Jean Piaget and Lev Vygotsky developed their theories of cognitive development. These two theories were created at the same time, and that is why they are often compared. Piaget and Vygotsky studied the same phenomena, but they used different theories to explain them (Obukhova, 2016). The current paper analyses each theory and argues that there is a crucial difference between Piaget and Vygotsky. Namely, Piaget did not take into account the role of culture and collaborative learning, whereas Vygotsky put particular emphasis on the cultural dependence of development.
Jean Piaget suggested that children’s cognitive abilities were not the same as adults’ ones. He proposed that children developed through sequential, innate, universal cognitive stages that are qualitatively different from each other. Piaget implied the concept of schemes to explain how this development occurred. Schemes represented specific behavioral patterns at each stage, and they evolved from concrete to abstract levels in the course of development. Moreover, this theory included the concepts of assimilation, which is the process of implementing the existing thinking to new observations, and accommodation, which is changing the existing way of thinking when a new event occurs. Thus, Piaget’s theory implied that a child is born with the predispositions needed for natural cognitive development.
Although Piaget insisted on the developmental stages to be universal, this approach has been questioned. First, the stages are not always the same, and they can vary from individual to individual. Second, these stages are determined biologically, eliminating all other determinants of development. Finally, Piaget seems to isolate personal development from the influence of the environment and, specifically, from other people. These issues were addressed in the theory of Lev Vygotsky.
Proposing Sociocultural Theory of Cognitive Development, Lev Vygotsky argued that cognitive development was majorly culture-specific. He insisted that social interactions between children and adults determined the development of cognitive functions. The collaboration of a child and a More Knowledgeable Other (MKO) happens within a child’s Zone of Proximal Development (ZPD), which is the range of abilities the child possesses. The lower boundary of ZPD is defined by the skills a child can perform independently, whereas the upper limit is the abilities a child can demonstrate with the help of MKO. The task of development, therefore, is to learn how to perform upper limit activity independently, which is achieved due to the scaffolding of MKO.
One can derive from Vygotsky’s theory that children do not passively go through the stages, but they actively construct their cognition in collaboration with adults. That is why this approach is considered as groundwork for constructivism. This theory suggested that children from different cultural backgrounds should not be directly compared because they probably developed different cognitive abilities specific to their environment. Moreover, the Sociocultural Theory of Cognitive Development implied that teaching methodology was of extreme importance for cognitive development. Therefore, Vygotsky’s theory put forward the significance of the social environment for cognitive development.
There is a striking difference between the theories of Piaget and Vygotsky. While Piaget considered development as a passive progressing through the stages, Vygotsky emphasized the activity of people in collaboration. The latter is considered a more general picture because, indeed, the typical growing-up happens in society, where MKOs direct the children’s development. In contrast, Piaget’s approach seems to underestimate the contribution of the social environment suggesting age as the only factor of development. Vygotsky was aware of Piaget’s study, and he did not try to disprove the whole theory (Obukhova, 2017). Instead, he admitted that biological premises were necessary but he insisted that they were not the major determinants of the development.
Although these approaches are usually contrasted, there are also some attempts to integrate the two theories into a teaching methodology. For example, Hebe (2017) introduced the way to apply Piaget’s and Vygotsky’s principles to Environmental Education teaching in pre-school education. In his paper, Hebe (2017) suggests considering accommodation and assimilation within ZPD. Moreover, Sharkins, Newton, Causey, and Ernest (2017) show how integrating the two approaches “results in intentional teaching practices that support children’s construction of knowledge and development of autonomous thinking” (p. 17). Therefore, nowadays, these theories are believed to be complementary, at least for teaching practice.
There are other variants of explaining the difference between the two approaches. Fowler (2017) suggests that Piaget and Vygotsky did not focus on the same type of development. Instead, while Piaget studied universal features of development, Vygotsky considered non-universals, such as cultural tools of development. However, Fowles (2017) seems to ignore the fact that Piaget’s theory could not explain individual differences in development, therefore, it was not universal.
To conclude, Piaget and Vygotsky created massive theories of cognitive development. Both approaches still provoke much debate because their potential has not been fully revealed yet. Specifically, there are arguments on how similar the theories are and whether it is possible to integrate the best parts of them into one effective approach. Although Piaget’s theory is outstanding, it concentrates too much on the isolated development of an individual, whereas Vygotsky recognizes the significance of collaborative learning of children and adults.
Fowler, R. C. (2017). Reframing the debate about the relationship between learning and development: An effort to resolve dilemmas and reestablish dialogue in a fractured field. Early Childhood Education Journal, 45(2), 155–162. Web.
Hebe, H. N. (2017). Towards a theory-driven integration of environmental education: The application of Piaget and Vygotsky in Grade R. International Journal of Environmental and Science Education, 12(6), 1525–1545.
Obukhova, L. F. (2016). On account of the 120-th birthday anniversary of L.S. Vygotsky and J. Piaget. Cultural-Historical Psychology, 12(3), 226–231. Web.
Sharkins, K., Newton, A., Causey, C., & Ernest, J. (2017). Flipping theory: Ways in which children’s experiences in the 21st century classroom can provide insight into the theories of Piaget and Vygotsky. International Journal of Early Childhood Education and Care, 6, 11–18.