The comparison of sociocultural theory to Piaget’s developmental model Any new theory of human development requires analysis; how it goes about testing its concepts and how it compares with other contemporary theories within the same field. Conforming to these requirements allow the merits, place and role of the theory being analysed to become much clearer. Furthermore, this approach can sometimes throw further light on previously analysed theory and often provide a deeper understanding of it.
With this in mind, I have chosen to analyse the contribution made by Jean Piaget’s ‘Developmental Model’, and Lev Vygotsky’s ‘socio-cultural learning-theory’ for several reasons.
The primary one is because their legacy to our understanding of learning is visible in education today and is, therefore, playing a role in shaping the future of society. Much of the work they produced was done concurrently (they were born in the same year, 1896) and there was some opportunity for each to read and comment on the work of the other.
From initial study it appears that by looking at both, one enters into the nature vs nurture argument.
The case for nurture is certainly accentuated in Vygotsky’s work, whereas Piaget’s developmental model occupies itself with the functions of the brain and the way it displays its construction of knowledge. In other words, Vygotsky appears to theorise from the outside in and Piaget, from the inside out. This essay will investigate to what extent this view is valid. As well as looking at the background of Piaget and Vygotsky to attempt to provide a framework from where each man developed his ideas, an attempt will be made to draw out the similarities and differences and present some of the reasons behind them.
Much of the research already carried out often appears to be presented as one versus the other (with the sense of one being advocated as being more valid). However, this essay will aim to show that Piaget and Vygotsky were rarely at cross-purposes but rather, approaching the same subject, how children learn, from different perspectives. There is little doubt that both of these men were remarkable in displaying early signs of advanced intellectual capacity and that both zealously pursued study and research throughout their lives. Each was recognised as essential contributors in several scientific fields.
Both were born into prosperous, intellectual families where they enjoyed freedom of thought and were given the opportunity to engage with adult company on intellectual matters. Vygotsky’s childhood saw him surrounded by people, (he was one of eight children), living through a turbulent historical backdrop. To add to this, being Jewish in the Russia of his time, meant that he and his family were well aware of their ‘otherness’ and how it affected the life opportunities available to most Russian subjects (places in State-run universities were limited to a 5% Jewish intake for example).
We see Vygotsky grow up to be very aware of his surroundings and sensitive to inter-relationships. In contrast, Piaget’s environment appears more stable all-round, with less family upheavals due to new members being born and with, apparently, little if any conflict with the outside world. Vygotsky came to see the dramatic influence the environment and its social factors had on children’s learning and advocated that mixed abilities, learning together, enhanced learning generally. He came to this conclusion despite being home-schooled through his primary years. Piaget seemed to be more concerned with defining uniform, human-learning traits.
He did not deny the impact one’s environment and life experiences had on the individual but tried to identify natural and common characteristics within the growing human being. Interestingly, Piaget, who did attend primary school, contended that the best possible learning environment for a child was on a one-to-one basis. Closer examination of both learning theories will give some explanation as to why. ‘Piaget sought to unify biology, natural science and psychology (while) Vygotsky’s quest was to integrate psychology with an analysis of history, art, literature, cultural activity and sociology. (Wood. 1988 p. 10). Vygotsky’s interest in the development of culture and education grew, particularly in the period when he held the post of Head of Art and Aesthetic Education in Gomel’s (his hometown) Department of Education. In 1924, he made his mark in psychoneurology when he attended a congress at St. Petersburg and delivered a paper that attracted the attention of Luria who asked him to join the staff of the Moscow Institute of Experimental Psychology. Here, Vygotsky became the acknowledged leader of the Luria and Leontiev team. He continued to work with these men until his death in 1936.
