Cognitive development is the growth in our capabilities as learners. Cognitive development theory attempts to explain how humans acquire and construct knowledge of themselves and their world. The first systematic theory of cognitive development was proposed by Jean Piaget, however, there are other major theoretical approaches to cognitive development, including those of Vygotsky. Piaget approached the subject from a biological, natural, perspective, whereas Vygotsky approached the subject from an environmental, nurture, perspective. This leads to major differences in their theories regarding the way in which we learn and the importance of certain aspects such as language on cognitive development. Piaget’s theory focuses on the organization of intelligence and how it changes as children grow. Whereas Vygotsky’s theory centres around the social process and he defines intelligence as the capacity to learn from instruction.
We will also look at the impact both men’s theories have had on education and how they have been applied to education. For better or worse. We will, therefore, look at these differences along with others, as well as the similarities of Piaget’s and Vygotsky’s theories and compare and contrast them. Both Piaget and Vygotsky were influenced by the evolutionary implications of Darwin’s theory, which does account for some resemblance between them and Vygotsky’s intellectual heritage was similar to that of Piaget. There is some dispute as to whether Vygotsky’s theory is indeed a stage theory along with Piaget’s. It is thought by Butterworth & Harris (1994) that both men’s theories “share the assumption that development occurs in stages, although they differ in their main focus. Piaget’s theory is most concerned with the mechanisms of intellectual development and the acquisition of knowledge.
Whereas Vygotsky’s main contribution was to our understanding of the way in which culture influences development, through language and the social and material structure of society”. The view that Vygotsky’s theory was indeed a stage theory was shown by Cole & Cole (1993), they show Vygotsky’s theory as having six stages of cognitive development; affiliation, play, learning, peer, work and theorizing, which start at birth and continue into and throughout adulthood. Piaget believed that cognitive development consists of four main stages; sensor motor, pre-operational, concrete-operational and formal-operational, these stages finish when adulthood is reached. Piaget’s theory suggests that development has an endpoint in goal. There are two points to consider when examining these stages, firstly there is the validity of the ages put to them along with the fact that maybe not every person would indeed reach the formal operational stage. Secondly, this would suggest that we did not continue to develop through adulthood, but as human beings do we not evolve and change constantly whether it is physically or mentally? Surely cognitive development is no different; do we not learn new skills and acquire new knowledge throughout life?
I believe we do, even if it’s keeping up with technology, working the television, DVD player, we are learning continually, whether we are aware of it or not. Vygotsky, in contrast, believed that development is a process that should be analyzed, instead of a product to be obtained. Discoll (1994) and Hausfather (1996) argue ” according to Vygotsky, the development process that begins at birth and continues until death is too complex to be defined by stages”. So although Vygotsky’s theory is seen by some as a stage theory and in this respect likened to Piaget’s theory, Vygotsky himself did not. Saying this, it is true to say that there are certain aspects of development that occur at certain points in life and ages have been put to these developments.
Piaget believed that learning was a result of two processes, assimilation and accommodation. Assimilation is a process of dealing with an object or an event in a way that is consistent with an existing schema. (Schemas are what is learnt by the child and organized into a schema). When the child comes across a new object the child will, place that object into an existing schema, modify that schema, or indeed form an entirely new schema for the object, this is thought of as accommodation. Piaget believed that children were active learners always making new schemas and challenging the world around them. As a child progressed the schemas found new boundaries and the child formed new schemas. The schemas may change but the way in which the child forms the schema stays the same and as schemas become increasingly more complex, they are termed as structures and as a person’s structure become more complex, they are organized in a hierarchical manner.
Vygotsky outlined a major alternative to Piaget’s theory. Internalization and the social nature of thinking. Vygotsky believed that cognitive learning was a social event, that through language and interaction with other children and adults, children would begin to learn about and challenge their surroundings. He also believed that our interpretation of skills and objects influences children. Vygotsky proposed that social interaction deeply influences cognitive development and central to Vygotsky’s theory is his belief that biological and cultural development does not occur in isolation. The major theme of Vygotsky’s theoretical framework is that social interaction plays a fundamental role in the development of cognition, as we have already mentioned. Vygotsky (1978) states: “every function in the Child’s cultural development appears twice; first, on the social level, and later on the individual level, first between people, inner psychological, and then inside the child, intrapsychological”.
This applies equally to voluntary attention, logical memory and to the formation of concepts. All the higher functions originate as actual relationships between individuals. Rogoff (1990) stated, ” This is the reverse of how Piaget, at least initially, saw things. Piaget’s idea of `the child as the scientist` is replaced by the idea of the `child as an apprentice, who acquires the culture’s knowledge and skills through graded collaboration with those who already possess them”. Scaffolding, meaning, support from people, peer group school etc, is built upon. Scaffolding is an important aspect of Vygotsky’s views, and is also important for parents, as they play a large part in the scaffolding process. Another main area of dissimilarity between Piaget and Vygotsky concerns their views on the relationship between language and thought. Vygotsky saw a much closer link between the acquisition of language and the development of thinking, and he gave much greater prominence to the importance of social interaction in the development, especially as it influenced language and thought.
Whereas Piaget gave very little importance to language, in the development of thought. Vygotsky and Piaget had a fundamental disagreement about the relationship between language and thought. Piaget (1923) argued that early language is egocentric and only becomes socialized with cognitive development. He suggested that the pre-operational child fails to take into account the other person’s view and as a result, the early conversations of children have more of the quality of monologues than of dialogues. Only with cognitive development does speech take on a genuinely communicative function. According to Piaget’s theory, language and communication depend on the development of thinking. Vygotsky argued, on the contrary, that language is communicative from the beginning. He carried out an ingenious test of his theory. He compared the amount of `egocentric` speech when hearing pre-school children together, with the amount of speech produced when the hearing child is placed in a room with a group of deaf-mute children.
