Developmental Psychology Research Paper Starter

Developmental Psychology

(Research Starters)

The roots of developmental psychology stem from the early part of the 20th Century in the seminal work of B.F. Skinner, Jean Piaget, and Erik Erikson, who promulgated theories of behaviorism, constructivism, and psychosocial development, respectively. The latter half of the century saw the rise of constructivism, which compares learning and brain function to the inner workings of computers. The most recent developments in learning theory are multiple intelligences, a theory that attempts to explain the ways in which different individuals learn; and neurophilosophy, which tries to unite neuroscience and previously held theories on learning and brain function.

Keywords Behaviorism; Cognitive Science; Computationalism; Constructivism; Developmental Psychology; Learning Theory; Multiple Intelligences; Neurophilosophy; Neuroscience; Psychosocial Development; Social-Pragmatic Theory


Developmental psychology is the branch of psychology that studies the intellectual, social and emotional development of preschool and school-aged children. During the earliest years of life, the human brain sees explosive growth and development. Scientists estimate that during this time, a baby's brain consumes 60 % of the body's total energy, compared with an adult brain that on average uses only between 20% and 25% (Brunton, 2007). Research has shown that memory begins not long after birth and matures significantly by the age of six. The development of sight, hearing, and other senses reaches its peak at three months, and at four months babies start distinguishing between the faces of loved ones and strangers ("Inside a Baby's Brain," 2005).

Much has been learned in recent years about brain development during this stage. Babies, it seems, are much more aware of and influenced by their surroundings than was once thought. And the mechanical ways in which the brain processes information - along with how the mind learns - can have a tremendous bearing on a child's intellectual, emotional, and social outcomes. Undoubtedly, understanding brain function and learning can only help adults teach children better. The purpose of this article is to explore the evolution of learning theory and of cognitive science (as an extension of learning theory) since the beginning of the 20th Century. It defines constructivism, behaviorism, psychosocial development and multiple intelligences simply as learning theories, whereas computationalism is (in addition to being a learning theory) an offshoot of cognitive science, as it also examines the inner workings of the brain.


The roots of behaviorism can be traced back to the beginning of the 20th Century and the close of the Industrial Revolution. Behaviorism was a widely held learning theory for more than a half century, until cognitive science emerged after 1950 (Bush, 2006). While behaviorism concerns itself mainly with changes in an organism's outward behavior as a result of learning, cognitive science tries to "look under the hood" to understand what occurs in the brain during the learning process.

A Harvard-trained psychologist, Burrhus Frederic (B.F.) Skinner (1904-1990) is the figure most associated with behaviorism (Bush, 2006). By experimenting with pigeons, Skinner developed his theories on "operant conditioning." Operant conditioning differed from Ivan Pavlov's work in "classical conditioning," which showed that an existing behavior can be changed by associating it with a new stimulus. Studies done by Skinner revealed that through operant conditioning, a desired behavior can be reached by rewarding partial steps toward that behavior (WGBH, 1998). For example, Skinner got pigeons to turn a complete circle in a chosen direction by giving them food rewards every time they turned even partially in that direction. In time, the birds associated the rewards with turning that way and learned to turn completely around before receiving any reward. Skinner extrapolated that humans could be taught complicated tasks in this way. Many computer programs today that enable people to teach themselves use Skinner's reward-for-desired-behavior models (WGBH, 1998).

Unlike most learning theorists who would emerge later, Skinner was uninterested in the psyche and the inner workings of the brain. He was a strict behaviorist: He concerned himself only with how behavior is shaped from without (WGBH, 1998). It was because of this rigidity that he would find his ideas supplanted by new ones. The years following 1950 saw the gradual emergence of cognitive science, which was born of a growing frustration over behaviorism, which concerned itself only with observable phenomena. An increasing amount of research was being done on language and on how the brain processes information (Bush, 2006).


It is widely believed that the single greatest contributor to 20th Century learning theory was Jean Piaget. A Swiss psychologist born in 1896, Piaget began experimenting on his own children in the 1920s. His studies eventually led him to believe that babies less than nine months old have no comprehension of how the world around them functions. Piaget is best known for his "constructivist" theories, which maintain that children must construct concepts of how the world around them works from experience. He discovered, for example, that 9-month-olds cannot grasp "object permanence," the idea that objects and people continue to exist when they are not in view. It is only through accumulated experience that babies come to understand that things and people continue to exist, even when they leave the room (Brunton, 2007).

