants have proposed the core knowledge perspective.


The core knowledge perspective is a second set of theories related to cognitive development. Unlike Piaget, who believed infants come into the world only with sensorimotor reflexes, those who embrace this perspective believe that infants are innately equipped with core domains of thought that support rapid cognitive development. In other words, infants are prewired to make sense of certain stimuli. Each core domain is essential for survival and develops independently, resulting in uneven, domain-specific changes.


Two core domains have been studied at length in infancy: physical knowledge and numerical knowledge. Physical knowledge is the understanding of objects and their effects on one another. Numerical knowledge is the capacity to keep track of multiple objects and to add and subtract small quantities. Observation of infants has shown understanding in these areas occurring quite early, supporting the idea that some knowledge must be innate. Children gradually build on that knowledge and it becomes more intricate as through exploration, play, and social interaction. They are viewed as naïve theorists, who create explanations of events based on innate knowledge. Their explanations, or theories, are tested with experience and revised if needed. These revisions lead to increased reasoning about cause and effect situations. While this is an intriguing idea about how cognitive skills are able to emerge early and rapidly develop, this theory has not offered clarity on how children make the necessary revisions that prompt cognitive change.

Vygotsky’s Sociocultural Theory

The sociocultural theory is the third set of theories related to cognitive development and is founded in the work of Lev Vygotsky. Vygotsky believed that infants are born with elementary perceptual, attention, and memory capacities, which develop in the first two years through interaction with others. Vygotsky did not view cognitive development as individualistic, but placed a significant emphasis on culture or community. Unlike Piaget, who favored independent discovery leading to construction of knowledge, Vygotsky asserted that acquisition of knowledge is a consequence of social interactions. Specifically, learning takes place within the zone of proximal development, which is a range of tasks too difficult for the child to do alone but possible with the help of adults and more skilled peers. When these more knowledgeable individuals question, prompt, and suggest strategies for mastering a specific task within the zone of proximal development, the child is drawn into more mature thinking processes. Support during learning can gradually be adjusted, based on the child’s needs, a concept known as scaffolding. Also, due to his emphasis on social experience and language, Vygotsky saw make-believe play as a major zone of proximal development for preschoolers.


When applied in the classroom, Vygotsky’s theory teaches us to highlight collaboration. While we again see that children should be active participants in learning, we now go beyond individual discovery (Piaget) to discovery through teacher guidance and peer partnerships. In preschool, there should be many opportunities for make-believe play. In all grades, there should be opportunities for talk, as this dialogue prompts reflection on thought processes, which, in turn leads to increased cognitive awareness.

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