THE SOCIOCULTURAL LEARNING THEORY OF VYGOTSKY As the title suggests, sociocultural theory emphasises the role that society (an extended social group having a distinctive cultural and economic organisation), and culture itself, (all the knowledge and values shared by a society) play in shaping an individual’s learning. Vygotsky starts from the premise that all learning is constructed and that understanding comes from new learning being added on to existing learning, but that the child appropriates ways of thinking through social interaction rather than constructing methods of cognition as an individual. LeGard. 2004) For Vygotsky, society is produced through the construction and use of cultural tools such as language. Tools are acquired during a culture’s development and forwarded to subsequent generations and as a culture develops, new generations may adopt a cultural tool. This is known as appropriation. ZPD theory, or Zone of Proximal Development, has come to be a defining feature of Vygotsky’s contribution. The child is a social being who ‘appropriates’ new patterns of thinking when learning alongside a more competent individual.
The ZPD, as described by Vygotsky is ‘The distance between the actual development level as determined by independent problem-solving and the level of potential development as determined through problem-solving under adult guidance or in collaboration with more capable peers’. (Leong and Bodrova. 2001). Vygotsky calls the adult, or more capable peer, the More Capable Other or MKO, maintaining that the student has a higher performance in such a collaboration and that learning occurs just above the student’s level of competence. (ibid).
So, social interaction supports the child’s cognitive development in the ZPD, leading to higher levels of reasoning. In the late 1950’s, Jerome Bruner called the idea of a significant adult guiding a child through the ZPD ‘scaffolding’. This concept has been developed by Bruner and influenced his related concept of instructional scaffolding. LANGUAGE As one of the key learning tools, language plays a crucial role for Vygotsky. For him, language functions on two levels. External speech is used to converse with others and inner speech is used for mental reasoning. These operations occur separately.
Vygotsky says that before the age of 2 years, the child employs social words but has no internal language. Once thought and language merge, the social language is internalised and assists the child with their reasoning. Thus, the social environment is ingrained within the child’s learning. Egocentric speech (when a child speaks aloud without addressing anyone else) is regarded as social language imitation. Private speech is social and communicative. It is the beginning of the internalisation of external social speech. Inner speech is initiated, as is social dialogue, by this egocentric speech.
Both children and adults are known to partake in private speech when experiencing difficulties. Language skills are particularly critical for creating meaning and linking new ideas to past experiences and prior knowledge. Internalised skills or psychological tools ‘are used to gain mastery over one’s own behaviour and cognition’. (Hamilton and Ghatala. 1998. p. 255). Primary among these tools is ‘the development of speech and its relation to thought’ (Hamilton and Ghatala. 1998. p. 258). Vygotsky established that language is fundamental in shaping thought and is an instrument of contemplation in planning the solution of a problem.
In other words, language determines the way a child learns ‘how’ to think. Complex concepts are conveyed through words, and learning always involves some type of external experience being transformed into internal processes through the use of language. (Feden and Vogel. 1993). Vygotsky excelled in asking many valuable questions about the goal of learning. He tried to define his sociocultural theory by identifying the various aspects of ‘learning’ and placing them into sub-categories, such as those theories outlined below. Vygotsky’s Theory of Value asks what knowledge and skills are worthwhile learning and what the goals of education are?
It stresses the importance of looking at each child as an individual who learns distinctively, with the overall goal of education being to generate, and lead, development which is the result of social learning through internalisation of culture and social relationships. Vygotsky’s Theory of Knowledge asks us consider what knowledge is and how it differs from belief? It questions mistakes and lies. ‘Specific functions are not given to a person at birth but are only provided as cultural and social patterns’ (Davydov and Kerr. 1995. p. 18) and intellectual abilities are much more specific to the culture in which the child was reared.
People adapted to the surrounding environment based on their interpretations and individual perceptions of it (Fosnot. 1996). Thus people are not born with knowledge nor is knowledge independent of social content. Mistakes are a crucial part of learning because they impact future learning. A concept emerges and takes shape in the course of a complex interaction aimed at the solution of a problem and is an active part of the intellectual process. Making mistakes (or, incoherent coherence) is a stage that is an integral part of the child’s development. Mistakes get corrected and new knowledge is gained.
This coincides with the stage when the child’s organisational schema becomes less egocentric because he is now incorporating additional information, gained from experience, into his thought processes. Vygotsky’s THEORY OF NATURE asks what human nature is, how it differs from other species and what the limits of human potential is? He defines human nature as being pinned down to place, time and biological traits and that humans develop through the ways they interact with those around them. According to Marxist theory, ‘The essence of man is no abstraction inherent in each single individual.
