Goldstein (2012) acknowledged that in understanding how humans learn has been a significant challenge in history. Even after years of studying human development, researchers have proposed theories that both support and contradict one another. As the social order, people, and the world change, new understandings into learning surfaces and contest the pre-existing schools of thought.
Lourenço (2012) declared that Piaget and Vygotsky are two influential developmental psychologists. One can even say that their contributions to developmental psychology, albeit different, are similarly remarkable and unique.
This essay will examine the strengths and weaknesses of Piaget and Vygotsky’s theories of cognitive development followed by a discussion on the differences and similarities of Piaget’s and Vygotsky’s theories in the field of cognitive development. Lastly, it will reflect on how these theories have played out in my life, using various examples to demonstrate these elements .
Concepts and definitions on Cognitive Development Theory
This paper will define and clarify various concepts and definitions on the topic of this assignment. Cognitive development is defined as development of the ability to think and reason (University of Chicago, 2018). According to Hilgard (1987) cognition comprises all mental activity or states involved in knowing and the mind’s functioning and include perception, attention, memory, imagery, language functions, development processes, problem solving and the area of artificial intelligence. Joubish and Khurram (2015) acknowledged that development as a term implies qualitative change and it is applied to those innate potentialities that change and grow under the influence of the environment.
De Vos et al., (2011) defined a theory as stated by Baker (2003) as a set of interrelated hypotheses, concepts, constructs, definitions and schemes that present a systematic view of phenomena based on facts and observations, with the purpose of explaining and predicting phenomena.
Piaget and Vygotsky were regarded as constructivists. Constructivism is an approach to teaching and learning based on the principle that cognition is the result of “mental construction”. In other words, students learn by putting new information together with what they already know. Constructivists believe that learning is affected by the context in which an idea is taught as well as by students’ beliefs and attitudes (Poonam, 2017).
Introduction to Piaget
Huitt and Lutz (2004) introduced Jean Piaget as a Swiss biologist, philosopher, and behavioural scientist who developed one of the most significant theories in cognitive psychology. His stage theory gained wide acceptance in the 1960s and 1970s because of the translations of his work into English and its promotion by influential American psychologists (e.g., Flavell, 1963).
Strengths of Piaget’s theory
One must admit there is no doubt that there are several strong points to Piaget’s theory. One of the powerful points of his theory is that it has a fundamental impact on developmental psychology. He established new methods, approaches, concepts that deeply affected studies of mental development of children. For example, Piaget tried to grasp intellectual development of children by asking them open-ended questions (Smith et al., 2003). More notably, Piaget became the leading influence in the field of intellectual growth. Miller (2011) affirmed that several people were stimulated by Piaget’s ideas of development of children and hundreds of cognitive studies were written for or against his theory, for example, in the USA, 33% of studies were quoted from Piaget’s theory.
The second strong point of his theory is that Piaget’s ideas contributed to understand intellectual development of children. Walsh (2013) indicated that Piaget described cognitive growth of children more clearly, for example, he explained both biological factors and environmental factors in the growth of cognition. This brought a “child-centred learning method” to the world of education, and he believed that children’s learning is based on action rather than their observations.
Weakness of Piaget’s Theory
Lourenco and Machado (1996) highlighted that there are several shortcomings in Piaget’s cognitive theory. Underestimation of children’s cognitive skills is generally regarded as one of the greatest weaknesses. Piaget stated that children do not have any skills, when they are born, and they obtain intellectual skills through interactions with their surroundings. Bower (1982), as cited by in Smith et al., (2003) suggests children learn some skills at an earlier age than Piaget’s assumption. Piaget received a great deal of criticism, in that his theory of psychological development neglects the social nature of human development (Matusov and ; Hayes, 2000).
Secondly, Piaget did not use a scientific process to carry out his work as his study was based on his observations (Lourenco and ; Machado, 1996). Piaget tried to determine universal aspects of intellectual growth of children by analysing his own children’s behaviours (Miller, 2011). Piaget’s study had a shortage of control groups, lacked examples, and insufficient analytical data (Miller, 2011). Cherry (2013) argues that Piaget used few participants to test his study and he selected children from an upper- class society. Hence, his theory is not a reflection of all children from different cultures (Cherry, 2013).
