Middle Childhood Cognitive Development and Learning


Explanations of the normal growth have been postulated by many theorists including Vygotsky, Erikson, Piaget and Kohberg, to help understand the way people attain cognitive development. Currently, there are many ongoing researches that are seeking to provide vital information about the nature of these developments. Growth and development in early life is usually described in three main stages which include the Early Childhood which comes after infancy to school going age of about 6 years, The Middle Childhood Development which from about age 7 to 12 year and Adolescence (puberty from ages 12 to 17). These classifications are based on the primary tasks that all individuals perform and are expected to be familiar with them at each stage of development.

What is Middle Childhood?

This is the age between six and twelve years. The physical development at these ages include the ability to carry out complex activities like balancing and riding a bicycle, imitating complex physical activities and also involvement in organized sporting activities (Lee, 1999, p. 31). Vygotsky identifies learning at school as the leading activity for children at this stage of middle childhood (Wertsch & Sohmer, 1995, 332). The increased social activities at school enable the students to become more aware of how their personal abilities measure up with those of their peers.

The accomplishments that are experienced here include making comparisons particularly of their academic performances to those of their classmates (Zimmerman & Schunk, 2002, p. 117). The children may feel that they are not doing well enough if they realize they preformed lower. The children may lose the enthusiasm to perform better, however it is essential that the children be guided to understand that they are as good as their classmates and can do even better when they work harder in class. In some children, this can be a motivation for competition and at the end of the day this will enhance academic achievement of all of them (Zimmerman & Schunk, 2002, p. 117). A notable observation is the emergence of individual differences because of the academic achievements. Some even show increased levels of disturbance to others or even aggression.

Failure to accomplish learning objectives in school under the expected leading activities is not addressed by many scholars but researchers like Erikson have noted the feelings of competence and personal concept, and personal esteem are very important at this age (Robison-Riegler & Robison-Riegler, 2004, 89). Academic failure at this stage in elementary schools results in cases of depression and social isolation from age mates and the affected child suffers anger and aggression (Kliewer et al, 1996, p. 2339). Some of these feelings may persist and affect the child’s future academic, behavioral and psychological development. The consequences of this could result in school drop out later in high school and frustration. Considering the importance of this stage, the parents, teachers and other leaders can initiate out of school programs to assist.

Historical Background

Historically, emphasis was only given to adolescent and infancy and early childhood when the children were so much dependent on the parents (Lee, 1999, p. 31). Freud purported that there were crucial personality developments at this period of growth. Nonetheless, recent theorists have discovered that middle childhood is equally a critical stage of development where sexual growth continues unabated (Wertsch & Sohmer, 1995, 335).

This stage is also important in personality development, motivation and development of social and cognitive skills. This is the stage that children learn of the traditions and norms of their societies. Therefore, the basic development task of children at this stage therefore would be to attain social integration (Wertsch & Sohmer, 1995, 335). An individual develops inimitable personal characteristic within him/herself and also within the societal setting.

Perhaps to support the idea of sexual latency as purported by Sigmund, there is usually lesser physical growth at this stage than in early childhood. This latency theory could have been inspired by the fact that children at this age are more conscious of their character and would want to act in ways that are in line with social expectation (Lee, 1999, p. 31). This means that they are likely to confine their sexuality related activities to places where they are not watched especially by adults. As well, this concept seemed to be consistent with the fact that children in middle childhood tend to keep same gender friends in their groupings (Craig, 2000, p. 221). However, despite the children having same sex friends, it is not an implication that their sexuality is halted. Furthermore the slowed growth that increased at puberty should not imply latency.

Children under this category work hard to build up the skills they gained earlier in life and integrate them so that they can use these skills to face the next stage of life as they grow. Their reasoning at this level is strictly based on a set of rules. Children learn things like formulating intelligent suggestion and classification (Zimmerman & Schunk, 2002, p. 119). Though they seem to be more mature than they were before, some few years back, these children still need real and engaging learning activities. At This period of life, children are able gain more enthusiasm for learning and also working.

