Middle Childhood: Cognitive Development

Remembering, Knowing & Processing

Good thinking involves:

•  considering evidence
  •  planning ahead
    •  thinking logically
      •  formulating alternative hypotheses
        •  being consistent

Information Processing

    Information processing theory is a theory of learning that focuses on the steps of thinking; such as 
sorting, categorizing, storing, and retrieving.
Information Processing

    From stimulus to response, from input to output thinking is analogous to operating a computer. Solid 
arrows indicate the pathways for transfer of information, broken arrows indicate overriding control 
processes that determine how & when transfer occurs. As with a computer, innate speed & capacity are 
important, however, the crucial factor is the program held in memory. The program is what is most 
developed in middle childhood.


- Sensory register – A memory system that functions for only a fraction of a second, retaining a fleeting 
impression of a stimulus on a particular sense organ. Meaningful information is transferred to working 
memory for further analysis.

- "Working memory - The part of memory that handles current, conscious mental activity. 
a.k.a. short-term memory.
    In 1956 American psychologist George Miller reviewed many experiments on memory span & concluded 
that people could hold an average of seven items in short-term memory. He referred to this limit as “the magical 
number seven, plus or minus two” because the results of the studies were so consistent. More recent studies have 
attempted to separate true storage capacity from processing capacity by using tests more complex than memory 
span. These studies have estimated a somewhat lower short-term storage capacity than did the earlier experiments. 
People can overcome such storage limitations by grouping information into chunks, or meaningful units.
 Long-term memory - The part of memory that stores information for days months or years.

 Control Processes - The part of the information-processing system that regulates the analysis and flow of 
information, including memory and retrieval strategies, selective attention, and rules or strategies 
for problem solving.


    Children show a dramatic improvement in memory between the ages of 7 & 11. They are better able to 
remember essential facts with almost no forgetting. Selective attention and metacognition are 2 of the 
factors behind the improvement.

 Selective attention: the ability to screen out distractions & concentrate on relevant information.

 Metacognition: the ability to evaluate a cognitive task to determine how best to accomplish it, & then to monitor 
one’s performance. "thinking about thinking"

Stages of Thinking

    -  Concrete Operational Thought is obtained by middle childhood. Children can reason logically about the 
things & events they perceive.
    -  Notable reorganization of the thinking process that occurs between the ages of 5 & 7 enables the school-age 
child to reason & respond at a much more advanced level than the younger child. Referred to as the 5-to-7 shift. 
Intellectual development occurs in stages, with sudden & widespread shifts taking places as certain ideas become 
understood. Jean Piaget is one of the most famous stage theorists.

        Logical Principles
    •  Classification:  the logical principle that things can be organized into groups (or categories or classes) according 
to some characteristic they have in common. 

    •  Identity: the logical principle that certain characteristics of an object remain the same when other characteristics 
are changed.

    •  Reversibility: the logical principle that something has been changed can be returned to its original state by 
reversing the process of change.

   •  Reciprocity (a. k. a. inversion):  the logical principle that occurs when two things change in opposite ways in order 
to balance each other out.    

  •  Note: a tadpole can become a frog (identity), steam from boiling water can become water again (reversibility), 
being kind to a classmate might reduce a classmate's aggression (reciprocity).  
Learning & Schooling

    Some sort of schooling is available during middle childhood in every nation; but, there is a great deal of variety in 
each country.

    * Strict lecture method: students are forbidden to talk, whisper, or even move during class.
   * Open education: students are encouraged to interact and make use of all classroom resources–with the teacher 
serving more as an adviser, guide and friend.

    * In most developing countries, boys and wealthier children are more likely to receive formal education.

Communication skills:               Codes

    * Code-switching: a pragmatic communication skill that involves a person’s switching from one form of language, 
such as dialect or slag, to another. For example, children in middle-childhood censor profanity when they talk to adults, 
use picturesque slang & drama on the playground, & even switch back & forth from one language to another. All these 
are changes in code. All children code-switch!
    * Formal code: a form of speech used by children in school & in other formal situations. Example: Extensive vocabulary, 
complex syntax, & lengthy sentences.
    * Informal code: a form of speech characterized by limited use of vocabulary & syntax; meaning is communicated by 
Example: gestures, intonation & shared understanding.

Second language Learners

Most of the world’s children are educated in a language other than their mother tongue. Even for those whose home language 
is also their school language, a second language is useful, even required. Learning another language enhances children’s 
overall linguistic and cognitive development, especially if it occurs before puberty.


