Meltzoff on Piaget and theory-theory

Continuing the last post on developmental cognitive neuroscience (DCN), Meltzoff is one of the pioneers of DCN and here’s what he had to say in this ’99 article.

“There has been a profound, even revolutionary, shift in our theory of developmental psychology. The revolution began with challenges to Piaget’s theory of cognitive development, particularly his views of infancy. As everybody who has attended scientific conferences, read technical journals, or monitored the popular media knows, modern research has discovered that young children know more at earlier ages than had been predicted by classical theory. These new findings led to the gradual weakening, and finally the collapse of, classical Piagetian theory.

“There is now a furious search for a new framework. An analogy can be drawn to the early part of this century when classical Newtonian mechanics was overthrown and physicists were searching for a new model. In our field, we know that the classical framework of developmental psychology, which has reigned for almost 50 years, does not work; we have crucial experiments that have uncovered surprising facts; and we have great excitement in both the laboratories and in society at large, as competing views of early human development are being thrashed out.”

In the above paper Meltzoff proposes his work supports theory-theory, described as “a combination of innate structure and qualitative reorganization in children’s thought based on input from the people and things in their culture.” The Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy has this to say about theory-theory:

“The Theory-Theory itself has a somewhat complicated origin story, with roots in a number of philosophical and psychological doctrines. One is the reaction against stage theories of cognitive development, particularly Piagetian and Vygotskian theories. Stage theories propose that children’s cognitive development follows a rigid and universal script, with a fixed order of transitions from one qualitatively distinct form of thought to another taking place across all domains on the same schedule. Each stage is characterized by a distinctive set of representations and processes. In Piaget’s theory, children move through sensorimotor, preoperational, concrete operational, and formal operational stages from birth to roughly 11 or 12 years old. Similarly, Vygotsky held that children move from a stage of representing categories in terms of sensory images of individual objects, through a stage of creating representations of objectively unified categories, and finally a stage of categories arranged around abstract, logical relationships.

“While Piaget and Vygotsky’s stage theories differ, both hold that early childhood thought is characterized by representation of categories in terms of their perceivable properties and the inability to reason abstractly (causally or logically) about these categories. Early childhood cognition, in short, involves being perceptually bound. While the empirical basis and explanatory structure of these theories had been challenged before (see R. Gelman & Baillargeon, 1983 and Wellman & Gelman, 1988 for review), Theory theorists such as Carey (1985), Gopnik (1988, 1996), Gopnik & Meltzoff (1997), and Keil (1989) went beyond providing disconfirming evidence and began to lay out an alternative positive vision of how cognitive development proceeds.”


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