In this essay I will be outlining the main differences and similarities between Piaget’s and Vygotsky’s explanation of cognitive development in children. Cognition is the study of the thought process or mental activity by which us individuals acquire and deal with knowledge. The study of the human cognition is a vast field and there are wide varieties of topics. The two most influential theories of cognitive development are from Jean Piaget and Lev Vygotsky. Each of their theory has key aspects of cognitive development across childhood.
Firstly, according to Siegler (1998), Piaget’s theory of cognitive development is considered the most important to emerge from the study of human development, and the most controversial theory as well, according to Beilin (1992). Piaget’s observations of children provide a remarkable inside for what cognitive development is supposed to be like (Siegler, 1998). He provided answers to questions regarding intelligence and how one develops their knowledge.
He believed that children develop in reaction to their environment, and the rewards and punishments it provides, Piaget argued that children actively explore their worlds, and their thoughts are ultimately derived from the actions of the world. Children according to him construct their reality as they manipulate and explore their world, cognitive structures which Piaget termed schemes. A scheme is an interrelated set of memories, thoughts, or strategies which are employed to predict and understand the environment. He believed that as children grow, they develop and refine their schemes.
Central to Piaget’s theory are two biological concept, adaption and organization. Organization refers to an individual’s tendency to organize their cognitive structures or schemes into efficient systems (Lutz and Sternberg, 1999). Organization can take place independent of any interaction with the environment. He believes that children naturally begin to link schemes together, creating more organized and interrelated cognitive system. For example, infants eventually begin to link together schemes developed for reaching, grasping and sucking objects, combining these into more complex structures that can be generalized to other situations and thus further their ability to negotiate the environment. Initially they can’t combine these actions, but through the process of organization they become able to do so. This brings us to the concept of adaption. Adaption involves the creation of cognitive structure or schemes through our interactions with the environment. Adaption is achieved through assimilation or accommodation (Piaget, 1952). Assimilation is the process of integrating the environment into ones current psychological structures (Lutz and Sternberg, 1999). When the child assimilates something, they mould it to fit in with their existing structures. Accommodation is the opposite process, it occurs when old schemes are adjusted to fit better fit with the demands of the environment. For example, the infant sees an object lying on the floor; they can assimilate into her experience, applying her grasping scheme. The infant then encounters another object, a smaller one this time such as a plastic token, they are then forced to accommodate to the object, altering their grasp in order to be able to pick up the token. According to Piaget (1952) there are times when we are able to assimilate most new experiences, other times we are forced to accommodate and adapt our structures to the environment and that’s when we enter into a state called cognitive disequilibrium, also known as, cognitive conflict. Both Piaget and Vygotsky believe that development started off with cognitive conflict. The process of equilibration, continual balance, leads to the development of more efficient cognitive structures (Lutz and Sternberg, 1999).
Similarly Vygotsky developed his own theory of cognitive development in children. However, he made an emphasis on the cultural context in which human development occurs. Like Piaget, Vygotsky was strongly committed to the idea that children were active explorers of their world who tested their ideas against reality, seeking to expand their knowledge. It is said that Vygotsky compares a child to ‘an apprentice’, whereas Piaget compares them to ‘a scientist’. However, unlike Piaget, who viewed children essentially as solitary figures involved in the construction of knowledge, Vygotsky believed that the child’s social environment was an active force in their development, working to mould children’s growing knowledge in ways that were adaptive to the wider culture in which they grow up. Vygotsky’s perspective on child development is referred to as the socio-cultural view because of his emphasis on the child’s culture and the social environment as forces which shape development. Vygotsky was a strong advocate for the developmental method, unlike Piaget, who concentrated on the origins of mental processes and the transformations which they have to undergo. Vygotsky was obstinate in his belief that an individual’s cognitive development was largely a social process, and not an individualistic construction as Piaget believed.
Also unlike Piaget, Vygotsky focused on interactions with parents, siblings, peers, and the wider culture, who were more highly skilled than the child. And he believed that through the interaction with the child and through the instruction and assistance they provided, the child’s cognitive development would be promoted. He believed that learning begins as an inter-personal activity. Whereby, gradually the learner is able to perform independently. Also his theory included the scaffolding learning, where the support is provided by teacher on specific task. It allows the learner to perform at a higher level. At any given point in the learning process, there is a difference between the level achieved when assisted and when alone, also known as the Zone of Proximal Development (ZPD). The scaffolding learning of Vygotsky’s method is still being used in this century because all over primary schools, children are still being assisted; however when they progress unto a stage where they feel comfortable in their ability, the teacher or individual with higher knowledge gradually withdraws support according to process. He also believed that children acquire tools invented by society to support thinking in children, also known as the cultural tools, for example calculators, books and computers.
Similarly to Piaget, Vygotsky believed that children’s egocentric speech was a part of their cognitive development. However, the two have different perspectives on how they viewed the purpose of egocentric speech. Piaget’s Egocentric speech suggests that the child’s self centred and unable to consider the point of view of others. Whereas, Vygotsky’s Egocentric speech is seen as a transition between the children’s learning language in a social communicative context and attempting to internalize it as a private inner thought. Alongside that Piaget developed stages of child development through clinical methods because he felt development precedes learning. The stages of cognitive development are, the sensori-motor period (0-2 years) where children achieve represential thought, the pre-operational period (2-7 years) children’s reasoning is often illogical, after is the concrete operational period (7-11 years), children are able to reason about current, concrete situations, lastly the formal operations stage (11-15) where children can reason about hypothetical situations. Piaget believed that the pre-operational stage is a time during early childhood when children start to reason, build concepts, and lay the foundation for concrete operations. “Operations are initialized sets of actions that allow the child to do mentally what was done physically before.” (Santrock, 2003). Piaget believed that illogical reasoning was due to: Animism, lack of reversibility, Egocentrism and Centration. Unlike Piaget, Vygotsky paid little attention to the role of the individual. He did not focus on the stages of development or the ages at which these might occur. However, like Piaget he did see the child as an active participant in learning rather than a passive recipient of information from other people.
Both these theories share ideas about how a child starts to develop their cognitive skills. But they both understand it differently. The nature of Piaget’s investigations contrasts with the cultural-historical approach of Vygotsky’s research. Piaget is more concerned with the development of universal processes for the validation of knowledge, and Vygotsky is more focused on psycho-socio-historical genesis and its interpretations.
Although these psychologists have received a lot of critics about which aspect of development they put more emphasis in, they have still contributed to our understanding of child cognitive development. It is only through their research and theory that others are able to progress onto finding out further details about how a child’s mentality develops. Vygotsky and Piaget are often presented as opposites. However, a careful read of their theories reveals that they are not as dissimilar as they are presented to be (DeVries; Matusov & Hayes, 2000).