Introduction To Educational Psychology Education Essay

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Learning and cognition have their origins as a basic survival tool. In order to thrive, we must have a good understanding of our environments and adapt to new challenges accordingly, because our intelligence and cognitive processes underpin our capacity to deal with the external world. The way we process information, the manner in which we learn is truly procedural in nature, and it is dictated by the physiological state of the brain. For that, while there is no general theory of cognitive development, the two most influential figures in the field of child development in the last century were the Swiss philosopher and developmental psychologist Piaget, and the Russian child psychologist Vygotsky. They are credited with developing some of the seminal ideas about how we mature on a cognitive level. Thus, in this article I aim to discuss Piaget's work first and then deal with Vygotsky's ideas next.

Piaget's Theory of Individual Cognitive Development

According to Piaget's model, organization and adaptation are two basic tendencies that we all inherit and these are influenced by four factors: biological maturation, activity, social experience, and equilibration. As a result, changes in our thinking occur as we grow.

When we organize our thinking process into psychological structure called schema, the process is known as organization. Whereas, adaptation occurs in two ways: by assimilating the information into existing schema, or accommodating the information into a new schema. For example, let's imagine that a young child is told that an animal that has four legs and barks is a dog. On a camping trip, the child sees a wolf and it begins barking. This child correctly concludes that a wolf is a type of dog.

With an understanding of how information is processed, we can now explore the cognitive stages of Piaget's model. He observed that, as the child grow up from birth up to about 11 years of age, go through four stages; Sensorimotor, Preoperational, Concrete operational, and Formal operational.

The "Sensorimotor Stage" is the period of infancy until age two. During this stage children learn to distinguish self from external objects, and can use their senses and movement. "In this stage, they obtain and use knowledge primarily through motor action and sensory information" (Nixon & Aldwinckle, 2002). Children move from reflex dominated responses, to the beginnings of symbolic thought, as language starts to be used to represent reality. Their ability to interact with the outer world and evaluate is limited to experiencing it via the five major senses. Therefore we would find that infants are often seen placing things in their mouths.

Second stage in Piaget's theory is the "Preoperational Stage" that occurs between two and seven years of childhood. This stage marks the beginning of rational thought. They begin to think independently of actions and hold representation. Their views are taken as an egocentric view since the child cannot judge an object from another's viewpoint. However, the child becomes better at conservation task, if we give a group of items, they can now arrange them by shape, size, and colour. Moreover, it is observed that their ability to mentally manipulate symbols can be seen through the use of language, drawing, pretend play and dreaming.

From about age seven to eleven, children are in the third stage: "Concrete Operational Stage". By these ages, the child is able to think logically and sequentially about objects and events. Children have grown accustomed to using symbols to represent objects; language and mathematical skills have progressed significantly, and thought become less egocentric. They can also evaluate objects using more than one criterion at once. For example, a child can estimate how old someone is by studying multiple cues such as firmness of skin, height, and hair.

Fourth stage is the Formal operational stage which starts by the age eleven. Now the child can think about abstract ideas and develops the capacity to think hypothetically, and about future possibilities. Deductive reasoning is now possible, and children can use existing knowledge to form hypotheses about new experiences.

Vygotsky's Theory of Social Cognitive Development

Lev Vygotsky was a Russian psychologist who formulated the social development theory of learning. His theory states that development is shaped by a child's social interactions; physiology alone cannot account for cognitive development. This concept was referred to as the Zone of Proximal Development. So, his theory may be described as social constructivism. Unlike Piaget, he believed that development is a continuous process in life until death, and is too complex to be compartmentalized into stages. He also believes that rational thought could not take place without language.

He laid great emphasis on the role of play in children's intellectual development. It is difficult for a child to differentiate between a thought (meaning of a word) from the object. Play is a halfway stage in helping to relate the two in the child's mind and leads to the capacity for imagination. Another reason for children to engage in play is that it helps them internalize social rules, etiquette, and 'proper' behaviour.

He also proposed that children learn through interactions with their surrounding culture because the cognitive development of children and adolescents is enhanced when they work in their Zone of Proximal Development. To reach that zone, children need the help of adults or more competent individuals to scaffold them as they are learning new things. Children can do more with the help and guidance of an adult or other person more experienced person than they can do by themselves. For example, a child might not be able to walk on his own, but he can do so while holding her mother's hand. Therefore, he emphasize that scaffolding in this zone is necessary for independent problem solving in the future as they grow on; that interactions with other people are essential for maximum cognitive development to occur.

Concept map of Piaget and Vygotsky's TheorySocial cognitive theory of Vygotsky

Formal Operations (11 years and above)

Cognitive Development Theories

Piagetian Theory



Biological Maturation


Social Experience


Organization of Schemas



Four stages of model

Concrete operational stage (7-11 years)

Preoperational stage (2-7 years)

The Sensorimotor stage (0-2 years)

How do they differ?