Lourenco and Machado (1996) identified a third weak point that Piaget described with sharp lines in each developmental period of children. Miller (2011) stated that when Piaget defined the level of intellectual growth with specific age, he did not consider the children’s culture and social environment. It is important to acknowledge that environmental factors can affect the cognitive development of children (Cherry, 2013). The example of the “three mountains” given by Piaget about egocentrism of children was criticised by various researchers because the three-mountain task was complex and very difficult (Smith et al., 2003). A study carried out by Wimmer and Perner (1983,) as cited by Smith et al., (2003) showed that children have less egocentrism than Piaget thought.
Introduction to Vygotsky
Vygotsky is one of the major and most influential authors in psychology and pedagogy in recent history. Regardless of his short life (1896-1934), his ideas have been solidified, remained relevant, and is are still thriving. Plenty of papers, book chapters, and books analysing, discussing, and advancing his ideas (Bybee, 2015; Saxe, 2015) continue to be published worldwide. Even though Vygotsky’s interpretation of human cognition was proposed almost one century ago (Vygotsky, 1929, 1934/1968, 1934/2012; Vygotsky ; Wollock, 1997), new scientific and technological advances have significantly supported many of his concepts and hypotheses. His cultural-historical theory of psychological advances, and his contributions to educational psychology, have continued to grow without interruption (Ardila, 2016).
Strengths of Vygotsky’s theory
McLeod (2007) stated that contrary to Piaget’s claim that learning is a biological drive, Vygotsky advocated for a sociocultural approach, believing that increased cognition was gained through social interactions that create meaning. Vygotsky argued that learning precedes development, and dialogue is integral in the child’s ability to make meaning of the unknown. Once a child has engaged in learning
and meaning has been devoted to this learning, he or she can dig into more complex conceptual understanding. Children learn the cultural meaning that is embedded in the new information through interactions with society.
This contrasts Piaget’s theory of biologically based discovery and his creation of universal stages of cognitive development. Vygotsky asserted that learning originates through elementary mental functions such as attention, sensation, perception, and memory, and then through “social interactions with a skilful tutor” transitions to higher mental functions. This opposes Piaget’s linear and unidirectional stages of cognitive development, which claimed development progressed from concrete and egocentric understandings to abstract and symbolic. Vygotsky’s theory is bi-directional, because it depends on the interactions between the learner and the more knowledgeable other (McLeod, 2007).
Although Vygotsky did not formalize stages of development in his theory, from his emphasis on language, one could gather development occurs. As a child’s language skills become increasingly complex, his/her interactions with a more knowledgeable other also increase in complexity. This in turn, leads to a higher level of abstract thinking. Furthermore, Vygotsky’s differentiation between external language as a primary vehicle for initiating interactions with one’s community and the development of an ‘inner voice’ suggest that growth takes place during cognitive development (Culatta, 2012).
In contrast to Piaget’s focus on the integration of old schema with new schema in the process of learning, Vygotsky formulated that learning takes place in a Zone of Proximal Development (ZPD) where the learner’s interaction with the more knowledgeable other facilitates his/her ability to gain higher cognitive skills. Vygotsky argues that children must have social interaction and dialogue in order transition from the ZPD to being able to act or know independently (Culatta, 2012). Khalaf (2013) stated that the strength of this theory is that it works well for literacy, since most of the research has been on language and literacy acquisition.
Weakness of Vygotsky’s Theory
Rogers (2007) argues that many contemporary criticisms of Vygotsky says more about current fashions in educational research than about the limitations of his ideas. Vygotsky’s idea of socially-based learning in the form of creative social play for younger children, learning in groups with social interaction for older students, did not take technology into account (Khalaf, 2013). According to Van der Veer and van IJzendoorn (1985), several Soviet psychologists criticise Vygotsky for having separated too sharply the lower and higher psychological processes. Van der Veer and van IJzendoorn (1985) described the findings of Brushlinsky (1967) in a study that Vygotsky is guilty of constructing a dualism. For example, depicting the lower processes as quite passive and biological in nature, and stressing the verbal (speech) character of the higher psychological processes.
Vygotsky emphasised the role of speech. His followers emphasised the role of activity, which they consider to be a form of labour. In doing so, they avoid the ‘idealism’ for which Vygotsky was criticised in the 1930’s. Consequently Salvin (2013) indicated that Vygotsky’s theory was not specific enough about age-related changes during childhood and that there are potential pitfalls in teamwork and guidance.
