Jean Piaget and L. S. Vygotsky are key figures in the exploration and development of ideas regarding how humans construct knowledge out of experience. While both explored how a child’s interaction with their environment affected the development of cognition, Piagets’ theories contrast sharply with Vygotsky’s – with the former exploring internal processes within individual children, and the latter focusing on the role of social influences on cognition. However, since the mid-twentieth century their different roles in the formation of constructivist theories on the nature of knowledge have played a hugely influential role in national educational policies, curriculum design, and teacher training.
Although not specifically focused on teaching, Piaget’s research methods have influenced educational research, and his ideas on how children organise knowledge, develop in stages, and transition between stages as they adapt to new information, have had a lasting impact on pedagogy. He proposed that how we learn to think derives from our perception of what we do. His research as a developmental psychologist focused on how children’s thinking develop from physical interactions to become internalised logical concepts that can be applied to abstract cognition (Piaget, 1970).
Through observation and questioning of his own and friends children, Piaget produced a body of theory built on three main concepts: schema, adaption, and stages of development. With ‘schema’ Piaget describes the essential building blocks of intelligence which are laid down early in human development. These are created from essentially pre-verbal sensorimotor activity by which humans understand the world and are used to construct verbal thought and logic (Piaget, 1952).
According to Piaget, as children mature, these schemata change and integrate new knowledge through one of three processes of adaptation or ‘equilibration’: assimilation, accommodation and equilibrium. ‘Equilibrium’ refers to a state of satisfaction a child feels regarding their current understanding, ‘assimilation’ describes the process of adjusting an experience to fit a child’s existing schemata or understanding, and ‘accommodation’ is the manner in which a child may change existing schemata as a result of new knowledge. While undergoing assimilation or accommodation the child experiences cognitive conflict or ‘disequilibration’, which settles into a state of equilibrium once the more refined explanation is adopted.
Piaget mapped key steps in the maturation of intelligence and adaption of schemata throughout infancy, childhood and adolescence to four age-related steps (Hopkins, 2011; Capel, 2016; McLeod, 2018). The first, ‘sensorimotor’ stage occurs between birth and about 24 months. Infants physically interact with their environment through their senses, create a series of schemata based on these observations to build an understanding of themselves and the world. The chief attainments during this stage are the ability to distinguish between self and others, and being conscious of the existence of objects, even if they are not visible.
The next ‘preoperational’ stage, between ages 2 and about 6, is characterised by the child’s improving ability to comprehend difference, categorise experiences and things into simple groups, and adopt symbolic means of expression (e.g. language and writing).
Piaget regarded the next, ‘concrete operations’ stage – spanning the years from 7 and around 11 – to be key step in cognitive development. The process of accommodation adapts existing schemata to make sense of the growing accumulation of new experiences. It is at this stage that children begin to adopt abstract, logical thinking to explain sensorimotor experiences, and develop the ability to use inductive reasoning based on observation.
The final, fourth stage of development, which Piaget named “formal operational”, marks the point of cognitive maturation between ages 11 and 15. Piaget asserts that young adolescents at this stage develop abstract and systematic thinking. They are able to hypothesise and deduce outcomes of possible future events based on logical consideration external evidence as well as their own experience.
Like Piaget, Lev Vygotsky was a psychologist concerned with exploring and understanding how children’s activity influences their thinking, but unlike Piaget, he placed greater emphasis on the influence on the acquisition of language, undertook research in the field and proposed practices that might promote and guide learning. Vygotsky’s research took place during a period of economic and social change in Russia (USSR), and his findings are strongly influenced by the political rhetoric of the time as well as the cultural and educational programmes undertaken to bring about the rapid industrialisation of the nascent Communist state (Glassman, 2001).
Vygotsky’s contributions to pedagogic theory are formed around three key ideas: social interaction, the more knowledgeable other (MKO), and the zone of proximal development (ZPD).
According to Vygotsky, “[a]ll the higher functions originate as actual relations between human individuals” (Vygotsky, 1979, p. 57), and an essential part of cognitive development occurs when interpersonal processes are transformed into intrapersonal, social interactions. He uses the example of the development of a child’s ability to point to illustrate this. An infant’s first attempts to grab something is unsuccessful. Eventually she links her internal motivation towards an object with another person, and the interpersonal grabbing motion turns into an intrapersonal pointing gesture. This and other ‘sign operations’ (e.g. language) become transformed and internalised as an essential part of a child’s cognitive development.
