The Genetic Epistemologist
Vol. XXIV, No. 2 1996
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Does Cognition Develop Beyond Childhood?
David MoshmanPiaget's theory claims that (a) developmental changes in cognition continue through early adolescence and that (b) the cognitive structure associated with early adolescence, formal operations, is the final stage of development. Both claims are open to question. On one hand, evidence of early cognitive competence raises the possibility that the most fundamental aspects of cognition emerge very early; later cognitive changes, it might be argued, are not developmental in nature. On the other hand, a number of theorists have proposed forms of advanced cognition that, they suggest, develop in late adolescence or adulthood. Thus Piaget's theory is challenged both by claims that cognitive development is limited to childhood and by claims that it extends beyond adolescence.
University of Nebraska-Lincoln
In order to address the fundamental question of whether cognition develops beyond childhood, we must consider what we mean by development. Perhaps the paradigm case of a developmental change associated with adolescence is puberty, the transition to sexual maturity. It may be useful to consider what characteristics of this change lead us to construe it as developmental in nature. One obvious characteristic is that puberty is a long-term change. It occurs over a period of months or years rather than minutes, hours, or days. Three additional characteristics appear worthy of note:
- Puberty is a qualitative change. It involves a coordinated transformation of anatomical and physiological systems resulting in a structurally distinct state of maturity. In contrast, increasing some number of inches in height need not be a qualitative transformation. Mere growth is not a core example of development.
- Puberty is a progressive change. It has a direction that constitutes progress toward a state of maturity. A transition involving a loss of reproductive capacity, by contrast, might be an equally important change but would be less likely to be construed as prototypically developmental in nature.
- Puberty is an internally-directed change. Although it requires environmental support (e.g., adequate nutrition), its direction is not caused by the environment. On the contrary, the transition to sexual maturity is typically seen as genetically guided and universal across the species.
It is widely accepted among biologists that certain long-term anatomical and physiological changes, such as puberty, are qualitative, progressive, and internally-directed to a sufficient extent that such changes are usefully construed as falling into a category of change that may be labeled developmental change. Substantial evidence has led many psychological theorists to posit long-term cognitive changes that, like puberty, are sufficiently qualitative, progressive, and internally-directed to be usefully construed as developmental in nature.
Even if cognition does develop, there remains the question of whether such development continues beyond childhood. I suggest here the plausibility of a positive answer but also raise the possibility that cognitive development beyond childhood differs in important ways from prototypical examples of development such as puberty.
At the core of the theory of formal operations is the postulation of a qualitative shift to formal reasoning competence at about age eleven or twelve. Research on hypothetico-deductive reasoning has provided evidence for such a qualitative transformtion at about this age. A number of more recent theories also postulate qualitative changes in cognition beyond childhood. There is substantial evidence for the existence of types, forms, or levels of cognition that are common among adolescents and adults but rarely seen much before the age of about eleven.
What is far less clear is whether there is a general and/or structural aspect to such change and, if so, how such generality and/or organization is best characterized. A central theoretical and methodological issue in efforts to identify and characterize structural transformation is the fact that qualitatively distinct forms of thought and knowledge routinely coexist in the same mind. It often seems reasonable to speak of a qualitative shift when an important new form of cognition appears, even if that form does not entirely supplant earlier forms. The appropriate criteria to demonstrate the existence of structural change, however, are much less clear. Some researchers attempt to address this problem via methodologies that highlight underlying competence or optimal level of functioning rather than typical behavior. Such methodologies often do yield evidence for general age-related limits on performance but it remains unclear in what sense there might be general and/or structural change in later cognitive development.
In sum, there do appear to be cognitive changes of a qualitative nature beyond childhood. The generality and organization of such changes, however, are matters of dispute.