Differences and similarities between Piaget and Vygotsky’s Theory
Both Piaget and Vygotsky wanted a greater understanding of cognitive development, but their research produced significantly different beliefs (Huitt ; Hummel, 2003; Boeree, C.G, 2006). Piaget believed that intelligence came from action. He held that children learn through interaction with their environments and that learning takes place after development. On the other hand, Slavin (2003) indicated that Vygotsky felt that learning happens before development can occur and that children learn because of history and symbolism. Vygotsky also believed that children value input from their environments and others. Piaget did not place importance on the input of others.
Goldstein (2012) indicated that Piaget’s theory of cognitive development involves four phases. The first is referred to as the sensorimotor stage. This stage occurs between birth and two years of age. During the sensorimotor stage children at first rely solely on the reflexes that they were born with (for example sucking and rooting). Intelligence manifests itself through motor activities, for example children learn to crawl and walk during this stage.
The second section of Piaget’s theory is called the preoperational stage. This takes place between the ages of two and seven. Throughout this stage children are egocentric. In other words, they believe that everyone thinks exactly as they do. Children begin to use symbolism in relation to their world. Their use of oral language, memory, and imagination blossoms during this time (DeVries, 2000).
The concrete operational stage is Piaget’s third stage of cognitive development. Between the ages of seven and eleven children experience a dramatic change in the way they think. Thinking becomes more logical and less egocentric (Slavin, 2003).
The last step in the cognitive development theory of Piaget is identified as the formal operational stage. It has been ascertained that only about 35% of people ever achieve formal operational thought (Huitt & Hummel, 2003). This stage provides those who achieve it with the ability to master abstract thought and use symbols in relation, for example mathematics.
Vygotsky supposed that there are no set stages at all. The first aspect of Vygotsky’s theory is stated as private speech. Vygotsky found private speech (or talking to oneself) to be important because it helped children in thinking through an issue and coming to a solution or conclusion. Private speech is ultimately internalized, but it never totally goes away.
Vygotsky’s idea of a zone of proximal development (ZPD) is the second aspect of his cognitive theory. A ZPD is the level of development immediately above a person’s present level (Slavin, 2003). Vygotsky felt it was important to work within the zone of proximal development to achieve maximum learning. At this point, Piaget might disagree with Vygotsky because, for Piaget, partaking in an activity for which child is not ready with a more informed partner leads mainly to imposing the partner’s views and will not affect the structures of child’s actions (Matusov and Hayes, 2000).
Scaffolding is the final piece of Vygotsky’s cognitive development theory. According to Slavin (2003) scaffolding involves encouragement and assistance in the form of advice and suggestions to aid a child in mastering a new concept.
Matusov and Hayes (2000) stated that Piaget and Vygotsky saw the social character as a necessary aspect of human development. Regardless of the differences between Piaget and Vygotsky there are similarities in their description of significance as a developmental process to the mind (Lenninger, 2006).
Reflection on how the Piaget and Vygotsky’s theory impacted my life
A recent reflection on Piaget’s theory was when my 2-year-old son, Zion saw a zebra for the first time, calling it a horse. Zion assimilates this information into his schema for a horse. When Zion accommodates this information, he takes into consideration the different properties of a zebra compared to a horse, perhaps calling a zebra a horse with stripes. When he eventually learns the name ‘zebra’, he is accommodating this information.
As a student I use multimedia and the internet to reach my potential within each zone of proximal development as illustrated by Vygotsky. This is an important medium, since it is technology that holds the key to future career success for many students. It is evident that multimedia and technology applications have an increasing place in the teaching space by means of active group discussions, lectures and webinars. These methods of teaching have naturally changed, not just the goals for each zone of proximal development, but the structure of the lectures itself. The learning environment therefore becomes more interactive, meaningful and productive.
While differences between Piaget’s and Vygotsky’s developmental theories do exist, similarities were highlighted. These similarities offer exciting possibilities for collaborative research and expansion of the behavioural methodology and theory in developmental psychology. While this paper critiques the theories of Piaget and Vygotsky, one can appreciate the contribution to education they have both made. Piaget and Vygotsky offer some incredible insight into the possible ways children learn and by using these theories it is possible to create a more conducive learning environment for each child (Goldstein, 2012).
I conclude by referring to DeVries (2000) who cited Hatano (1993), one can become a Vygotskian without giving up being a constructivist, and one can become a Piagetian without giving up the role of the individual in the constructive process.