Skip to main content
  • Get access
    Check if you have access via personal or institutional login
  • Cited by 1
  • Cited by
    This chapter has been cited by the following publications. This list is generated based on data provided by CrossRef.

    Fischer, Kurt W. and Bidell, Thomas R. 2007. Handbook of Child Psychology.

  • Print publication year: 2005
  • Online publication date: September 2009

4 - Building general knowledge and skill: cognition and microdevelopment in science learning


Consider what knowledge, skills or insights you might need to meet this challenge successfully: light a bulb with only one length of wire and a battery. What do you need to know, and how do you integrate this knowledge? What role did development play in preparing you for this challenge? Science educators can identify the skills that are necessary to deal with this task. Cognitive scientists can outline the developmental progression of skills that learners build and organize to create possible solutions. In this chapter we put together cognitive development with task performance. We use a research-based practical definition for skills that allows educators and cognitive scientists to judge the complexity of activities and solutions, and to identify the processes and steps by which learners build richer understandings as they cope with challenges such as turning on the light bulb.

With these tools, we present a model of how by groping in context with a new task, people (a) construct novel skills and thus novel understanding and (b) generalize the new skills to related contexts (Fischer, Yan, and Stewart, 2003). This analysis is generally consistent with Piaget's (1952/1936; 1950/1947) emphasis on groping and adaptation as mechanisms for creation of new knowledge. It adds specific tools for describing how people use groping and adaptation to build new knowledge in specific contexts and to generalize that knowledge to other contexts. Other theories of ontogenesis have generally neglected this question and process, except in research on microdevelopment (Granott and Parziale 2002).

Recommend this book

Email your librarian or administrator to recommend adding this book to your organisation's collection.

