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Compare Vygotsky’s and Piaget’s views on how young children aged 2-11 learn.

Discuss similarities and differences and reflect on the reasons behind these.

Consider the impact they have had on teaching.

For centuries, educators, psychologists and philosophers have pursued theories of learning.

This paper will discuss arguably two of the most significant contributors to cognitive

development, Jean Piaget and Lev Semionovich Vygotsky (Smith, Tomlinson and Dockrell

1997), how they shared views, differed in others and possible reasons behind this. Finally it will

address the impact that this has had on classroom teaching since.

The differences between Piaget’s and Vygotsky’s views have been extensively addressed (Cole

and Wertsch 1996, De Vries 2004, Dockrell and Tomlinson 1997), and whilst they may initially

appear “profoundly different in outlook” (Bruner 1997 p3) – a closer comparison within this

paper shows that the views of these two “cognitive giants” (Bruner 1997 p2) had more in

common than is first apparent. It is important to introduce the central basis of each theory

before embarking on any form of comparative analysis.

Piaget believed that all children follow a developmental journey, passing through four main

stages (Piaget 1936/1952 in Berk 2003). Each stage is relative to age and children move

through each sequentially, albeit at their own rate (Wadsworth 1996). Furthermore, Piaget

believed that learning can only occur when one assimilates (where the learner incorporates

new events or information to a pre-existing cognitive structure) and accommodates (where the

learner adjusts his own cognitive structures to fit in with new circumstances). Only when the

learner has struck a balance between assimilation and accommodation, between himself and

the environment, can learning occur, a state that Piaget refers to as equilibrium. (Woodfolk

2004).

Piaget felt that children are like “little scientists” (Piaget 1923 in Berk 2003) who are

constantly testing different theories of the world themselves (Papert 2000). However, in

contrast, Vygotsky (1978), believed children are not able to build their own knowledge without

the help of others and that cognitive development was “socially co-constructed between

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people as they interact” (Meece 2002 p155). Vygotsky stressed the importance of language in

cognitive development, something he referred to as a cultural tool, and thought that

knowledge acquisition depends, primarily, on how the child interacts with his society and

culture (Vygotsky 1978). Vygotsky believed that speech from others was internalised and later

used for the purpose of self-guidance and self-direction to assist the learner (Berk 2003).

His emphasis on interaction, Vygotksy suggested that there is a significant difference in what a

child could accomplish by its own devices and what they are able to achieve when they are

assisted by a more knowledgeable other (Vygotsky 1978). A child may not be able to ride a

bike by himself, but with help of an adult, he could, and this difference in performance

Vygotsky called the Zone of Proximinal Development (ZPD) (Vygotsky 1978).

Both Piaget and Vygotsky shared the same goal, they wanted to explore the world of

epistemology – the study of knowledge. Due to contrasting upbringings and influences acting

upon them, both theories were often significantly independent of the other. However, from a

closer look at their views, there is also extensive overlap.

Constructivism

The fundamental similarity, which joins these two theories together, is that both Piaget and

Vygotsky were constructivists. This is an approach to learning stating that all knowledge is

personal, and is created or constructed by the learner themselves (Arseneau and Rodenburg

1998). They believed "learners must individually discover and transform complex information if

they are to make it their own" (Slavin 2006). In layman’s terms, children build their own

knowledge - they will take new information and try to assimilate with to what they already

know. If this is not successful – often referred to as “cognitive conflict” (McClellan 1993) – he or

she must adapt their view to include the new information. Piaget discovered elements of

childrens’ knowledge contained aspects that had never been taught (Piaget 1975/1985 in De

Vries 2004) and therefore led him to believe that children can and do build their knowledge

from experience. Piaget’s constructivist theory states that through assimilating and

accommodating information from these experiences, the child eventually reaches a balance

between the two, called equilibration, and this is when cognitive growth occurs (Piaget

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1975/1985). This cognitive growth does not depend on the teacher, it occurs through action,

self-directed problem-solving and how children test their theories on the world (Moore 2001).