Of fundamental significance to this process is interacting and talking with other, more knowledgeable, people and what impact this has on a child’s ability. Vygotsky called the difference between a child’s ability to solve problems independently and the effect of adult guidance or ‘more capable’ peer collaboration on this ability, the “zone of proximal development” (Vygotsky, 1979). In terms of a child’s mental development measured in years, the difference between what she may be capable of determined by tests based on independent work and tests based on collaboration may vary considerably (Vygotsky gives an example of between one and four years).
Vygotsky asserts: “the zone of proximal development defines those functions that have not yet matured but are in the process of maturation, functions that will mature tomorrow but are currently in an embryonic state” (Vygotsky, 1979; p. 86). The impact of this understanding on pedagogy is to reinforce the teachers role as guide in an active learning environment that highlights the collaborative role of learners in the construction of meaning. From a teachers point of view, understanding a child’s ZPD has a significant impact on how they introduce, discuss and develop topics in the classroom. While the ultimate aim is to reduce learners’ ZPD and facilitate improve independent cognition, from a child’s perspective, this understanding allows her to achieve her potential in cooperation with others. While unaware of Piaget’s and Vygotsky’s theories during much of my teaching practice over the past 30 years, the ubiquity of constructivist theory in recent pedagogy, and the ‘common sense’ nature of these theories has ensured that some awareness of these ideas has seeped into my practice. After all, it makes sense to encourage relevant discussion and peer support in class, and Western cultural recognises different stages in a child’s development. For example, the Catholic Church’s recognition of seven as “the age of discretion…when a child begins to reason” (Papal Encyclicals Online, 2017).
However, while the impact of these theories have had an important impact on teaching methods, they have not avoided criticism on both methodological and epistemological grounds (Shayer, Küchemann & Wylam, 1976; Driver, 1978). A key criticism of Vygotsky is the imprecision of how a child’s ZPD is identified, how it accounts for a child’s current ability, their motivation, or how development actually occurs (Chaiklin, 2003). Similarly, Schaffer (1986) asserts that Piaget’s concept of equilibration, which is fundamental to understanding how staged development works, is “an explanation based on intuition that remains impervious to empirical testing” (p. 763).
While acknowledging the importance of theory to practice, Capel (2016) suggests the adoption of Kolb’s experiential learning cycle (Kolb, 1984) as a model for developing strategies that “develop and change as the pupil becomes more experienced” (p. 711). She also advises that teachers evolve their own teaching methods and adapt them to meet new demands.
My observation of practice in secondary, and post-16 education appears to bear this out. Having observed teachers encourage recall, remind learners of their prior knowledge, provide opportunities for peer learning, differentiate and adapt to different speeds of learning, and attempt to create settings where learners can discuss, work together and adjust their approaches to thinking, overall these approaches seem to be effective.
Capel, S. A. (2016) ‘Helping pupils learn’, in Leask, M., Capel, S., and Turner, T. (eds) Learning to Teach in the Secondary School: A Companion to School Experience. 7th edn. London, UK: Routledge, pp. 694–715.
Chaiklin, S. (2003) ‘The Zone of Proximal Development in Vygotsky’s Analysis of Learning and Instruction’, in Kozulin, A. et al. (eds) Vygotsky’s Educational Theory and Practice in Cultural Context. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, pp. 39–64. Driver, R. (1978) ‘When is a stage not a stage? A critique of Piaget’s theory of cognitive development and its application to science education’, in Educational Research, 21(1), pp. 54–61.
Glassman, M. (2001) ‘Dewey and Vygotsky: Society, Experience, and Inquiry in Educational Practice’, in Educational Researcher, 30(4), pp. 3–14.
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Kolb, D. A. (1984) Experiential Learning: Experience as The Source of Learning and Development, Prentice Hall, Inc., pp. 20–38.
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Papal Encyclicals Online (2017) Quam Singulari: Decree of the Sacred Congregation of the Discipline of the Sacraments on First Communion. [online] Available at: http://www.papalencyclicals.net/pius10/p10quam.htm
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Schaffer, H. R. (1986) ‘Child Psychology: The Future’, in Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry, 27(6), pp. 761–779.
Shayer, M., Küchemann, D. E. and Wylam, H. (1976) ‘The Distribution of Piagetian Stages of thinking in British Middle and Secondary School Children’, in British Journal of Educational Psychology, 46, pp. 164–173.
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