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AQA GCSE Psychology Development

This section provides revision resources for AQA GCSE psychology and the Development chapter. The revision notes cover the AQA exam board and the new specification. As part of your GCSE psychology course, you need to know the following topics below within this chapter:

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What is Development?

The development of the human brain is one of the most fascinating subjects you can study in GCSE psychology. Humans are distinctively different from all the other animals on the planet and that is solely down to how the human brain has evolved.

Our brain and its capabilities have allowed us to learn complicated languages, communicate complex messages to one another, discover the sciences and even reach other worlds through the development of advanced technology.
No other animal comes close and this is why scientists are fascinated by how the brain works.

The development topic for GCSE psychology focuses on the brain and its development, its structures and also begins to introduce theories as to how we learn. We will learn about the work of Piaget and his cognitive development theory and how this has affected education in the UK. We will also look at the effects of learning on development and Dweck’s Mindset theory of learning as well as learning styles and Willingham’s learning theory.

aqa psychology development

Early Brain Development

What the GCSE Psychology specification says you need to learn for this section:

  • A basic knowledge of brain development, from simple neural structures in the womb, of brain stem, thalamus, cerebellum and cortex, reflecting the development of autonomic functions, sensory processing, movement and cognition.
  • The roles of nature and nurture.
  • The development of the brain begins in the third week of pregnancy with cells multiplying to form a structure called the neural plate. This then folds onto itself to form a tube-shaped structure called the neural tube.
  • During the fourth week, the neural tube starts to divide into a spinal cord, forebrain, midbrain and hindbrain.
    In the sixth week, the forebrain divides into two areas one of which forms the cortex and the other develops into the thalamus. Neurons and synapses begin to develop in the spinal cord allowing the foetus to move and react to its environment.
  • At the fifteenth week, the cerebellum forms the hindbrain and by the sixth month of pregnancy, the brain is fully formed although not at its full size.
  • The last three months see folds begin to form on the cortex which gives the brain its wrinkled appearance.
    The brain is 25% the size of an adult brain at birth.

The Brain Stem, Thalamus and Cerebellum

The brain stem is shaped like a widening stalk and connects the spinal cord to the brain. It controls basic autonomic functions such as breathing, heart rate, blood pressure and sleeping. At the sixth week of pregnancy, the baby’s heart is beating regularly and blood pumps through the main vessels.

The thalamus is found at the centre of the brain and can be viewed as a sensory processing station. It receives messages from the senses and translates them into appropriate behavioural and motor responses. All sensory information will pass through the thalamus on its way to the cortex where cognition takes place. The cerebellum is located at the back of the brain behind the brain stem. It is responsible for coordinating movement and balance and receives information from the cortex and other areas of the brain. Once received, it will “fine-tune” this information into a motor activity such as walking. 

Damage to the cerebellum can cause difficulty with muscle coordination, maintaining balance and fine motor skills i.e. difficulty typing or riding a bicycle.

The Roles of Nature and Nurture

On the nature side of the argument, psychologists believe your characteristics and behaviour are inherited from your parents while those on the nurture side argue that they are influenced by the environment and develop after birth and are shaped dependent on the individual’s experience.

To study the effects of nature and nurture in brain development, psychologists use twins, newborn babies as well as animals.

Twins share exactly the same genetic makeup whereas non-identical twins do not. If identical twins are found to have similar characteristics then this is seen as evidence that supports nature as the cause.

Some research studies have shown that IQ between identical twins is very similar which implies nature plays a significant role in intelligence. Other research studies have found personality is also shaped by nature; one study compared the behaviours of identical twins who were raised apart.

They were found to be very similar when they met for the first time when aged 39. Both of them drove the same car, went on holiday to the same place as well as bit their nails.

This study showed some support for nature shaping personality.


