McGraw-Hill OnlineMcGraw-Hill Higher EducationLearning Center
Student Center | Instructor Resources | Information Center | Home
Interactive Activities
Career Opportunities
Using the Internet
Study Skills Primer
Chapter Outline
Chapter Objectives
Chapter Overview
Crossword Puzzle
Multiple Choice Quiz
Matching Exercise
Essay Questions
Critical Thinking Exercise
Web Links
Help Center

Child and Adolescent Development for Educators, 2/e
Judith Meece, University of North Carolina - Chapel Hill
Student Study Guide by Nancy Defrates-Densch

Cognitive Development: Piaget's and Vygotsky's Theories

Chapter Overview

Constructive Approaches to Education

  • Piaget's and Vygotsky's theories of cognitive development provide the psychological foundations for constructivist approaches to teaching and learning. Constructivists believe that children must form their own understanding of the world in which they live. Adults help guide this knowledge construction process by providing structure and support.
  • Both Piaget's and Vygotsky's theories of cognitive development are concerned with qualitative changes in children's thinking. Piaget argued that cognitive development involved major transformations in the way knowledge is organized. Vygotsky believed that cognitive development represented changes in the cultural tools children use to make sense of their world.

Piaget's Theory of Cognitive Development

  • Piaget proposed that two basic principles guide children's intellectual development: organization and adaptation. As children mature, their knowledge schemes are integrated and reorganized into more complex systems that are better adapted to their environment. Adaptation of knowledge schemes occurs through the process of assimilation and accommodation. Through the process of assimilation, children mold information to fit existing knowledge structures. Through the process of accommodation, children change their schemes to restore a state of equilibrium. The process of assimilation and accommodation explains changes in cognition at all ages.
  • Piaget proposed that development follows an invariant sequence. The early childhood years are characterized by two stages. During the sensorimotor period (birth to 2 years), children acquire schemes for goal-directed behavior and object permanence. In the preoperational stage (2 to 7 years), children begin to use words, numbers, gestures, and images to represent objects in their environment. Children also begin to form intuitive theories to explain events in their environment that can have a lasting influence on learning. The major limitations of preoperational thinking are egocentrism, centration, and rigidity of thinking.
  • The elementary and secondary school years are characterized by two additional stages. During the concrete operational stage (7 to 11 years), children begin to use mental operations to think about events and objects in their environment. The mental operations that appear in this stage are classification, seriation, and conservation. These mental operations can only be applied to concrete stimuli that are present in the child's environment. In the last stage of cognitive development, formal operations (11 years to adult), adolescents and adults can think about abstract objects, events, and concepts. They develop the ability to use propositional logic, inductive and deductive logic, and combinatorial reasoning. Formal operational thinkers are also able to reflect on their own thinking processes.
  • Piaget's theory has generated a lot of controversy and criticism. Concerns have been raised about Piaget's research methods, the adequacy of the equilibration model for explaining developmental changes, and the universality of Piaget's stages. Nevertheless, Piaget's research provides a rich description of children's thinking at different ages.
  • Neo-Piagetian theories have attempted to add greater specificity to Piaget's theory, while maintaining its basic assumptions that cognitive development is qualitative and stagelike. Neo-Piagetian theorists examine the role of children's information processing capabilities in explaining developmental changes.
  • Piaget's theory has inspired major curriculum reforms, and it continues to have an important influence on education practice today. Among Piaget's major contributions to education are the ideas that (a) knowledge must be actively constructed by the child; (b) educators should help children learn how to learn; (c) learning activities should be matched to the child's level of conceptual development; and (d) peer interactions play an important role in the child's cognitive development. Piaget's theory also emphasizes the role of teachers in the learning process as organizers, collaborators, stimulators, and guides.

Vygotsky's Theory of Cognitive Development

  • When compared with Piaget, Vygotsky places a stronger emphasis on social interactions. Knowledge is not individually constructed, but coconstructed between two people. Remembering, problem solving, planning, and abstract thinking have a social origin.
  • In Vygotsky's theory, elementary cognitive functions are transformed into higher mental functions through interactions with more knowledgeable adults and peers. Internalization refers to the process of constructing an internal (cognitive) representation of physical actions or mental operations that first occur in social interactions. Through internalizing elements of social interactions, children develop ways of regulating their own behavior and thinking.
  • Vygotsky described developmental changes in children's thinking in terms of the cultural tools they use to make sense of their world. Technical tools are generally used to change objects or gain mastery over the environment, whereas psychological tools are used to organize behavior or thought. In Vygotsky's view, society shapes the child's mind through the transmission of tools that are appropriate for functioning in that culture. The history of both the culture and the child's experiences are important for understanding cognitive development.
  • Vygotsky believed that language was the most important psychological tool that influences children's cognitive development. He identified three different stages in children's use of language. At first, language is primarily used for communication (social speech). Next, children begin to use egocentric or private speech to regulate their own thinking. Talking aloud or whispering while performing a task are forms of private speech. In the last stage of language development, children use inner speech (verbal thoughts) to guide their thinking and actions.
  • Vygotsky used the term zone of proximal development to refer to the difference between what children can do on their own and with the assistance of others. If an adult or peer carefully provides an appropriate level of support and guidance, children are generally able to perform at a higher level than they can perform on their own. Vygotsky assumed that interactions with adults and peers in the zone of proximal development help children move to higher levels of mental functioning.

Putting Piaget's and Vygotsky's Theories Together

  • There are several important distinctions between Piaget's and Vygotsky's theories. The most important ones for educators concern the role of language and learning in development. Whereas Piaget believed that egocentric speech plays no useful function in young children's development, Vygotsky argued that egocentric speech is the means by which children organize and regulate their thoughts and actions. With regard to learning, Piaget claimed that development limits what children are capable of learning from social experiences. For Vygotsky, instruction by more knowledgeable peers or adults is at the heart of cognitive development.
  • Vygotsky's writings are beginning to have a major impact on education in the United States. Among the major educational contributions of Vygotsky's theory are the role of private speech in cognitive development, the importance of guided participation and scaffolding, and the role of peer interactions in cognitive development. Palincsar and Brown developed the reciprocal teaching procedure that incorporates several features of Vygotsky's theory. This procedure has been used successfully with elementary and secondary students.