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Comparison of Piaget and Vygotsky on Children Cognition

Cognition is the process involved in thinking and mental activity, such as attention, memory, and problem-solving. In this essay on cognitive development, I will compare and contrast the theories of Piaget and Vygotsky, who were both influential in forming a more scientific approach to analyzing the cognitive development process of the child’s active construction of knowledge. (Flanagan 1996 P.72). I will then go onto evaluate the usefulness of these theories in understanding a child’s development. Both Piaget and Vygotsky agreed that children’s cognitive development took place in stages. (Jarvis, Chandler 2001 P.149). However, they were distinguished by different styles of thinking. Piaget was the first t reveal that children reason and think differently at different periods in their lives. He believed that all children progress through four different and very distinct stages of cognitive development.

This theory is known as Piaget’s Stage Theory because it deals with four stages of development, which are sensorimotor, preoperational, concrete operational, and formal operational. (Ginsburg, Opper 1979 P. 26). In the first stage sensorimotor, which occurs from birth to the age of two is the time in an infant’s life when the child basically deals with what is presented to him. They learn about physical objects and are concerned with motor skills and the consequences of some of their actions. (Thomson, Meggit 1997 P.107). During this stage, children will learn the concept of object permanence. This is where an object will continue to exist even if it is out of sight. (Ginsburg, Opper 1979 P.48) The preoperational stage lasts from two to seven years. In this stage, it becomes possible to carry on a conversation with a child and they also learn to count and use the concept of numbers. This stage is divided into the preoperational phase and the intuitive phase.

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Children in the preoperational phase are preoccupied with verbal skills and try to make sense of the world but have a much less sophisticated mode of thought than adults. In the intuitive phase, the child moves away from drawing conclusions based upon concrete experiences with objects. One problem, which identifies children in this stage, is the inability to cognitively conserve relevant spatial information. This is when, when a material is manipulated and no longer matches the cognitive image that a child has made, that child believes the amount of material has been altered instead of just its shape. (Jarvis, Chandler 2001 P.135) During the Concrete Operational stage from ages seven to ten, children of this age are in school and they begin to deal with abstract concepts such as numbers, relationships, and how to reason. They can now group certain things into categories, and put objects into size order, number order, and any other types of systematic ordering. There is a form of logical reasoning and thinking.

Using logic, the child is capable of reversibility and conservation, which is the understanding that mental operations and physical operations, can be reversed. They are now beginning to understand other people’s perspectives and views and are capable of concentrating on more than one thing at a time. In this stage, a person can do mental operations but only with real concrete objects, events, or situations. (Jarvis, Chandler 2001 P.139). Finally, in the formal operational stage, age twelve to fifteen, the child has become more adult-like in their thought structures and processes. They begin to reason logically, systematically, and hypothetically. (Jarvis, Chandler 2001 P.139). They understand meanings without the need for physical objects or images. In other words, they can imagine things that do not exist or that they have never experienced. This stage is generally like the preceding stage but at a more advanced level. The formal operational person is capable of metacognition, that is, thinking about thinking.

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Piaget also theorized on Adaptation and Development. The adaptation theory (also known as the Constructivist theory) involved three fundamental processes, which contributed to the child’s cognitive development. These are assimilation, accommodation, and equilibrium. Assimilation involved the incorporation of new events into pre-existing cognitive structures. Accommodation is the adjustment involved in the formation of new mental structures needed to accommodate new information. Equilibration involved the person striking a balance between himself and the environment, between assimilation and accommodation. When a child experienced a new event, disequilibrium set in until he was able to assimilate and accommodate the new information and thus attain equilibrium. There were many different types of equilibrium between assimilation and accommodation, which varied with the levels of development and the problems, which needed to be solved. (Thomson, Meggit 1997 P.105)

This dual process, assimilation-accommodation, enabled the child to form schema, and with each stage there came new methods for organizing knowledge together with the acquisition of new schema. Schemas are “ Form action plans which guide us in understanding what is going on around us” (Hayes b. P.15) These are similar to responses but imply more cognitive processes. A schema includes ideas, information, actions, and plans. People can learn by adopting new schemes or combine smaller already present schemes to create new larger ones. (Hayes a. 1999 P.98) In contrast to Piaget, Vygotsky, a Russian psychologist, and philosopher in the 1930s is most often associated with the social constructivist theory and came into three general claims; Culture – which is that higher mental functioning in the individual emerged out of social processes. Secondly Language – which human social and psychological processes are fundamentally shaped by cultural tools. Lastly, the developmental method Zone of Proximal Development (ZPD) which is the concept that the potential of the child is limited to a specific time span. (Jarvis, Chandler 2001 P.149-150).

Vygotsky believed that it was adults and the Childs peers, which had the responsibility in sharing their greater collective knowledge with the younger generations. (Jarvis, Chandler 2001 P.149-150). This type of learning supports a discovery model of learning and places the teacher in an active role while the students’ mental abilities develop naturally through various paths of discovery. Vygotsky argued that through social activities children learned cultural ‘tools’ and social inventions. These include language, rules, counting systems, writing, art, and music. Language for Vygotsky was a system of symbolic representation, which had been perfected over many previous generations and allowed the child to “abstract” the world. It provides the symbols for the child’s equations concerning the world;
Language came into three separate categories, which were Social, Egocentric, and Inner. For Vygotsky language was what made thinking even a possibility. Language is the difference between thinking on an elementary level and on a higher level.