  • Twin studies can be useful however care still needs to be taken when analysing the results.
    Identical twins may have twins that appear to have similar characteristics and it can be easily thought to be down to nature but this may not be the case.
  • Identical twins may be treated similarly by people such as parents or peers and therefore their behavioural similarities may be due to nurture (and being treated the same) rather than their genes.
    Newborn babies are useful to study as there is little chance for nurture (environmental influences) to have impacted the child. Psychologists have found that besides being able to cry, they can also recognise faces. This would suggest that nature is responsible for these abilities.
  • As babies are not able to talk until much later, it is believed that nurture is responsible for the development of language.
animal studies aqa psychology image

Animal studies have been used to demonstrate how nurture is important for early brain development. One study compared two groups of rats with one group having toys to stimulate them while the other did not. The results found that the rats that lived with the stimulating toys developed bigger brains and showed better problem-solving skills compared to rats living on their own without stimulation. This shows how nurture can affect brain development.


  • Animal studies also have their limitations as we have to be careful when we draw conclusions on human development based on the findings of animal-based studies. This is because what applies to animals may not necessarily generalise to humans because human development is very complex and could be different.
  • Animal studies are useful however as they allow us to conduct tests that would not be possible on humans due to ethical reasons. This can help us understand how biological mechanisms in humans may work and provide us with insights that may not have been possible otherwise.

Piaget’s Stage Theory of Cognitive Development

What the GCSE Psychology specification says you need to learn for this section:

  • Piaget’s Theory of Cognitive Development including concepts of assimilation and accommodation.

Jean Piaget developed his stage theory of cognitive development proposing that schemas were key to cognitive development and developed as a child grew.

Piaget saw cognitive development as a result of two influences which were maturation and the environment.

Maturation refers to the effects of the biological process of ageing. As children age, certain mental operations become possible for them and through their interactions with the environment, their understanding of the world becomes more complex too.


Schemas were defined by Piaget as blocks of knowledge that develop in response to our experiences from the world.

Piaget believed that babies were born with simple schema’s for sucking and grasping and as they grew, new schemas developed. Schemas can be behavioural such as grasping an object or cognitive such as classifying objects.

The processes involved in the development of schemas was through assimilation and accommodation.


A child may initially try to understand new information in terms of their already existing knowledge about the world.

A baby that is given a new toy may initially try to grasp it or suck it in the same way as their rattle.

Assimilation occurs when an already existing schema (such as sucking or grasping) is used on a new object and therefore involves the incorporation of new information into an existing schema.


Accommodation occurs when a child or person adapts an existing schema in order to understand new information that does not appear to fit in with their current understanding of things.

An example of accommodation may be how a person who is used to driving a manual car (with gears) then must adapt to drive an automatic car.

While assimilation is the processing of fitting new information and experiences into already existing schemas, accommodation is the process of changing existing schemas or forming new ones when new information cannot be assimilated.

The Role of Piaget’s Theory In Education

What the GCSE Psychology specification says you need to learn for this section:

  • The four stages of development: sensorimotor, pre-operational, concrete operational and formal operational. Application of these stages in education. 

  • Reduction of egocentricity, development of conservation. McGarrigle and Donaldson’s ‘naughty teddy study’; Hughes’ ‘policeman doll study’.

Jean Piaget believed that a child’s intelligence developed from them discovering things for themselves and they needed to explore objects and situations to learn about them. Piaget also believed that children needed to be ready to learn and that they could only gain new concepts and understanding if they were at the right stage of their development as predicted by his stage theory of cognitive development.

In response to his theory nurseries and primary schools place a heavy focus on discovery-based learning where children are given a variety of objects and allowed to explore them in their own way.

For example, children may be encouraged to play with water and discover for themselves which objects float and sink. Children may also be given science problems to solve either on their own or in a group to allow them to learn from their experiences. Teachers can also look to present opportunities for children to learn new concepts only when they are at the right stage of intellectual development and ready to learn. Children may be provided with materials and taught in a child-centred way where they discover answers for themselves.

Piaget's Four Stages of Development

Piagets Theory of Cognitive Development

Stage 1: Sensorimotor stage (0-2yrs)

The sensorimotor stage sees children learn about the world through their senses and by doing things (hence the name sensory and motor being combined to form sensorimotor).

The main feature of this stage is that the child develops object permanence which is the understanding that objects still exist even when they are out of sight.

Stage 2: Pre-operational stage (2-7yrs)

The main feature of the pre-operational stages is the egocentric nature of children.
Piaget investigated this by showing children a model of three mountains and then placing a doll somewhere besides the model.

