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Part 1 of 4: Cognitive Development, Childhood, and the Process of Learning

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Part One: Intelligence Testing and Cognitive Development.

When I first learned and made my own early observations of early childhood development under the tutelage of Dr. Antonia Bercovici, I had just had a baby and was working with infants and young children myself. It was a wonderful opportunity to learn from such an excellent professor, and to experience first-hand how the developmental stages occurred and how children experienced learning differently at different stages of life. Mind you, in those days, one fellow student in an psychology class noted, “Nothing really happens with a child until they are 12 or so. They can’t really think until then.” Not only was I stunned to hear anyone say this, but also I was horrified at the thought of someone with this attitude going into teaching or psychology. Dr. Bercovici introduced me to the ideas of Jean Piaget and Maria Montessori at a time when standardized testing had lumped children and students (and later adults), into boxes which tended to define and categorize them for lives that were anything but respectful of the whole person. The idea that development, including cognitive, psychological, creative, physical, emotional, and spiritual, was ongoing and dynamic, was considered fairly progressive for the time.

It was also a time (late 60s-early 70s) when educators and parents were looking for the ‘right’ standard by which to measure their children’s intelligence. Or perhaps it was simply that we were the children of a generation of parents who thought the most educated and the ones in control knew more than they did about their children. In any event, there was little choice to ‘buck the system’. It wasn’t done. It was also at a time when the Stanford-Binet intelligence tests were being used in schools throughout the United States. They are what we now know as IQ tests. Since the inception of the Binet-Simon Intelligence Test in 1905, there have been five different versions of the test used in the school systems of this country. The tests include: 1916, Stanford-Binet Edition by Terman; 1937 Second Edition by Terman and Merrill; 1973, Third Edition by Merrill; 1986, Fourth Edition by Thorndike, Hagan, and Satler; and the latest, 2003 Fifth Edition, by Roid. The tests are designed to measure five cognitive skills: fluid reasoning, knowledge, quantitative reasoning, visual-spacial processing, and working memory. Designed to be administered to anyone from 2-85, and the most recent version of the test includes both verbal and non-verbal domains thereby making it more useful for those who do not speak the English language or who are not able to read (sight impairment, dyslexia). Interesting to note that ideas about intelligence and tests designed to measure it were created in the 1930s and used to test people until the mid-1970s--a time of rapid change, growth, and discovery. Makes me wonder what potential was missed, suppressed, or dismissed during the latter period of the use of this test.

Among the criticism of this type of testing is the fact that the tests in no way measure adaptive decision-making skills. The IQ tests are primarily used as an educational placement tool, and do not take into account such important functions as learning how to problem solve and/or to adapt to change. Given the kind of culture we live in, this seems lacking. Another problem with this type of testing is that such tests ignore a large part of cognitive functioning that is foundational to rational thought and action. Our ability to discern and make thoughtful decisions, is a key element in our ability to function and thrive as human beings.

Another area of our being that involves cognitive development and that is not measured by such testing is creativity and artistic talents and aptitudes. When I was studying cognitive development and functioning with Professor Bercovici, my friend and I both questioned, at the time, the lack of measurement of creativity and other forms of artistic skills and talents. We did extensive research on that subject, and found at the time and since, that what makes a person creative, artistic, or talented in other ways, is not necessarily quantifiable, however, it is nevertheless important and an aspect of intelligence.

The idea that we can measure a person’s intelligence simply by isolating some aspects of a person’s ability to successfully answer questions about just some of their abilities, was and is counter-intuitive. We would not think of making choices for our children and grandchildren based solely on just one aspect of their skills and abilities. Another criticism of such types of testing is that it leaves out other important areas of a person’s make up. So-called intelligence tests do not, for example, measure any of a person’s psychological functions. Qualities including motivation, emotion, empathy, or as understood through Carl Jung’s typology, the processes of thinking and feeling, intuiting and sensing. Such tests do not measure dominant functions that a determined by how a person is stimulated or energized (introversion or extroversion) nor does it take into account the individual differences that are a result of a multitude of factors that together shape a person’s whole being (conscious and unconscious).

Swiss psychologist and philosopher, Jean Piaget, made some observations himself when he was teaching at the Grange-Aux-Belles Street School for Boys. The school was run by the developer of the Binet Intelligence Test, Alfred Binet. While assisting Binet with the tests, Piaget observed that young children repeatedly made the same mistakes when taking the test. It was during this period of time when he determined that children’s cognitive processes-their thinking and the way they learn-are different than those of older children (adolescents) and adults. In this series of articles, I will discuss Piaget’s ideas as they relate to cognitive development in children and in ways to recognize, support, and encourage the full development of children at different ages.

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