Cognitive Child Development According to Piaget and Vygotsky

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Outline the main similarities and differences between Piaget’s and Vygotsky’s explanations for cognitive development in children.

Piaget and Vygotsky were both, looking into the same period of cognitive development in infants and children and sharing the same basic concerns. Piaget (1896-1980) developing his theory slightly earlier than Vygotsky (1896-1934) who worked to show that there were certain flaws in Piaget’s theory of genetic epistemology. Vogotsky and his social-cultural theory of cognitive development might be seen as the Soviet counterpart to Piaget’s western individualist perspective. Piaget focused on cognitive development as essentially egocentric, Vygotsky challenged this with the idea of the individual as being a product of their social and cultural, environment. They are each however, highly influential contributors to the field of child cognitive development, both working within the realm of classical constructivist theories of cognitive development. However they reach different almost diametrically opposing conclusions regarding the cognitive development in children.

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Piaget’s studies of child behaviour were essentially observational made at his Centre of Genetic Epistemology. Piaget observed that children behaved in similarly ways to those in at similar ages. (Martin at al. 2009, P. 61) and made comparable mistakes. Piaget understood this to mean and in fact concluded from his observations, that children progress through a series of predefined developmental stages, highlighting the importance of actions and problem solving in a process of assimilation and accommodation of new schemata and concepts. The child moving from disequilibrium into equilibrium as new schema are assimilated and in time accommodated. Piaget referred to this as ‘cognitive equilibrium’. (Martin et al. 2009 P. 61) He considered learning to be a solitary personal process. Whereby each child might pass through a series of cognitive developmental stages. The period of each stage is fairly static and the child is held there for the duration of it’s completion. There not being much variation between children and no overlapping. This progression passes through four universal stages: Sensory motor, Pre-operational, Concrete Operational and Formal Operational.

Vygotsky looking into the same period of development as Piaget and seeking to counter Piaget’s essentially individualist theory, placed his research into a social and historical context. He emphasized the importance of social interaction in human development. (O’Hara, 2007 ch. 34 p. 241) Examining the processes of affiliation, play, learning and peer influences, Voygotsky highlighted the importance of social interaction in the development of higher mental skills.

Pieget and Vygotsky where deeply concerned with what drives development. For Piaget it was the individuals natural maturation and the conflict caused between the assimilation and accommodation process. Whereas for Vygotsky learning was motivated by the enjoyment of the environmental experience, play and interaction. Wishing to discover the source of cognition, they both looked at the child’s self role and the extend to which the child is an active player in her own development. Piaget felt that the child was in essence a ‘lone scientist’ exploring the world, passing from stage to stage, organizing schema to maintain equilibrium. For Vygotsky she was a product of interaction with her environment, developing understanding and knowledge through ‘interactive feedback’ in the ‘Zone of Proximal Development’ within the dialectical model, “Dialogues”. Both Vygotsky and Piaget had the common goal of finding out how children develop ideas and translate them into speech.

Piaget was keen to show that the child’s development was predetermined by universal cognitive structures and that this was the same for all children, independent of environment and culture. For Vygotsky cognitive development was very much about culture and environment, whereas Piaget marginalizes the individuals personal intellectual development. Piagetian theory essentially views development in four fairly rigid stages, that although they shed a great deal of light on child development, do not allow for an understanding of child development as being enhanced by social and cultural factors as was shown by Vygotsky in his ‘social cultural theory of child development’. They do not contribute to our informed interaction with children, particularly with regard to education, where Voygotsky’s ideas have been seminally valuable. In Thinking and Speech, Vygotsky, postulates that in Piaget’s
stages of development, each stage merely presents itself after the previous stage has run its course, it does not stem from it. (1982, p. 110)

The four universal developmental stages of Piagetian theory are as follows: The ‘sensorymotor’ stage which occurs between the ages of 1 and 2 years old. This is the period during which Piaget identified the child developing a general schema for movement and sensation. This is followed by the ‘preoperational’ stage from 2-7 years where the child in his opinion has an inadequate ability to turn thought into action. The child is seen as Egocentric as is demonstrated in the ‘three mountains’ test, where three differently decorated, sculpted mountains are placed before the child and she is asked to demonstrate an understanding of how the view might look from the perspective of another; she is unable to do so. (Martin et al. 2009 p. p63). This struggle continues into the ‘concert operational’ phase from 7 to 11 where the child becomes increasingly able to use empathic and logical thinking as is demonstrated in the conservation of liquids test where previously there was no reversible thinking in the concrete operational stage this is now possible. Finally comes the formal operational stage from 12 onwards where more complex thinking is attained with the development of ‘hypothetico-deductive reasoning’. (Martin et al. 2009. p. p63)

