The information processing theory approach to the study of cognitive development evolved out of the American experimental tradition in psychology. Information processing theorists proposed that like the computer, the human mind is a system that processes information through the application of logical rules and strategies. Like the computer, the mind has a limited capacity for the amount and nature of the information it can process.
Finally, just as the computer can be made into a better information processor by changes in its hardware (e.g., circuit boards and microchips) and its software (programming), so do children become more sophisticated thinkers through changes in their brains and sensory systems (hardware) and in the rules and strategies (software) that they learn.
The four main beliefs of the information-processing approach
- Information-processing theory hold that thinking is information-processing. When the individual perceives, encodes, represents, and stores information from the environment in his mind or retrieves that information, he is thinking. Thinking also includes responding to any constraints or limitations on memory processes.
- The proper focus of study is the role of change mechanism in development. Four critical mechanisms work together to bring about change in children’s cognitive skills: encoding, strategy construction, automatization, and generalization. To solve problems effectively, children must encode critical information about a problem and then use this encoded information and relevant prior knowledge to construct a strategy to deal with the problem
- Development is driven by self-modification. Like Piaget’s theory of cognitive development, the information-processing approach holds that children play an active role in their own development. Through self-modification, the child uses knowledge and strategies she has acquired from earlier problem solution to modify her responses to a new situation or problem. In this way, she builds newer and more sophisticated responses from prior knowledge
- Investigators must perform careful task analysis of the problem situations they present to children. According to this view, not only the child’s own level of development but the nature of the task itself constraints child’s performance. Thus a child may possess the basic ability necessary to perform a particular task when it is presented in a simple form, without unnecessary complexities. However, if extra or misleading information is added to the same task, the child may become confused and be unable to perform it.
Structure of the information-processing system
In the store model of the human information-processing system, information from the environment that we acquire through our senses enter the system through the sensory register.
- The store model: A model of information processing in which information is depicted as moving through a series of processing units — sensory register, short-term memory, long-term memory — in each of which it may be stored, either fleetingly or permanently.
- Sensory register: the mental processing unit that receives information from the environment and stores it fleetingly.
- Short-term memory: the mental processing unit in which information may be stored temporarily; the work space of the mind, where a decision must be made to discard information or to transfer it to permanent storage, in long-term memory.
- Long-term memory: the encyclopedic mental processing unit in which information may be stored permanently and from which it may be later retrieved.
- Hetherington & Parke, Child Psychology: A Contemporary Viewpoint, 5th ed. (1999). New York: McGraw-Hill.