The child was then shown photos that had been taken from each side of the model and asked to choose the photo that represented the dolls viewpoint.
Piaget found that children younger than seven years old chose a photo that showed their own viewpoint, however, children older than this tended to be able to choose the dolls viewpoint. He concluded that children are no longer egocentric from the age of seven upwards.

Stage 3: Concrete operational stage (7-11yrs)

Piaget believed that by the age of seven onwards, children developed the ability to conserve (conservation) and were acting in the concrete operational stage. Conservation means children know that the amount of something may stay the same, even if its appearance may change.

To investigate conservation, Piaget showed children two identical rows of counters. He then asked the child if there were the same amount of counters in each row. When a child agreed there were, he spread out one row while the child watched and asked the question again (if there were the same amount of counters between the two rows). Children under the age of seven said there wasn’t while children over the age of seven said there was.

Stage 4: Formal operational stage (11yrs+)

The main feature of the formal operational stage is that children can now solve problems in a systematic way. Piaget tested this by giving children different lengths of string and a number of weights that could be attached to the string.

The child’s task was to investigate what factor affected how fast the pendulum would swing and this involved the child varying the length of the string and the number of weights attached. Piaget found that children under the age of 11 would attempt to change both the weight and length of the string at the same time however after the age of 11, children would solve the problem in a systematic way. For example, they would keep the length of the string the same while they changed the weights in turn from the lightest to the heaviest. The conclusion drawn by Piaget here was that the main feature of this stage was the ability to solve problems systematically.

Evaluating Piaget’s Theory of Cognitive Development

  • Piaget’s cognitive development theory and its stages have been heavily criticised. Other psychologists have shown that the ages Piaget said children could learn certain tasks we're incorrect. More recent studies have shown how babies develop object permanence before eight months (Hughes “Policeman Doll” study 1978) and children can lose their egocentric thinking and conserve before the age of seven (McGarrigle and Donaldson’s Naughty Teddy study 1974). There is also now the belief that children enter the formal operational stage much later than age 11, and some never reach this stage at all.
  • Other criticisms of Piaget’s theory focuses on how he conducted his experiments. For example, in the conservation tasks, he asked children the same question more than once before and after the counters had been moved. This could have resulted in researcher bias as the children may have believed that their first answer may be incorrect and so changed this.
  • There is also criticism of the way Piaget collected his data. Small samples were used and a lot of research was done using his own children. Some argue small samples may be unrepresentative of most children and the questions he asked children were not standardised as each child was treated differently. Therefore the way in which the questions were asked could be a confounding variable for the results. 
  • Despite these criticisms, Piaget’s theory has enjoyed a lot of mainstream support. His experiments were easy to replicate and his research had a major impact on early years education where his ideas are still used to this day.

Hughes Policeman Doll Study 1978

What was the study’s aim?:  The study was conducted to see if children are able to see things from another person’s perspective at an earlier stage than Piaget’s theory of cognitive development suggested.

Study design: The study was conducted in a laboratory where there was control over extraneous variables. All of the procedures were standardised to ensure the study could be replicated to check for reliability. Thirty children between the ages of 3.5yrs and 5yrs took part in the study.

Method: The children were shown a model with two intersecting walls that formed a cross with a policeman doll placed on the model. The child was asked to hide a “boy doll” and position it in such a way the policeman would not be able to see him. The policeman was placed in different positions on the model, and the child was then tasked with hiding the boy doll each time. If the child made mistakes, although rare, they were told of this and allowed to try again.
After some trials, the actual experiment was conducted but this time with two policeman dolls with the child tasked with placing the boy doll in such a way that neither police doll could see it. The experiment was conducted three times so that a different section of the grid was left as the only hiding place each time.

Results: 90% of the children aged between 3.5yrs and 5yrs were able to hide the boy doll from the two policeman dolls.

Conclusion: The children aged between 3.5yrs to 5yrs old were able to see things from other peoples point of views when the situation was familiar to them and the task made sense. This was in contradiction to Piaget’s findings that children were egocentric until the age of 7yrs.

McGarrigle and Donaldson’s Naughty Teddy Study 1974

Aim: McGarrigle and Donaldson conducted a study to see if children developed conservation skills at an age that was earlier than Piaget’s theory predicted if the change to the materials (counters) was accidental.