Another characteristic of developmental change is that it is progressive. With respect to puberty, it is fairly easy to specify a universally achieved state of sexual and reproductive maturity and to assess progress toward that state. With respect to cognition, a variety of formulations concerning the nature of maturity have been put forward. The best-known proposal concerning a state of cognitive maturity is Piaget's account of formal operations. Other theorists have proposed alternative general conceptions of cognitive maturity (e.g., dialectical thinking). Some theorists have suggested domain-specific conceptions of cognitive maturity (e.g., with respect to morality). Yet other theorists would deny altogether that there exists a single, universal end-state of cognitive development.
Although the existence of a developmental endpoint would indicate the progressive nature of cognitive changes in the direction of that endpoint, the existence of such an endpoint is not a necessary condition for progressive change. Formal operational reasoning, for example, is a second-order structure that includes and transcends the first-order structure of concrete operations; the transition from concrete to formal operations can thereby be construed as progress whether or not formal operations is the final stage of development. Similarly, the emergence of hypothetico-deductive reasoning may be seen as an expansion of the domain of deductive reasoning that constitutes progress, whether or not hypothetico-deductive reasoning is, or leads to, some sort of highest stage. Although many stage theories posit a highest stage, one can often make a strong case for each stage representing progress over the stage before without demonstrating that each stage increasingly approximates a mature state yet to come. Such a case might be made, for example, by showing that the later stage is more differentiated, integrated, organized, metacognitive, reflective, and/or adaptive.
In sum, a strong case can be made for progressive changes in cognition during adolescence and beyond. The existence of mature cognitive states, however, and the nature of any such developmental endpoints, remain matters of dispute.
Finally, there is the question of whether cognitive transitions beyond childhood are internally directed. The most obvious sense in which a change may be internally directed is that it is guided by the genes. Many of the most important genetically-guided changes with respect to anatomy and physiology are universal across the species.
Research on young children has led many theorists to the view that early cognitive development is to a large degree guided by innate constraints that are universal across individuals and cultures. Nevertheless, it does not follow that cognitive change is directed or determined by genes; any such conclusion, moreover, would be especially dubious with respect to later cognitive transitions.
There is another sense, however, in which cognitive change might be said to be internally directed. A constructivist view of cognition posits an epistemic subject or rational agent actively constructing new knowledge and forms of thinking on the basis of his or her own perceptions and reasons. Although the constructive activities of such a subject are not genetically determined, they are nonetheless internal to the rational agent rather than caused by the environment. Without positing either genetic determinism or universality across the species, then, a constructivist conception does suggest an important sense in which cognitive change is internally directed.
Theory and research provide support for the existence of long-term changes that are internally-directed. Especially at advanced levels, however, there is no evidence that any such changes are genetically driven and it is unclear what internally-directed changes, if any, are universal across the species.
There is good reason to posit cognitive changes beyond childhood sufficiently like puberty to be labeled "developmental." Our core conception of development comes from the realm of biology, however, and may be misleading in the realm of cognition. We should not assume that everything we might call cognitive development has all those characteristics that lead us to construe puberty as a developmental change. It appears that there are indeed long-term changes in cognition that are qualitative, progressive, and internally directed; some such changes, moreover, continue into adolescence and beyond. It is doubtful that late cognitive changes are genetically driven, however. It remains unclear, moreover, in what respects, if any, advanced cognitive changes are structural, general across domains, aimed at one or more specific endpoints, or universal across persons and cultures.
An earlier version of this article was presented at the meeting of the Jean Piaget Society, Berkeley, June 1995. A slightly different version, including citations of specific theories and research, will constitute a portion of Moshman, D. (in press). Cognitive development beyond childhood. In D. Kuhn & R. Siegler (Eds.), W. Damon (Series Ed.), Handbook of child psychology (5th ed.): Vol. 2: Cognition, perception, and language. New York: Wiley. Preprints of the chapter are available from David Moshman, Department of Educational Psychology, University of Nebraska, Lincoln, NE 68588-0345. Internet address: firstname.lastname@example.org.
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