Piaget Versus Vygotsky

W. T. LeGard (2004) The Open University

Jean Piaget (1896-1980) and Lev Vygotsky (1896-1934) proposed the classical constructivist theories of cognitive development. Although often compared, the concepts differ significantly. Indeed, the purpose of this essay is to argue that Piagetian theory marginalizes the social contribution to intellectual development and that, consequently, the Vygotskian approach offers a more accurate and comprehensive analysis. This paper will begin with an explanation of the theories of cognitive development propounded by Piaget and Vygotsky followed by a definition of constructivist and social constructivist theory. The superiority of Vygotsky’s theory will be established via a critical examination of Piaget’s stages of intellectual development, his perspective on language acquisition, and the methodology of his classic tests. Piaget maintained that cognitive development is a continuous progression of assimilation and accommodation and that these complementary processes lead to adaptation. Knowledge is constructed progressively via a sequence of behaviours or mental operations, what Piaget termed schemas. Piaget proposed that children develop mental representations of the world based on physical or mental actions, which they execute on the environment. These initially reflex behaviours are repeated while intrinsic motivation encourages the child to apply schemas to different situations. Assimilation occurs when the new experience is incorporated into an existing schema. The existing schema then adjusts itself to correspond with evidence from the environment. Piaget called this accommodation. Finally, the schema adapts to the objects and circumstances, and is replaced with a constructed schema, producing adaptation. The child then achieves a state of (temporary) equilibrium (Smith et al., 1998). Piaget (1990) described four stages of intellectual development: the sensori-motor, the pre-operational, the concrete operational, and the formal operational stage. Thus, knowledge is constructed sequentially and the child – regardless of social background − must pass through each stage of cognitive development in succession. These stages dictate the child’s cognitive ability. Children at the pre-operational stage, for example, are said to be unable to conserve. They fail to recognize that a quantity will remain unchanged if it is presented differently. Moreover, Piaget claimed that young children’s egocentrism prevents the realization that other people possess a different mental perspective. This egocentrism can be observed in young children’s use of language. The pre-operational child is unable to decentre and therefore participates in egocentric speech. For Piaget, language assists the development of concepts. However, it is insufficient to create the ‘mental operations which make the formation of concepts possible’ (Lovell, 1969, p.106).

Vygotsky agreed with Piaget regarding the constructive nature of intellectual development. However, for Vygotsky, cognitive development occurs within a social context. Rather than construct methods of cognition as an individual, the child appropriates ways of thinking through social interaction. A society is produced through the construction and use of cultural tools, e.g. language. These tools are acquired during a culture’s development and forwarded to subsequent generations. As a culture develops, new generations may adapt a cultural tool. This is known as appropriation. Vygotsky perceived the child as a social being who is able to appropriate new patterns of thinking when learning alongside a more competent individual. He called this concept, the Zone of Proximal Development. This is the expanse between the child’s level of development and their potential development level, in collaboration with more competent individuals. Social interaction, therefore, supports the child’s cognitive development in the ZPD, leading to a higher level of reasoning. Vygotsky stated that language has two functions. Inner speech is used for mental reasoning and external speech is used to converse with others. These operations occur separately. Indeed, before the age of two, a child employs words socially; they possess no internal language. Once thought and language merge, however, the social language is internalized and assists the child with their reasoning. Thus, the social environment is ingrained within the child’s learning. Constructivist theory, then, proposes an exploratory approach to learning, focusing on the individual learner and their comprehension in relation to stages of cognitive development. The teacher is not a distributor of knowledge but a facilitator who provides an appropriate learning environment and encourages the child to formulate ideas, discover concepts and think independently. Social constructivism maintains that knowledge is constructed by an understanding of social and cultural encounters and by the collaborative nature of learning. Social constructivist theory emphasizes the significance of adult tuition with the teacher occupying an active role. Piagetian theory does not advocate that children perform tasks that are beyond their cognitive capabilities. The teacher merely prepares the environment for the child’s developmental level of mental or motor operations. Thus, the child is limited by their developmental stage. The ZPD, however, challenges the child to work beyond their potential. It may be argued that Vygotsky’s developmental concept is flawed and, indeed, the ZPD does have its critics. Foot et al. (1990) suggest that children working collaboratively with their peers are unproductive and remain off task for long periods. Certainly, the point is a valid one. That said, theirs is not a completely convincing argument. Vygotsky cannot be held responsible for the misapplication of his theory. Indeed, employment of the ZPD stimulates developmental processes only when the child interacts with the environment and collaborates with their peers. It is the responsibility of the teacher to ensure this occurs. Piaget, in accordance with Vygotsky, proposed that interaction with peers assists cognitive development. Such interaction – which requires the ability to decentre − allows the child to experience cognitive conflict, which may compel them to reevaluate their individual knowledge. Although this type of setting brings together children at different developmental levels, cognitive conflict cannot be guaranteed,