On the other hand, Vygotsky stressed the critical importance of culture and the necessity of

social context for cognitive development (Moore 2001). His theory is known as social

constructivism (Woolfolk 2007). Vygotsky and his social constructivist theory believed learning

to be the end product of “self initiated interaction with the world” (Rathbone 1971 in Candy

1991, p. 271).

However, it is how exactly a child progresses through this process where Vygotsky and Piaget

disagree.

Stages

Piaget believed that cognitive growth was split into four fixed stages, beginning at birth and

culminating in the teen years. These were as follows: Sensorimotor stage (0-2 yrs),

Preoperational stage (2-7 yrs), Concrete operations (7-11 yrs) and Formal operations (from 11-

15 and up) (Piaget 1936/1952 in Berk 2003). As a child matures, they progress through the

stages, developing their cognitive and physical ability, initially from performing simple tasks

such as grabbing and pointing through to more complex abilities such as conceptual reasoning

and scientific investigation (Meece 2002). A chief tenet of his theory is that there are universal

stages and that they are invariant, in that they cannot be reordered or skipped (Meece 2002).

The stages are, however, not irreversible and a child can slip back to a previous stage due to a

several reasons including stress (Gillard 2004). Despite this stage theory being regarded as

one of the most dominant of the 20th century (Berk 2003), it received a significant amount of

criticism surrounding a lack of acknowledgment for individual differences (Wozniak 1996) and

variation within cultures (Jarvis and Chandler 2001). Vygotsky challenged this idea and

proposed a developmental journey far more specific to each individual child. Vygotsky’s ZPD

theory states that a child’s learning experience would depend on the success of their social

interactions, something that would change from child to child (Berk 2003). This would mean

that development could never occur in the uni-directional stage manner that Piaget suggests,

but instead a more open, socially dependable multi-directional way. In order to gauge how

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Vygotsky and Piaget differed in their view of how cognition develops, it would help to visualise

Piaget’s as a “ladder theory” (Berk 2003, Meece 2002) and Vygotksy’s social cultural theory

similar to that of a spider’s web (Biddell and Fischer in Smith 1996). In Piaget’s stage theory,

development is progressive (going “up” the ladder) and each individual stage (rung) is clearly

defined. On the other hand, with Vygotsky’s “web” (Biddell and Fischer in Smith 1996),

learning can occur in a variety of directions, with a plethora of social influences impacting upon

it.

Role of Instruction

As well as having contrasting views on the structure of the learning and development process,

Piaget and Vygotsky were to disagree further when it came to delving deeper into the realms

of not just the structural element of a child’s readiness to learn, but how it is they learn. Piaget

reinforced his constructivist approach when he said that the child is the active meaning maker

in their own learning and that they discover the world through their action upon it (Moore

2001). He stated that knowledge is constructed within the stages of development through the

process of assimilation and accommodation (discussed earlier), neither of which requires

instruction from an adult or more knowledgeable other (Moore 2001). Piaget further plays

down the role of the instructor when he states that the presence of a teacher is,

fundamentally, to provide a suitable environment within which children are free to construct

and derive meaning from their own learning through discovery (Piaget 1952).

At the opposite end of the spectrum, Vygotsky strongly disagrees when he states “what a child

can do with assistance today she will be able to do by herself tomorrow" (Vygotsky 1978 p87).

He believed that there was a significant gap between a what a child can accomplish by

himself, and what he can accomplish with assistance from a more knowledgeable other (MKO).

