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Cognitive Development: Information Processing


Focus of the Information-Processing Approach

The information-processing approach views the human mind as a system that processes information according to a set of logical rules and limitations similar to those with which a computer is programmed. Research using this perspective tries to describe and explain changes in the processes and strategies that lead to greater cognitive competence as children develop.

The store model of human information-processing proposes that information enters the system through the sensory register and is encoded and stored in either short-term memory or long-term memory. The level of processing model proposes that memory is based on the depth and intensity applied to the information stored rather than on the way or the location in which it is stored.

The basic structures of the information-processing system do not change with development; instead development occurs through changes in the efficiency of the processes applied to the information. Four important processes considered to be important in development are encoding and representation, strategies, automatization,and generalization. Most theorists also add an executive function that develops in order to monitor, select, and organize the processes that are applied to the information.

Effects of Knowledge on the Information-Processing System

In addition, knowledge plays a critical role in children's abilities to encode and represent information.

Analyzing Task Performance

Researchers using the information-processing perspective often use task analysis to examine children's incorrect answers for evidence of systematic errors. Although this approach is somewhat similar to Piaget's concern with error analysis, more precise task analyses lead to a more complete understanding of cognitive development.

Through microgenetic analysismicrogenetic analysis, Robert Siegler has shown that developmental change is more gradual, more variable, and "messier" than traditional views had suggested. This kind of analysis shows that it is not so much abstraction, as Piaget believed, as complexity that makes some tasks more difficult than others.

Comparing Piagetian and Information-Processing Approaches

The neo-Piagetianneo-Piagetian Robbie Case has elaborated the concept of executive function, proposing that children develop an executive control structure for each set of problems that they must solve. Each task in a series requires children to make new observations, use new knowledge in forming new strategies, and create a new structure for solving increasingly complex problems.


Perception and Attention

Although every child may perceive the same things in a particular environment, each child's attention may be concentrated on different aspects of that environment. Perception and attention are tightly interwoven, so that perception depends on how well we attend.

Two main theories describe how experience affects perceptual learning. Piaget's enrichment theory proposed that children add information to existing schemata over repeated contacts with an object, elaborating or enriching a schema until they can distinguish among different objects. In contrast, Gibson proposed a differentiation theory, in which children gradually learn to attend to, identify, and make increasingly fine discriminations among objects and events.

As children mature they can control and focus their attention for greater periods. In addition, older children are better than younger children at modifying their attention to fit task requirements. Older children also implement more systematic plans to focus their attention when gathering needed information, although younger children can make use of attention-focusing strategies when these are provided to them.


Our memory span, or the amount of information we can hold in short-term memory, improves between infancy and adulthood. Some researchers suggest that this is due to the development of increased capacity based on changes in the brain. Case suggests that the difference is due to greater efficiency in the use ofexecutive processing spaceexecutive processing space or to the development of better strategies for organizing or "chunking" the information.

Children employ a wide range of cognitive activities, such as prospective memory strategies, that increase the likelihood that they will remember information at a later time. Some of these are external, such as taking notes, but many are mental strategies.

The spontaneous use of verbal rehearsal as a memory strategy clearly increases with age. Although even young children can use rehearsal as a strategy if instructed to do so, they fail typically to generalize the strategy to new tasks. Research suggests that this failure probably results not so much from a mediation deficiency or a utilizational deficiency as from a production deficiency which may in turn spring from an interaction between the costs and benefits of using a particular strategy. As children become more adept at strategy use, costs decrease and benefits increase.

Another strategy that improves with age is semantic organization in which children use categorization and hierarchical relationships to process and store information. As is the case with rehearsal, young children can successfully learn to use this strategy if instructed to do so; partnering, in the Vygotskian sense, can help them to do this.

Elaboration, a strategy that involves adding to information to make it more meaningful and thus easier to remember, appears to aid children's retention. The fact that elaboration improves recall, despite the increase in informational load that it involves, underlines the importance of meaning in memory.

World knowledge, or what a person has learned about the world from past experiences, influences what the person will understand and remember about a present event. Evidence for the role of world knowledge comes from studies indicating that experts remember more than novices, and that when memory tasks are presented in culturally familiar contexts, children in Western and non-Western cultures perform equally well.

One important application of developmental research on memory is in children's eyewitness testimony. Recent studies suggest that children may not be reliable witnesses because they are susceptible to suggestions by others. However, children are more resistant to misleading questions when an interviewer is supportive and when they have been actively involved in the recalled event.

Problem Solving

Problem solving involves a high level of information processing because it mobilizes perception, attention, and memory to reach a solution. Although analogy is a powerful tool in problem solving, young children and even adults often have difficulty recognizing and using analogies. This may be in part because they fail to understand that the correspondence between relations that is obtained within both source and target analogies is far more important than similarity of analogies' features. With guidance in drawing analogies, multiple examples of problem solution, surface similarity between the problems, and experience with the problem's domain, children can often succeed in reasoning by analogy.

Scripts of routine activities provide children with basic outlines of how events occur in many familiar situations so that their behaviors in those situations become almost automatic. Children as young as three know about and use scripts to guide their actions. Children also use mental maps and physical maps to negotiate their way through their surroundings. Very young children, however, cannot draw a reasonable map of familiar territory even though they may be good at finding their way through it. Age interacts with the abilities to recognize objects that one has seen, as well as their original context, and the ability to do this quickly.

Children use deductive reasoning skills, such as transitive inference and hierarchical categorization to solve problems. Even young children may understand transitive inference, but they employ poor strategies when using it. One-year-olds can form categories based on the similarity between objects, and slightly older children can use labels to form hierarchical categories.

Children's competence with numbers is based on five basic principles of counting that develop during the preschool years. Children also learn other strategies for counting and, over time, become able to distinguish between optional and necessary features of counting. Counting skills may to some degree reflect the number-naming system of a child's native language; it may be that systems that are inconsistent with the base-10 concept make it more difficult for children to learn to count above 10.


Metacognition refers to the individual's knowledge and control of cognitive activities. Metacognitive knowledge includes the child's knowledge about the self, his theory of mind, and his knowledge about the task and about specific strategies. Metacognitive control involves using strategies to plan, monitor, check, and modify current strategies to maximize performance.

The Child's Theory of Mind

Flavell and his associates have articulated a number of important understandings that preschool-age children have about their own minds as well as a number of limitations on such young children's thinking. In particular, young children have difficulty conceiving of continuous mental content. They are likely to say that a person sitting quietly is not "having thoughts."

Knowledge about the Self, the Task, and Strategies

Although young children understand the importance of some task parameters for memory, even first graders are not good at monitoring their comprehension of information about a task. Young children are aware of the importance of memory strategies, and they are particularly sensitive to the use of external memory cues. However, older children have a more accurate and realistic view of their own memory abilities, and they are able to separate their own beliefs and desires from reality.

Metacognition and School Performance

Researchers who have applied the concept of metacognition to reading performance have found that better readers have more metacognitive knowledge. Some school-based interventions aimed at teaching metacognitive skills, such as reciprocal teaching, have resulted in improved reading, studying, and academic problem solving.

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