nor, claims Piaget, can pre-operational children achieve it. Further, the developmental gains are not as significant as those that are attained through the ZPD because the disputes merely relate to opinion rather than to a specific cognitive task. For Piaget, the initial acquisition of speech is unrelated to cognitive development; it is simply an indication of intellectual progress. As the child ages, egocentric speech begins to fade away. Piaget considered this evidence that the child was simply becoming less egocentric (Oates, et al., 2005). This self-communication, however, can be regarded as social-language imitation, not merely an indication of the child’s egocentricity. Vygotsky did not regard young children’s speech as egocentric. Rather, he perceived private speech as social and communicative. It is, he suggested, the beginning of the internalization of external social speech. This communication with the self initiates inner speech and social dialogue. Inner speech is used to guide the child’s actions. Certainly, children and adults are known to partake in private speech when experiencing difficulties. Indeed, re-evaluating Piaget’s egocentric speech, Vygotsky established that language is fundamental in shaping thought and is an instrument of contemplation in ‘planning the solution of a problem’ (1986, p.87). Following various developmental tasks, including the ‘Three Mountains’ experiment, Piaget claimed that the pre-operational child was unable to decentre. Indeed, this conclusion is supported by Sheehy’s reproduction of the classic experiment. Mountain ranges, however, are not culturally significant to most children. Certainly, such a task ignores the social background of the participants, and this supports Donaldson’s (1982) assertion that the test is an unusual activity for young children who are unlikely to have much familiarity with model mountains. Borke (1975) replaced Piaget’s mountains with socially recognizable objects such as a house and a lake, and concluded that children as young as three are able to decentre. Hughes devised a similar point-of-view task to that of Piaget’s ‘Three Mountains’. The ‘Police Officer’ task is, however, socially relevant. Most children will not have been pursued by the police. Nevertheless, children are familiar with the concept of hiding from another individual. Moreover, they understand that punishment is a consequence of capture. This comprehension derives from the social world of play and family interaction. As Donaldson proclaims, the task makes ‘human sense’ (1982, p.25). Young children, therefore, are not as egocentric as Piaget supposed. Pre-operational children, averred Piaget, do not have the ability to conserve. Piaget made this claim following his conservation experiments. However, various researchers have argued that the types of question asked of the children are not socially meaningful. McGarrigle (quoted in Donaldson, 1982) re-phrased the customary questions and discovered that children were more likely to respond correctly. Similarly, McGarrigle and Donaldson (1974) revealed that the setting and social context of the experiment can affect a child’s ability to conserve. Psychological research is best conducted in a familiar and natural environment. Indeed, any formal assessment or observation is primarily devoid of social realism. McGarrigle’s ‘Naughty Teddy’ was introduced to lend social meaning to the situation and a greater number of children were able to conserve when compared to those who participated in the traditional Piagetian task (McGarrigle and Donaldson, 1974). It has been established, then, that a significant number of Piaget’s claims, pertaining to the cognitive development of children, must be disputed and, indeed, rejected once


the social aspect of development is considered. Piaget’s intellectual stages restrict the child’s cognitive development while the collaborative nature of Vygotsky’s ZPD motivates the child to work beyond their potential. Moreover, cognitive conflict necessitates the child to decentre – dictated by the particular stage of development – and generates less significant developmental gains. Piaget dismissed speech acquisition as irrelevant to cognitive development. Vygotsky, however, established inner speech as a social tool that is used by the child to regulate action and thought. Various researchers have confirmed that devising and implementing experimental tasks that are culturally significant fundamentally affects children’s ability to conserve and decentre. Comparing the constructivist theories of Piaget and Vygotsky reveals the significance of the Vygotskian approach to socio-cultural aspects of development. Certainly, a social constructivist method presents a more accurate examination of cognitive development than a constructivist approach. Indeed, any study of child development must consider the social and cultural perspective. As Das Gupta declares, psychological theories must ‘acknowledge the influence of social context both within and across cultures’ (2004, p.39).

References Smith, P. K., Cowie, H. and Blades, M. (2003) Understanding Children’s Development, Oxford, Blackwell Publishing. Piaget, J. (1990) The Stages of the Intellectual Development of the Child, in Lee, V. (ed.) (1990) Children's Learning in School, London, Hodder & Stoughton. Vygotsky, L. S., (1986) ‘Egocentric Speech’, in Oates, J., Wood, C. and Grayson, A. (eds) (2005) Psychological Development and Early Childhood, Oxford, Blackwell/The Open University. Foot, H., Morgan, M. and Shute, R. (eds) (1990) Children Helping Children, Chichester, John Wiley. Donaldson, M. (1978) Children’s Minds, London, Fontana. Vygotsky, L. S., (1978) Mind and Society, Massachusetts, MIT Press. Borke, H. (1975) ‘Piaget’s Mountains Revisited: Changes in the Egocentric Landscape’, in Smith, P. K., Cowie, H. and Blades, M. (2003) Understanding Children’s Development, Oxford, Blackwell Publishing. Oates, J., Sheehy, K. and Wood, C. (2005) ‘Theories of Development’, in Oates, J., Wood, C. and Grayson, A. (eds) (2005) Psychological Development and Early Childhood, Oxford, Blackwell/The Open University.


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