Piaget broke the mind's inner learning processes into four components: schemata, assimilation, accommodation, and equilibrium. Schemata are cognitive processes and thought structures used by a child's brain to conceptualize and categorize incoming stimuli, enabling him either to generalize about or make distinctions between particular events. At first, a child tries to assimilate new stimuli into existing schemata. Assimilation is the cognitive process by which a child integrates new stimuli into present schemata, which may expand as a result (Clark, 2005).

When entering stimuli do not match pre-existing concepts, disequilibrium occurs. The mind then tries to accommodate the stimuli and return to equilibrium (Harlow, 2006). Accommodation is when a child's existing schemata change as a result of the assimilation of new stimuli, either by being modified or further developed. When stimuli do not match any existing schemata, new concepts and cognitive processes are invented to assimilate similar stimuli in the future (Clark, 2005). This is the manner in which the environment enters through all of the five senses and is reconstructed as knowledge in the brain, or, as Piaget himself said, "For me, it's quite the contrary of a copy of the world: it's a reconstitution of reality by the concepts of the subject who, progressively and with all kinds of experimental probes, approaches the object without ever attaining it in itself" (cited in Harlow, 2006, p. 45).

Piaget asserted that children pass through four major cognitive developmental stages:

• Sensorimotor: occurs between infancy and 2 years of age. Children acquire knowledge that leads to grasping object permanence and to goal-directed behaviors.

• Preoperational: children, ages 2 to 7 years, show an increasing ability to represent objects in their world using symbols - such as words and numbers - images, and gestures.

• Concrete operational: between 7 and 11, children learn to put objects in logical order - by size, shape, color - and show beginning mastery of not only measurement, but also of time and quantity. During the concrete operational phase, children also use other mental operations, such as object classification and conservation (the understanding that a thing remains essentially the same, even when small changes are made to its appearance or form).

• Formal operational: after age 11, children enter an open-ended phase, during which they begin using logic and abstract thinking and can form new knowledge using information already known. The mind in this stage learns to contemplate what is possible, instead of staying fixed on what already exists (Meece & Defrates-Densch, 2002).

Piaget's findings and conclusions were widely embraced for decades, but since the 1980s critics have begun to doubt some of his theories. They question whether constructivism really explains how children learn and how their minds develop. Some are confused by the term "schemata" and how it relates to what is actually going on in the physical brain.

Some question Piaget's research methods and whether his four stages of cognitive development can be applied universally. Others are skeptical about equilibration and whether it really explains how the mind develops. Still, Piaget's work has largely stood the test of time, as it reveals a great deal about how children of different ages think (Meece & Defrates-Densch).

Constructivist theories would dominate education and psychology until the mid-1980s, when they began to be supplanted by new ideas. Research done by psychologists and scientists produced new information leading to the belief that infants are born already possessing knowledge of their world. These "nativist" theories also maintain that babies arrive with basic tools for learning language and arithmetic (Brunton, 2007).

Psychosocial Development

Erik Erikson was born in Frankfurt, Germany, in 1902. His mother was Danish, and he never knew his biological father. Erikson was cared for lovingly by his mother and a stepfather, but the desire to know more about his real father never left him. It is possible that it was this gap in his own childhood memories that drove Erikson to study children and author his theories of "psychosocial development" ("Erik Erikson," 2001). Though Erikson would never find his real father, the search helped him become a key figure in the study of developmental psychology.

In the early 1920s, Erikson enrolled at the Vienna Psychoanalytic Institute where he studied Sigmund Freud's theories on human behavior. Eventually he would break from Freud, believing not that biological instinct drives humans (a Freudian tenet), but that social interaction drives us ("Erik Erikson," 2001). In 1933, Erikson immigrated to America and joined the faculty of Harvard Medical School. While also working as a private practitioner of child psychoanalysis, he began developing his own theories. Humans endure eight stages of development, he believed, the first of these occurring during childhood. During each stage, we must resolve a set of inner conflicts arising from demands placed on us as children by our parents and by society. As these conflicts are resolved (or left unresolved), we go to the next stage ("Erik Erikson," 2001).

• Stage one, "trust versus mistrust:" by the time children are one year old, they must learn to trust their environments. When parents and caregivers are loving and nurturing, children learn this trust and feel safe and accepted.

• Stage two, "autonomy versus shame and doubt:" between the ages of 18 months and three years, children want to test their independence and explore the world. When adults fail to indulge this desire -...

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