Cognitive Development Not an Automatic Process

Cognitive development focuses on how children learn and process information. It is the development of the thinking and organizing systems of the mind. It involves language, mental imagery, thinking, reasoning, problem solving, and memory development.

By general consensus, Jean Piaget stands as THE central theorist in contemporary child study. He developed a whole field of cognitive development, observed regularities in children’s performances that no one has noted before him. His theory concerns how the child thinks, how thinking changes from infancy to adolescence, and how the changes reflect an interesting series of structured stages.

Although Piaget set clear stages of cognitive development, which continues to be useful to contemporary child educators, he omitted to say that cognitive development is not an automatic process. The fact is that the child will not reach any of these stages without proper education. Contrary to the animal, the human being only knows, and can only do, what he/she has learned. This fundamental principle is confirmed by studies that compared children who were raised in an enriched learning environment and children who were raised in a deprived learning environment. This principle is further confirmed by stories of feral children.


Research has shown that an enriched learning environment can dramatically increase IQ, whereas a deprived learning environment can lead to a decrease in IQ.

A particularly interesting project on early learning involved 25 children in an orphanage. These children were seriously environmentally deprived because the orphanage was crowded and understaffed. Thirteen babies of the average age of 19 months were transferred to the Glenwood State School for retarded adult women and each baby was put in the personal care of a woman. Skeels, who conducted the experiment, deliberately chose the most deficient of the orphans to be placed in the Glenwood School. Their average IQ was 64, while the average IQ of the 12 who stayed behind in the orphanage was 87.

In the Glenwood State School the children were placed in open, active wards with the older and relatively brighter women. Their substitute mothers overwhelmed them with love and cuddling. Toys were available, they were taken on outings and they were talked to a lot. The women were taught how to teach the babies and how to elicit language from them.

After 18 months, the dramatic findings were that the children who had been placed with substitute mothers, and had therefore received additional teaching, on average showed an increase of 29 IQ points! A follow-up study was conducted two and a half years later. Eleven of the 13 children originally transferred to the Glenwood home had been adopted and their average IQ was now 101. The two children who had not been adopted were reinstitutionalized and lost their initial gain. The control group, the 12 children who had not been transferred to Glenwood, had remained in institution wards and now had an average IQ of 66 (an average decrease of 21 points).