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Essay on Vygotsky and Piaget

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Free Essay on Vygotsky and Piaget

There are many competing theoretical accounts of how children think and learn. For the purposes of this essay we will be focusing on two of the most dominant theorists of the domain, Jean Piaget and L.S Vygotsky. In order to put the discussion in context, it will be useful to establish some background information to provide us with an insight into their respective sources of interest in children and how this has directed and influenced their theories.

Piaget’s ideas have only really dominated our thinking about learning since the mid-sixties. His specific area of interest lay in biology and his quest to create a universal theory of biology and knowledge, applicable to all living systems, motivated his studies of children. Vygotsky, on the other hand, wished to understand the nature, evolution and transmission of human culture. Their respective orientations naturally lead to different perspectives about the nature of childhood.

Although Vygotsky and Piaget do concur on a number of important issues, their thinking is at its most distinct when discussing the roles played by social interaction and cultural influences; a point which is most significantly illustrated in their respective treatment of the role that language plays and its effect on thinking. It is this issue which will provide the focus point of the essay.

Piaget was primarily interested in intelligence. For him, this represented the means by which human beings adapt to their environment as an individual constructs an understanding of reality through interacting with it. Knowledge has to be actively discovered. Piaget believed that cognitive development is the combined result of biological maturation and experiences. Furthermore, he saw cognitive development as a long progression from infantile illogic to logical maturity. His academic background in biology led him to believe that all humans were genetically similar and shared many of the same experiences. Consequently, he chartered childrens’ development through a series of qualitatively distinct stages through which intellectual maturity evolves. Piaget claimed these stages followed one another in a fixed, inevitable pattern but accepted that there was no fixed time for each stage.

As a result of observations of his own three children he suggested that between birth and fourteen years of age, children went through four main stages; the sensory motor, pre-operational, concrete operational and formal operations periods. For the purposes of this essay it will not be useful to provide a detailed description of typical characteristics of each stage but rather explain the underlying assumptions behind this theoretical framework.

Piaget analysed and interpreted children’s development in terms of systems of logical operations, described in term of operations of mind. These mental operations, which can be applied to objects, beliefs, ideas or anything in the child’s world, are also known as schemas and these are seen to be evolving (Smith p336) units of intelligent behaviour. Schemas refer to the way of organizing experiences which makes the world more understandable. Piaget used two concepts to explain the development of these schemas; assimilation and accommodation.

Through assimilation the child takes in a new experience and fits it into an existing schema (Smith p337). This process is balanced with that of accommodation, in which the child adjusts an existing schema to incorporate aspects of an experience not currently represented in their cognitive structure. These two processes together create a state of equilibrium with the environment, although this is short lived as the child is faced with yet more new concepts and experiences. Piaget considered intellectual development to be a continuos process of assimilation and accommodation (Smith p338). He suggested that older children do not know more than younger but have broader experiences and that they can process the information in more sophisticated ways because of the more advanced biological and adaptive development of their underlying cognitive structure (http.//www.psych.port5.com).

Put simply, children progress through Piaget’s defined stages by learning through action, whether physical or mental. The main theme of Piaget’s theory is that activity is the essence of knowledge. He places action and self-directed problem solving at the heart of learning and development (Wood p9). By acting in the world, the learner comes to discover how to control it. Piaget suggests that social interaction will aid development only by causing a state of disequilibrium and thus setting in motion the processes of accommodation and assimilation as outlined earlier.

Whereas Piaget’s theory focused on the study of the individual rather than the group or society, Vygotsky took the opposite line. He was attracted to the idealistic, intelligent ideas of Marxism which suggested that all human beings were social animals to be studied in their social context in order to understand their development (Cohen p59). Consequently, Vygotsky took a socio-cultural approach, working on the assumption that action is mediated and cannot be separated from the milieu in which it is carried out. As mentioned earlier, Vygotsky shares some important ideas with Piaget, in particular, with regard to the emphasis they both place on activity as the basis for learning. However, he places far greater emphasis on the role of communication, social interaction and instruction in determining the path of development. He believed that knowledge acquisition is essentially and inescapably a socio-historical cultural process. Children are socialized into learning appropriate cognitive and linguistic skills from those more capable. Through such socialization, children learn the accumulated way of thinking and doing that are relevant to their cultures. Although Piaget recognizes the importance of social experiences, they play a secondary role in his theory. A key idea of Vygotsky’s theory is that of the zone of proximal development (ZPD). This can be defined as the range of potential each person has for learning and extending his competency beyond his individual reach with the help of others.