Cognitive Developmental Change
  • Online ISBN: 9780511489938
  • Book DOI:
Please enter your name
Please enter a valid email address
Who would you like to send this to *
AAAS (1989). Project 2061: Science for all Americans. Washington DC: American Association for the Advancement of Science
AAAS (1993). Benchmarks for science literacy. Washington DC: American Association for the Advancement of Science and National Science Teachers Association
AAAS and NSTA (2001). Atlas of science literacy. Washington DC: American Association for the Advancement of Science and National Science Teachers Association
Ashman, S. (2000). Juggling – all you need to know to develop amazing juggling skills. Bath, UK: Paragon
Bidell, T. R. and Fischer, K. W. (1994). Developmental transitions in children's early online planning. In M. M. Haith, J. B. Benson, R. J. R. Jr., and B. F. Pennington (eds.) The development of future-oriented processes (pp. 141–76). Chicago: University of Chicago Press
Bredderman, T. (1983). Effects of activity-based elementary science on student outcomes. Review of Educational Research, 53, 499–518
Carey, S. (2000). Science education as conceptual change. Journal of Applied Developmental Psychology, 21, 13–19
Case, R. (1992). The mind's staircase: exploring the conceptual underpinnings of children's thought and knowledge. Hillsdale: Erlbaum
Case, R. (1998). The development of conceptual structures. In D. Kuhn and R. S. Siegler (eds.) and W. Damon (series ed.) Handbook of child psychology: vol. 2. Cognition, perception, and language. New York: Wiley
Case, R., Okamoto, Y., with Griffin, S., McKeough, A., Bleiker, C., Henderson, B. and Stephenson, K. M. (1996). The role of central conceptual structures in the development of children's thought. Monographs of the Society for Research in Child Development, 61 (5–6, serial no. 246)
Commons, M. L., Trudeau, E. J., Stein, S. A., Richards, F. A. and Krause, S. R. (1998). Hierarchical complexity of tasks shows the existence of developmental stages. Developmental Review, 18, 237–78
Corrigan, R. (1983). The development of representational skills. In K. W. Fischer (ed.) Levels and transitions in children's development. New directions for child development, 21, 51–64. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass
Dawson, T. L. (2001). A comparison of three developmental stage scoring systems. Journal of Applied Measurement, 3, 146–89
Dawson, T. L. (2002). New tools, new insights: Kohlberg's moral reasoning stages revisited. International Journal of Behavior Development, 26, 154–66
Dawson, T. L. and Gabrielian, S. (2003). Developing conceptions of authority and contract across the lifespan: two perspectives. Developmental Review, 23, 162–218
Demetriou, A., Christou, C., Spanoudis, G. and Platsidou, M. (2002). The development of mental processing: efficiency, working memory, and thinking. Monographs of the Society for Research in Child Development, 67 (1, serial no. 173)
DESIGNS (1994). Proposal to the National Science Foundation. Cambridge, MA: Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics
Detterman, D. K. (1993). The case for the prosecution: transfer as an epiphenomenon. In D. K. Detterman and R. J. Sternberg (eds.) Transfer on trial: intelligence, cognition, and instruction (pp. 1–24). Norwood, NJ: Ablex
Driver, R., Guesne, E. and Tiberghien, A. (1985). Some features of children's ideas and their implications for teaching. In R. Driver, E. Guesne and A. Tiberghien (eds.) Children's ideas in science (pp. 193–201). Milton Keynes: Open University Press
Driver, R., Squires, A., Rushworth, P. and Wood-Robinson, V. (1994). Making sense of secondary science: research into children's ideas. London: Routledge
Ferrari, M. and Sternberg, R. J. (1998). The development of mental abilities and styles. In D. Kuhn and R. S. Siegler (eds.) and W. Damon (series ed.), Handbook of child psychology: vol. 2. Cognition, perception, and language (5th edn, pp. 899–946). New York: Wiley
Fischer, K. W. (1980a). Learning and problem solving as the development of organized behaviour. Journal of Structural Learning, 6, 253–67
Fischer, K. W. (1980b). A theory of cognitive development: the control and construction of hierarchies of skills. Psychological Review, 87, 477–531
Fischer, K. W. and Bidell, T. R. (1998). Dynamic development of psychological structures in action and thought. In R. M. Lerner (ed.) and W. Damon (series ed.) Handbook of child psychology: vol. 1. Theoretical models of human development (5th edn, pp. 467–561). New York: Wiley
Fischer, K. W., Bullock, D., Rotenberg, E. J. and Raya, P. (1993). The dynamics of competence: how context contributes directly to skill. In R. Wozniak and K. W. Fischer (eds.) Development in context: acting and thinking in specific environments (pp. 93–117). Hillsdale, NJ: Erlbaum
Fischer, K. W. and Connell, M. W. (2003). Two motivational systems that shape development: epistemic and self-organizing. British Journal of Educational Psychology: Monograph Series II, 2, 103–23
Fischer, K. W. and Corrigan, R. (1981). A skill approach to language development. In R. Stark (ed.) Language behavior in infancy and early childhood (pp. 245–73). Amsterdam: Elsevier
Fischer, K. W. and Granott, N. (1995). Beyond one-dimensional change: parallel, concurrent, socially distributed process in learning and development. Human Development, 38, 302–14
Fischer, K. W. and Hogan, A. E. (1989). The big picture for infant development: levels and variations. In J. J. Lockman and N. L. Hazen (eds.) Action in social context: perspectives on early development (pp. 275–305). New York: Plenum Press
Fischer, K. W., and Immordino-Yang, M. H. (2002). Cognitive development and education: from dynamic general structure to specific learning and teaching. In E. Lagemann (ed.) Traditions of scholarship in education. Chicago: Spencer Foundation
Fischer, K. W. and Pipp, S. L. (1984). Process of cognitive development: optimal level and skill acquisition. In R. J. Sternberg (ed.) Mechanisms of cognitive development (pp. 450–80). New York: Freeman
Fischer, K. W. and Rose, S. P. (1996). Dynamic growth cycles of brain and cognitive development. In R. Thatcher, G. R. Lyon, J. Rumsey, and N. Krasnegor (eds.) Developmental neuroimaging: mapping the development of brain and behavior (pp. 263–79). New York: Academic Press
Fischer, K. W. and Silvern, L. (1985). Stages and individual differences in cognitive development. Annual Review of Psychology, 36, 613–48
Fischer, K. W., Yan, Z. and Stewart, J. (2003). Adult cognitive development: dynamics in the developmental web. In J. Valsiner and K. Connolly (eds.) Handbook of developmental psychology (pp. 491–516). Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage
Flavell, J. (1982). On cognitive development. Child Development, 53, 1–10