In its reality it is the ensemble of the social relations’. (Spirkin. 1983) Vygotsky includes, as a fundamental feature of the human being, the use of psychological tools. ‘Some of these include, ‘language, different forms of numeration and counting, works of art, writing, schemes, diagrams, maps, blueprints’ (Vygotsky. 1997). He places great importance on spoken language as arguably the most critical tool that sets humans apart from other species. It is the first psychological tool used by children to communicate with others who share the environment.
Animals react to their environment and can only be trained to acquire new habits. Humans have the capacity to change their environment for their own purposes. His theory of ZPD posits that human potential is theoretically limitless but the practical limits of human potential depend on quality social interactions and residential environment. So, according to Vygotsky, the two primary means of learning occur through social interaction and language. Initially, a child’s new knowledge is Interpsychological and is learned through interaction with others on a social level.
Later, this knowledge becomes Intrapsychological, meaning ‘inside’ the child, and the new skill or knowledge is mastered on an individual level. His Theroy of Transmission asks who is to teach, by what methods and what the curriculum will be? At first glance, it seems as though no educational environment is needed, that education may be accomplished in any environment whatsoever. There is no need to create artificial educational environments because life educates better than school. This is not so, according to Vygotsky.
Schools represent society and he advocates them as a forum for social learning and as agent for change in the individual. ‘Society shapes the individual and socialisation is a process of cultural transmission both unintentional and deliberate’ (Clabaugh and Rozycki. 2007. p. 14). This process is central to education, and socialisation, education and schooling are in a symbolic relationship. Under the Stalinist regime, Vygotsky’s work was banned. In 1956 the ban was lifted and his work translated, but almost twenty years passed before his genius was known and his work adopted in other parts of the world.
Before that, his theory inspired only a relatively small group of followers in Russia and Eastern Europe. Vygotsky has had an enormous international influence on psychological and educational thinking and practice, and his ideas have been instrumental in shaping the learning processes in a growing number of classrooms in Russia, Europe, and the United States and beyond. (Kozulin et al. 2003). As well as the fundamental influence on Vygotsky, Piaget’s work (of over 50 years) has also had a considerable, universal impact on the fields of sociology, education, and child psychology.
Rather than Vygotsky’s stance, that children are a synthesis of their biology, family, culture and society and that this synthesis decides how they construct knowledge, Piaget sees children as little scientists who are constantly creating and testing their own theories of the world become ever more relevant. PIAGET’S DEVELOPMENTAL MODEL ‘The question of the relationships between mind and biological organisation is one which inevitably arises at the beginning of a study of the origins of intelligence’ (Piaget. 1952. p. 1).
Given his background in science it is, perhaps, no surprise to find Piaget approaching his epistemological studies (which he termed as ‘genetic epistemology) from a biological angle and that his views on learning and intelligence should be linked thus. Working on the standardisation of intelligence tests during his employment at the Binet Laboratory, he began to realise that children of the same age tended to make the same kind of mistakes, mistakes that were quite different to the type of mistakes made by children of different ages.
He began to realise that ‘intelligence could not be equated with the number of test items that a child answered correctly’ (Hergenhahn and Olson. 2005. p. 294). To explore these common ‘mistakes’ Piaget gave up testing that entailed either a right or wrong answer and instead, used a ‘clinical method’ with an open-ended form of questioning, derived from the children’s answers. In searching for the variables influencing the test performance of children, the results came to be seen as revolutionary in the field of developmental psychology and he soon became an internationally acclaimed authority on child psychology.
Piaget saw intelligence as the way a person made the best possible conditions for his/her own survival. He acknowledged that both the person and the environment were constantly changing and so the intelligent interaction between the two also had to change. As he delved deeper into thought-processes he became interested in the nature of thought itself. Piaget began to study his own children’s development in detail and over a long period of time and from this, came up with his Stages of Development theory, as set out below.
