Cognitive Development

Cognitive development. –

Exactly what does “cognitive” mean?  It is the thinking, problem-solving, figuring out, analyzing, probing, and what is sometimes called the higher-order thinking or executive thinking.

Why is this so important, you might ask!  We, teachers, are doing this all day long.  We are always asking children dozens of questions!  Ah, but it is the quality of the questions that count.

Questions like “What color was Clifford, the Big Red Dog?” are not helping children with comprehension, colors, or concepts.  It is a fill-in-the-blank question to finish up the book and seem like it was probative.

A better question for a child might be, “If you have a pet at home, tell us how you take care of it.”  This gets a conversation going and helps a child with sequencing out the steps to pet care; it helps compare what Emily did with her dog to what a real-life child does with their pet.  It compares animals and extracts out colors.  It makes the story more understandable, thus increasing comprehension.

This does not just happen.  Teachers must intentionally and deliberately be aware of and plan on how to introduce questions.  This is a skill that everyone can and should develop if we want children to become “thinkers. 

Photo by Charl Durand on

You might also be asking “Isn’t that what teachers do all day is asking children to think? 

We ask lots of questions.  These are questions that everyone, including the pet gerbil, knows the answer to.  “What color is an orange?”  “What is your name?”  “Where are your shoes?”

Consider that this world is beginning to not need non-thinkers very much:  we have vacuum cleaners that turn on by themselves and clean your floors.  We have cars that drive themselves.  I just bought a washing machine that is Wifi enabled.  It turns on and off remotely, without me being there. 

Can you think of other devices that have replaced or can be worked without human beings? 

True enough, it takes a human being to set upstart, and maintain these things.  But not a lot of brains are necessary, except for building them.

You want to develop children who will think and not be robots.

Before long we may find that our own jobs can be replaced because we are not thinking. 

Photo by Kindel Media on

Consider your job?  Can a robot teacher come in and “babysit” the children; ask them to get a puzzle and sit down?  Can then an automated voice the robot teacher read them a story?  She can hold up cards that have a QR on the back to tell her the correct answer as she drills the children on numbers?  The robot teacher can tell them to get ready for lunch as she sets the table.  She can tell them to get ready for nap time and she puts out the cots.

If a programmed robot can do your job, what are you there for?

You are there because you should be nurturing and having conversations and exploring with children.  Your questions should be deep-thinking questions.

Here is a young toddler classroom where the teacher is helping the children explore food.

Here is a preschool classroom where the teacher is helping the children explore bugs.

The great thing about these two videos is they show you the preparation for the activity.  That means it is planned and not random.  It is intentional and not just happenstance for the teachers and the children.  That also means the teachers decided how to get the most language and what were the best questions to ask.

Could a robot have done either of these videos?  I DON’T THINK SO!!!!!!!!!

Here are some questions that you can really use with all ages.  Sometimes, we need to stop the baby talk and converse with children on a level that makes them consider the question and their own answer.

What are your thoughts?      

What will happen next?

What tools will help you determine?         

Describe how it feels…

What else can you try?                                     

What will happen if…?

What did you do that caused it to …?              

How can you figure out…?

What would you do with…?  

If you … how would it change…?

Tell me about what you discovered.                 

Show me how you…

What caused you to decide to…?

Tell me about your choice to…

What are some of the different ways to…?

Did you notice in the young toddler classroom how the teacher gave them lots of vocabulary?  She asked questions and used commentary or parallel talk to help them explore and experiment and understand what each child is doing.

With each lesson plan for the week, in addition to just planning the activity and the materials, consider the kinds of questions you will ask each child about each step to help them formulate their thinking; to help them consider and correct any mistaken conclusions; to help them consider “What next?”

So, as an example, let’s pretend that on a walking trip around the block with any age children (and that includes young infants because they need to be talked with, although you might not do any activities) you do the following:

  1.  Plan to talk about all the green things appearing.  Ask, “Why are ___________ turning green and those over there are still brown?  (Some trees will be greening earlier than others and you are asking them to compare).  (You are also asking them to predict why some are green and some are brown.)  Even if they cannot respond or do not know why it is food for thought.  It is asking the child to notice the world around them. 

Trees turning brown

Trees turning green

Do not just go outside and walk in silence because you are supposed to be outside for fresh air, according to your licensing standards. 

It should be an intentional learning experience that you plan and carry out.  Otherwise, get the robot teacher to do it.

  • Plan to collect something – anything – that can be examined and explored.  Plan your questions about what and why you are collecting this particular nature item that the children can speculate on.
  • Plan two or three questions about “Why?” for this item:
    • Are all leaves shaped like this?  (Getting the children to compare leave shapes.)
    • Why do you think they grow on the branch like this?  (Children can observe the alternate pattern of each leaf node coming from the branch.)
    • Can you find any other leaves that are shaped like this, a heart?  (Have the children search for oak and maple leaves, just to name a few.  This means you will have done some research on leaves to know how to identify some.  It also means you spent time being intentional. 
  • Inside, use the microscope or magnifying glasses to look deeply into the nature item.  Have several questions (from above) ready.

Do not just think the questions will come to you automatically.  They have not in the past.  You need to be ready to delve into the topic with children and not stumble through it.  Leave that to the robot teacher.


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