Granott, N. (2002). How microdevelopment creates macrodevelopment: reiterated sequences, backward transitions, and the zone of current development. In N. Granott and J. Parziale (eds.) Microdevelopment: transition processes in development and learning. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press
Granott, N., Fischer, K. W. and Parziale, J. (2002). Bridging to the unknown: a transition mechanism in learning and problem-solving. In N. Granott and J. Parziale (eds.) Microdevelopment: transition processes in development and learning (pp. 131–56). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press
Granott, N., and Parziale, J. (eds.) (2002). Microdevelopment: transition processes in development and learning. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press
Griffin, M. M. (1995). You can't get there from here: situated learning, transfer, and map skills. Contemporary Educational Psychology, 20, 65–87
Griffin, S. and Case, R. (1997). Rethinking the primary school math curriculum. Issues in Education: Contributions from Educational Psychology, 3(1), 1–49
Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics (1997). Minds of our own. Science Education Department, Science Media Group. Cambridge, MA
Horn, J. L. and Hofer, S. M. (1992). Major abilities and development in the adult period. In R. J. Sternberg and C. A. Berg (eds.) Intellectual development (pp. 44–99). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press
Jacobs, Kawanaka and Stigler, (1999). Integrating qualitative and quantitative approaches to the analysis of video data on classroom teaching. International Journal of Education Research, 31, 717–24
Lakoff, G. (1987). Women, fire, and dangerous things: what categories reveal about the mind. Chicago: University of Chicago Press
Lakoff, G. and Johnson, M. (1980). Metaphors we live by. Chicago: University of Chicago Press
Lave, J. (1993). Word problems: a microcosm of theories of learning. In P. Light and G. Butterworth (eds.) Context and cognition: ways of learning and knowing (pp. 74–92). Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates
Martin, M. O., Mullis, I. V. S., Gonzalez, E. J., Smith, T. A. and Kelly, D. L. (1999). School contexts for learning and instruction: IEAS third international mathematics and science study (TIMSS). Chestnut Hill, MA: Boston College
Nardi, B. (1996). Studying context: a comparison of activity theory, situated action models, and distributed cognition. In B. Nardi (ed.) Context and consciousness: activity theory and human–computer interaction (pp. 69–102). Cambridge, MA: MIT Press
National Research Council (1996). National Science Education Standards. Washington DC: National Academy Press
National Research Council (1999). How people learn: bridging research and practice. M. Donovan, J. Bransford, and J. Pellegrino (eds.) Washington DC: National Academy of Science
National Research Council (2001). Knowing what students know: the science and design of educational assessment. Washington DC: National Academy Press
Novak, J. D. (1987). Proceedings of the second international seminar: misconceptions and educational strategies in science and mathematics July 26–29, 1987, vol II. Ithaca, NY: Department of Education, Cornell University
Novak, J. D. and Gowin, D. B. (1984). Learning how to learn. New York: Cambridge University Press
Parziale, J. (2002). Observing the dynamics of construction: children building bridges and new ideas. In N. Granott and J. Parziale (eds.) Microdevelopment: transition processes in development and learning (pp. 131–56). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press
Parziale, J. and Fischer, K. W. (1998). The practical use of skill theory in classrooms. In R. J. Sternberg and W. M. Williams (eds.) Intelligence, instruction and assessment (pp. 96–110). Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates
Pea, R. D. (1993). Practices of distributed intelligence and designs for education. In G. Salomon (ed.) Distributed cognitions: psychological and educational considerations (pp. 47–87). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press
Perkins, D. N. (1997). Knowledge as design. Mahwah, NJ: Erlbaum
Piaget, J. (1950). The psychology of intelligence (M. P. D. E. Berlyne, trans.). New York: Harcourt Brace. (Originally published 1947.)
Piaget, J. (1952). The origins of intelligence in children (M. Cook, trans.). New York: International Universities Press. (Originally published, 1936.)
Piaget, J. (1983). Piaget's theory. In P. M. Mussen (ed.) Handbook of child psychology (vol. 1, pp. 103–28). New York: Wiley
Rogoff, B. (1990). Apprenticeship in thinking. New York: Oxford University Press
Rose, S. P. and Fischer, K. W. (1998). Models and rulers in dynamical development. British Journal of Developmental Psychology, 16 (pt 1), 123–31
Sadler, P., Coyle, H. and Schwartz, M. (2000). Engineering competitions in the middle school classroom: key elements in developing effective design challenges. Journal of the Learning Sciences, 9, 299–327
Salomon, G. and Perkins, D. N. (1989). Rocky roads to transfer: rethinking mechanisms of a neglected phenomenon. Educational Psychologist, 24, 113–42
Schwartz, M. (1998). The role of standard designs in goal setting in a science activity. Unpublished Qualifying Paper, Harvard University. Cambridge, MA
Schwartz, M. (2000). Design challenges: a new path to understanding science concepts and skills. Unpublished doctoral dissertation. Harvard Graduate School of Education. Cambridge, MA
Schwartz, M. and Fischer, K. W. (2003). Building vs. borrowing: the challenge of actively constructing ideas. Liberal Education (Summer), 22–9
Schwartz, M. and Sadler, P. (2001). Goals and technology education: the example of design challenges. Proceedings of the Second AAAS Research in Technology Education Conference. AAAS: Washington, DC
Schwartz, M. and Sadler, P. (submitted) Empowerment in science curriculum development: a microdevelopmental approach. International Journal of Science Education
Shamos, M. H. (1995). The myth of scientific literacy. New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press
Shipstone, D. (1985). Electricity in simple circuits. In R. Driver, E. Guesne and A. Tiberghien (eds.) Children's ideas in science (pp. 33–51). Milton Keynes: Open University Press
Vygotsky, L. (1978). Mind in society: the development of higher psychological processes (Cole, M., John-Steiner V., Scribner, S., Souberman, E, trans.). Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press
Werner, H. (1948). Comparative psychology of mental development. New York: Science Editions
Wertsch, J. V. and Stone, C. A. (1978). Microgenesis as a tool for developmental analysis. Quarterly Newsletter of the Laboratory of Comparative Human Cognition, 1(1), 8–10
Yan, Z. and Fischer, K. W. (2002). Always under construction: dynamic variations in adult cognitive development. Human Development, 45, 141–60