Here, we see a principal difference between Piaget and Vygotsky. Vygotsky claims that the capacity to learn through instruction is a fundamental feature of human intelligence and furthermore is the main vehicle for the transmission of knowledge (Wood p25). In contrast, Piaget suggests that a child under the age of seven cannot profitably be taught tasks and concepts because he is not mentally ready. According to Piaget, a child’s capacity to be taught and make logical sense of what they are shown is limited by their stage of development. For Piaget ‘genuine intellectual competence’ (Wood p24) is only reached when the child can construct his own understanding of events. In short, Piaget believes development precedes learning whilst Vygotsky claims learning causes development. Evidently, this provokes a very different idea of mental readiness for learning and consequently has different implications for teaching.

As identified in the introduction, the most widely discussed point of difference between Piaget and Vygotsky, concerns their ideas on the role of language. Language for Piaget is a system of symbols for representing the world and exerts no formative effects on the structure of thinking (Wood p26). As stated, Piaget believed mental actions and operations are stimulated by action, not talk. Piaget views pre-operational children, that is those roughly between the ages of two and seven, as egocentric in the sense that their view of the world is always moulded around their immediate personal and sectional view. This egocentrism, he believes, is manifested in both a child’s thinking and talk.

For Piaget, the utterances made by a child under the age of seven are examples of this egocentricity. His observations led him to claim that children do not attempt to communicate with others or even try to adapt their speech so others can understand it. By way of an example, he observed that children of this age often talk to themselves in a fashion which cannot be regarded as communication. Similarly, he also suggested that playground collective monologues are not real conversations. He theorised that children are constrained by their logical budget; children under the age of seven cannot construct situations as they appear from another person’s viewpoint and are therefore incapable of holding a rational conversation. It is only when a child reaches the age of around seven and ‘de-centres’ that speech becomes more socialised.

Vygotsky view is quite different. For him, childhood speech was not egocentric but social and communicative (Wood p27). As we have already learnt, Vygotsky was interested in the transmission of culture and this may explain the emphasis he placed on language. In his opinion it represented an important cultural tool and furthermore it was through speech that the child developed as a thinker and learner. Vygotsky did recognize the presence of egocentric speech but noted that it is produced as a child struggles to deal with abstract ideas. From this perspective, egocentric speech can be seen as a learning aid. Many adults revert to externalized monologues to solve complex tasks. Vygotsky suggested that it is these external monologues in children that later become internalised to form inner speech at around seven – inner speech being the dialogue that becomes thought. He also observed that when a child was in a room where there was no proper listener, he produced far less egocentric speech. From this, Vygotsky concluded that a totally egocentric creature would not be so sensitive to the presence of others (Cohen p65).

Vygotsky also observed Piaget’s so called collective monologues but again, interpreted them very differently. For him, they were highly social and represented the transition from language as a tool for regulation and communicating needs, to language as a tool for thought (Smith p435). The principal motivation for language comes out of a need for the child to control his world through other people. It is a physical activity and offers the infant a way of influencing the course of his immediate future (Wood p27). This provides the basis for inner speech, which, as we have already illustrated, forms the basis for thought. In short, the initial speech and gestures of infants and small children that are motivated by their needs and wants, become internalized to form thought. For Vygotsky, silent inner speech was crucial to development. Collective monologues and indeed the egocentric speech we have already discussed, for Vygotsky, represented the emergence of self-regulation in children, in the sense that they are planning and regulating their activities. In Vygotsky’s eyes this was an indication of verbal thinking and intellectual self-control. This view could not be supported by Piaget’s theory due to the constraints Piaget places on the child from the stages of intellectual development. However, although Piaget does admit that it is through talking to others that a child’s thinking becomes more socialized (Wood p26), he still claimed language came out of the logic and cognitive development of the child. This is in contrast to Vygotsky who maintained that language structures and directs the processes of thinking rather than reflects pre-formed mental operations.

As we have seen, albeit briefly, there are a number of ways in which Piaget’s and Vygotsky’s child differs in the way it learns about the world. Although they both agreed that action underlies thinking, Vygotsky places far greater emphasis on language as the creator of thought whereas Piaget concentrated more on the stages and constraints of logical development. It is important also to note Vygotsky’s interest with culture and how he claimed society and it’s cultural artifacts such as language, provided the tools to advance children’s thinking (Smith p335). However, in light of Vygotsky’s interest in culture, I feel it must be noted that these classic texts in psychology come from a time when the culture of our society was entirely different; education was more formal, children’s television or the internet did not exist, and neither did the pressures of commercialism and child targeted marketing. We must, therefore, ask ourselves to what extent these theories are still relevant in view of the enormous social and cultural changes our society has seen.

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