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Which Psychological theories throw most light on human development during infancy? What are the limitations of these accounts?

This essay will compare and contrast the theories of Jean Piaget, Lev Vygotsky and Urie Bronfenbrenner on human development during infancy. Piaget, who was arguably the most influential 'contructivist' theorist, proposed that there are four stages of development, which are distinctive from one another and involve certain cognitive operations. For the purpose of this study we will just be looking at the first 3 stages. Cognitive development involves 'accommodation' of existing thinking to new experiences and 'assimmilation' of these new experiences.  (Smith et al, 393:2003)  Lev Vygotsky, strongly supported the interaction with others and the importance of learning in a social context, and his 'social constructivist theory' is still very influential in today's teaching and learning.  Vygotsky believed that what he termed the 'Zone of Proximal Development' which highlighted the child's potential to learn could help the child progress to their potential with peer or adult guidance or support. (Vygotsky, 84-90: 1978).  Bronfenbrenner suggests that the environment is highly influential in a child's development. He proposes that there are three levels of ecological setting which effect development, the 'microsystem'; the 'mesosystem' and the 'exosystem'. (Bronfenbrenner, 3:1979).

Intellectual Development

Behaviourists argue that human's development is influenced by linking experience, thinking and behaviour. (Pollard, 119:1997). In its early stages social psychology, which is the scientific study of human behaviour in its social and cultural setting, was dominated by the theories of behaviourism. Psychologists such as Pavlov (1849-1936) conducted experiments to determine whether human behaviour is learned. He famously undertook experiments with dogs in which he was able to train them to salivate by means of a controlled stimulus. He did this by pairing a bell, which would not normally produce salivation with some food (unconditioned stimulus), which does normally produce salivation (unconditioned response). After a period of time the dogs started to produce saliva after only hearing the bell (conditioned stimulus). From this experiment Pavlov concluded that all behaviour is learned. (Gross, 167-8:1992)

Piaget, Vygotsky and Bronfenbrenner have looked at human development from different perspectives. Piaget has shown that children develop in stages according to their age and their learning and development is restricted to certain cognitive abilities such as decentration, the ability to seriate and understand transivity. He points out that at an early age children are egocentric and unable to initially see and function beyond simple reflexes. Bronfenbrenner stresses the importance of a child's environment as well as other adults upon development and points out that it is not just the child's immediate environment but the culture and society as a whole which can have a major influence. Vygotsky's agrees that social interaction is the key to learning and developing and that the ZPD holds the key to helping a child reach his/her full potential in learning new life skills.

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