He referred to this “gap” as their Zone of Proximal (nearest) Development, or ZPD (Vygotsky

1978). He saw instruction as a key facilitator in cognitive development and without it, learning

within the ZPD could not possibly occur (Vygotsky 1978). Within the ZPD, described as “where

the child and adult meet” (Veraksa in Doyla and Palmer 2004, p3), Vygotsky believed that the

role of the instructor and child is a cooperative one, where learning becomes a co-constructive

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process (Vygotsky 1986). During the initial stages of problem-solving, the teacher provides

prompts, suggestions and directions for the learner, suggesting alternative strategies to

resolve the task. This results in a dialogue between the teacher and learner (Woolfolk 2004)

and after time, the child then internalises this assistance or instructive dialogue. Finally the

child can draw on his newly acquired internal dialogue as a guide to solve similar problems

independently in the future (Woolfolk 2004). The assistance provided is often of a linguistic

nature, and Vygotksy therefore refers to the process as the child obtaining an “inner voice”, a

voice that is rigid and extremely difficult to change (Gallimore & Tharp 1990). The learner

implements his newly found strategies until he encounters a task that, again, is beyond his

capabilities. He will then need further assistance and so the co-construction of new knowledge

begins again.

The importance of instruction in development is clearly something both theorists do not agree

on, but when Vygotsky talks of the internalisation process and “inner voice” it becomes

apparent that language, speech and thought must also be essential, something Piaget did

agree with (Piaget 1971, De Vries 2004). However, when looking at the role that language

plays, once again, we find them coming from opposite directions.

Speech, Language and Thought

Vygotsky talks of language as something that must be present in order for knowledge

acquisition to occur and it was the one aspect that “preoccupied Vygotsky above all others”

(Cole and Werstch 2002 p252). He referred to language in cognition development as an

essential “cultural tool”, defined as something symbolic or technological that aids

communication (Woolfolk 2004). From reviewing the ZPD, it is clear that if social interaction is

imperative to learning, then language is just as important, they are inter-dependent in that one

cannot occur without the other (Meece 2002).

Piaget (1971) believed that language certainly played a part, only that part played a more

secondary role. He believed that language was a product of cognition and development, a

reflection of mental ability, and that language and intelligence are quite independent of each

other ( Meece 2002). Piaget states that the speech, or self talk, heard from a child age 3–5 was

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merely a failed attempt at communicating with others (Piaget 1971), and he believed this

happened because they are not sufficiently developed to take on board other people’s

viewpoints - the speech is “egotistical” (Piaget 1923). He goes on to explain that the reason

why this egotistical speech decreases as the child matures is because the child has entered

into the next stage of development and, as his stage theory proposes, become less egocentric

and is therefore able to take on board another’s viewpoint throughout the dialogue (Piaget

1971).

Vygotsky on the other hand placed far more importance on the role of language. He believed

that the “self talk” was not a failed attempt at communication but a reflection of the child’s

thoughts (Vygotsky 1962). He believed the reason children expressed these thoughts out loud

was because they simply, at this stage, had not learnt to control them internally. As discussed

previously within the ZPD, learning occurs by the child hearing verbal guidance, imitating this

guidance out loud, creating a dialogue and finally internalising it. Here, the child takes speech

heard in its environment and turns it into internal thought – but due to a lack of developmental

skills in controlling thoughts, they are expressed out loud. Vygotsky believed that this early

form of speech was far from egotistical – rather social. Due to the significant contrast of his

view compared to Piaget’s, he relabelled it “private speech”, something extremely useful to

the child, and totally separate to social speech (Vygotsky 1962).

To summarise, it is Piaget who believed that in the development of thinking, language moves

from the individual (shown as egocentric babble) into the social only when the child has

progressed into the appropriate stage and has mastered the basic rules of conversation

(Ginsbury + Opper 1979). However, Vygotsky believed that language moved from the social, in

the form of verbal guidance and dialogue, to the individual, as internalised thought (Jarvis +

Chandler 2001). This naturally brings us to address the relationship between the individual and

the social.

