Cognitive Development: Examining the Theories of Piaget & Vygotsky

Subject: Psychology
Type: Informative Essay
Pages: 7
Word count: 1779
Topics: Socialization, Psychoanalysis



The present study aims to explore the theories presented by the two twentieth century distinguished developmental psychologist-theorists including Jean Piaget and Lev Vygotsky by elaborating the similarities and dissimilarities in the assumptions articulated by the two separately. One of the most essential reasons behind carrying out this research includes the extraordinary similarity found in the theories of both these researchers on the subject of learning and development in the children and adolescents. Despite the reality that both these theorists belonged to quite different countries and cultures of the world, resemblance between the theoretical perspective of Piaget and Vygotsky appears to be a topic of profound interest for the critics and analysts alike. The present study is also interested in unearthing the differences in the theories of the psychologists by paying heed to the crucial dissimilarity pointed out by contemporary era psychologist Orlando Lourenço (2012). Consequently, the present research will present the vital points of the theories of Piaget and Vygotsky on one side, and will elaborate the similarities and dissimilarities between the two perspectives on the other. 

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Summary of Constructivist Theories attributed to Piaget and Vygotsky

Eminent Swiss biologist-theorist Jean Piaget belongs to the constructivist theory of cognitive development in children, according to which the cognitive development starts in children with their interaction with their physical and social environment, and hence communication with the other members of society. Consequently, their proper mental development requires their entering into interaction and communication with other individuals (Silverthorn, 1999). In the same way, individual efforts made by the children while applying the tools and symbols also turn out to be supportive in respect of observing of cognitive development in them. Piaget declares the children’s increase in knowledge as a progressive construction of logically embedded structures, where growth of knowledge signifies cognitive development of individuals from childhood to adulthood (Silverthorn, 1-2). Hence, Piaget ascertains acquisition of knowledge to be a process of continuous self-construction, which makes them comprehend with the objects, issues and problems within their physical and social environment (Silverthorn, 2). Piaget has defined four stages of development in children, which include: 

  1. sensory motor stage, which starts from birth and lasts till 2 years of age; 
  2. preoperational stage, which is from 2 years to 6/7 years; 
  3. concrete operational stage, (from 6/7 t0 11/12 years of age), and 
  4. formal operational stage (from 11/12 years to adulthood).

In the same way, distinguished early twentieth century Russian psychologist Lev Vygotsky recommends healthy and positive interaction of the children with their environment as mandatory for their mental growth and cognitive development (Slavin, 2006). Hence, children’s learning the language, arithmetic and culture has direct association with their communication skills and opportunities, without which learning process cannot be accomplished in the individuals (Vygotsky, 1978). Vygotsky lays stress upon the significant role of culture and society in respect of mental development. He opines that a child’s intellect grows due to his interaction with culture and society. All the thinking and knowledge child obtains is acquired while interactions with his surroundings. Vygotsky maintains that learning always takes place through communication and interaction instead of isolation, and thus learning new things and obtaining knowledge without seeking help from parents/care-givers, peers and teachers is almost impossible (Vygotsky, 1978).   

Similarities between the Perspectives

Both Vygotsky and Piaget declare the developmental perspective to be essential for the individuals’ comprehending with the psychological phenomena and processes existing all around them (Lourenço, 282). As a result, understanding psychological phenomena is tantamount to the mental development in the adolescents, which continues till they reach the age of adulthood (Anderson, 1990). Mental development in children helps them in making distinction between different colors, tying and untying of knots, understanding the meaning and use of various objects and comprehending with the meanings of words and symbols (Slavin, 2006). Hence, the theories presented by Piaget and Vygotsky have similarities in respect of 1) developmental perspective; 2) a dialectical approach; 3) a non-reductionist view; 4) a nondualistic thesis; 5) an emphasis on action; 6) a primacy of processes over external contents or outcomes; and 7) a focus on the qualitative changes over the quantitative ones (Lourenço, 282). Piaget is interested in exploring the development of new modes of thinking and the ways under which these mode become psychologically necessary (Lourenço, 282-3). In the same way, Vygotsky considers modes of thinking as the outcome of one’s communication with his environment. 

Moreover, both of them support the dialectical approach, which maintains that psychological development requires a continuous interaction among distinct, but interdependent, functions or processes (Lourenço, 283). In other terms, both the under-analysis theorists agree that the individuals’ entering into logical discussion continuously tend to develop their mental capabilities. Since dialectical or logical debates tend to help the individuals to act and react in a logical way, assimilation and accommodation in Piaget’s viewpoint, and internalization and externalization according to Vygotsky, reflect the mental development among the individuals, which teach them sense of adaptability while entering into new and/or unexpected situation or environment. Therefore, they appear to be in consensus that having knowledge of action can be witnessed through its being performed, while having knowledge of objects can be assessed through their being modified or transformed by the individuals (Lourenço, 283-4).  

Both the under-examination theorists lay stress upon the outcomes of different actions performed by the individuals, which mirror their having knowledge about the action. In other terms, people’s performing one act or the other demonstrates their having acquaintance with the act, which has been learned by them from their respective social environments. Hence, primacy of development processes is more important for the theorists rather than their outcomes (Lourenço, 283). Consequently, Piaget and Vygotsky appear to be in consensus on the issues of developmental psychology, dialectical approach, stress on action, primacy of processes and others, which apparently demonstrate that both the Constructivist psychologist-theorists have articulated one and the same theory while elaborating the cognitive development in the children (Lourenço, 284). Therefore, the critics gave same acknowledgement and recognition to both these theories (Anderson, 1990).   