    * From: Total immersion: An approach to learning a second language in which the learner is placed in an environment 
where only the second language is spoken.
    * To: Reverse total immersion: Child is taught in native language for several years, than the second language is taught 
as a "foreign" language.


    * English as a Second Language ESL: An approach to teaching English in which English is the only language of 
instruction for students who speak many other native language.
    * Bilingual education: an approach to teaching a second language that also advances knowledge in the first language. 
Instruction occurs, side by side, in two languages.
    * Bilingual-bicultural education: an approach to teaching a second language that adds preservation of nonnative cultural 
symbols and strategies (such as in the way teaching occurs) to a bilingual program.
    * The crucial difference between success and failure in second-language learning seems to rest with the attitudes of the 
parents, teachers & the larger community in how they indicate to the child that mastering a new language is really valued. 

Findings of Developmental Research

    * Children learn a first & second spoken language best early in life, ideally under age 5, otherwise under age 11.
    * Peers are the best teachers, with the encouragement and guidance of adults who understand the school-age child’s 
eagerness to learn new structures, strategies, and vocabulary.
    * Each combination of child, family, and culture is unique, and goals and attitudes vary tremendously. No single 
language-teaching approach is best for everyone, everywhere, but attitudes are an important gateway or barrier for 
language learning.
    * Immigrant children are great learners–if given the opportunity.

- Teaching & Learning - 

Ψ  The "reading Wars" pit advocates of phonics against advocates of the whole-language approach. 

Ψ  Phonics: Teaching reading by training beginners to associate letters with their sound values.

Ψ  The philosophy underlying the Whole Language approach is that reading is a natural process, much like learning to speak, 
& that children exposed to a great deal of authentic, connected text will naturally become literate without much in the way of explicit 
instruction in the rules & conventions of printed text.

Ψ  Answer: Use both! 


•  Greenough & Black (1992) distinguish between two aspects of the environmentally dependent maturational 
processes of the brain. They describe one aspect as experience-expectant, that is, development that will not 
happen unless a particular experience occurs during its critical period. Talking is experience-expectant.

•  The other aspect of brain maturation has been termed experience-dependent. Experience-dependent 
processes generate new synapses in response to environmentally determined experiences, which vary between 
individuals. Reading & writing are experience-dependent.

•  Neuroscientists have divided synaptogenesis (the growth of new synapses) into two major categories. 

   Category 1, is experience expectant plasticity, which is characterized by learning that occurs species-wide & 
within predictable periods. 

   Category 2, is experience dependent plasticity, which is not constrained by age or time but does require 
relatively high degrees of motivation & effort to master. This latter type of learning is undertaken 
by pre-schools & schools & requires a structured curriculum & regular, specific feedback.

•  Critical periods apply to the development of certain abilities, but not others. The brain plasticity that occurs 
during critical periods – enabling the development of abilities such as vision, hearing, & the capacity for language 
– has been called “experience-expectant,” because it is responsive to stimuli that are so common in human life that 
they are practically guaranteed to be available (Greenough, 1987). Yet, because of experience-expectant development, 
when health problems such as cataracts occur during the critical period for the development of vision, or when chronic 
ear infections occur during the critical period for the development of hearing, the child may not develop normal sensory 
abilities. The critical timing issues associated with experience-expectant development of the brain are one of the most 
important reasons that children require early, prompt & timely access to health services when developmental problems 
are detected.

•  For other abilities – such as the ability to learn a new language, to improve our native language vocabulary, or to learn 
a musical instrument – the window of opportunity appears to remain open for a longer period of time if not throughout a 
person’s life. This type of brain plasticity has been called “experience dependent.” It is responsive to experiences that 
are not necessarily present in everyday life (Greenough, 1987), but that instead depend on an individual’s unique life 

Key Questions

1. How does the information-processing approach analyze cognitive development?
2. What accounts for the better working memory of school age children compared to that of younger children?
3. What factors account for the increase in cognitive processing speed and capacity during the school years?
4. How does the expanded knowledge base affect thinking and memorization?
5. How does metacognition enhance the thinking of school age children?
6. Describe several of Piaget's logical operations, or principles, that enhance reasoning in during middle childhood?
7. Identify & briefly describe Kohlberg's three levels and six stages of moral development.
8. How does vocabulary increase in middle childhood?
9. What are the chief characteristics of formal & informal language codes, & when is each code used?
10. What changes in teaching practices have resulted from the application of cognitive theory regarding middle childhood?
11. In your experience what was the best measure of your ability to think & learn in childhood: your parents' & teachers' 
opinions, your scores on tests, or the evaluation of your peers? Why?

                                                          Robert C. Gates