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Copyright Blackwell Publishers Ltd 2000
Editorial matter and organization copyright Kang Lee.
Darwin Muir and Alan Slater 2000
First published 2000

2 4 6 8 10 9 7 5 3 1
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criticism and review. no part of this publication may be reproduced. stored in a
retrieval system. or transmitted. in any form or by any means, electronic.
mechanical, photocopying. recording or otherwise, without the prior permission
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Except in the United States of America, this book is sold subject to the condition Acknowledgments
that it shall not. by way of trade or otherwise. be lent, resold. hired out, or
otherwise circulated without the publisher's prior consent in any form of binding Introduction: What Is C<?gnitiveDevelopment Research and
or cover other than that in which it is published and without a similar condition What Is It For?
including this condition being imposed on the subsequent purchaser. Kang Lee
Library oj Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data !Ias been applied Jar. 1 The History and Future of Cognitive Development
ISBN 0-631-21655-3 (hbk.) Research
ISBN 0-631-21656-1 (pbk.) Cognitive Development: Past, Present, and Future
British Lihrary Cataloguing-in-Publication Data J. H. Flavell
A CIP catalogue record for this book is available from the British Library. 2 Piaget's Theory of Cognitive Development
Piaget's Theory
Typeset in lCYI2 on 13 pt Photina
by Best-set Typesetter Ltd.. Hong Kong
J. Piaget
Printed in Great Britain by MPG Books, Bodmin. Cornwall 3 Developmental Research: Microgenetic Method
This book is printed on acid-free paper
Cognitive Variability: A Key to Understanding Cognitive
R. S. Siegler
4 Information Processing and Connectionism
Development in a Connectionist Framework: Rethinking
the Nature-Nurture Debate
K. Plunkett
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Developmenta.1 Research:
Microgenetic Method
1ntrod uction
One of the goals of cognitive development research is to ~evealhow sys-';
,tematic cognitive change takes place. Cognitive deveiopmentalists have :.
at their disposal two main developmental methods to answer this ques-'
tion: cross-sectional and longitudinal. Cross-sectional designs assess a,
cognitive function of different age groups at the same point in. time, and
age differences obtained are used to suggest a developmental change in
children between these ages. While this design can be efficient for col~ .
lecting sufficient data in a short period of time, it has a major problem: it .
tends to gloss over both inter-individual and intra-individual variations'
and to present only a picture of what the cognitive developmental patterr;
of children as a group may look Wee,which does not necessarily reflect
the developmental pattern of any indivi'dual child.
~ In longitudinal studies the same group of children are t~sted repeat-
ed)y over a period of time.' Although it is'more time-consuming than .
cross-sectional design, because each individual's cognitive functioning is
traqked over time, both inter-individual and intra-individual variations'
can be examined. Traditionally, however, rather long time intervals are,
used in longitudinal studies' (e.g., 'tests ate given monthly or yearly), so
that important developmental changes are often missed. For this reason,
a number of researchers have proposed a new developmental research
approach that is referred to as the IDicrodevelopmental approach
(Karmiloff-Smith, 1979) or the microgenetic method (Kuhn, 1995).
Siegler's article introduces the microgenetic method that he helped
pioneer. It basically is a longitudinal design with much smaller time
intervals (sometimes as short as a few minutes) than the traditional lon-
gitudinal design (normally monthly or yearly). In addition, microgenetic
50 , ," . h'ldr n's cognitive f unctlOnID
"g' , by
method focuses on vanablhtl~s I~ c I ~ ularities in
contrast, the tr~~ition:~~~ngl:~~~a~:s~~~~~~:=s o~ r:asurernent - Cognitive Variability: A Key to
children's co~mtiv~ a I , leser demonstrates that when we pay close,
errors: In thlS artthlc~~r~~~oirregularities in their behavior can be very,
attentIOn to wach , ' .. 1 t
Understanding Cognitive Development
informatlve about regularities in cogmtive deve oprnen . '
Robert S. Siegler

References .. . ,
, M' _ and macro-developmental changes mlan- '~
Karmiloff-SIDlth,A. (1979). Jcro, '1 systems Cognitive Science, 3, ,
guage acquisition and other representationa . . ., , .-
91-118,' ., h . What has it told us? !