This means that achievement becomes a very inspiring motivation for them to work harder and develop competencies against their peers and their self-esteem also grows (Clark et al, 2006, p. 74). Children also tend to have greater bond with peers but still strongly affected by the perception of their families. They learn socializing skill through these interactions and relationships with friends and family (Craig, 2000, p. 221). They become more capable of contributing evocatively in interpersonal communication, offer logic basis to their argument with friends and adults (Kliewer et al, 1996, p. 2342). They acquire best friends and the skills that they learn during this stage as they establish relationships with a wider number of friends and family offers them a foundation of developing into healthy and socially mature adults (Craig, 2000, p. 221).

Implication on Learning

This age bracket is very exciting for many children because they feel increased independence, they gain a wider number of friends and they get a chance to explore their developing interests in exciting ventures like sports and music (Schunk, 2008, p. 61). Nevertheless, a widely recognized shift in the performance at school starts here as well; Skills essential for academic success become more complex to comprehend. Students who are able to face these academic challenges at this stage usually progress to be better academic performers in future while those who fail to develop the required skill for better achievement tend to continue failing in proceeding grades (Craig, 2000, p. 223).

Recent problems in social activities in elementary school like eating disorders, violence, and stress and drug abuse have been attributed to neglect of children in middle childhood. There is now a growing pressure on educators and parents to recognize the cognitive development of children aged eight to eleven years so that their needs can be understood (National Research Council 2003, p. 149). It’s anticipated that this would also help to teach them social and life skills that will enable them to develop through adolescence and become responsible adults (Feinstein & Bynner, 2004, p, 1331).

Learning and Instruction

The study of psychology has often been faced with controversy when addressing cognitive development and its relationship with learning and also with instruction. The different theoretical points of view base their arguments on:

  1. universal or differential opinion (Driscoll, 1994, p. 106)
  2. domination of evolutionary-genetic perspective or environment-oriented model
  3. Pessimistically or optimistically biased views regarding learning.

It is from such reasons that this paper addresses the way cognitive development relates with learning and instruction (Clark et al, 2006, p. 74).

Universal Opinion

The universal viewpoint of cognitive development and its relationship with learning have been motivated by the original ideas and epistemological model established by Jean Piaget’s hypothesis, especially the classical theories of childhood development. These models are majorly categorized into four groups

  1. Universal approach where the concept is accepted worldwide
  2. General approach that is accepted for cognitive phenomena
  3. Structural approach that is valid for the basic changes in cognition and human function that can be used for determining whether knowledge was acquired or no learning took place (Driscoll, 1994, p. 106)
  4. Naturalistic-descriptive approach which assumes that development is caused by natural human behavior and could be manipulated by environmental factors but they are not produced by them

A typical example of universal perspective understanding of cognitive and learning is the theoretical assumption by Flavell (Flavell, 1999, p. 234). The assumption is that cognitive changes that take place during childhood occur through a specific set of “morphogenetic” characteristics that most probably emerge from biological maturation development procedure that underlies these changes. Hence childhood cognitive developments are by and large inevitable, vital, directional, consistent and permanent (Flavell, 1999, p. 234).

In such a general outset, learning and the environmental setting take a subsidiary function. Instructions may not only promote natural developments but will also interrupt or even spoil it (Flavell, 1999, p. 234). Even though cognitive development is a condition and probably a result of education, it is, however, a specifically significant objective when the interest is to maintain the changes and continuity of development process for the longest time so that the maximal level of cognitive development maybe attained.

The modern era of psychological studies have inspired skeptical thoughts among scientists, for instance, concerning purist theories of cognitive development. This does not only address the role of learning and the opportunities but also the amount of impact that instruction will have on it (Flavell, 1999, p. 238). Geary differentiates primary and secondary biological development with reasons that primary is an innate mental state that allows even infants to learn through experience at any socio-cultural environment that has strong inherent stimulant (Wertsch & Sohmer, 1995, 335).

