Cognitive Development Theory: Piaget vs. Vygotsky Compare and Contrast

Why is it that a four year old thinks there is more of water in a tall narrow glass than there is in a short broader glass, when both glasses contain the same amount of water? The answer can be found if one determines the child’s developmental level of cognition. In exploring the concept of cognitive development, two names are sure to come up, Piaget and Vygotsky. Cognitive development theory was first coined by Jean Piaget as a biological approach to child learning.

Cognitive development theory states that cognitive development can be defined as a process of gradual and orderly changes in a person’s brain and behavior that take place throughout childhood and beyond, that make a person’s mental process more intricate and sophisticated (Slavin, 2006). The nature of these changes and how these changes proceed is a topic of much debate throughout the years. Although Vygotsky and Piaget both have theories of cognitive development, they agree on only a few points. Piaget and Vygotsky are both considered to be constructivists.

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Constructivism is an approach to intelligence and learning based on the premise that cognition is the result of ” the mental construction of ideas with building blocks of information”. Said another way, students learn by connecting new information together with what they already know. The mechanism in which an individual forms this intelligence is where these two theorists differ. Piaget believed that intelligence came from experience and action. Having a doctorate in biology, he believed that an individual can only reach the next level of aptitude if that individual had adequately developed cognitively.

Vygotsky thought just the opposite, that is, one can only develop when one has reached a higher level of intelligence, hence intelligence drove development (Slavin, 2006). Both Piaget and Vygotsky both believed that the environment influenced intelligence. Vygotsky believed that an individual places importance on the contribution of others and the environment, Piaget on the other hand did not. In other words, Piaget thought that the environment was passive in the development of an individual, that is, the environment was a world to be explored.

Through this exploration and the experiences gained, a person constructs mental frameworks, or schemes (Slavin, 2006). Children use these schemes to deal with particular situations, by accessing the information therein. When new information is discovered using a scheme, the child incorporates this real-world finding into that scheme, thereby expanding the scheme through process called assimilation (Slavin, 2006). If however, a child encounters a real-world situation where a scheme has failed, the disparity between what is thought should happen and what actually happens creates confusion and an imbalance in the child.

The existing scheme must be modified to accommodate the new experiences. Hence, the process of accommodation in order to create equilibrium is at the root of learning and intelligence. Creating, expanding and modifying schemes are the mechanisms by which intelligence is affected. Vygotsky however had a different opinion. He believed that intelligence was gained by learning from others. The building blocks for intelligence are sign systems, systems that a society uses to communicate and solve problems (Slavin, 2006).

Sign systems are learned by observing others to the point where an individual can solve problems on their own using the newly learned systems, a process called self-regulation (Slavin, 2006). Vygotsky believed that children receive this information from more capable peers or adults. This social learning requires great involvement from the teacher when beginning to learn the task; and as the child learns, the aid is lessened to the point where there is minimal aid and the individual is fully competent at the task at hand.

This scaffolding process should be done when learning tasks within a child’s zone of proximal development, or ZPD. Tasks with a child’s ZPD are tasks that a child is physically able to do with help from a teacher (Slavin, 2006). Too easy a task, and a child is already competent in the task, hence no learning occurs. Too difficult a task, and no level of aid can help the child learn the task, so no learning occurs. During scaffolding, an individual takes information from the environment and repeats that information to themselves, (whether vocally or mentally), in order to internalize and use that information to solve the problem.

This process is called private speech (Slavin, 2006). For Vygotsky, learning sign systems and self-regulation is the root of intelligence. Private speech and scaffolding within a child’s ZPD are the mechanisms by which intelligence is affected. The next issue separating the two theorists is the aspect of stages of cognitive development. Although, both Piaget and Vygotsky believed that there was a natural progression in development from child to adult, the similarities end there. Piaget believed that there are four stages in cognitive development that occur in certain age ranges.

It is possible however for different children of the same age to operate at different levels of cognitive development, and some children may exhibit aspects of more than one stage – especially when in transition between stages of development (Slavin, 2006). What always holds true for Piaget however is that an individual passes through these four stages, in order, through their lifetime. The first of these stages is called the sensorimotor stage which typically occurs between birth and the age of two (Slavin, 2006). During this stage, children rely on their actions, (movement and reflexes), to perceived the world.