( 1995). Microgenetic study of c; ange. ,

Kuh 11, D.
Psychological Science, 6, 133-9.,

Among the most remarkable characteristics of human beings is how

further reading, , , . d much our thinking changes with age. When we compare the thinking
ic dis la of process: Historical development an ,'
Catan, L, (1986). The dynam ,P y, thod H~man DevelOPment, 2~, of an infant, a toddler. an elementary school student. and an adolescent,
contemporary uses of the ffilcrogenetlc me '. : . the magnitude of the change is immediately apparent. Accounting for
252-63. ..
~J. _
how these changes occur is perhaps the central goal of researchers who
study cognitive development.
Alongside this agreement about the importance of the goal of deter-
mining how change occurs. however. is agreement that we traditionally
have not done very well in meeting it. In most models of cognitive devel-
opment. children are depicted as thinking or acting in a certain way for
a prolonged period of time, then undergoing a brief. rather mysterious.
transition. and then thinking or acting in a different way for another
prolonged period, For example, on the classic conservation-of-liquid
quantity problem, children are depicted as believing for several years
that pouring water into a taller, thinner beaker changes the amount of
water; then undergoing a short period of cognitive conflict, in which
they are not sure about the effects of pouring the water; and then real-
izing that pouring does not affect the amount of liquid. How children
get from the earlier to the later understanding is described only
Critiques of the inadequacy of such accounts have been leveled most
often at stage models such as Piaget's, The problem, however, is far more
pervasive, Regardless of whether the particular approach describes
52 Developmental Research: Microgenetic Method
Cognitive Variability 53
development in terms of stages. rules. strategies. or theories; regardless
focuses directly on changes in children's thinking. This research has
of whether the focus is on reasoning about the physical or the social
documente~ la~~e-scale variability in children's thinking and suggests
world: regardless of the age group of central interest. most theories
that the vanabllIty contributes directly to cognitive growth.
place static states at center stage and change processes either in the
wings or offstage alLogether. Thus. three-year-olds are said to have non-
representational theories of mind and five-year-olds representational
Pervasive Variability
ones; five-year-olds to have absolute views about justice and ten-year-
aids relativistic ones; ten-year-alds to be incapable and 1S-year-olds
Variability in. c.hildren's thinking exists at every level- not just between
capable of true scientific reasoning. The emphasis in almost all
children o~ dl:feren~ ag~s, or between different children of the same age,
cognitive-developmental theories has been on identifying seq.ue~ces of
but also wlthm an mdlviduaJ solving a set of related problems, within
one-to-one correspondences between ages and ways of thmkmg or
an individual solVing the same problem tWice. and even within an
acting. rather than on specifying how the changes occur. individual on a single trial.
If developmentalists are so interested in change processes, why would
the topic be given such cursory treatment in most contemporary theo-
ries? Part 01' the problem is that studying change is inherently difficult. It Variability within an individual solVing related problems
poses all the conceptual and methodological demands of studying p~r-
Detailed analyses of tasks on which one-to-one correspondences
formance at anyone time. and imposes the added demands of determm-
between age and way of thinking have been postulated indicate that
ing what is changing and how the change is being accomplished.
children's thinking is generally much more variable than past depictions
An additional part of the difficulty. however, may be self-imposed. In
have suggested. To cite an example from language development, rather
our efforts to describe differences among age groups in assimple. dra-
than young children passing through a stage in which they always over-
matic, and memorable terms as possible, we may unwittingly have made
regularize past tense forms (e.g., saying "goed" and "eated" rather than
understanding change more difficult than it needs to be. In particular,
"went" and "ate"), children at all ages between two and a half and five
portraying children's thinking and knowledge as monolithic for several
years produce both substantial numbers of overregularized forms and
years at a time creates need to explain the wide gulfs between the suc-
substa.ntial numbers of correct ones. The variability throughout this age
cessive hypothesized understandings - even though such gulfs may not
range IS present for a single child followed throughout the period, as well
exist. The typical depictions make change a rare, dmost exotic, event
as for groups of children sampled at a single age. Adding to the vari-
that demands an exceptional explanation. If children of a given age
ability, children often produce more than one incorrect form of a given
have for several years had a particular understanding. why would they
verb; on different occasions, a given child will say, "I ate it," "I eated it,"
suddenly form a different understanding, and why would they regularly and "I ated it" (Kuczaj,1977).
form it at a particular age? The problem is exacerbated by the fact that
Similar variability has been found in the development of memory
for many of the competencies of interest, generally relevant experience
strategies. Contrary to the widely cited model that five-year-olds do not
is available at all ages and specifically relevant experience at none.
rehearse and eight-year-olds do, trial-by-trial assessments indicate that
Children see liquids poured into containers of different dimensions at all
the majority of children of both ages sometimes do and sometimes do
acres - and are not ordinarily told at any age that the amount of liquid
not rehearse (McGilly & Siegler, 1990). The percentage of trials on
r:mains the same after pouring as before. Why, then, would they con-
which they rehearse increases with age, but, again, there is variability
sistently have one concept of liquid quantity conservation at age five throughout the age range.
and a different one at age seven?
. Conceptual development evidences the same pattern. Despite claims
Recognition of the unwelcome side effects of the one-to-one depic-
that five-year-olds think of number conservation solely in terms of the
tions of cognitive growth has led to a new generation of research that
lengths of the rows, triaJ-by-trial assessments indicate that most
54 Developmental Research: Mic;rogenetic Method