Individual and Social

It has now become apparent that Vygotsky’s web-like, more child-specific, development

process emphasised the impact that social factors or external influences had on the acquisition

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of knowledge in children (Meece 2002). Vygotsky’s theory, described as “outside in” (De Vries

2004), reinforced his belief that knowledge was social in origin (Cole and Wertsch 1996) and

his was based on social interaction in its entirety (Smith 1996). However, Piaget placed

thinking at the centre of child development (Bedrova and Leong 1996) and often talks of a

construction of knowledge that begins with the individual and how it is their actions on the

world that results in progression of their cognitive development (Cole and Wertsch 1996). He

believed that a child could only progress to the next developmental stage once he or she had

reached the necessary age, and only then, could learning occur (Meece 2002). Piaget was

adamant that development in the individual preceded the learning (Berk 2003). Vygotsky did

not agree with this, and felt that it was the social and cultural factors which a child experiences

that result in the progression of their individual development (Vygotsky 1978). Vygotsky, in

contrast to Piaget, proposed that learning is a social activity and that it is not bounded by the

individual brain (Reusser 2001). He believed it was in fact the learning through this “activity”

that occurs first, leading to the development that follows (Vygotsky 1986). As already stated,

the process of internalisation involves the learner experiencing instruction from the teacher,

which would then become their own internal guidance when attempting to solve problems.

Vygotsky develops this when he talks of every function in a child’s development appearing

twice, initially on the social level, between people and only later on an individual level within

the child (Vygotsky 1978). Here Vygotsky emphasises his belief that the process of learning

originates within the social level.

However, contrary to common assumptions (Cole and Werstch 1996), Piaget and Vygotsky

both acknowledge the presence and the importance of both the individual and the social as

elements needed to provide an environment where learning can occur. De Vries suggests that

Piaget is in fact misunderstood when he talks of a child being a lonely scientist, and often

attributes great importance to social relationships between individuals (De Vries 2004).

Furthermore, Vygotsky also recognises the need for individual development when he says

“that any new form of cultural experience does not simply come from outside, independently

of the state of the organism at a given point of development. The fact is that the organism that

is mastering external influences masters a number of forms of behaviour, or assimilates these

forms, depending on its level of mental development” (Vygotsky 1930/1981 in De Vries 2004,

p4).

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This paper has discussed a number of differences and similarities between Piaget’s and

Vygotsky’s theories of how children learn – now it will address potential reasons behind these.

Reasons

Firstly, both Piaget and Vygotsky were born in 1896, a time when many countries, in particular

Vygotsky’s home country, Russia, were experiencing a revolution. Vygotsky published his work

shortly after the Marxism had replaced the rule of the Czar, which emphasised the importance

of socialism and collectivism, elements that Vygotsky mirrored in his work (De Vries 2004).

Piaget may also have been inspired by this revolutionary movement as his theories were a

sensational move away from the rigidity of behaviorism, an extremely popular approach to

learning within Russia at the time (Tryphon & Vonèche 1996).

A further explanation for the noticeable similarities between the two would be due to the fact

that both theorists were researching at the same time it has been suggested that they were

aware of each other’s work (Brockmeier 1996) and others suggest that Vygostky was in fact

influenced by Piaget’s work after reading it (Tryphon & Vonèche 1996).

A comparison into their respective upbringings also lends itself to an explanation of why they

differed. Piaget, heavily influenced by Darwin and Dewey and a father interested in systemic

processes, was interested in biological mechanisms and scientific thought from a young age

(Duffy 1996). Conversely, Vygotsky came from a large family where there was “always money

for books” (Van de Veer + Valsiner 1991) and the discussion of literature, art and history was

encouraged at all times (Vygodskaya 1995). These early influences can be seen as reasons for

the differences behind Piaget’s “biological model” (Gallagher and Reid 1981) and Vygotsky’s

“socio-cultural” theory (De Vries 2004). As a continuation of this, Vygotsky was home-schooled

and learnt from a tutor in a one-to-one setting, an environment that provided the sort of

instruction that would go on to play a huge part in his ZPD theory (Blanck 1990 in Moll 1990).

Unlike Vygostky who was one of eight brothers and sisters, Piaget was the only son and

solitary by nature, spending much of his time alone studying (Duffy 1996) – this individualistic

construction of knowledge, something that would play a huge part in his stage theory.