In this case, the acquisition of such skills as numerical skills, social skills are all thought to have a relationship this particular ability. On the other hand, the secondary abilities are very varied across different cultures and sub-ethnic groups. The learning procedure is required to acquire skills like mathematical skills or scientific knowledge in such cases and the process is cumulative (Driscoll, 1994, p. 106). It takes place at a relatively slowed progress, it require individual input and in general, an extrinsic motivator and instructive direction. The height of the secondary ability that is attained individually rather than collectively is dependent on cultural development and presence of school.

Middle childhood cognitive development is greatly dependent on numerous and different but essential, self-directed, and automatically effective learning processes (Driscoll, 1994, p. 109). In this regard, instructions play a very big role but not decisive as primary abilities are universal, genetic and the motivation is intrinsic.

Contrastingly, cognitive development in middles childhood is to a greater extent influenced by the societal norms that individual learns at personal level, at familial interaction and at cultural as well. When learning is guided by instruction, it becomes decisive for a reason, the curriculum and the extent to which cognitive development in children has reached (Flavell, 1999, p. 237). However, there are still many differences among individuals even when they were subjected to similar cultural conditions like efficiency and quality of learning. Such individual differences observed in cognitive development cannot be conclusively attributed to prior learning.

Differential Perspective

Each stage of cognitive development represents a step in learning and the results of cumulative learning manipulate the direction this development is going. These differences that are peculiar from one individual to another are a manifestation of the diversity in disabilities and strengths responsible for the assessment of intellectual abilities. There are assumptions that the inter-individual differences begin to be stabilize during middle childhood and progresses with age. Long-term predictions can be made based the progress and quality of cognitive development. In a notionally complicated and skeptical review of research results, this paper asserts that a reasonable coherent picture of stability of f intelligent quotient. Explaining this great level of stability individual IQ variation can simply be that every individual is given this intelligence right from birth.

Despite the increased number of theoretical explanations and methodological controversies, the research that has been conducted on twins has lead to conclusions that over 50% of the variations in intelligence level of people in the developed countries are genetically determined. This directly translates to mean that about half of the IQ is not as a result of genetic inheritance. Contrary to the biased belief, genetic and the environment in which a person is brought up or educated in does not influence their individuals cognitive development separately, but rather the two factors work together.

Again, the biological parents are very important to child in his/her middle the reaction of individuals differs significantly on the basis of the genotype of a person. This is in a similar fashion to the preferential and active selection of middle children of those segments of the environment they deem most favorable. The co-variation that exists here helps in strengthening and stabilizing differences among individuals. Furthermore, the more intelligent a student is, the more, she/he will benefit from the available learning opportunities and instructions that everyone else is exposed to.

This way, they are usually better that their peers, who are less intelligent. Children who succeed because of accumulation of favorable conditions develop greater amount of self-confidence which encourages them to aggressively seek solutions to difficult problems. Children that show greater ability to learn and perfume better, generally learn more, attain better education and this sends them to better schools and greater careers later in life. All these progress is associated with long-term cognitive stimulation.

A widely held perception during the 1970s was that intervention was responsible for the egalitarian leveling that characterized the various differences of individuals. Consequently, mastery learning was introduced so that the less gifted children would be given a temporary boost in the time of learning and at the same time adapts instruction so that they match their learning abilities as much as possible (Daniels, 2001, p. 72). To some extent, these efforts seem not to have succeeded ideologically. Children with less aptitudes and prior understanding differ considerably in the amount of knowledge they can acquire under the same duration of learning time.

Piaget’s Cognitive Development Theory

The mental or cognitive changes that take place among children are very drastic and more evident than their physical growth (Wadsworth, 2003, p. 162). It’s at this development stage that children experience increased ability to deliberately, considerately and proactively choose to follow goals rather than just responding to changes in environment. Additionally, the manner in which these children think gradually develops to be more logical, systematic and flexible (Wadsworth, 2003, p. 162).