five-year-olds sometimes rely on the lengths of the rows, sometimes rely a quite different understanding through the explanations (Church &
on the type of transformation, and sometimes use other strategies such Goldin-Meadow, 1986; Goldin-Meadow & Alibali, in press). For
as counting or pairing (Siegler, 1993). Again, the frequency of reliance example, on number conservation problems, children may express a
on these ways of thinking changes with age, but most five-year-olds' reliance on relative lengths of the rows in their hand gestures, while at
judgments and verbal explanations indicate several different ways of the same time verbally expressing reliance on the type of transforma-
thinking about the concept. tion, or vice versa.
Development of problem-solVing skills provides yet more evidence for These findings suggest that cognitive change is better thought of in
such within-subject cognitive variability. Contradicting models in which terms of changing distributions of ways of thinking than in terms of
preschoolers are said to use the sum strategy (counting from 1) to solve sudden shifts from one way of thinking to another. The types of descrip-
simple addition problems and in which first through third graders are tions of change that emerge from such analyses are illustrated in figures
said to use the min strategy (counting from the larger addend, as when 1 and 2. Figure 1 shows changes in three children's addition strategies
solving 3 + 6 by counting "6,7,8,9") to solve them, children of all these over a three-month period (Siegler & Jenkins, 1989); figure 2 shows
ages use a variety of strategies. In one study, most children presented changes in a child's map-drawing strategies over a two-year period
a set of addition problems used at least three clifferent strategies on (Feldman, 1980). Similar changes in distributions of strategies have
different problems, and most children examined in a more extensive been found in studies of conceptual understanding, memory strategies,
microlongitudinal study used at least five distinct strategies (Siegler & problem solving, and language. In all these domains, cognitive develop-
ment involves changing clistributions of approaches, rather than
Jenkins, 1989).
discontinuous movements from one way of thinking to another.

Variability within an individual solving a single

problem twice
The variability within inclividual children cannot be reduced to children
using different strategies on different problems. Even presented the iden- Variability is not just an incidental feature of thinking; it appears to play
tical problem twice within a single session, or on two succe'ssive days, a critical.role in promoting cognitive change. Several types of evidence
children use different strategies on roughly one third of the pairs of converge on this conclusion. One comes from observations of children
trials in addition, time-telling, and block-building tasks (Siegler & in the process of cliscovering new strategies. Both the trials immediately
McGilly, 1989; Siegler & Shrager, 1984; Wilkinson, 1982). This vari- before a discovery and the trial on which the discovery is made fre-
ability within individuals within problems cannot be explained by learn- quently involve especially variable behavior - disfluencies, unclear ref-
ing; in these studies, children used the strategy that appeared more erences, long pauses, and unusual gestures (Siegler & Jenkins, 1989). A
advanced almost as often for the first presentation of a problem as for second type of empirical evidence linking variability to cognitive change
involves analyses of. which children are most likely to make cliscoveries.
the second (roughly 45% vs. 55%).
Children whose verbal explanations and gestures reflect different initial
misunderstandings of number conservation and of numerical equiva-
Variability within a single trial lence problems (a + b + c = _ + c) are more likely to make discoveries sub-
In the limiting case, variability has been found even within an individ- sequently than are children whose explanations and gestures reflect the
ual solving a particular problem on a single trial. This type of variabil- same initial misunderstanding (Church & Goldin-Meadow, 1986;
ity has been reported by investigators interested in the relation between Goldin-Meadow & Alibali, in press). Similarly, children whose pretest
children's hand gestures and verbal explanations. In these studies, chil- explanations reflect varied ways of thinking are more likely to
dren often express one type of understanding through the gestures and learn from instruction regarding the meaning of the equal sign in

