Cognitive Development in Children – Jean Piaget and Lev Vygotsky Views

Jean Piaget and Lev Vygotsky had similar views in certain ways. These two had similar interest in the study of children’s cognitive development. This implies that both of them had an enormous impact on cognitive development section in the field of psychology. Both of them agreed that when infants come into the world (born), abilities and tools for intellectual development do accompany them (Meece, 2002). Another similarity is that both of them were in agreement that egocentric speech formed an essential part, or section in cognitive development. However, in this case, Vygotsky concentrates on perception, sensation, attention and memory. Piaget, on the hand, focuses on sensory abilities and motor reflexes. The greatest similarity between these two educators (Piaget and Vygotsky) is that they both made immense contributions to constructivist learning ideas of the present days (Meece, 2002). These ideas emphasize the need for learning by doing. This is essential for child development. It is; however, worth noting that there are more differences than similarities in the theories of these two educators.

According to Wadsworth (2003), Piaget’s theory focuses more on children, and not the entire group of learners. It suggests distinct developmental stages separated by qualitative differences as opposed to steady increase in complexity and number of ideas, concepts and behaviours. It does not tackle specific behaviours or learning information. The main objective of the theory is to articulate the processes and mechanisms that enable the infant, then a child, to develop into a person that has the ability to reason and think hypothetically (Wadsworth, 2003). Therefore, Piaget’s research was about the growth of knowledge. According to Woolfolk (2004), Piaget’s theory of cognitive development has three main elements; Schema, the four processes, which facilitate the changeover from one phase to the other, and the four stages or phases of cognitive development. Woolfolk (2004) further asserts that the four stages in the cognitive development of a child are; sensorimotor, preoperations, concrete operations and formal operations. Each of these stages has its own significance, and as Piaget believed, a child cannot skip anyone of them as they are all essential in cognitive development process. According to Goswami (2008) and the findings of Woolfolk (2004), the descriptions of the four stages are as follows:

  • Sensorimotor stage (from birth to two years old) – The child interacts with the environment and establishes a range of concepts regarding reality and how it operates. During this stage, the child does not understand object permanence.
  • Preoperational stage (from age of two to seven years) – The child in this stage is incapable of thinking in a logical manner. He/she only has the ability to represent the world through by use of mental symbols and images; however, such symbols depend on the intuition and perception of the child.
  • Concrete stage operations (from age of seven to eleven years) – At this stage, the child can perform mental operations. These operations allow the child to reflect on the physical actions, which he/she performed in the previous years. It becomes possible for the child perform mental reversal of the direction of his/her thought.
  • Stage of formal operations (from age of eleven to sixteen years) – In this stage, the child has the ability to think about the hypothetical, the abstract, the future. This stage coincides with the start of adolescence, which implies the beginning of deductive reasoning and abstract thought.

Piaget tried as much as possible to focus on measurement, conservation, number, chance, time, movement, spatial relationships, classifications and relations (Meece, 2002). On the other hand, the main focus of the Lev Vygotsky was on the interaction of the child and his/her society and culture (Meece, 2002). While Piaget viewed knowledge as something that people construct on an individual basis, Vygotsky viewed cognitive development as a product of constructive social interaction among people (Vygotsky, 2000). Vygotsky maintained that memory, attention, and perceptions are elementary mental capabilities (innate characteristics) that accompany children when they come into the world (Vygotsky, 2000). These innate features continue to develop children start to develop and undergo social interactions in their society and culture. Vygotsky, also, maintained that language is the most essential aspect or part in regard to cognitive development. In his theory, Vygotsky identified three stages in which language occurs. These stages are social speech, egocentric and inner speech (Badrova, 2006). Children use social speech just for the sake of communication. Children use egocentric speech in an intellectual way by making loud noises to themselves. Finally, children use inner speech by thinking in their heads about what they are doing and what should come next instead of expressing their thoughts verbally.

Therefore, Piaget and Vygotsky had different views regarding cognitive development. Piaget maintained that cognitive development starts at birth and ends at adolescence stage while Vygotsky believed that it begins at birth and ends when a person dies (Wadsworth, 2003). Piaget viewed that children act on their own environment in the process of learning while Vygotsky maintained that cognitive development was as a result of social development (Wadsworth, 2003). While Piaget maintained that children construct their own knowledge, Vygotsky was of the view that children are scaffolded by adults who have more abilities than them (Galotti, 2010).

The ideas of Vygotsky became popular making his theory to become the theory of choice in explaining the relationship that exists between thinking or reasoning and the development of language. Galotti (2010) asserts that Vygotsky laid three significant themes, which comprise the core bases of constructivism. The first one was that, for cognitive development to occur in a proper manner, social interaction should take the centre stage. The second theme that he laid is the ‘More knowledgeable Other’ (MKO) (Galotti, 2010). This refers to any person that has more understanding than the learner. He/she, therefore, acts as a coach or a teacher, and that is the same thing that happens in the learning environment of today. The third theme is the Zone of Proximal Development (ZPD) (Galotti, 2010). Vygotsky insisted that this stage is critical in the learning process of the child.

In conclusion, this paper discussed the views of Jean Piaget and Lev Vygotsky on cognitive development of children. The two educators had more differences in their views than similarities.


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