Jean Piaget, a Swiss psychologist was the first person to note that children’s brains had the same ability as adults to learn though they had not acquired enough reasoning skills. According to him, there are four main stages of cognitive development. The stage that he described as middle stage begins at seven and progresses until when the child eleven (Wadsworth, 2003, p. 162). However many other researches classify these ages as 8 to 12 years. He further named this stage in life as Concrete Operations stage.

A mental operation according to this theory is child’s ability to precisely envision the consequences of an action without carrying out that action. Children here imagine the possible scenarios that include imagine change of mental representations of the ideas and experiences of the world (Wadsworth, 2003, p. 163).

These experiences vary to include different people, places and things. Mathematical calculations are the best examples of this kind of mental operations. Piaget suggests that children at this age have the ability to master more arithmetic operations of addition and subtraction of head without physically counting to figure out the answers. For example, the child can tell that if you pick two marble from a jar containing six, only for will remain. Such operations are “concrete” since they deal with real objects that children have observed in their environment (Wadsworth, 2003, p. 163).

Therefore their brains get concretely connected to the things they have handled in middle childhood. Children here do not appreciate consequences of some activities basically because their mental thinking is still tied to tangible and concrete things. This means that the children can tell you that if you leave a door open a thief may sneak in and steal but they may not be able to tell the consequence the death of a parent would bring to a family (Paiget, 1997, p. 112). They begin abstract thoughts as they enter adolescence.

There are several operations that Piaget identifies as being important in middle childhood. Children just do these things subconsciously without realizing they have learnt but these new skills are noticeable by adults. Piaget intended to explain how a normal child would progress and the activities they would be performing at every stage of their growth (Wadsworth, 2003, p. 165). However, its pertinent to note that children are individually unique and will develop differently at varied pace just based on their temperament. These operations are:


This is the capacity to comprehend the amount of something that will remain unchanged in two or more event despite the circumstances implying that there is a change. This operation can apply to a range of measure like volume, length, area etc. The famous example is to pour the same volume of a liquid in different shapes of containers (Daniels, 2001, p. 72). With this, Piaget was able to show that in middle childhood, children appreciated the volume did not change despite the shapes of the containers implying otherwise but younger children were characteristically duped by the shapes of the containers.


Piaget explained that ability to conserve relied on more cognitive skills of decetration. This is the ability to concentrate on several attributes of an object rather than one factor. This means that if children are asked to compare the volume of liquids in different shapes of glasses, it’s their ability to factor in length, width of shape that enables them to conclude correctly (Paiget, 1997, p. 112). Younger children may only consider height. Decentration is important in advancing learning of subjects like mathematics and literacy as children are able to comprehend more rather than just memories symbols. They begin to understand that these symbols have to be arranged in a certain manner to convey a meaning.


Is also a fundamental factor in conservation. Children are able to understand that the quality of something cannot change merely by the appearance of it. They also understand that if the quality is changes by adding or subtracting, it can be restored by reversing the operation (Paiget, 1997, p. 115). This ability helps students to appreciate sciences and social studies theories as they can categorize things based on hierarchy, like living things or social organizations etc.


This is the ability that children develop to arrange objects based on size or quantity. Counting is one such operation as the numbers can be used to represent quantities of things. Piaget was able to demonstrate that children were able to arrange sticks with increase in length (i.e. from shortest to the longest) hence demonstrating their ability to seriate (Paiget, 1997, p. 116). This concept is very important in the study of mathematics and sciences.

Spatial Reasoning

During middle childhood, there is the possibility to still achieving this concept. Through this concept, children are in a position to estimate how far an object is based on the size but still appreciate that two objects one far away and one nearby are of the same even thought the distant object appears small (Paiget, 1997, p. 117). This concept helps children to develop their reasoning further and can be able to describe places in multiple perspectives. This is a very positive development as it also helps them to create more accurate cognitive maps than younger children.

