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Jean Piaget and Lev Vygotskys Theories on Cognitive Development

According to Meece (2002), Piaget and Vygotsky were two prominent scholars of cognitive development theories. Piaget was a biology, psychology and philosophy scholar while Vygotsky first received a degree in law, then a degree in psychology. Even with two very different backgrounds, both scholars took a constructivist approach to their research in cognitive development as they believed, “children must construct their own understandings of the world in which they live” (p. 121). This idea has been debated and discussed for years. Piaget and Vygotsky were two prominent scholars within the realm of cognitive development. Their theories of cognitive development have been influential in the development of theories of education.

In Jean Piaget’s research, his main goal was to answer the question, “How does knowledge grow?” (Silverthorn, 1999). He did this through genetic epistemology which is the study of cognitive development in children. According to Meece (2002), there are four major cognitive stages in a child’s cognitive development: sensorimotor, preoperations, concrete operations and formal operations. A child’s thought process is different from other developmental stages and each of the stages has its own importance. Piaget believed that a child could not skip a stage because each one is necessary in the process of cognitive development. In accordance with Meece (2002) and funderstanding.com (2006) the four stages are described as such:

Sensorimotor stage (birth - 2 years old)--The child, through physical interaction with his or her environment, builds a set of concepts about reality and how it works. This is the stage where a child does not know that physical objects remain in existence even when out of sight (object permanence).

Preoperational stage (ages 2-7)--The child is not yet able to conceptualize abstractly and needs concrete physical situations.

Concrete operations (ages 7-11)--As physical experience accumulates, the child starts to conceptualize, creating logical structures that explain his or her physical experiences. Abstract problem solving is also possible at this stage. For example, arithmetic equations can be solved with numbers, not just with objects.

Formal operations (beginning at ages 11-15)--By this point, the child's cognitive structures are like those of an adult and include conceptual reasoning. (p. 1)

In Piaget’s research, these four stages are rather concrete. But, many current researchers do not completely agree with the exactitude and universality of these stages.

Piaget also refers to three different types of knowledge. Physical knowledge is “knowing the attributes of objects such as their number, color, size and shape” (Meece, 2002, p. 122). Logio-mathematical knowledge “involves the mental construction of relationships” (p. 122). Social knowledge “is derived in part through interactions with others” (p. 123).

Piaget focused on classification and relations, spatial relationships, time, movement, chance, number, conservation and measurement in concrete stages (Genetic Epistemology, 2006). Lev Vygotsky was more concerned with how a child interacts with his culture and society (Meece, 2002). Piaget viewed knowledge as “individually constructed” while Vygotsky viewed cognitive development as “socially co-constructed between people as they interact” (p. 155).

Vygotsky believed that “children are born with elementary mental abilities such as perception, attention and memory” (Meece, p. 156). As children develop and interact socially with their culture and society, these innate characteristics are further developed. According to Vygotsky, one of the most important parts of cognitive development is language. Within this theory, language occurs in three stages: social speech, egocentric speech and inner speech. Social speech is just that: speech for the purposes of communicating. Egocentric speech is more intellectual and children use this by speaking out loud to themselves. Inner speech is used by children to think in their heads about the problem or task at hand, instead of verbalizing their thoughts in order to decide what to do next.

According to the website funderstanding.com, the zone of proximal development explains that, “a difference exists between what [a] child can do on [his or] her own and what the child can do with help [from knowledgeable peers or adults]” (p. 1). For example, a young child may not be able to put together a complex puzzle by himself, but with the help of an older child or another adult, the young child could put together the puzzle correctly.

Both Piaget’s and Vygotsky’s theories of cognitive development provide foundations for constructivist approaches to teaching and learning (Meece, 2002). Each of their theories concern qualitative changes within a child’s cognitive process. They also have the same goal within the classroom, creating for students a community of learning.

Even though both theories have a common goal, each of them has a different approach when dealing with children and education. For instance, Piaget’s theory can help educators understand how children react and learn according to their age while Vygotsky’s theory can help understand the role of society in children’s education.

Piaget was a scholar of natural science who happened to discover a way to explain how children acquire knowledge as they develop in age. Piaget’s theory can be directly related to his traditional background as he tries to explain the major transformations that children go through while acquiring knowledge. Piaget strongly believed that each age group varied significantly not only in the individual and group aspect, but also in the cultural aspect as well. The stages that he created are the following: Sensorimotor, Preoperations, Concrete Operations, and Formal Operations. All of these stages are met when children manipulate objects. This manipulation allows the creation of mental representation of the world and it allows two-way interaction with the environment. Essentially, the goal is to allow a child the ability to create and understand his world in a logical way.

