A comparative study of information processing capacity and cognitive style in learning disabled and normally achieving boys: a Neo-Piagetian approach

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Virginia Tech


This study investigated the relevance of a Neo-Piagetian theory of cognitive development in examining the competence/performance discrepancy associated with children who have specific learning disabilities. According to Neo-Piagetian theory (Pascual-Leone, 1970), a cognitive device called the M-operator is responsible for the integration of schemes necessary to solve developmental tasks. The M-capacity available to children increases in an all or none fashion according to a linear scale which corresponds to the Piagetian substages of cognitive development. A moderator variable which is conceptualized as the cognitive style field-independence-dependence may determine whether a child demonstrates his modal M-capacity on a task which demands the application of maximum M-space.

A matched pairs design was applied in order to compare the performance of 25 learning disabled and 25 normally achieving boys ages 8.5 to 10.0 years on measures of M-capacity, field-independence, and level of operative thinking. It was hypothesized that the learning disabled boys would demonstrate M-capacities comparable to the normally achieving boys, but would be more field dependent, thereby manifesting a discrepancy between their structural and functional M-capacities on Piagetian tasks.

Comparisons of group differences on two criterion measures of M-capacity, two measures of field independence (the Children's Embedded Figures Test and WISC-R Block Design Subtest), and seven classical Piagetian tasks which included measures of conservation, seriation, and classification abilities, yielded the following results:

  1. The learning disabled group obtained significantly lower M-space estimates than the normally achieving group;
  2. The learning disabled group obtained significantly lower scores on the instruments used to assess level of field independence;
  3. The learning disabled group failed more Piagetian tasks than the normally achieving group, therefore manifesting a delay in operative thinking.
  4. The relationships between the two measures of M-space and the two measures of field-independence were markedly different for the two samples. The results indicated a lack of independence between M-capacity and a field dependent cognitive style in the LD group; no comparable relationship was found within the NA group.

Further research applying Neo-Piagetian theory in order to investigate the inefficient processing strategies used by children with learning disabilities appears warranted. Testing interventions which restructure cognitive tasks by reducing memory load demands and/or allow LD children to develop and apply efficient task strategies is needed.