Dissimilarities between the Perspectives

The under-examination Swiss psychologist Piaget, in his developmental psychology theory, maintains that a child constructs his knowledge individually or with the help of his individual observation of his physical and social environment (Lourenço, 282, 284-5). Consequently, Piaget views mental development process to be autonomous in nature and scope rather learned or achieved one (Slavin, 2006). Hence, the Swiss psychologist has partly negated the role played by education, training and socialization processes on mental growth and personality formation and development (Lourenço, 284-5). 

On the other hand, the Russian psychologist Vygotsky is of the opinion that learning among the children have direct association with their interaction with other members of society, without which cognitive development could not be observed (Lourenço, 282, 285). Vygotsky articulated the concept Zone of Proximal Development (ZPD), which ascertains that ZPD serves as 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 the guidance or supervision of some adult individual or in collaboration with some senior or more intelligent peers (Vygotsky, 1978, 86). Hence, Vygotsky argues that the learning process of a child is dependent of social interaction, which makes him learn regarding application of tools, symbols, signs and language in an appropriate manner (Lourenço, 282). 

On the contrary, Piaget considers learning process to be entirely reliant upon individual efforts, where use of words and tools could be understood by a child’s using it even without any help from other members of society (Lourenço, 282). Consequently, Vygotsky acknowledges and appreciates the role played by the parents, teachers, caregivers, peers and other senior members of society in the learning, education and training of the adolescents (Vygotsky, 1978, 67); while Piaget looks somewhat uncertain regarding the share and contributions made by society for the mental development and socialization of the young individuals. 

In addition, Piaget has applied the terms adaptation, assimilation and accommodation while explaining cognitive development in children, where adaptation refers to the adjusting oneself in accordance with the social establishment through adopting the principles of assimilation and accommodation. In the same way, assimilation is viewed to be the way of absorbing material from one’s environment, while accommodation is the difference made to one’s mind or concepts through the process of assimilation (Anderson, 1990). He further maintains that a child not only learns from the outer world, but also he has natural mental capabilities to behave in a different way on some particular occasion. On the contrary, Vygotsky have applied the notions like internalization and externalization while clarifying his stance on the issue of mental growth and learning process of the adolescents (Slavin, 2006). Thus, Vygotsky appears to be having different opinion from the one presented by Piaget with regard to cognitive growth. Vygotsky is of the opinion that social interaction leaves its strong influence on the cognitive development in children (Anderson, 1990). 

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To conclude, it becomes crystal clear that the perspectives presented by the two most prominent Constructivist-theorists including Piaget and Vygotsky have some important dissimilarities in their perspectives (Lourenço, 287). Nevertheless, both the theorists look in consensus on the point that almost all the higher functions or complicated issues tend to be solved through collaboration between two or more individuals (Lourenço, 288). Piaget and Vygotsky also have almost similar opinion on the issues of necessary knowledge, though the former regard this ability as an outcome of child’s personal observation and cognitive abilities, while the latter declares acquiring of true knowledge as a learned process (Lourenço, 289). In the same way, the dissimilarity can be observed between the opinions of the two on the subject of transformation and transmission (Lourenço, 290-1). Piaget maintains that transformation knowledge can be found with the help of the action taken or performed by the individual, which is reflective of his knowledge about a certain act. Somehow, Vygotsky ascertains that internalization and interiorization are dependent of learning experience from the outer world (Lourenço, 291). Consequently, Piaget partly endorses the Vygotsky’s stance that higher scale constructive tasks can be accomplished with the help of a set of collective interactions between the individuals (Piaget, 2014, 26). Hence, one can learn from Constructivist cognitive theories that man enters the world with innate abilities of learning from the social, physical and natural phenomena, and his innate intelligence helps him understand how to learn about objects, words, symbols and acts of others, and subsequently act, react and behave on certain occasions in accordance with the learnt behavior. The Constructivist perspective wide opens the horizons of knowledge regarding the learning processes of the children from birth to the adulthood.  

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  1. Anderson, J. R. (1990) Cognitive Psychology and its Implications. Third Edition, New York: W.H. Freeman & Company.
  2. Lourenço, Orlando. (2012). Piaget and Vygotsky: Many resemblances, and a crucial difference. New Ideas in Psychology 30, pp. 281–295. Department of Psychology, University of Lisbon, Rua Prof. Joaquim Bastos, 66, 5_B, 4200-604 Porto, Portugal
  3. Piaget, J (1952/2014). The Origin of Intelligence in Children. New York: International University Press. Pp. 25-36. Retrieved from
  4. Slavin, Robert E. (2006). Educational Psychology, Theory and Practice. 8th Edition. Michigan: Pearson/ Allyn & Bacon.
  5. Silverthorn, Pam (1999) Jean Piaget’s Theory of Development. Piaget’s Theory of Development, pp. 1-4. Retrieved from 
  6. Vygotsky, L.S. (1978). Mind in Society: The Development of Higher Psychological Processes. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
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