All of these stages result from the children’s manipulation of objects that lets them create a mental representation of the world and act on and influence the environment they live in (and vice versa), so that learners gradually forego illogical ways of thinking.

Piaget’s theory is about including spontaneous experimentation in a single and group basis, so that students can build their own understanding based on the experiences that they have. By setting up this system, the children are not only limited to the classroom setting, but they are more alert of their surroundings. This method leads them to learn about self-correction, self-instruction, and self-motivation because of its “hand on experience” approach. According to Piaget, the growth of knowledge is a progressive construction. Children’s logic and modes of thinking are initially entirely different from those of adults (Jean Piaget Society, 2006), believing that the acquisition of knowledge is a process of continuous self-construction (Silverthorn, 1999).

In order to adopt the cognitive development following Piaget’s theory, the educator should organize the class time with spontaneous mental activities to let learners develop their own ideas and to construct a healthy learning environment. To achieve this, Piaget encourages teachers to provide a role for social interaction and communication by presenting appropriate materials, drills, so that children can actively learn how to confront their physical and social world by living their own experiences.

According to Marcy Driscoll (1994), there are three basic instructional principles on which Piagetian theorists generally agree:

Principle 1: The learning environment should support the activity of the child (i.e., an active, discovery-oriented environment)

Principle 2: Children’s interactions with their peers are an important source of cognitive development (i.e., peer teaching and social negotiation) (Driscoll, 1994).

Principle 3: Adopt instructional strategies that make children aware of conflicts and inconsistencies in their thinking (i.e., conflict teaching and Socratic dialog)

All of these principles are meant to be used in such a way that children can relate and continue to build upon previously acquired knowledge. It is important and necessary that teachers play the role of facilitators and encourage dialog among students about things that they have discovered themselves, so that learning become an automatic and enjoyable process.

Piaget has inspired major curriculum reforms, some of his major contributions to education are (Meece, 2002):

Knowledge must be actively constructed by the child.

Educators should help children learn how to learn.

Learning activities should be matched to the child’s level of conceptual development.

Peer interactions play an important role in the child’s cognitive development (p. 169).

Although this method seems beneficial, the financial cost and time-consumption that is involved during the set-up cause this method to be less influential.

When compared with Piaget’s theory, Vygotsky’s theory places a stronger emphasis on social interactions. According to Vygotsky, knowledge is not individually constructed, but co –constructed between people. For Vygotsky, language and communication play the most important role of cognitive development – his primary concern dealing with nature, evaluation and the transmission of human culture.

Vygotsky identified three stages in children’s use of language:

Language is primarily used for communication (social speech).

Children begin to use egocentric or private speech to regulate their own thinking.

Children use inner speech or verbal thoughts to guide their thinking and actions.

For Piaget’s theory, language did not play such an important role in children’s development; however for Vygotsky’s theory speech is an extremely important developmental phenomenon as he believed that “children learn through conversations with adults as the need to communicate with them presses the child to seek for the adult meanings of things that are said” (Mason Timothy, 2006). So learning becomes a result of mature thinking and behavior due to socio-cultural experiences. For instance, Vygotsky encourages collaborative process of learning between teachers and students in the going of social events in the classroom.

Vygotsky’s term Zone of Proximal Development (ZPD) was used to refer the difference between what children can do on their own, and what they could do with the assistance of others (Meece, 2002). The ZPD indicates what a child's level of mental development is at a particular time (Galant, 2006). Vygotsky assumed that interactions with adults and peers in the zone of proximal development help children move to higher levels of mental functioning (Meece, 2002).

Vygotsky believed that interactions with adults and peers in this zone helped children move to higher levels of mental functioning within the classroom. Vygotsky’s approach challenges traditional teaching methods, as he emphasizes the significance of cooperative thinking that take place in the decision making process. This involves having students paired together or in small groups in which the teacher’s task is to focus on maintaining student’s motivation in order to pursue the instructional goal.

Vygotsky’s theory is about guided discovery by having the teacher offer, “intriguing questions to students and having them discover the answers through testing hypotheses. The students are engaged in the discovery process; however, they are still receiving assistance from a more knowledgeable source” (Sample, 2006).

According to Meece (2002), some of the major Educational Contributions of Vygotsky’s theories are:

Role of private speech in cognitive development.

The importance of guided participation and scaffolding.

The role of peer interactions in cognitive development (p. 159-161).

This method is helpful because it encourages constant peer review. However, if not handled properly, it can bring up a common problem that students and teachers frequently face. This disadvantage would be when groups rely on one member to do all the work.

Meece (2002) explains that Piaget’s cognitive development theory is based on a child’s innate ability to productively think on their own. This cognitive ability allows them to move to the next cognitive stage as they mature biologically and adapt to their environment. Children assimilate and accommodate their current schema, or mental constructs, to fit the new information presented in the classroom. Cognitive development and social interaction feeds intellectual activity and learning. The classroom methods of instruction should match the level of cognitive development, facilitating the advancement to the next stage of cognitive development.

