How humans develop in terms of reasoning, logic and skills at solving problems, has continued to be a subject of interest for sociologists and psychologists alike. The question of whether cognitive development is purely a product of biology or human socialization persists even to this day. Jean Piaget and Lev Vykovsky both present theories that tackle the role of social interaction in cognitive development.
The difference however lies in Piaget’s more “internal” view of development within the individual and Vykovsky’s theories that propose a form of “mentorship” an individual receives and interacts with from elements in his environment that educates him into higher levels of cognition.
Cognitive Development According to Jean Piaget and Lev Vygotsky
As humans grow and develop from infancy to adulthood, they pick up knowledge and information on how to understand and do things. How they process this knowledge according to the different stages of their growth is the focus of studies of cognitive psychology.
Lexically, cognition is defined as “the process of knowing and, more precisely, the process of being aware, knowing, thinking, learning and judging. The study of cognition touches on the fields of psychology, linguistics, computer science, neuroscience, mathematics, ethology and philosophy.” (“Cognitive Psychology,” 2004) The development part refers to the reasoning and understanding ability an individual develops, as he grows older.
There are numerous theories as to how and when humans develop their cognition. Two of the more known theorists are Jean Piaget and Lev Vygotsky.
In his observation of an organism’s development, biologist Dr. Jean Piaget came up with his development model that divides and identifies the stages of cognitive development in human beings. He began with the accidental discoveries and reflexes made by infants to the more curious explorations and imagination of childhood and culminating into the final stage of the capability for abstract thinking of adults.
Put simply, Piaget outlined the development of an individual’s ability to grasp concepts both from within and the environment from simple to the more complex and put them to practical use in adapting to daily living.
The first Sensory-Motor Stage that starts from infancy to the age of 2, is where infants assimilate or discover physical schemas or actions. In an interview with Richard Evans in 1973, Piaget defines schemes as “instruments of action. But they are generalizing instruments; we could think of them as practical concepts”(Evans, 1973, p. 18).
Accommodation is the application of a simple action. The most common example of this is how a baby assimilates the “how to” of sucking, and thus can adapt to the sucking of a bottle big or small. In the Pre-Operational Stage, there is a concept called “animism” where a child views anything that moves as living. At age 4-6, anything with activity is “alive.” The age between 6-8 they become more discriminating and limit life to things that move. Here, a child thinks a feather floats or a leaf falls because it is alive. By age 8 and onwards, they become smarter and limit this thinking to things that move on their own. This concept comes to an end when children consider only plants and animals to be living.
The Concrete Operational Stage that starts from elementary up to early adolescence sees logic and operational thinking come into play. Systematic analysis is yet immature but the individual starts grasping relations between objects and processes that are mathematical in nature. The thought flow becomes more organized and appreciation of cause and effect is more apparent.
The final stage is the Formal Operational Stage from age 11 to 15. Here, the individual is fully capable of logic and systematic thinking as well as understanding abstract concepts (Huitt & Hummel. 2003) The individual is capable of “propositional thinking.” (Flavell, 1963, p. 205)
Deductive reasoning and development of hypothesis are now used in problem solving. Here, the individual reaches his fullest capability of systematically organizing thoughts and incorporating all assimilated knowledge in the execution or solution of thoughts.
Vygotsky, on the other hand had more “socially constructivist” views of human cognitive development. Indeed, he criticized Piaget’s view that development was a universal process of stages independent of the human experience. Vygotsky also challenged Piaget’s premise that development could not be impeded or accelerated through instruction.
While he also set forward his theory based on stages, Vygotsky claimed that the development of human cognition was influenced by three main things: culture, language and the Zone of Proximal Development (ZPD) which is the concept that the potential of the child is limited to a specific time span. He believed that social interaction played a pivotal role in influencing the development of cognition.
The entire history of the child’s psychological development shows us that, from the very first days of development, its adaptation to the environment is achieved through social means, through the people surrounding it. (Richardson, 1998, p. 154)
Learning through interaction is not simply limited to people. Vygotsky refers to “cultural tools” that include social conventions, inanimate objects and the logic of their social use. (Richardson, 1998, p. 156) For example, when an infant first learns to use a spoon, he not only learns about the spoon’s size and shape by interacting with it or handling it, but also how it is used within the society the child is born in.
Language is another point that Piaget and Vygotsky differ in. Whereas for Piaget language was a product of early cognitive development, for Vygotsky, language was a tool that caused development. They serve the child first and foremost, as a means of social contacts with surrounding people, and are also applied as a means of self-influence…creating thus a new and superior form of activity in the child” (Vygotsky & Luria, 1993, p.111).
A child uses language to represent “equations” of his relationship with the objects in his world. Language skills are then equal to the level of problem solving and thinking that an individual is capable of. It graduates individuals from elementary thinking to a more evolved and higher level. Vygotsky also separated language into three categories based on where or to whom it is directed. Language can either be social, egocentric, and inner.
The Zone of Proximal Development (ZPD) focused more on an individual’s level potentiality, namely, the potential to devise solutions to problems. He also classified this problem solving potentiality into three categories:
- Independent performance or a person’s ability to solve problems by himself
- Problems that could not be performed even with help
- Assisted solutions or problems that are solved due to a collaboration between an individual and external help.
The last category of this particular theory of Vygotsky earned much popularity in the field of education where maximum learning is achieved by a collaborative effort between student and teacher. Actually, both the theories advanced by both Piaget and Vygotsky has made quite an impact in designing learning programs implemented in schools.
Followers of Piaget’s theories find that lessons and teaching methods are better tailored to the students if the educator has an understanding of the level of reason and cognition they may expect from students at any given age. There is a belief that given this knowledge, teachers may address and teach students at a level that they can understand and appreciate.
Vygotsky’s theory on the other hand encourage mentorship and the development of programs that “raise the bar” in learning through teacher and student cooperation. If a person’s ability to mentally and cognitively develop is influenced by his environment, it would then be logical to believe that all a student or child needs is a good teacher to stimulate him into achieving more in class. One could also look at this as a proponent of the new school pushing for “multiple intelligence” where students are encouraged and conditioned to learn as much as they can given a huge variety of educational stimuli.
Whether human cognitive development is internal (Piaget) or externally influenced (Vygotsky), progress remains constant. People grow older and interact more socially at the same time develop skills in reasoning that were not present in their infancy, childhood and adolescence. Development is constant, and so are environment factors. There are just always different ways of looking at and evaluating the significance of relationships, things and concepts.
- Cognitive Psychology. (2004). In The Columbia Encyclopedia (6th ed.). New York: Columbia University Press.
- Evans, R. I. (1973). Jean Piaget The Man and His Ideas (Duckworth, E., Trans.). New York: E. P. Dutton.
- Flavell, J. H. (1963). Developmental Psychology of Jean Piaget. Princeton, NJ: D. Van Nostrand.
- Huitt, W., & Hummel, J. (2003). Piaget’s theory of cognitive development. Educational
- Psychology Interactive. Valdosta, GA: Valdosta State University. Retrieved August 24, 2007 from http://chiron.valdosta.edu/whuitt/col/cogsys/piaget.html
- Richardson, K. (1998). Models of Cognitive Development. Hove, England: Psychology Press.