.. ....
% use of .: __
short-cut sum 60 ... .'........... Level of map

"--0--' fingers ,,'
strategy -<r-II
-- .. - min
I/l -e--III
"5'" 40
o ?f
1-5 6-1011-1516-2021-2526-3031-33
Sessions 20


......... " .
50 d/ .....
c.... .-- sum
40 ". __ short-cut sum
% use of ". ..0
"'-0-" retrieval Figure 2 Changes in distributions of map-drawing approaches across five
30 cr ---r" min
sessions, conducted over a two-year period. Higher numbers indicate more
20 advanced levels of map drawing; thus, LevelIV maps are more advanced than
Level III ones.

mathematics than are children whose pretest explanations reflect crisp,

specific misunderstandings (Graham & Perry, 1993).
A different type of evidence for the contribution of variability to cog-
80 nitive change comes from formal models of development. Theorists who
differ in many particular assumptions have found that modeling change
60 _sum
% use of __ short-cut sum requires both mechanisms that produce variability and mechanisms
strategy "'-0-" retrieval that produce adaptive choices, among the variants. Connectionist
__.. _ min
models of development are based on connection strengths among pro-
20 cessing units varying at all points in learning, from initial. randomly
varying strengths to final, asymptotic levels; change occurs through
redistributions of the varying connection strengths. Dynamic systems
models also treat variability as a fundamental property of development;
they aim to explain how local variability gives rise to global regularities.
FIgur e 1 Changes in distributions of addition strategies
of three children over
'h 'b'l Similarly, recent symbolic-processing models of development focus on
roughly 30 sessions conducted over a three-month penod: N~tlce t e van a 1- how varying strategies, analogies, and other higher-order units come to
ity that is present within each child's performance wlthm each block of
be used increasingly in the situations in which they are most effective.
sessions, as well as the changes in distributions of strategy used over the
course of the study.
Source: Data from Siegler & Jenkins, 1989.
58 Developmental Research: Microgenetic Method
At a less formal level. operant conditioning models. evolutionarily
based models. and generate-and-test models are all based on the
. assumption that change occurs through selection processes operating
on omnipresent. spontaneously produced variability in behavior (e.g .. Thinking is far more variable than usually depicted. In the past,
see CampbelL 1974; McClelland & Jenkins. 199]; Smith & Thelen. in researchers have usually ignored such variability or viewed it as a
press; Skinner. 1981). bother. This stance has led to subjects being given practice periods, not
A striking empirical finding about the variability in children's think- so that especially variable behavior in those periods can be studied, but
ing. and one that is important for its ability to contribute to cognitive so that it can be discarded, in order that it not obscure the more orderly
development. is the constrained quality of the variations that children patterns in later performance. When such variability has been explicitly
generate. Far from conforming to a trial-and-error model, in which all noted at all. it has usually been viewed as an unfortunate limitation of
types of variations might be expected, the new approaches that children human beings, a kind of design defect, something to be overcome
attempt consistently conform to the principles that define legal strategies through practice. Computers, robots, and other machines not subject
in the domain (except when children are forced to solve problems for to this flaw can perform many tasks more accurately than people can.
which they do not possess any adequate strategy). For example, in a 30- Presumably, people's performance would also be enhanced if it were
session study of preschoolers' discovery of new addition strategies. none less variable.
of the children ever attempted strategies that violated the principles This view of variability as detracting from efficient performance
underlying addition (Siegler & Jenkins, 1989). They invented legitimate misses at least half the story, though. The variability of cognition and
new strategies. such as the min strategy. but never illegitimate ones. such action allows us to discover a great deal about the environments toward
as adding the smaller addend to itself or counting from the larger addend which the thinking and action are directed. Our difficulty in reproduc-
the number of times indicated by the first addend. The question is how ing the way we pronounced a word in an unfamiliar foreign language
