Jean Piaget and Lev Vygotsky are regarded as two of the most influential contributors in developmental psychology. Both theorists presented their own constructivist view on childhood development; constructivism is a theory which explains that people organize information based on their previous experiences (Powell & Kalina, 2009). However, while Piaget emphasized the importance of children learning by interacting with their environment, Vygotsky believed that children learn through their interpersonal experiences as well as their culture (Trudge & Winterhoff, 1993). The purpose of this paper is to present Piaget’s and Vygotsky’s views on childhood development and to critically evaluate the similarities and differences between the two theorists.
A major component of Piaget’s theory is that children develop over the course of four stages (Blake & Pope, 2008). Firstly, children up until age two are in the sensorimotor stage, in which their first sensory experiences are leading them to understand object permanence (objects still exist if they cannot be seen) and that actions will lead to further actions. Then, two to seven year old children are the preoperational stage, in which they are considered to be egocentric (they assume others have the same point of view as they do) and acquire understanding of conservation (quantity of a substance remains the same even if its container changes appearance). Children from ages seven to eleven then transition into the concrete operations stage, where logical reasoning has become more prominent. They understand that a person is the same person regardless of how they change over time, and that items can be classified by their physical facets and be grouped together with other items of similar features. The last phase is the formal operations stage which occurs in the age range of eleven to fifteen. Children are finally able to apply logical reasoning to the abstract world, meaning they developed complex thinking and are able to format different strategies in problem-solving situations.
Piaget’s theory described two separate processes that allow children to advance through the four stages as well as to construct mental schema: assimilation and accommodation. Schema refers to a child’s cognitive representations of ideas, objects, and other people (Lourenco, 2012). Assimilation refers to children responding to situations in a manner that is most consistent with their preexisting schema, while accommodation is a response to a situation in which children’s preexisting schema are modified or an entirely new schema has been constructed. Piaget argued that these processes are necessary for children to create accurate representations of their environment and to adapt to changes. When children are at a balance between assimilation and accommodation, they have reached a state of equilibrium, meaning they have honed their preexisting skills well enough to accomplish a given task (Trudge & Winterhoff, 1993). Once they have encountered new information that cannot be understood with their current schema, children enter a state of disequilibrium, which creates a sense of peculiarity within them.
Vygotsky proposed a sociocultural alternative to Piaget’s stages of cognitive development. His theory stated that children cognitively operated through dialogues, or engaging in social interactions to understand the symbolism within the context of their culture (Damianova & Sullivan, 2011). As children experience more activities with others, they acquire the means to solve a given dilemma. When they are faced with similar problems in the future, they utilize their past experience to construct a strategy. Cooperative dialogues are essential for young children to integrate speech which enables complex thinking capabilities. He identified three forms of speech which develop in a specific order: social, private, and internal. Children are first introduced to social speech, which are the early interactions they have with adults and it is often manifested in the form of directions (such as telling a child to brush their teeth after eating a meal). From this, children construct private speech in which they recall information given to them by adults and implement it in everyday situations (the child applies the rule of brushing teeth after eating to future meals). Finally, private speech evolves into inner speech when children have acquired the cultural context necessary to apply abstract concepts to actions (the child understands the importance of dental hygiene).
Another important aspect of Vygotsky’s theory is the zone of proximal development (ZPD), which is the gap between children’s actual developmental level and potential developmental level (what children can achieve on their own and what they can achieve with help) (Damianova & Sullivan, 2011). To encourage growth in children’s ZPD, older peers can engage in scaffolding, the act of providing hints to how to solve a problem and then allowing children to arrive at a solution without further assistance. Furthermore, in accordance to Vygotsky’s principle of the role of culture in cognitive development, he argued that children have access to symbolic tools (such as signs, symbols, and language) to enhance their communication skills. When children receive help on how to utilize tools in different situations, they internalize their usage for future actions.
The primary difference in the logical structure between the two theories is that Piaget has outlined development in four separate stages that all children undergo irrelevant of cultural background (Powell & Kalina, 2009). He has applied specific age ranges for each stage and that each stage is to be completed before children can enter the following one. In contrast, Vygotsky’s theory is relatively independent of time and suggested that children must learn through the help of others. In this case, cognitive development is heavily dependent on the child’s capabilities in social interactions and application of cultural tools to everyday situations, whereas Piaget argued that children’s knowledge is constructed individually by use of the environment.