All intelligence is acquired through this physicality. It is also at this stage, that the child learns how to crawl and then walk. Toward the end of this first stage, the child understands the concept of object permanence, the idea that objects still exist even though they cannot be seen (Slavin, 2006). The second stage in Piaget’s theory is called the preoperational stage which occurs between the ages of two and seven. During this stage, children begin to think of the world by using symbols. Learning to talk takes place at this age as children begin to understand that words are symbols for the world around them.

Thinking during this stage is egocentric, meaning that children believe that everyone thinks as they do. Also during this stage thinking is centered, meaning that children in this stage only are aware of one aspect of an object or situation (Slavin, 2006). The third stage, or concrete stage presents itself between the ages of seven and eleven and is marked by a drastic change in cognitive ability (Slavin, 2006).

Egocentrism gives way to more logical thought processes. Firstly, the aspect of inferred reality is present in this stage, that is, he ability of a child to see an object for what it truly is, not merely what it appears to be in a given situation. Another hallmark of this stage in thinking is seriation, meaning a child understands that a task is complete only after following an arranged progression of steps. This breakthrough in thinking also makes reversibility possible at this stage, which is the ability of a child to do a task in reverse to end at the starting point (Slavin, 2006). The final step in Piaget’s theory is called the formal operational stage and can occur at ages eleven through adulthood.

This stage of development is marked by the ability to think abstractly, that is, using symbols and relations in order to solve complex, intricate problems. Not everyone achieves this level of cognition, as it is thought that the number of people that have achieved this level of thought is fewer than 40% (Feldman, 2005). While Piaget has set stages of development, Vygotsky does not. This is a broader view of development that is derived from social processes. According to Vygotsky, cognitive development is really the translation of social relations and experiences into mental function (Feldman, 2005).

Starting from childhood, an individual converts an experience into a sign that is then linked into the individual’s informational framework. This theory contains processes that are outlined above that continue throughout a person’s life, hence the theory is considered a continuous theory of development (Slavin, 2006). There are two immediately obvious applications of Vygotsky’s theory in the classroom. They would differ from those of Piaget in that Vygotsky saw learning as a function of social interaction, so that these strategies require a two way interaction with the environment.

Firstly, by grouping students of varying degrees of ability, they can effectively assist themselves through the task, as long as that task is within the students’ respective ZPDs. This is the very definition of cooperative learning and has been shown to be extremely effective (Slavin, 2006). Secondly, teaching strategies that implement scaffolding have also been proven to be effective. For example, a teacher would begin a lesson by offering a suggestion for a topic, as well as participate in the beginning of the discussion in order to get the students involved.

As the lesson continues, the teacher would withdraw from participating in the discussion gradually, thereby allowing the students to lead the lesson, learning along the way (Slavin, 2006). Another less obvious application is teaching students to talk themselves through solving a problem using self-speech, a process called assisted discovery (Slavin,2006). Applications of Piaget’s theory in the classroom may not be as obvious. Since much of Piaget’s theory is internal, they focus on what and how the child is thinking and not so much on how the learning environment acts on the individual.

Firstly, it is important for a teacher to focus on how a student solves a problem, and not on the final answer. A teacher can only fix what can be perceived, so if the mode of logic used to answer the problem is flawed in any way, a teacher could help correct that flaw. This approach also gauges the students cognitive development (Slavin, 2006). Secondly, instead of requiring the student to internalize and regurgitate information in the classroom, students in this classroom be expected to explore their thought to create new experiences and learn through discovery (Slavin, 2006).

Thirdly, children develop at different rates according to Piaget, so targeting a whole class with a single activity may hinder one group’s learning while taxing another group’s abilities. The solution to this is to separate the class into small groups, according to development, and give each group developmentally appropriate tasks, so that the learning experiences of all students are maximized (Slavin, 2006).


  1. Feldman, R. (2005). Understanding psychology (7th ed. ). New York: McGraw-Hill.
  2. Slavin, R. (2006). Educational psychology: Theory and practice (8th ed. ). Boston: Pearson.

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Cognitive Development Theory: Piaget vs. Vygotsky Compare and Contrast. (2018, Feb 23). Retrieved from