Under these circumstances, the hearing child has little chance of communicating and Vygotsky found that the rate of egocentric speech decreased significantly. This result would not be expected if the speech had been intended by the child simply as a monologue. Piaget believed that egocentric speech reflects an inability to take the perspective of others and plays no useful role in development. Whereas Vygotsky believed that egocentric speech is an important developmental phenomenon, which helps children to organize and regulate thinking. Vygotsky has a point, pre-school children believe what they are told by others, and so this must mean that they listen to other people’s views, but maybe they do not have the ability to compare different views on the same subject. For instance, in Santa clause, children are told from a young age of their existence by family and friends, if a single person challenged this belief before they are at an age where they can rationalize, they would totally dismiss this, no matter how strong the person argument was.
The theories of Piaget and Vygotsky have been very influential in the field of education. Although Piaget himself did not focus very much on the usefulness of his theory for educational practice, many people working in education have done precisely that. The Plowden Report (1967) suggested that some of Piaget’s ideas should be used in schools. There are three main ways in which Piagetian theory has been applied in education. Firstly is the concept of readiness, according to Piaget, what children can learn is determined by their current stage of cognitive development and more specifically, children can only deal successfully with tasks that make use of the various cognitive structures and operations they have already mastered. Secondly is the curriculum, Piaget put great emphasis on mathematical and logical principles, but of crucial importance is the notion that the learning material must not be too complex and far removed from the child’s existing schemas.
Finally, teaching methods, Piaget claimed that children learn best when they engage in a process of active self-discovery and discovery learning. Smith & Cowie (1991) claim “Children apply the processes of assimilation and accommodation to their active involvement with the world around them. This is central to Piagetian views of the educational process, to set intrinsically motivating tasks and provide learning opportunities that create disequilibrium. Teachers must recognize that each child needs to construct knowledge for itself and that a deeper understanding is the product of active learning”. This does seem like a `nice` idea and I am sure it would work well, but I think perhaps only with bright children, and as Piaget himself says, children need to have developed such, that they can use logical thought, so is Piaget referring to older children with this idea, or does he suggest that it is how children of any age should be taught? Is that not a contradiction by Piaget? I think so.
Vygotsky believed rather than teachers playing an enabling role, the teacher should guide the child is paying attention, concentrating and learning effectively. Vygotsky argued that teaching methods should be a didactic approach rather than by experiment and experience. Sutherland (1992) said, “by doing this, teachers scaffold children to competence”. Vygotsky believed that learning was most effective when it occurs within the ZPD, zone of proximal development, this refers to the range of tasks a child can perform with help from a skilled individual and not yet on their own, functions that have not yet been matured. Vygotsky suggested that this promoted cognitive growth because a child has to work out a problem orally and in turn, it is stored better in the memory. Vygotsky also deems collaborative learning or peer tutoring important. According to Vygotsky, it is important for those involved in educating children to focus on the Childs ZPD. It could be argued that the ideal tutors are children who are slightly older and more advanced than the child being taught.
They should also remember the limitations in their own knowledge and understanding at that age or stage of development. Peer tutoring has become increasingly used in schools, and today there is a project in Medway, which uses mentors in a few colleges and schools, the mentor passes on skills, directs students and helps them in areas of difficulty. This project has been used effectively and successfully in other areas so it gives credibility to Vygotsky’s view. Vygotsky’s theory shares a number of similarities with Piaget’s but differs radically in its treatment of language and its influence on thinking. Vygotsky agreed with Piaget’s view that children do not think like adults and applauded the fact that Piaget did not simply set out to discover what children could not do in comparison with adults, unlike most child psychologists before him, but sought to find out what they could do.
Where Piaget views young children’s play and talks as a manifestation of a natural desire to manipulate and assimilate the physical world, laying down the sensory-motor and intuitive foundations for mathematical and logical operations, Vygotsky sees it as a product of social experience and evidence for the emergence of intellectual self-control. To conclude, when you compare Piaget to Vygotsky you clearly see that; both men agree that the child must mentally construct knowledge, however, Vygotsky placed stronger emphasis on the role of social interaction in this construction process. Vygotsky also placed stronger emphasis on culture in shaping cognitive development. As a child develops, they learn to use tools for thought that are valued by their culture. Piaget believed that development precedes learning but Vygotsky believed that learning pulls development. In terms of `readiness`, Piaget believed that children’s readiness for learning is defined by their existing level of competence and knowledge.
Whereas Vygotsky argued that instruction should be directed toward the child’s potential level of development, the level of competence they can demonstrate with the assistance and guidance of others. And finally, Piaget believed that egocentric speech reflects an inability to take the perspective of others and plays no useful role in development, but Vygotsky believed that egocentric speech is an important developmental phenomenon. It helps children to organize and regulate thinking. When you look at their practical applications to education, you can see that in fact there is a place for both views in schools. Children are not all the same and learn differently, what works for one does not necessarily work for another, there are no hard and fast rules. It should be a matter of looking at the individual and finding a teaching method that works best for them. You can see Piaget’s views at work in the classroom, lots of experiments and practical lessons. As well as Vygotsky’s view that the teacher should go back to the blackboard. Surely there is a time and place for both in education, and both are of equal importance.