Information, Memory, and Thinking
The information processing approach emphasizes that children manipulate information, monitor it, and strategize about it. Central to this approach arc the processes of memory and thinking. According to the information-processing approach, children develop a gradually increasing capacity for processing information, which allows them to acquire increasingly complex knowledge and skills (Halford, 2008).
Behaviorism and its associative model of learning was a dominant force in psychology until the 1950s and 1960s, when many psychologists began to acknowledge that they could not explain children's learning without referring to mental processes such as memory and thinking The term cognitive psychology became a label for approaches that sought to explain behavior by examining mental processes. Although a number of factors stimulated the growth of cognitive psychology, none was more important than the development of computers. The first modern computer, developed by John von Neumann in the late 1940s, showed that inanimate machines could perform logical operations. This suggested that some mental operations might be carried out by computers, possibly telling us something about the way human cognition works. Cognitive psychologists often draw analogies to computers to help explain the relation between cognition and the brain (Robinson-Riegler 8r Robinson-Riegler, 2008). The physical brain is compared with the computers hardware, cognition with its software. Although computers and software aren't perfect analogies for brains and cognitive activities, nonetheless, the comparison contributed to our thinking about the child's mind as an active Information-processing system.
Cognitive Resources: Capacity and Speed of Processing Information
As children grow and mature, and as they experience the world, their information-processing abilities increase. These changes are likely influenced by increases in both capacity and speed of processing (Frye, 2004). These two characteristics are often referred to as cognitive resources, which are proposed to have an important influence on memory and problem solving.
Both biology and experience contribute to growth in cognitive resources. Think about how much faster you can process information in your native language than in a second language. The changes in the brain we described in Chapter 2 provide a biological foundation for increased cognitive resources. As children grow and mature, important biological developments occur both in brain structures, such as changes in the frontal lobes, and at the level of neurons, such as the blooming and pruning of connections between neurons that produces fewer but stronger connections (Kuhn. 2008; Nelson. 2009). Also, as we discussed in Chapter 2. myelinatiom (the process that covers the axon with a myelin sheath) increases the speed of electrical impulses in the brain Myelination continues through childhood and adolescence (Spear. 2007).
Mod information-processing psychologists argue that an increase in capacity also improves processing of information (Mayer, 2008). For example, as children's in formation-processing capacity increases, they likely can hold in mind several dimensions of a topic or problem simultaneously, whereas younger children are more prone to focus on only one dimension. Adolescents can discuss how the varied experiences of the Founding Fathers influenced the Declaration of Independence and Constitution. Elementary-age children are more likely to focus on simple facts about the founders' lives.
What is the role of processing speed? How fast children process information often influences what they can do with that information. If an adolescent is trying to add up mentally the cost of items he is buying at the grocery store, he needs to be able to compute the sum before he has forgotten the price of the individual items. Children's speed in processing information is linked with their competence in thinking (Bjorklund. 2005). For example, how fast children an articulate a series of words affects how many words they can store and remember. Generally, fast processing is linked with good performance on cognitive tasks. However, some compensation for slower processing speed can be achieved through effective strategies.
Researchers have devised a number of ways for assessing processing speed. For example, it can be assessed through a reaction-lime task in which individuals are asked to push a button as soon as they sec a stimulus such as a light. Or individuals might be asked to match letters or numbers with symbols on a computer screen.
There is abundant evidence that the speed with which such tasks arc completed improves dramatically across the childhood years (Kail, 2007; Luna & others, 2004; Mabbolt & others. 2006). Processing speed continues lo improve in early adolescence. For example, in one study, 10-ycar-olds were approximately 1.8 times slower at processing information than young adults on such (asks as reaction time, letter matching, mental rotation, and abstract matching (Hale. 1990). Twelve-year-olds were approximately 1.5 times slower than young adults, but 15-year-olds processed information on the tasks as fast as the young adults. Also, a recent study 8- to 13 year-old children revealed that processing speed increased with age, and further that the developmental change in processing speed increased in working memory. There is controversy about whether the increase In processing speed is due to experience or biological maturation. Experience dearly plays an important role. Think how much faster you could process the answer to a simple arithmetic problem as an adolescent than as a child. Also think about how much faster you can process Information in your native language than in a second language. The role of biological maturation likely involves myelinalion.
Mechanisms of Change
According to Robert Stegler 11998), three mechanisms work together to create changes in children's cognitive skills: encoding, automaticity, and strategy construction.
Encoding is the process by which information gets stored in memory. Changes in children's cognitive skills depend on increased skill at encoding relevant information and ignoring irrelevant information. For example, lo a 4-year-old, an s in cursive writing is a shape very different from an s (hat is printed. But a 10-year-old has learned to encode the relevant fact that both arc the letter s and to ignore the irrelevant differences in their shape.
Automaticity refers to the ability lo process information with little or no effort. Practice allows children to encode increasing amounts of information automatically. For example, once children have learned lo read well, they do not think about each letter in a word as a letter; instead, they encode whole words. Once a task is automatic, ii docs not require conscious effort. As a result, as information processing becomes more automatic, we can complete tasks more quickly and handle more than one task at a lime (Mayer, 2008; Schraw. 2006). Imagine how long it would take you to read this page if you did not encode words automatically but instead focused your attention on each letter in each word.
Strategy construction is the creation of new procedures for processing information. For example, children's reading benefits when they develop the strategy of slopping periodically to take stock of what they have read so far. Developing an effective repertoire of strategies and selecting the best one to use on a learning task is a critical aspect of becoming an effective learner (Pressley, 2007; Pressley 8t Harris, 2006).
In addition to these mechanisms of change, children's information processing is characterized by self -modification That is, children learn to use what they have learned in previous circumstances to adapt their responses lo a new situation. For example, a child who is familiar with dogs and cats goes to the zoo and sees lions and tigers for the first time. She then modifies her concept of "animal" to include her new knowledge. Part of this self-modification draws on metacognition, which means "knowing about knowing". One example of metacognition is what children know about the best ways to remember what they have read. Do they know that they will remember what (hey have read better if they can relate it to their own lives in some way? Thus, in Siegler's application of information processing to development, children play an active role in their cognitive development when they develop metacognitive strategies.