Each theorist had constructed their own concept on the origins of intelligence. Piaget asserted that actions throughout childhood collectively determined a child’s intelligence. This implies that learning occurs after development, for children are acquiring knowledge through the interactions with their environment (Trudge & Winterhoff, 1993). On the other hand, Vygotsky believed that learning precedes development, since his theory assumes that children rely on social interactions in order to integrate cultural symbolism within their cognitive processing. Vygotsky discussed the nature of intelligence as something that requires the stimulation of others (teachers scaffolding to help children raise their actual developmental level), but Piaget had presented it as irrelevant of interpersonal communication (children conceptualizing objects into their schema in order to exhibit actions appropriately in different surroundings).
The theorists also held significantly different views on children’s language development. Piaget’s theory describes children’s private speech as egocentric behaviour, for they lack the ability to take on another person’s perspective. This form of speech is deemed as a halt in cognitive growth and must be overcome before the child can advance to the next developmental stages. In contrast, Vygotsky interpreted private speech as an attempt by children to understand what is being communicated to them by adults (Fox & Riconscente, 2008). He argued that self-oriented speech is vital to regulate one’s behaviour, whereas Piaget argued that only limited one’s thinking capacity.
The topic of children’s social relationships was uniquely conceptualized within each theory. Piaget believed that a child’s early social interactions reflected that of equal peers communicating with one another (Blake & Pope, 2008). These social relationships are defined as two individuals who are mutually respectful and cooperate while behaving mutually respectful. Although children supposedly hold an egocentric view of their environment, they view everyone as equals because of the assumption that other hold knowledge of what they have already known and seen. Vygotsky’s theory inputted different assumptions on children’s social relationships, primarily in that children are respectful to older peers without expecting this courtesy in return and that they cooperate out of obedience (Blake & Pope, 2008). Vygotsky asserted that children understand that they acquire knowledge from their social interactions, and thus they internalize the concept of receiving knowledge while simultaneously being respectful to those who offer it.
Although their key ideas differed greatly, Piaget and Vygotsky both studied childhood development with a dialectical approach (Lourenco, 2012). Their theories incorporate a variety of constant interactions between distinct, interdependent mental functions. For instance, Piaget’s theory suggests that children are constantly assimilating and accommodating environmental stimuli into their schema, which strengthens their abstract thought and in turn advances them from one developmental stage to the next. In similar fashion, Vygotsky’s theory proposes that children continuously involve themselves in cooperative dialogues and internalize cultural tools as a means to develop inner speech, allowing them to integrate actions with abstract thought.
Another similarity shared by theses theories is the non-reductionist perspective on intellect and consciousness (Lourenco, 2012). Reductionism is a formulation of understanding phenomena by reducing them to their simplest processes. Piaget and Vygotsky avoided this approach when studying childhood development because they believed that internal manifestations cannot be reduced to their simplest processes due to their interdependency and ever-changing nature. Although their theories are contradictory in the expression of intelligence, neither of them focused on external actions or behaviour to trace its origins. Piaget and Vygotsky were more concerned with transformations concerning individual decision-making and the objects involved in the action.
The theorists discussed the physical and social worlds of a child as interdependent forces, meaning that they did not treat these two realms as of experiencing separate rates of cognitive growth (Fledman & Fowler, 1997). While Piaget was not as focused on social interactions as an essential aspect of learning, he acknowledged that children cannot fully organize their mental functions without the verbal cooperation of others. As for Vygotsky, he believed that all thought processes and subsequent actions are rooted in past social experiences. Case in point, if a child were to be presented with eating utensils and a plate of food, it is more than likely that the child can make an appropriate connection between the items simply by grabbing them. However, the child is less likely to understand how to correctly hold a utensil or which utensils are designed for eating which types of food without social direction.
Piaget’s theoretical approach was heavily based on his belief that knowledge is the result of transforming objects and constructing mental schema. Accordingly, childhood development revolves around interacting with the environment to advance through a series of invariant stages. Vygotsky, however, placed more emphasis on social interactions and the integration of cultural tools as necessary factors in development. Within this context, knowledge must be obtained before cognitive growth can occur. Piaget’s and Vygotsky’s theories differed greatly when explaining the nature of children’s cognition, such as whether self-oriented speech is a manifestation of egocentrism or perhaps the first step in learning from child-peer or child-adult interactions. While the theorists essentially contradicted one another in most aspects of development, they shared many perspectives and assumptions when constructing their theories. Their theories examined higher mental functions as a network of interdependent systems which cannot be reduced to simple processes.