The level of cognitive development for early childhood learners (2-7 years) is described by Piaget as the preoperational stage (Meece, 2002). At this stage intuition and language develop. Examples of instructional tools Piaget would recommend to describe objects they are experiencing include: concrete props, symbols, and visual aids such as drawings, usage of models or examples, lessons about the children’s world and their experiences, less paper-and-pencil tasks and more “hands on” learning, back-and-forth conversations with peers to develop skills for the next stage, and field trips.

According to Piaget, logical and mental operations are part of the cognitive development of children in the elementary school years (7-11 years). A child’s thinking becomes less rigid and more dynamic during this stage. Piaget called this stage the concrete operations stage (Meece, 2002). Huitt (1997) mentions these instructional tools that follow this theory: concrete props such as three dimensional science models, lab work with minimal steps, brief and well organized lectures, relate existing instruction into previously learned material, word problems in math, and problems which require logic and analysis to solve. The Math Forum at Drexel University (2006) explained math education using a Piagetian theory:

Students need to construct their own understanding of each mathematical concept, so that the primary role of teaching is not to lecture, explain, or otherwise attempt to 'transfer' mathematical knowledge, but to create situations for students that will foster their making the necessary mental constructions. A critical aspect of the approach is a decomposition of each mathematical concept into developmental steps following a Piagetian theory of knowledge based on observation of, and interviews with, students as they attempt to learn a concept (para.1).

Piaget’s final stage in his theory of cognitive development covers the 12 year old and up group. This stage is called the formal operations stage. Huitt & Hummel (2003) describe this stage as characterized by a shift in thinking from the real to the involvement of abstractions and reflections. In this stage, intelligence is demonstrated through the logical use of symbols related to abstract concepts. Early in the period there is a return to egocentric thought. “Only 35% of high school graduates in industrialized countries obtain formal operations; many people do not think formally during adulthood” (page 1). Huitt (1997) suggests classroom practices such as these to best use Piaget’s theory: concrete operations stage type graphs on a more complicated scale, ask students to explore hypotheticals as they explore other worlds or complicated issues, encourage students to describe opposing viewpoints, have students describe how the solved the problem, teach broad but curriculum related concepts, and use materials and ideas relevant to the students to broaden their perspectives.

Meece (2002) explains that Vygotsky did not believe an individual’s thinking structure as innate, but cultural and social in origin and influence. Social and cultural interactions with knowledgeable peers and adults fuel cognitive development while improving the elementary thinking skills of the child (perception, attention, memory) to a higher level. Vygotsky might suggest Reciprocal Teaching in the classroom. This involves guided participation by a knowledgeable adult; with the students eventually taking over the learning activity.

Egocentric speech was favored by Vygotsky. This is the “thinking aloud” speech children sometimes use to work through a problem. Vygotsky would not only encourage students to use this speech, but would demonstrate its use in practical settings. Collaborative learning activities would also be emphasized in the Vygotsky classroom. Learning is facilitated with meaningful discussions among students in a collaborative learning setting. Especially valuable are discussions with knowledgeable peers. Knowledgeable peers and teachers elevate a student beyond the student’s current capabilities, a place the student would not have achieved otherwise.

It is absolutely possible to incorporate parts of both Piaget and Vygotsky’s theories in the classroom. Both theorists take a constructivist point of view and also believe that students are not passive in their knowledge (Meece, 2002). It is important for the teacher to be “important organizers, stimulators, guides, and supporters of learning” (p. 168). Piaget’s theory suggests that students need a curriculum that supports their cognitive development by learning concepts and logical steps. He also suggests that children are only capable of learning specific material in specific stages of cognitive development. Vygotsky would suggest more peer and cultural interactions in the classroom (funderstanding.com, 2006). He also believes that knowledgeable adults can help children learn even if they are not at the specific stage as Piaget suggests (Meece 2002). It is possible that while children are learning about concepts and logic, they can also interact with their peers and other adults by working on projects that relate the two together. It seems as though children may show some signs of specific development at specific times, but with help they can also excel at tasks they may not be able to do without help of others. Piaget and Vygotsky have differing views on cognitive development, but it is possible to incorporate parts of both theories when thinking about teaching strategies. Teachers must take into consideration the social and cultural background of the student before preparing the lesson plan. Using Piaget’s theory, the student must be at the correct stage of development in order use and understand the knowledge at hand. But, Vygotsky says that even if the child is not at the correct stage of development then a knowledgeable adult or teacher could influence the child and help him get to a level beyond what his level would otherwise indicate.

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