Five-To-Seven Shift

When you explain to your 5-year-old nephew that his mother is your sister, he stares at you in disbelief. His 7-year-old sister, however, immediately understands that her mother could also be someone’s sister. The difference between your nephew’s and niece’s understanding illustrates the dramatic changes in children’s cognitive functioning that occur between the ages of roughly 5 and 7. Developmental psychologist Sheldon White introduced the term five-to-seven shift in 1965 to refer to the cognitive reorganization to which many of the changes were attributed.

White conceptualized this “shift” in terms of Jean Piaget’s theory of intellectual growth, the dominant paradigm of cognitive development at the time. Piaget,  a  Swiss  psychologist  who  began  studying children in the 1920s, proposed that cognitive development proceeded through an invariant sequence of stages, whereby each stage incorporated or replaced the previous stage. The five-to-seven shift marked the crucial transition from what Piaget termed the “preoperational” stage, to the stage of “concrete operations.” Preoperational thinking was characterized by the child’s reliance on the perceptual features of a situation. Concrete operational thought enabled the child to distinguish between the changing appearances of things and the logical or physical properties that remain constant.  For  example,  when  5-year-olds  are  presented with a situation in which liquid is poured from a wide, narrow beaker into a tall, thinner one, they typically assert that there is more water in the taller beaker because the water level is higher. Seven-year-olds will recognize that the quantity of water remained the same, or  was  “conserved.”  When  questioned,  they  will explain that no water has been added or taken away, that if the process were reversed the level of water in the first beaker would be the same, or that the second beaker is taller but narrower than the first.

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Piaget’s seminal contribution to our understanding of cognitive growth was his recognition that at every point of development, children’s performance is an expression  of  some  underlying  cognitive  structure. He hypothesized that cognitive competence was “constructed” through children’s active interaction with the environment. This model of children’s intellectual development provided an alternative to the longstanding philosophical and psychological traditions of nativism and environmentalism. Nativists understood intellectual growth as the unfolding of an inborn capacity for reason, as inevitable and predetermined as the child’s physical maturation. Environmentalists considered the child at birth to be a blank slate, on which experience etches connections often organized by language and social practices.

Piaget assumed that children’s performance on a variety of tasks and in different content areas reflected a singular underlying stage of cognitive competence, which accounted for the parallel changes in their understanding of logic and mathematics, physical properties, biological concepts, and social-psychological phenomena. However, the Piagetian assumption that one underlying structure dictated cognitive activity in different  content  areas,  and that  children  could  be neatly classified as being in one particular stage or another, has become controversial.

Since White originally proposed his theory of a five-to-seven shift, it has been shown that 5-year-olds are more logical and better problem solvers than many Piagetians claimed, particularly when they are judged on their own terms and in familiar situations. Cross-cultural studies have demonstrated that competence during this period is highly dependent on the kinds of roles and responsibilities that children take on as part of a social group. Others have suggested that if anything underlies the cognitive changes that take place between the years of 5 and 7, it is children’s use of language as a tool to manipulate thought. Still others point to the mediating influences of visual culture and information technology on children’s development.

Furthermore, many contemporary psychologists and educators are skeptical of the unitary and context independent aspects of Piaget’s theory. It has been demonstrated that children’s performance on different tasks and in different content areas is variable, which is inconsistent with the Piagetian stage model of cognitive development. Cognitive growth is currently recognized as being more continuous and incremental, more specific to context and content, and better understood in terms of functionally independent “domains,” “frames,” or “modules.”

The changes that occur between the ages of 5 and 7 are currently understood as a shift in children’s characteristic tendencies and preferences of thought, rather than a wholesale reorganization of cognitive functioning. This view reflects the compelling evidence that 5-year-olds are as capable as older children of complex reasoning and remembering, even if they fail to recognize the conditions that require those capacities. In the light of these findings, White has reformulated his understanding of the five-to-seven shift, no longer deeming 7 as the “age of reason,” but rather the “age of being reasonable.”


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