Piaget saw cognitive development as a continuous progression of assimilation and accommodation and that these complimentary processes led to adaption. Knowledge is constructed progressively via a sequence of behaviour in mental operations called schemas. He proposed that children develop mental representations of the world based on physical or mental actions, which they execute on the environment. These initial reflex behaviours are repeated while intrinsic motivation encourages the child to apply schema to different situations.
Assimilation occurs when the new experience is incorporated into an existing schema. That existing schema then adjusts itself to correspond with evidence from the environment. Piaget called this accommodation. Schema adapts to objects and circumstances and is replaced with a constructed schema, producing adaption. The child then achieves a state of (temporary) equilibrium. As a result of his research, Piaget identifies a series of stages which, he believes, illustrate the point at which certain learning takes place and at which the child, on mastering the given stage, moves on to the next level. Intelliegence does not by any means appear at once derived from mental development, like a higher mechanism, and radically distinct from those which have preceded it Intelligence presents, on the contrary, a remarkable continuity with the acquired or even inborn processes on which it depends and at the same time makes use of. ’ (Piaget. 1952. p. 21) Sensorimotor Skills – The First Stage Piaget noticed that even infants have certain skills in regard to objects in their environment.
Simple skills though they are, they direct the way in which the baby explores his/her environment, gains more knowledge and moves on to more sophisticated exploratory skills. He named this schema. The sensorimotor stage lasts from birth to about two years old and relies on the use of the senses and motor abilities to understand the world, beginning with reflexes and ending with complex combinations of sensorimotor skills. This period is totally concerned with ‘the here and now’ and if an object is removed from the baby’s view, to the baby, it ceases to exist.
Because the baby has yet to develop language he/she is incapable of understanding that it exists elsewhere. Piaget identified circular reactions within the sensorimotor stage. Between one and four months, the primary circular reaction, a baby discovers actions that serve as stimuli, such as thumb-sucking, to which it responds with the same action. Secondary circular reactions, evident in babies between four and twelve months old, they begin to interact with the environment, such as playing with a toy that makes a noise if squeezed.
The baby grasps the idea of performing a procedure that makes things last. During this period, they begin to develop an understanding of, what Piaget called, the concept of object permanence, that objects taken out of sight have not ceased to be. This corresponds with conscious memory. Tertiary circular reactions see 12-24 month olds experimenting further with ‘making things last’ add variety, for example, discovering the different sounds a stick can make depending on what is being struck.
Usually halfway through this period, the child has the ability to hold images in his/her mind beyond the immediate experience and shows signs of being able to use mental combinations to solve simple problems, like putting something down to allow them to open a door for example. Play becomes more imaginative and the doll that was once only used for sucking on, say, is now being treated in a different way (the child may put the doll to bed, or sing to it, for example). Preoperational – The Second Stage There are two subdivision here, namely, preconceptual and intuitive thought.
In the former, (2-4 years) the child begins basic concept formation. He/she sees a fish swimming, asks what it is and is told that it is a fish. The child then appropriates the word ‘fish’ to all swimming creatures. ‘Daddy is a man’, therefore, every man is Daddy. Intuitive thought (4-7 years) sees the child no longer using the same kind of logic but solving problems intuitively. ‘The motor anticipation peculiar to the mobile schemata of assimilation suffices to insure the comprehensive of signs and the coordination of means and ends, without need for perception to substitute for representation. (Piaget. 1952. p. 351) Having learned to pretend, the child begins to understand the notion of symbols, one thing representing another. Play becomes more creative and the child may use a box and pretend it’s a car or pretend buttons are sweets. The word ‘bus’, spoken, written or drawn represents a real bus, proving the use of abstract thought. This abstract thought allows the child an understanding of time, although he/she is egocentric, seeing almost everything from a personal point of view. To investigate this phenomenon, Piaget created ‘the mountains study’ in 3D (See figure 1). Figure 1
The yellow circle shows the child’s perspective and the green, Piaget’s. He would ask children to pick which view from the right-hand side was his. Younger children would pick the view they themselves had whilst older children chose correctly. Piaget concluded that younger children concentrate on one aspect of any problem (or communication) at a time. The same theory was tested through his, now well-known, theory of conservation. Even if a child sees two identical glasses of liquid being transferred into one small, fat glass and one tall, thin glass, he/she is likely to assume that the taller one has got more liquid in it.
