Interest And Debate Since The Last Century Education Essay

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Child development has been an area of study that has attracted an enormous amount of interest and debate since the last century. Jean Piaget (1886 - 1980) pioneered the theory of cognitive development and has possibly been one of the most influential figures within this area. However, the work of Lev Vygotsky (1896 - 1934). However, it should be remembered that Piaget has influenced education in many ways. His theories and studies show that knowledge is acquired by active exploration and many of his theories are still being used within the education system today.

Vygotsky's theoretical framework is that social interaction plays a fundamental role in the development of cognition. He believed that cognitive development is a result of others transmitting rules and norms to children.

Every function in the child's cultural development appears twice, first on the social level, and later on the individual level. First between people (interpsychological) and then inside the child (intrapsychological. This applies equally to voluntary attention to logical memory, and to the formation of concepts. All the higher functions originate as actual relationships between individuals (Vygotski, 1978, page 57)

An example of this being the pointing of a finger. This may at first be a meaningless thing done by the child, however, as those around the child begin to react to this the child begins to understand that this gesture has meaning. (Vygotsky, 1978, pg56).

Vygotsky believed that what the child hears others say about the world, and how they see others interact with physical aspects of the world is an important factor. The main basis behind Vygotsky's theory was that he viewed children as apprentices, with peers, care givers and parents as mentors. He did not believe in the theories of Piaget that the child's development was dependant on stages, but argued that the development and intelligence of a child has more to do with the abilities of those around them, in the child's environment. He believed more in the importance of society and the culture surrounding the child, and stated that learning came through the continuous use of language and communication with others.

The second aspect of Vygotskys theory is the notion that the cognitive development of the child is also dependant on the "zone of proximal development" (ZPD).

The gap between a learner's current or actual level of development determined by independent problem solving and the learners emerging or potential level of development. That is, it is the set of knowledge that the learner has the ability to learn currently but does not yet under stand things that are "just out of reach"

Vygotsky believed that a child develops better with the help of adults, peers or mentors. Vygotsky claimed "what a child can do with assistance today, she will be able to do by herself tomorrow" (Vygotsky, 1978, pg 87)

Piaget would argue that cognitive development occurs in a series of stages, all of which occur in a specific order. The child develops though these stages, through the use of organisation, adaption and the creation of schema.

His theory involved four stages of cognitive development.

Sensorimotor Stage (Infancy) - in this period (which has 6 stages), intelligence is demonstrated through motor activity without the use of symbols. Knowledge of the world is limited (but developing) because it is based on physical interactions / experiences. Children acquire object permanence at about 7 months of age (memory). Physical development (mobility) allows the child to begin developing new intellectual abilities. Some symbolic (language) abilities are developed at the end of this stage.

Pre-operational Stage (Toddler and Early Childhood) - in this period (which has two sub-stages), intelligence is demonstrated through the use of symbols, language use matures, and memory and imagination are developed, but thinking is done in a non-logical, non-reversible manner. Egocentric thinking predominates.

Concrete Operational Stage (Elementary and Early Adolescence) - in this stage (characterised by 7 types of conservation: number, length, liquid, mass, weight, area, volume), intelligence is demonstrated through logical and systematic manipulation of symbols related to concrete objects. Operational thinking develops (mental actions that are reversible). Egocentric thought diminishes.

Formal Operational Stage (Adolescence and Adulthood) - 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 industrialised countries obtain formal operations; many people do not think formally during adulthood.


A widely discussed point of difference between each of the theories concerns their ideas on the role of language. Language for Piaget is "a system of symbols for representing the world and exerts no formative effects on the structure of thinking" (Wood, 1998, p26). As stated, Piaget believed mental actions and operations are stimulated by action, not talk. Piaget views pre-operational children, that is those between the ages of two and seven, as egocentric in the sense that their view of the world is always moulded around their immediate personal and sectional view. This egocentrism, he believes, is manifested in both a child's thinking and talk.

For Piaget, the utterances made by a child under the age of seven are examples of this egocentricity. His observations led him to claim that children do not attempt to communicate with others or even try to adapt their speech so others can understand it. He observed that children of this age often talk to themselves in a fashion that cannot be regarded as communication. Similarly, he also suggested that playground collective monologues are not real conversations. He theorised that children are constrained by their logical budget; children under the age of seven cannot construct situations as they appear from another person's viewpoint and are therefore incapable of holding a rational conversation. It is only when a child reaches the age of around seven and 'de-centres' that speech becomes more socialised.

Vygotsky's view is quite different. For him, childhood speech was not egocentric but involved social interaction and communication skills. Vygotsky was interested in the emphasis of culture and social surroundings and this goes a long way to explain the emphasis he placed on language. In his opinion it represented an important cultural tool and furthermore it was through speech that the child developed as a thinker and learner. Vygotsky did recognise the presence of egocentric speech but noted that it is produced as a child struggles to deal with abstract ideas. It could therefore be stated that egocentric speech can be seen as a learning aid. Many adults revert to externalized monologues to solve complex tasks. Vygotsky suggested that it is these external monologues in children that later become internalised to form inner speech at around the age of seven, inner speech being the dialogue that becomes thought. He also observed that when a child was in a room where there was no proper listener, they produced far less egocentric speech. Vygotsky therefore concluded that "a totally egocentric creature would not be so sensitive to the presence of others "(Cohen, 2002, p65).

Vygotsky claims that the capacity to learn through instruction is a fundamental feature of human intelligence and furthermore is the main vehicle for the transmission of knowledge (Wood, 1998 p25). In contrast, Piaget suggests that a child under the age of seven cannot profitably be taught tasks and concepts because he is not mentally ready. According to Piaget, a child's capacity to be taught and make logical sense of what they are shown is limited by their stage of development. For Piaget 'genuine intellectual competence' is only reached when the child can construct his own understanding of events. Piaget therefore believes development precedes learning whilst Vygotsky claims learning causes development. Evidently, this provokes a very different idea of mental readiness for learning and consequently has different implications for teaching.

Piaget's theory belief that cognitive development is done through stages, although there should be no age restraints. They both believe that the best and easiest way for a child to learn is through self-discovery, and through the method the information is retrieved in greater depth also. However, were Piaget may be criticised is in the age restraining and the size of the age groups. He also does not allow for children advancing at different speeds and believes language is used just as an aid to development.

In Summary it should be remembered that children think differently from adults and there are major differences in the way children of different ages understand the world around them. Piager, and Vygotsky both showed that a child's learning and understanding is influenced by the environment, society and culture, and individual abilities can be traced within the Zone of Proximal Development, but there are certain stages of development that all children, either with or without the assistance of adults will pass through. However, as stated previously this is dependant on the child's own development and has to take into consideration things such as social surroundings, disabilities and the availability of peers, adults and mentors.

Piaget, Vygotsky have produced theories which still influence the way children are raised in society today and whilst they have many contrasting ideas, there are also similarities in their work. It should also be remembered that whilst many have criticised the work and theories of Piaget he did create the first study into the cognitive development of children, and his theory encouraged many other psychologists into further studies of development.