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Finally perhaps a key reason for differences between the two lay in the fact that only Piaget

was able to develop his ideas fully. Vygotsky died aged 37 and therefore did not get the

opportunity to fully evolve his theory and adapt it (Wozniak 1996). Piaget often changed his

mind (De Vries 2004), sometimes years later, about concepts he initially believed to be true –

and due to his early death it isn’t known whether Vygotsky would have done the same.

With a comparison of their theories and background fully addressed, I will now look at the

implications they have had on education.

Implications

It is believed that Piaget’s research has had extensive impact on modern day education

(Brader-Araje & Jones 2002), whether specifically within the classroom or its broader influence

on the National Curriculum. To begin with, his view that a child independently of the teacher

actively assimilates and accommodates information in order to construct knowledge is

mirrored in the recent promotion of the concept of child-centered learning (Moore 2001), a

learning that puts the child first while the teacher facilitates. It has also been noted that

certain methods of teaching various subjects, such as using physical representations (eg

plastic coins), then iconic (drawing the coin) and finally symbolic representations (£), clearly

take into account the capabilities and restrictions that Piaget proposed children may have at

certain stages of their development (Walkerdine 1982). Furthermore, the very structure of the

education system, appears to bear a striking resemblance to Piaget’s stage theory. Piaget

hypothesised that at approximately 11, a child would be entering into the formal operational

period (Piaget 1952) – running parallel to this, it is at this age a child is entering into secondary

school. Further evidence supporting Piaget’s influence on educational structure can be seen

from the key stages that are identified in the current National Curriculum. The disparity

between the complexity of lessons taught at Key Stage 1 and 2 would suggest that it has

drawn significantly from Piaget’s view that children at a certain point can only perform tasks of

a particular complexity (Moore 2001). It would therefore appear Piaget’s influence on modern

day education is vast, and it is unsurprising that he has been regarded as the most influential,

above all others (Gillard 2004). However, as Ginn (1995) points out, the reality of daily school

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life is teacher-led, programmed instruction and modelling – all of which directly oppose

Piaget’s findings.

The impact of Vygotsky’s work upon education has not been addressed to the extent of

Piaget’s (Moll 1990), for whatever reason. I will therefore draw upon my own school

experience as well as literature. It would appear that whilst Vygotsky may not have

significantly impacted the structure or content of the National Curriculum to date (Moore

2001). From reviewing the Rose Report (Rose 2009) and the new curriculum for 2011, this

could be about to change. This new curriculum promotes elements of education that Vygotsky

spoke frequently of in his theories such as: increased emphasis on the arts and cultural

aspects, language as imperative and social skills central to learning (the National Curriculum

2010). There is, however, significant evidence within the classroom to suggest Vygotsky’s

research has contributed to everyday teaching. The use of “talk partners”, which in my

experience tend to be made up of pairs of high and low ability, share similarities with

Vygotsky’s theory that a more knowledgeable other can aid learning. Furthermore, the recent

abolishment of certain summative tests (SATS) is giving way to formative assessment within

the class, a form of assessment that encourages interaction (peer assessment) and a trusting,

cooperative student-teacher relationship (self assessment) – both aspects that are mirrored in

Vygotsky’s work, and particularly applicable in order to progress through the ZPD (Black and

William 1998). However, once again, the reality in my experience is that children are still

seated in similar ability tables, there is still an over dependence on summative assessment

and teachers do not have the time or resources to enter into the sort of interaction that

Vygotsky speaks of being essential within the ZPD (Moore 2001).

To conclude, Piaget and Vygotksy’s backgrounds and influences resulted in two theories

differing as much as they overlap. The implications of their work for education today are

visible, perhaps not as effective as their original theories would have suggested, but

undeniably visible in education today. They have been extensively discussed for decades and,

as we venture into a new curriculum, will no doubt continue to be for decades more.

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