The child’s ability to understand conservation means he/she has moved into the next of Piaget’s developmental stages. Concrete Operations – The Third Stage This stage spans roughly from 6/7 to about 11/12 years of age. In this stage the child learns conservation and other viewpoints. Piaget believed that the capacity to understand this was a result of the child’s experiences with the environment and his/her unfolding ‘as a function of maturation along some genetically determined path’ (Hergenhahn and Olson. 2005. p. 301).
The child becomes able to perform complex operations but with concrete problems as opposed to abstract ones. Being able to categorise, serialise and deal with number concepts are features of this stage. Formal Operations – The Fourth Stage Formal operations allow one to investigate a problem in a careful and systematic fashion. From around 11/15 years, thinking becomes more adult-like, involving the use of logical operations, and being able to use them in an abstract way, otherwise called hypothetical thinking. It should now no longer be necessary for the object of thought to be real or immediate.
Piaget believed that this stage sees one’s power of logic being fully developed and will serve to help solve any problems one may face in life. As Larry Nucci, president of the Jean Piaget Society puts it: “He completely changed the way we think about knowledge. ” (Mark. 2002). Continuing evidence of Piaget’s developmental stages have been seen in classrooms for generations. Not only did Piaget’s work shape further research into learning but, ‘The new interactive technologies – multimedia, virtual reality and the Internet owe more to Piagetian views than their developers probably realize’ (ibid). * * * * * * * * The initial point at which their work coincides revolves around the constructivist theory of learning, and it was Vygotsky’s tweaking of the theory that went on to give us social-constructivism. Vygotsky saw that Piaget had developed a clinical method that revolutionised the study of children’s thought and language. He admired the focus that was put on what children have as opposed to what they lack, and agreed that thinking is qualitative, not quantitative. Both saw that intellectual development was onstructive in nature and that there were stages in development. (Vygotsky’s incoherent coherence as set out above). Where the main difference lies seem primarily to be more a question of emphasis rather then disagreement, and that is the extent of the influence of culture and society on learning, because, despite his focus on universal development stages, Piaget repeatedly admitted the environment influenced the child. In conclusion, we believe that social life is a necessary condition for the development of logic.
Thus, we believe that social life transforms the very nature of the individual, making him pass from an autistic state to one involving personality. In speaking of co-operation, therefore, we understand a process that creates new realities and not a mere exchange between fully developed individuals. (Piaget. 1995. p. 210) However, there are a couple of crucial points of difference revolving around language. Piaget claimed that language acquisition is not a cognitive development and that egocentric speech faded with age.
Vygotsky regarded egocentric speech as a social language imitation and believed that private speech was social and communicative. Vygotsky, on re-evaluating Piaget’s notion of egocentric speech, established that language was fundamental in shaping thought, and was an instrument of contemplation in planning a solution of a problem. (Vygotsky 1971 p. 22) * * * * * * * * * To conclude, Vygotsky placed the role of society as being an integral part of an individual’s learning, where each reflects the other, and both influence further development.
Unwittingly, Piaget may have proved this point himself when reaching his conclusions. His ‘study group’ was his three children and the children of friends who were likely to have been from a similar background, culturally, materially and intellectually. Therefore, the results of his ‘experiments’ do not incorporate the differences that may have appeared if working with a bigger diversity of subjects from a variety of backgrounds, as Vygotsky suggested. Vygotsky is not alone in believing that Piaget’s ‘Stages’ do not always apply to as strict a code as he maintains.