Theories of Learning

Learning and instruction are fundamental processes for the cognitive development in children in middle childhood. Learning or education is the attainment of knowledge and skills that influence how one develops to maturity (Schunk, 2008, p. 62)


This learning theory is based on the ideology that human beings or children in this case, will acquire knowledge and perceive the meaning from their ideas interaction with their experiences (Kim, 2005, p. 7). This theory therefore purport that learning is an active process of construction. The learner constructs information and creates his/her own subjective implication of reality (Brooks & Brooks, 1993, p. 56). Any newly acquired information is connected to previously acquired knowledge and consequently the metal perceptions are subjective.

Children’s continuously test their perceptions based on the context of their learning. Personal experiences play a big role in learning because the children do not simply acquire knowledge, but rather they construct it. Therefore children who have previously been actively interactive with their environment like playing with toys and friends are likely to learn more (Kim, 2005, p. 7).

There has been a misconception of this theory as some people claim that children should not be told directly what to do but rather allowed to draw their own inferences hence construct knowledge. This is in fact mixing pedagogy and knowing (Bigge & Shermis, 2000, p. 89). Therefore in constructivism, children will construct knowledge from the previous despite how they are taught hence listening to a talk amounts to attempts of construing knowledge for them.

Discovery learning

Originated by Jerome Bruner, this theory claims that learning is achieved from inquiry. Instruction is directed by the learners where, their interests and curiosity directs the instructor and these learners discover facts and relationships on their own (Zimmerman & Schunk, 2001, p. 135). Learning is assumed to take place during problem solving attempts by the learners and suggest that instruction in this case should be inquiry-based. Learners collect information for past experiences and integrate it with new knowledge to discover fact Bigge & Shermis, 2000, p. 89). This is a type of constructive learning where children learn by exploration, manipulation of objects, attempting to solve questions and controversies as well as carrying out experiments (Kim, 2005, p. 10). Consequently, children will be at a better position of remembering the learnt concepts.

Social development Theory

Developed by Lev Vygotsky, this theory is based on the rationale that social interaction builds cognitive development where attainment of cognition is a result of socialization and social characteristics. There are three major points that come out clearly from the theory.

  1. Social interaction is very important for cognition and it precede it. This is contrary to what Piaget implied that development preceded cognition (Crawford, 1996, 45).
  2. The idea that learners will collect information from the more knowledgeable other. This means that learners will collect information from people they deem to be having better understanding like teachers, coaches etc.
  3. The difference between the ability of the student to carry out a task under teacher’s direction and the ability to do the same task independently. This is the zone of proximal development (Crawford, 1996, 45).

Based on this theory, instruction in most schools has been instructions (also called transmissionist) where the teacher passes information (transmits) to students directly by “instructing”. However, Vygotsky suggest that learning is best achieved when student are actively involved and the roles of teacher and learner are shifted where these two parties have to collaborate as the teacher facilitates construction of education by the learner (Crawford, 1996, 47). This is when learning is said to be a mutual experience for the learner and instructor.


There is no strong research that has empirically demonstrated that cognitive development is determined by learning in middle childhood. However, acquisition of fundamental competencies and domain-specific skills by infants without prior knowledge and the similarities in cognitive development regardless of the environment and learning opportunities show that there is innate predisposition of cognitive development. As children go through middle childhood, learning is more externally controlled than it is from inside.

This brings a question to mind whether children are should be their own instructors to guide learning. The role of instruction in learning has been controversial in educational science and psychological development for years now. Many studies have been conducted but the results are often inconclusive basically because of contradiction. Studies on learning have demonstrated the importance of active participation of the learners as best way of instruction, while studies on teaching indicate that direct instruction (which imply passive participation of the student) is more efficient for learning to be attained. This makes it even more difficult to determine between cognition and learning, which one precedes the other.

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