The role of language was a very important area of research for both Piaget and Vygotsky. For Piaget it was thoughts that drove language, considering that a child’s ‘private speech’ was merely a stream of consciousness resulting from the child’s egocentric thought processes. For Vygotsky it was language that drove the thinking process and the child’s previously considered, purely egocentric ‘private speech’ was in fact a part of the process of working out ideas. For Vygotsky it was through language and specifically ‘private speech’ through which a child developed learning, remembering and problem solving. (Martin et al. 2009 p. 67). In the preoperational stage the degree of difficulty a problem presents is often mirrored in the amount of private speech used by a child while solving the problem. Berk (1992-1994, as cited in Martin et al. 2009 P. 67) The more communication and interaction a child has with with adults the more mature that child’s speech will becomes.

The significance of these explanations for developmental differences at the various stages can be understood, in Piaget’s case, as finding that children simply lack the ability to progress in understanding and so remain fixed at each stage until such time as the new phase comes into play. Vygotsky in his research found very differently, that external thinking was an important factors and that a child’s development was highly influenced by peers and environmental factors and that developmental phases were not nearly as rigidly conforming to the Piagetian stage theory as was previously thought. Although the stage theory identifies a general age at which a child may acquire new skills , it is not age in itself that is the causation of such change.

A major factor in this development was Voygotsky’s ‘Zone of Proximal Development’. Whereas Piaget had viewed the child as an individual working things out alone, as the ‘lone scientist’. Vygotsky saw the child’s learning to be highly dependent on external factors relating to teacher, parent assistance, peer interaction and also culture. And that the learning potential of a child is increased in affect by the assistance of a more expert helper, where when alone more difficulty in task completion will be observed.

Vygotsky (1934) noted:
The distance between a child’s actual developmental level as determined by independent problem solving and the higher level of potential development as determined through problem solving under adult guidance or in collaboration with more capable peers. (p. 86)

Voygotsky believed that a child learnt through social interaction. Jerome Bruner 1983 developed the concept of ‘scaffolding’ to enable a child’s learning to maximize potential, in that the child will learn better if she is helped initially with understanding in the form of hints and encouragement when on the right lines, then not over helped when she begins to find her way and so the child is helped but not so much so that she is not stretched by the task. (Conway, 2007 ch. 4, p. 54) Piaget’s theory would
consider this to be beyond the students abilities.

In conclusion Piaget’s individualist stages of development supposes that children learn in similar ways, at similar times but the process by which one transits from one stage to the next cannot be wholly supported in the light of Vygotskys research which highlights the role of the community in child interaction within cultural and environmental concerns. Variable cultural differences, versus universal sameness.

It is not however, a case of Vygotsky having been correct and Piaget having been incorrect. Piaget’s contribution was the basis for new thinking, it opened up the study of child development and pointed the way for others such as Vygotsky to know where to look and to build upon it. Vygotsky was highly concerned with the influence of cultural concerns in the transformation of the natural line of development, and pays no attention to the influences of nature on the development of higher mental functions (Daniels, p. 73).

Vygotsky (1934) argued:
The environment appears in child development, namely in the development of personality and specific human qualities, in the role of the source of development. Hence the environment here plays the role not of the situation of development, but of its source. (p. 113) Piaget defined the structural development of individual ability over time. Vygotsky focused on the social cultural influences that made up the individuals eclectic construction. The debate is essentially one of ontogenesis, of the influence of nature and culture in maturation. (1616)

O’Hara. K.E. (2007) Lev Vygotsky. In The Praeger handbook of education and psychology (pp. 241) Conway, T.R. (2007) Jerome Bruner. In The Praeger handbook of education and psychology (pp. 57-61) Vygotsky, L.S. (1934). Thinking and speech. (N. Minick. Trans.). New York: Plenum Press. (pp. 240-245) Saran, S. (2007) Jean Piaget In The Praeger handbook of education and psychology (pp. 190-196) Martin, G.N., Carlson, N.R., & Buskist, W. (2009). Psychology: fourth Edition. Pearson. (pp. 61-69) Daniels, H.
(1996) An introduction to Vygotsky. London. New York: Routledge. (pp. 73) Vygotsky, L. S. & Cole, M. (1978). Mind in society : the development of higher psychological processes. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

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