Study design: A laboratory setting was used where there was control over some of the extraneous variables. All procedures were standardised to ensure replicability and reliability of findings. Eighty (80) children between the ages of 4yrs and 6yrs old took part in the study.

Method: The children were shown two rows of counters and asked if they were the same in both rows. A glove puppet named “Naughty Teddy” was introduced and shown to “accidentally” mess up one of the rows in front of the child so the counters were spread out and the row looked longer. The experimenter pretended to be annoyed at “Naughty Teddy” and told the hand puppet off. The children were then asked if there were the same amount of counters in each row. The image below gives you an idea of the different ways this experiment has been conducted to test children on their conservation skills:

Results: 62% of children aged 4yrs to 6yrs stated that the counters remained the same in each row, therefore displaying their ability to conserve. Only 16% of children in this age range answered correctly when an adult made this change in Piaget’s conservation of numbers study.

Conclusion: This study demonstrated that children younger than the age of 7yrs can conserve if they perceive the change to materials (counters) to be accidental. When they witnessed “Naughty Teddy” to spread the counters out, younger children knew the counters had not changed.

Evaluating McGarrigle and Donaldson’s Naughty Teddy Study 1974

  • Other researchers have found evidence to support McGarrigle and Donaldson’s findings when replicating Piaget’s conservation of numbers study. In one such study psychologists asked the children only once in terms of how many counters there were and the study was conducted in complete silence. They showed children two rows of counters and then spread one row out asking the child only once “is there the same amount in each row?”. This study found that more 6yr olds got the answer correct than Piaget had found demonstrating that children can conserve before the age of seven (7).
  • McGarrigle and Donaldson’s study can also be criticised as it involved children being tested by a stranger in an unusual environment, therefore, lacking any ecological validity or external validity to real-world situations. If the person asking the questions or the environment was familiar, more children between the ages of 4yrs and 6yrs may have shown the ability to conserve.
  • McGarrigle and Donaldson’s Naughty Teddy study was important as it demonstrated that children younger than the age of seven (7) could conserve which contradicted Piaget’s theory. There were limitations however as over 30% of children still failed to conserve when Naughty Teddy made the changes. Subsequent replication of the study has also found similar findings although the results were not as high as McGarrigle and Donaldson’s original findings.

The Effects of Learning On Development

What the GCSE Psychology specification says you need to learn for this section:

  • Dweck’s Mindset Theory of learning: fixed mindset and growth mindset. The role of praise and self-efficacy beliefs in learning. 
  • Learning styles including verbalisers and visualisers. Willingham’s Learning Theory and his criticism of learning styles.

Dweck’s Mindset Theory of Learning

Carol Dweck developed her Mindset Theory of Learning which attempts to explain how students can achieve success in their learning. Dweck’s theory specifically links to mathematics and science although can be generalised to other subjects and sporting activities.

Dweck proposed that there were two types of mindsets within individuals; Fixed mindset and Growth mindset.

Dweck’s Mindset Theory of Learning
Growth Mindset – Individuals with a growth mindset believe their intelligence derives from hard work and can be increased by putting in more time and effort into learning.

Fixed Mindset – Individuals with a fixed mindset believe their intelligence is unchanging and down to genetics, therefore nothing they can do will be able to change this.

When faced with challenges, the individual’s mindset will affect how they proceed to deal with it. Dweck believed that a fixed mindset would be likely to give up more quickly however an individual with a growth mindset would keep on trying, which would increase their chances of succeeding.

Evaluating Dweck’s Mindset Theory of Learning

  • Research has shown mixed support for Dweck’s Mindset Theory. Bouchard and McGue (1981) study found a strong case for genetics playing a strong role in intelligence. This study looked at the IQ scores of people who shared various percentages of genetics and who were reared together in similar environments as well as apart. 
  • This meta study demonstrated that even when identical twins were reared apart, they displayed very similar IQ levels and this was stronger than siblings reared together.
  • This study did, however, show differences in intelligence levels even in identical twins which lends support for environmental factors and supports Dweck’s Theory.
  • Gunderson’s 2013 study provides support for Dweck’s theory. In this double-blind study, neither the participants or the invigilator were aware of the objective. The objective was to link the type of praise a child received to their mindset (whether effort praise or achievement praise). The study showed that children who received a lot of praise were more likely to develop a growth mindset lending support to the theory.

