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How People Learn: Brain, Mind, Experience, and School
conceptual development. In short, the mind of the young child has come to life (Bruner, 1972, 1981a, b; Carey and Gelman, 1991; Gardner, 1991; Gelman and Brown, 1986; Wellman and Gelman, 1992).
A major move away from the tabula rasa view of the infant mind was taken by the Swiss psychologist Jean Piaget. Beginning in the 1920s, Piaget argued that the young human mind can best be described in terms of complex cognitive structures. From close observations of infants and careful questioning of children, he concluded that cognitive development proceeds through certain stages, each involving radically different cognitive schemes.
While Piaget observed that infants actually seek environmental stimulation that promotes their intellectual development, he thought that their initial representations of objects, space, time, causality, and self are constructed only gradually during the first 2 years. He concluded that the world of young infants is an egocentric fusion of the internal and external worlds and that the development of an accurate representation of physical reality depends on the gradual coordination of schemes of looking, listening, and touching.
After Piaget, others studied how newborns begin to integrate sight and sound and explore their perceptual worlds. For perceptual learning theorists, learning was considered to proceed rapidly due to the initial availability of exploration patterns that infants use to obtain information about the objects and events of their perceptual worlds (Gibson, 1969). As information processing theories began to emerge, the metaphor of mind as computer, information processor, and problem solver came into wide usage (Newell et al., 1958) and was quickly applied to the study of cognitive development.
Although these theories differed in important ways, they shared an emphasis on considering children as active learners who are able to set goals, plan, and revise. Children are seen as learners who assemble and organize material. As such, cognitive development involves the acquisition of organized knowledge structures including, for example, biological concepts, early number sense, and early understanding of basic physics. In addition, cognitive development involves the gradual acquisition of strategies for remembering, understanding, and solving problems.
The active role of learners was also emphasized by Vygotsky (1978), who pointed to other supports for learning. Vygotsky was deeply interested in the role of the social environment, included tools and cultural objects, as well as people, as agents in developing thinking. Perhaps the most powerful idea from Vygotsky to influence developmental psychology was that of a zone of proximal development (Vygotsky, 1978), described in Box 4.1. It refers to a bandwidth of competence (Brown and Reeve, 1987) that learners can navigate with aid from a supportive context, including the assistance of others. (For modern treatments of this concept, see Newman et al., 1989;