There were many examples of children reaching ‘stages’ at varying ages, particularly if there were certain cultural demands. “We found that in cultures apart from places like Cambridge, Mass. , and suburban Geneva, where Piaget did his work, kids did not pass through the sequence of cognitive development that Piaget thought was invariant,” said Dr. Bruner. Instead, mental abilities Piaget saw as developing in later stages of childhood were present in some form very early. ”What was missing altogether from Piaget’s thinking was the influence of culture on people’s ways of knowing. New York Times 2005) Most studies disputing Piaget on this, however, were carried out much later than when his studies took place, and there may be an argument for an acceleration of the brain’s capabilities, at particular given times of development, that has occurred over subsequent generations. In researching the two theories, the point of greatest interest to this author was looking at each of the men and their lives, and seeing how their experiences brought them to their conclusions.
Vygotsky’s theory appears more liberal and expansive and yet, categorically believes we are chained to our environment, albeit with some agency. This seems a good description of himself and the life he led. I believe there is no coincidence that Vygotsky had a wider view on the world, given that he lived in a multi-cultural state that was experiencing massive upheavals including war and revolution. Thus, he could see on a daily basis how the environment might impact on the life of the individual. That he should have brought this back to the individual experience might also reflect his being a Jew in a society that abided by ertain, anti-Semitic regulations. His avid interest in culture and society seem to have been shaped in the years when Soviet rule was new, and there were feelings of great optimism and opportunity, and there was a flowering of culture and the arts. With Piaget’s work, one does feel a sense of abstraction. His approach is clinical and systematic, suggesting little leeway, yet one gets the impression that once one passes through the stages of development he describes, the mature individual is free to ‘act on the world’.
Historically, and in much the same timeline as events in Russia, Switzerland saw the peasantry turning to industrial employment (or emigrating). In 1918, as a result of difficult economic conditions and frustration with the voting system that was seen as having an in-built bias towards the bourgeois parties, Switzerland had a general strike that was broken, with little violence, after only two days. (Russia’s revolution saw over 18,000 people killed in less than two years). Due to proportional representation there was a rise of socialist ideology but it became a party of reform as opposed to conflict.
Switzerland, for the most part, stayed out of the European mainstream and took no active part in either of the World Wars. So, although Switzerland is surrounded by turbulence, it remains somewhat aloof to it and indeed, manages to rise above the problems caused by the shift from agricultural to industrial production and then from its stagnation to service industries. I believe that there are parallels between Piaget’s ‘individual’ and Switzerland’s historical stance, a body somewhat separate from the outside world.
Although it has already been alluded to, the differences between Piaget’s ideal of one-to-one tuition and Vygotsky’s advocating schools were the opposite of their own experiences. On this point, I have concerns about the mixed ability schooling Vygotsky favours in the pursuit of overall elevation of standards as it is in danger of reducing all students to the lowest common denominator. This method may be suitable if there is no particular academic level to achieve. I am not saying that the brighter student gains nothing in such a situation but I do think that the heights a bright student ight reach if tracked and guided by a personal tutor are jeopardised. I question whether we would have the likes of either men, who intellectually forged ahead and came up with novel thoughts if they were having to spend their time teaching others what they were being taught. In terms of schooling, it is therefore necessary to decide what its goals are. A Piagetian view would be more likely to leave cultural education and the habits of society to their own domain (as much as this is possible) and concentrate on developing the child’s cognition through systematic guidance.
Those who advocate Vygotsky’s approach would see the child as being a link in a cultural chain, defined by his/her place in time, and would place the child’s stance as the starting point where his/her education at school begins. In comparing Vygotsky and Piaget, I have learned that a combination of both appear to cover all areas of learning, and considering both theories allow a deeper understanding of the learning processes that take place, particularly in the child.
In my own experience, before having any familiarity with Piaget’s, or Vygotsky’s, Learning Theory, I have seen how babies do indeed appear to pass through the stages Piaget describes, and equally, I have directly witnessed different approaches to learning, and understanding, based on a child’s cultural background, as Vygotsky advocates. BIBLIOGRAPHY Borger, R. and Seaborne, A. E. M. (1974) The Psychology of Learning. Middlesex: Penguin Books Ltd. Britton, J. (1970) Language and Learning. Middlesex: Penguin Books Ltd. Bruner, J. S. (1974) Relevance of Education.
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