According to Vygotsky’s theory, ‘ZPD’ had to do with a child’s current and potential abilities to do something. (Flanagan 1999 P.72). He believed that problem-solving tasks could be placed into three categories, which were as follows: (a) those performed independently by the student “independent performance” (b) those that could not be performed even with help; and (c) those that fall between the two, the tasks that can be performed with help from others “assisted performance.” (www. teachers info site). Vygotsky believed the concept of ‘ZPD’ recommended a better move towards education and allowed a better understanding of the learning process. (Flanagan 1999 P.73) Bruner built on Vygotsky’s idea of the ZPD, by introducing what he described as scaffolding. Scaffolding is the help, which is given to a child that supports the child’s learning. Scaffolding is similar to scaffolding around a building; it can be taken away after the need for it has ended. When a child is shown how to do something he can now accomplish this task on his own. (Jarvis, Chandler 2001 P.154).

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Vygotsky believed that the history of the child and the history of the child’s culture needed to be understood because it overrides the cognitive schema process that Piaget described. (www.Teachers info site). Piaget believed that the sequence of how children experience the stages was universal, but acknowledged the rate at which each child moved through these stages was flexible and relative upon factors such as maturity, social influences, and other factors. Because of the difference in the skills needed for each level, Piaget believed that children should not be forced into learning 4 the knowledge of the next stage until the child was cognitively ready. (Flanagan 1999 P.57) However, Vygotsky believed that instruction came before development and that instruction leads the learner into ZPD. Piaget and Vygotsky had many contrasting views which included Piaget believing that cognitive changes precede linguistic advances, unlike Vygotsky who proposed that language allowed the child a far greater freedom of thought and lead to further cognitive development. (Flanagan 1999 P.59)

Piaget believed in the development of thinking and that language moved from the individual to social. (Ginsburg, Opper 1979 P.84). However, Vygotsky believed that language moved from the social to the individual. (Jarvis, Chandler 2001 P.150). For Vygotsky speech moved from social speech (communicative) to inner egocentric speech. (Jarvis, Chandler 2001 P.150) He believed that children began by voicing a personal dialogue and then moved to social speech. He argued that it became internalized as an adult. In contrast, Piaget claimed that egocentric Speech was simply an accompaniment to a child’s actions (Ginsburg, Opper 1979 P.84) and that egocentric speech went away with maturity. However, even though they both had different opinions on the purpose of egocentric speech both agreed on the importance that it played in cognitive development.

Vygotsky, like Piaget, believed the relationship between the individual and the society as being a necessary relational. However, Vygotsky believed that it was adults and the Childs peers, which had the responsibility in sharing their greater collective knowledge with the younger generations. He did not believe it was possible for a child to learn and to grow individually and the culture and the environment around the child played a big part in their Cognitive Development. (Flanagan 2001 P.72). He also believed a child was unable to develop the way he or she had without learning from others in the environment in which they were raised. In contrast, Piaget maintained that children were naturally inquisitive about their own abilities and about their environment (Jarvis, Chandler 2001 P.129) and that children advanced their knowledge because of biologically regulated cognitive changes. (Flanagan 2001 P.57).

Whereas, Piaget believed that a child was only possible of learning the processes in each stage at any time (Flanagan 1999 P.60) and overlooked the role of the child’s activity with relation to thought processes. For Piaget, children construct knowledge through their actions on the world. By contrast, Vygotsky’s stages, unlike Piaget’s, were that of a smooth and gradual process. That understanding is social in origin. For Vygotsky, the cultural and social aspects took on special importance which is much less symmetrical than Piaget’s theories. In summary, Vygotsky was critical of Piaget’s assumption that developmental growth was independent of experience and based on a universal characteristic of stages. Vygotsky believed that characteristics did not cease at a certain point as Piaget did. When one thing was learned, it was used from then on. It did not stop just because a child entered another stage of development. Everything was progressive. Vygotsky also disagreed with Piaget’s assumption that development could not be impeded or accelerated through instruction. (Flanagan 1999 P.57)

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Vygotsky believed that intellectual development was continually evolving without an endpoint and not completed in stages as Piaget theorized. Piaget’s stages only approach up to and end with, approximately age fifteen. This theory does not seem to have any major factors after approximately age fifteen. There are factors that can disrupt the Stage theory or the Constructivist theory. A child with autism, brain dysfunction, or special needs would not be capable of going through all of Piaget’s development stages as a number of studies have shown (Jarvis, Chandler 2001 P.137). Not all adults in all cultures reach the formal operational stage of development and are none the less able to live a fulfilling life without doing so. Due to experiences Piaget had over the years, he changed the way he thought and modified his techniques of research to include a greater emphasis on the role of the child’s activity. Vygotsky although critical of Piaget, realized the importance of the information that Piaget had gathered and in spite of his criticisms, Vygotsky built his educational theories on the strengths of Piaget’s theories. After evaluating Piaget’s and Vygotsky’s theories on cognitive development I believe they’re still more which we can continue to learn and build on with both Piaget’s and Vygotsky’s ideas and theories, especially when applied in education.


  • Flannagan, C. (1999). Applying Child Psychology to Early Child Development. Cheltenham: Nelson Thornes Limited
  • Ginsbury, H. Opper, S. (1979). Piaget‘s Theory of Intellectual Development. Englewood Cliffs: Prentice Hall, Inc.
  • Hayes, N. (1999). a Access to Psychology. 5th ed. London: Hodder & Stoughton Educational.
  • Hayes, N. (1991).b Psychology. London: British Psychological Society.
  • Jarvis, M. Chandler, E (2001). Angles on Psychology. Cheltenham: Nelson Thornes Limited
  • Thomson, H. Meggit, C. (1997). Human Growth and Development. Abingdon: Bookpoint Limited
  • Sources of Reference Accessed 10/12/01
  • http://www.teachers/piaget.html Accessed 10/12/01 [/i:588219734c]

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