Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Middle Childhood: Cognitive Milestones

The cognitive development of middle childhood allows baby to do almost anything she puts her mind to. From musical instruments to chess to poetry, her brain really lets her do it all.

Piaget called this stage in middle childhood concrete operational thought. They can think logically about the world they perceive. He thought that while 5- to 7-year-olds could start to think logically, age 7 is when they are able to apply that logic to concrete situations. One of the concepts mastered at this young age is classification, the ability to group things according to similarities. A class can be a family, people, animals, etc. They start to understand that while any daisy is a flower, not all flowers are daisies. Another example of the concrete stage is called transitive inference, the ability to infer the link between two facts even though it is unspoken, including rules at school that go unstated - called hidden curriculum. This opens the young mind to all sorts of logical thought. Seriation is another related principle of logical thought, the ability to arrange things in sequence.

School-age children also grasp identity. Put simply it is the idea that whether a woman wears pants or a skirt she is still a girl. Even though things seem to change, identity means it's the same thing underneath. Reversibility is also figured out at this age, the principle that something that has been changed can be restored to its original state. Baby is moving away from the egocentric thought that kept her reasoning static before.

Vygotsky felt that these new thought processes should be considered in educational settings. He believed that an educational system of nothing more than rote memorization left the child helpless and unable to apply any of the memorized knowledge. Educational reformers took this into account and worked to change the curriculum accordingly. Vygotsky thought that instruction was crucial to children's cognitive development. He focused heavily on the guided participation and zone of proximal development previously discussed.

Information-processing theory also has a lot to say about these formative years. It states that sensory memory is the first part of creating memory, it senses and perceives incoming stimuli. Meaningful perceptions move into working memory, current mental activity. In other words, what you are looking at right now is in your working memory. At this age, capacity for working memory is increasing due to maturation in the prefrontal cortex. The ability to classify objects and people increases in part due to the greater capacity. Information is then stored in long-term memory, where it may stay anywhere from minutes to years. Memory retrieval is much easier for vivid, emotional memories, and some memories are misremembered, as with adults. Between the ages of 7 and 9 learn and use new strategies if they are taught and take advantage of the organizational memory storage they have acquired. Between 9 and 11 their memory becomes adaptive and strategic, and they can develop their own memory aids.

Speed of thinking increases throughout these years and as automatization occurs, memory once used to perform the task is freed up for other things. During the school year their memory improves, but lengthy summer vacations can slow down the cognitive processes. Having a larger knowledge base, or a body of knowledge in a particular area or field, makes thinking faster and improves memory. Children can easily link new information to what they already know. The control processes in the brain regulate flow and analysis of information in the brain. They are the executive functions that keep the brain working.

A huge part of cognitive improvement in school years is metacognition, "thinking about thinking." Once baby has mastered it, she can evaluate, determine how to carry out tasks, and self-evaluate after the performance. Both self-discovery and instruction can be utilized to help develop metacognition.

In her school years, baby learns as many as 20 new words per day and applies grammar rules she didn't use before. The logic increases mentioned above enhance vocabulary learning in both a first and a second language. Metaphors, jokes, and puns and understood better with every passing year. An cognitive advance you may not notice is called the pragmatics of language. Baby can infer meaning from tone rather than going off what is said alone. Even if you say you had a great time, she can tell if you're being sarcastic. She also knows when to use proper language and when it's not necessary. The different parts of language are called codes. A popular code in use by many regardless of age is the typing you do in a text or in a chat. Things like "lol" or "411" would never be used when speaking face to face with a teacher.

These years are a great time to learn a new language. Baby is eager to communicate, logical, and still has an ear for different accents and the nuances of language. There are may different approaches to teaching a second language. Immersion means all school subjects are taught in the new language, "immersing" the children in it. Bilingual education means both languages are taught (the percentages vary from 90-10 to 10-90). ESL (English as a Second Language) is frequently taught in the states to children who speak a different language at home. Success of any of these methods depends on a number of factors, including support at home, literacy, the teacher, and shyness of the student as well as socioeconomic status.

In terms of learning, these are the perfect years. Egocentrism is all but forgotten and baby is not yet resistant to authority like she will be in a few years. Children from low-income families will have more trouble in school, in large part due to language difficulty. Language minorities having trouble with ESL fall behind their peers socially and academically. Children from families of higher socioeconomic status tend to learn much more and are exposed to more language. One study found that children in high-income families heard about 2,000 words an hour while children in lower-income families heard only 600. High parent and teacher expectations also have a large impact on children and can help them master subjects in school.

By age 10, baby should be a reading machine, going through paragraphs and chapters with relative ease and she should be able to add, subtract, multiply, and divide multi-digit numbers, and understand word problems and simple fractions. International reading studies and tests place the US high, but not as near the top as we'd like to think. Math tests in 2003 put us at number 11 in the world, behind Canada, Hong Kong, Korea, and Singapore to name a few. We are still above average, but again, we are not doing very well. Generally here in the US, boys do a little better in math and girls a little better in reading, but this isn't the case in every country.

Adults vary greatly in what should be taught, and a result of this are education wars, specifically of reading and math. The reading wars debate the best way to teach reading, if it should be the phonics approach - teaching the sounds that accompany letters and letter combinations - or the whole-language approach - teaching use of all language skills (listening, speaking, reading, and writing). Phonics favors a step-by-step approach while whole-language tends to lead to made up spellings of words among children. A truce has been called here and both approaches are implemented. The math wars have more to do with the necessity and inadequacy of math instruction. The divide lies between those who wish to emphasize the basics and those who wish to emphasize a broader understanding of math. Good teachers will be able to help students in both of these areas.

Baby depends on you, her teachers, and her administrators to teach her both the basics and the whole scale of any subject taught in class.

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