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Departmental Colloquium: Agency and Cognitive Development

Mike Tomasello
Wednesday, March 22, 2023, 4:00 pm – 5:30 pm

Modern theories explain children’s cognitive development mainly in terms of Bayesian learning. But learning cannot be the whole story or else children could learn anything at any age - which they cannot. They cannot because their capacities to learn, think, and cognitively represent the world take place within the context of the human species’ evolved psychological architecture, and this architecture changes in significant ways over the first years of life. The main organizing principle of this psychological architecture is agency (including shared agency), and developmental changes are due to the emergence of different types of agentive architecture over time. In a word: young infants (below 9 months) cognitively represent and learn about actualities; toddlers executively represent and learn also about causal, intentional, and logical possibilities; and preschoolers (over 3 years) metacognitively represent and learn also about normative necessities. This cognitive-developmental model recognizes the important role of learning, but at the same time places it in the context of the overall psychological organization of children at particular development periods.