Although both of them: Swiss philosopher Jean Piaget and Russian psychologist Lev Vygotsky uses constructivist approach in child development, they differ in many ways as stated bellow:

Piaget separated development in four stages: sensorimotor, preoperational, operational, and concrete operational.  On the other hand, Vygotsky based his theory of development with the basic notions that children construct knowledge, learning can lead to development, development cannot be separated from its social context, and language plays a role in development.  

Piaget's stages imply that children cognitively develop on their own.  That is, a child completes one of Piaget's stages on his own, without the help of outside aid.  For example, during the sensorimotor stage, a child understands that an object exists even when it is out of sight; no social interaction is needed for a child to understand that.  

On the other hand, Vygotsky's theory concentrates more on the social interactions and aid given to a child while he develops.  For example, a child will learn by interacting and communicating with older peers and adults who are more knowledgeable.  While Piaget was an organismic theorist, more on the side of genetic and biological factors, while Vygotsky is more to the social interaction side.

Piaget believed that development proceeds from the individual to the social world. Egocentric speech suggests that the child is self-centered and unable to consider the point-of-view of others. On the other hand Vygotsky believed that development begins at the social level and moves towards individual internalization. Egocentric speech is seen as a transition between the child's learning languages in a social communicative context.

Piaget did not believe in the significance of inputs that can be acquired from the environment but Vygotsky was confident that kids do acknowledge the inputs from their environment.

Vygotsky claimed that language plays an important role in cognitive development. Piaget only viewed language as a plain milestone in development. Additional differences between their theories can be explained in following concept map:

Difference between two Cognitive theories

Individual Cognitive theory (Piaget)

Social Cognitive theory (Vygotsky)

Learning is…



Maturation and conflict

Enjoyment from others, motivates learning

What drives development?

Thought drive language

Language drive thought

Role of Language…

Basic source of learning

Child himself

Role of biology

Maturation dictates pace of cognitive development

Elementary functions are innate.

Relationship to social speech

Negative; immature

Positive; social stimulated

Learning as product of

Individualist society

Power of the community

Zone of proximal development


Natural line of development

Cultural line of development

Question 2: What is active learning? Why is Piaget's theory of cognitive development consistent with active learning?

Whenever experiences stimulate mental activities that lead to meaningful learning, this can be referred as an active learning.  Mentally active learning of ideas-and-skills can occur in a wide variety of thought-stimulating activities, ranging from direct learning to learning by discovery, and other kinds of problem solving where the learning cannot be defined as either direct or discovery.  All of these thought-stimulating activities can produce active learning, because educationally productive mental activity can occur with or without physical activity in which we do something during a variety of mentally-active experiences.

We could see that Piaget's theory of cognitive development is consistent with active learning because he views young children's' role as active independent participants in the learning process. But, Vygotskey view child's role as dependent on social interaction. They initiate most of the activities required for learning and development by using whatever mental maps he or she has constructed so far. Through his model showing four stages of cognitive development, we will find that child make sense of the world around them directly or by discovering by using organized schemas, and start to adapt through the process of assimilation and adaptation.

He also believes that active interaction with the environment is necessary for learning and development, at every stage, the child is supposed to actively sense, discover and engage in those activities which ultimately help in their development. He also believes that children are ready for school when they can initiate many of the interactions they have with the environment around them. His idea explains that the developing child builds structures or maps in response to understanding physical and cognitive experiences within her environment in every success ding stages of development.

Question 3: What is cooperative learning and how is this form of learning consistent with Vygotsky's theory of learning and development?

Cooperative learning: a subset of collaborative learning in which children play together, work together on structured assignments or projects under conditions that assure positive interdependence, , individual accountability, occasional face to face interaction appropriate development and use of interpersonal skills and regular self assessment of group functioning.

Similarly Vigotsky's theory states that development cannot be separated from its social context and cooperative learning. He is consistent in his belief that learning and development occur when young children interact with the environment and people around them cooperatively. For him, the social context influences more than just attitudes and beliefs and they have profound influence on how child think, as well as what they think.

He also believes that a student is able to perform certain tasks better under adult guidance or with peer collaboration than what could be achieved alone. His theory of the Zone of Proximal Development arose from his observation that children did better at tasks on which they were tested when they were working in collaboration with adults, rather than by themselves. It was not the case that the adults were teaching the child, but that any interaction helped the child to engage in more appropriate and refined thinking.

Language and the internalization of language was the tool by which the children's thought processes developed. And we would find that language is culturally transmitted from one generation to another, and that can be achieved only by learning through social cooperation. He observed that best quality of mental functions developed through social interactions with significant people in the child's life, and cultural mediation was crucial to the development of our intelligence.

Unlike Piaget's notion that children's' development must necessarily precede their learning, Vygotsky believes that social learning tends to precede development.  Individual development cannot be understood without reference to the social and cultural context within which it is embedded. Therefore, he believed that what the child or learner is able to do in collaboration today, he will be able to do independently tomorrow.

To summarise in short, we find that Piaget and Vygotsky contributed heavily toward the field of child development. And at the same time, from above given description of their theories, we can conclude that both of them use constructivist approach. So the best thing is that even though their theories are fundamentally different, teachers and parents can incorporate both as they help their students and children learn and grow individually as well as socially.