they limit their newly generated strategies to legal forms. may lead to some even less adequate pronunciations in the short run,
One possibility is that even before discovering new strategies. children but in the longer run may lead us to generate and then learn better pro-
often understand the goals that legitimate strategies in the domain must nunciations. Likewise, our inability to give a colloquium in the same
satisfy. Such understanding would allow them, without trial and error, words twice, even when we want to. may lead to some parts being less
to discriminate between legitimate new strategies that meet the essen- clear than in the best of our previous presentations. but it also allows
tial goals and illegitimate strategies that do not. A very recent study us to observe audience reaction to new lines of argument and to learn
revealed that children possessed such knowledge in both of the domains which ones are best received. In general, cognitive variability may lead
that were examined - simple addition and tic-tac-toe (Siegler & Crowley, to performance never incorporating on anyone occasion all the best fea-
in press). In simple addition, children who had not yet discovered the tures of previous performance, but also may be critical to our becoming
min strategy nonetheless judged that strategy (demonstrated by the increasingly proficient over time.
experimenter) to be as smart as the strategy they themselves most often If cognitive variability does indeed facilitate learning, it would be
used - counting from 1 - and significantly smarter than an equally adaptive if such variability were most pronounced when learning,
novel but illegitimate strategy that the experimenter demonstrated. In rather than efficient performance, is most important - that is, in infancy
tic-tac-toe, children rated a novel strategy that they did not yet use - and early childhood. This appears to be the case. Across many domains,
forking - as even smarter than the strategy they themselves usually expertise brings with it decreasingly variable performance. To the extent
employed - trying to complete a single row or column. Ability to anti- that young children are "universal novices," their lack of expertise
cipate the value of untried strategies may promote cognitive growth by alone would lead to their performance being more variable than that of
filtering out unpromising possibilities and thus channeling innovations older children and adults. A number of cognitive neuroscientists have
in potentially useful directions. hypothesized that above and beyond such effects of practice, the process
of synaptogenesis, which results in children from roughly birth to age Siegler, R. S., and Crowley, K. Goal sketches constrain children's strategy
seven having far more synaptic connections than older children and discoveries. Cognitive Psychology (in press).
adults, may contribute both to the high variability of early behavior and Siegler, R. S., and Jenkins, E. How children discover new strategies. Erlbaum,
to young children's special ability to acquire language, perceptual skills, Hillsdale, NJ (1989).
Siegler. R. S., and McGUly,K. Strategy choices in children's time-telling. In Time
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and human cognition: A liJe span perspective, Levin, 1.. and Zakay, D. Eds.
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Elsevier Science, Amsterdam (1989).
Wallace, 1987). That is, young children's greater variability at the
Siegler, R. S., and Shrager, J. Strategy choices in addition and subtraction: How
neural level seems to allow them to learn useful behaviors under a do children know what to do? In The origins oj cognitive skills, Sophian, C. Ed.
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dren's thinking, and attempting to explain how it is generated and con- Bradford Books, Cambridge, MA (in press).
strained, will advance our understanding of the central mystery about Wilkinson, A. C. Partial knowledge and self-correction: Developmental studies
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14, Schilpp, P. A. Ed. Open Court, La Salle, 11(1974). Skinner, B. F.. Selection
by consequences. Science, 213, 501-504 (1981).
Church, R. B., and Goldin-Meadow, S. The mismatch between gesture and
speech as an index of transitional knowledge. Cognition, 23, 43-71 (1986).
Feldman, D. H. Beyond universals in cognitive development. Ablex, Norwood, NJ,
Goldin-Meadow, S., and Alibali, M. W. Transitions in concept acquisition: Using
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Graham, T, and Perry, M. Indexing transitional knowledge. Developmental
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