The Role of Praise in Learning

Dweck believed that the type of praise received by students, whether positive or negative, affected their mindset. She suggested two types of praise existed which were Person praise and Process praise.

Person praise: This would see the student praised for their intelligence i.e. if they were told they were clever, or if they were told they were a great psychologist for example.

Process praise: This would see the student praised on their efforts and the processes they used when completing a task. This could focus on the strategies used or the progress they have made.

role of praise in learning

Students who receive person praise may come to believe their success and failures are down to factors beyond their control. Alternatively, students who receive process praise may come to believe their successes and failures are due to the amount of effort they have put in. 

One study looked to test this using an online maths game that students could play, which gave feedback on their effort, strategy and progress. This was different from the usual mathematical games that provided a score as feedback.
The study found that with this new game, students made more effort, used more strategies and persevered for longer than normal. The conclusion drawn was that the type of praise a student receives has a significant impact on their learning.

The Role of Self-Efficacy Beliefs in Learning

Self-efficacy is defined as the belief you have in your own ability to succeed at a task.

A student with a strong sense of self-efficacy would put in the efforts required to achieve their goals, challenging themselves with difficult tasks and are thus more likely to be successful. A student with a low sense of self-efficacy believes they will not be successful, so they are unlikely to try and therefore avoid challenging tasks which makes them less likely to achieve their goals.

Self-efficacy can be increased by students by doing the following:

  • Being successful at something.
  • Observing other people succeed at something due to their efforts.
  • Being persuaded they can achieve by a role model such as a teacher or parent.
  • By being guided through a task.

Learning Styles

Learning styles are different ways people learn and process information.

According to VAK theory, there are 3 learning styles which are:

  1. Visual learning style,
  2. Auditory learning style
  3. Kinaesthetic learning style
learning styles visual learners auditory learners kinaesthetic learners
Visual learners:
  • Like to learn by seeing things, reading, or through pictures.
  • Remember things based on what they looked like
  • Prefer graphs, illustrations, photos, pictures and videos
Auditory learners:
  • Like to learn by hearing/listening to things
  • Like to speak out loud to aid their learning
  • Prefer verbal instructions
  • Like discussion-based learning
  • Like to repeat things verbally

Kinaesthetic learners:

  • Learn best by doing things themselves
  • Prefer to get physically involved and do things first-hand
  • Like to touch and feel things, move things

Another theory for a different type of learning style is a set of learners that are either verbalisers or visualisers:

  • Verbalisers process information verbally preferring written information and to write things down. They will think using words.
  • Visualisers process information in a visual way and prefer to learn from pictures and diagrams. They will think using pictures.

Willingham’s Learning Theory

The concept of learning styles suggests that individuals learn more effectively when taught in a manner that aligns with their preferred method of learning. For instance, a kinaesthetic learner might benefit from engaging in hands-on activities, whereas a visual learner could find diagrams and images more helpful in understanding new concepts.

However, Willingham challenged the validity of learning styles, citing a lack of empirical evidence to support their effectiveness or even their existence. Further studies corroborate the notion that adapting teaching methods to a student's preferred learning style does not significantly impact their academic performance.

Willingham acknowledged that while students might have stronger visual or auditory memories, this doesn't necessarily enhance learning within an educational setting. He argued that education aims to teach students the meaning behind the information, which transcends how the information is presented, whether visually, kinesthetically, or audibly. The key is for students to comprehend and internalize the meaning to learn effectively.

According to Willingham, the critical factor in learning is a student's ability to retain information, rather than the method of learning. He advocated for instructional strategies to be selected based on the nature of the content being taught, rather than catering to individual learning preferences. For instance, when studying brain structures, all students would benefit from viewing diagrams, not just those identified as visual learners. Similarly, in a language class, all students should listen to the pronunciation of words, not solely those with an auditory learning preference. If a student finds it challenging to process certain types of information, opportunities should be provided for them to practice and improve in those areas.

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