Respective Cognitive Theories By Piaget And Vygotsky

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‘Education and admonition commence in the first years of childhood and last to the very end of life.’ (Plato, 2011). From as far back as Ancient Greece, Philosophers have expressed a profound interest in the importance of learning and education. This interest in the early years of education has inspired multiple generations of learning theorists to test and develop their own learning theories. The modern teacher can utilize the philosophers’ information on learning theories, like Jean Piaget’s extensive research on the theory of cognitive development, (Bates, 2020) to effectively plan a lesson for their class that successfully captures their attention and allows them to absorb new material on a topic. Cognitive development, which is the area of development this essay will focus upon, isn’t simply the measure of a child’s intelligence or the belief that nature determines our intellectual abilities; It incorporates not only our knowledge but how we perceive/process new information and how we make sense of learning new things. Despite cognitive development being heavily credited towards Piaget due to his theory of cognitive development, (Brooks, 2019) there are more theorists like Jerome Bruner who have been able to recognize that going through new materials can help pupils not only to understand but remember their work (Kelly, 2012) and have used this knowledge to create their own learning theories.

Jean Piaget is a psychologist who developed his theory of cognitive development through analyzing children, including his own three children. (Evans, 1973) He strongly opposed the notion that learners are passive and only learn by reacting to environmental stimuli. (Wadsworth, 1996) Passive learning is a form of learning where the pupils are solely responsible for absorbing the information provided to them; allowing them to develop their identifying, explaining, and listening skills and allows the teacher to teach a pre-planned lesson. Teacher’s in general should try and use passive learning lessons less often than active lessons as pupils generally find this form of learning, and the non-interactive lessons associated with it, dull and less interesting than an active lesson.

Instead, Piaget thought children were active learners. Active learning is any form of learning method where the pupil interacts and engages in the learning process. (Nash, 2013) It consists of pupils using techniques such as discussion, practice, and application in order to process new information. Benefits of active learning include; improving a pupil’s logical thought and the teacher being provided with regular input on the student’s understanding of a subject and giving a pupil a greater part in their learning environment. (Silberman, 1996) However, teachers should take into consideration that active learning demands spontaneous and versatile classes making it harder to come up with a lesson plan for each day’s class.

Piaget has had a massive impact on teaching practice and education reform as his concept of exploration learning – that children learn best through engaging in practical lessons as well as through play and exploration – was central to the redesign of the primary school curriculum. (Whitebread, 2003) Traditionally before Piaget’s theory became mainstream, teachers had used low-tech, passive teaching methods such as rote learning to teach children. While memorization was useful for current topics such as learning times tables, using this method resulted in many children failing to develop a full understanding of what they were being taught.

Piaget’s theorized that cognitive development in children occurred through adaptation which is made up of two processes, assimilation and accommodation. (Fravell, 1963) Assimilation is when children utilize existing schemas, building blocks of pre-existing knowledge that they use to comprehend new information (Bates, 2019), that aid in the understanding and interpreting of new information or a new experience. (Furth, 1981) For example, if a young child understands that they eat vegetables, such as carrots, with their school dinner, they may assume that an unfamiliar vegetable they find on their dinner tray is called a carrot-based on their existing schemas. Accommodation is a more challenging process as it alters and adds to a child’s existing knowledge. (Jean Piaget Biography, 2014) For example, when a child is told that the vegetable they encountered during lunch, such as aubergine, is not called a carrot can use the process of accommodation to integrate this new information into their current knowledge base.

An example of how these processes are implemented into classroom practice could be shown through planning a lesson involving a few simple watercress experiments. Assimilation will be shown during this experiment as the children will be able to recognize that vegetables are an essential part of their diet but they may misunderstand where they come from, believing that they initially appear from a fridge or supermarket based upon their existing schemas. The watercress experiment will demonstrate to the children that it actually comes from a seed that has been planted in soil, frequently watered, and had access to sunlight. This shows accommodation as the experiment has added to a child’s existing knowledge of vegetables and creates a fun, active lesson for the children to participate in.

Piaget focused on cognitive development; a study that focuses on mental and sensory processes that occur throughout a child’s early years and through adolescence. (Padgett, 2020) From this, Piaget then established the four stages of a child’s development, which all indicated their eventual cognitive growth and development. Each of these stages builds upon what has been assimilated during the previous developmental stage, which again shows that a child matures over time. (Piaget, 1976) Piaget’s four stages of development are known as sensorimotor, preoperational, concrete operational, and formal operational. (Bates, 2019) These stages start from the moment a child is born and continue throughout their life until they reach adulthood however the stages most relevant to a primary school teacher are the preoperational and concrete operational stages.

The preoperational stage occurs between the ages of two – seven. During this stage, children further build upon the developments, like perception and communication, which occurred during the sensorimotor stage. (Bates, 2019) Throughout this stage, the capability of the child’s mind is constantly increasing and they’ll develop a vaster capacity to think about what they are learning. Children will be able to speak and recall certain things however they won’t be able to make full use of logic and reason; for example, a child will be capable of discussing and describing visual stimuli based upon their color or unique structure. During this stage, children will also learn through play and will also be able to engage in certain simplistic and often creative games and reflect upon the development of a child’s creativity.

The classroom preoperational stage of Piaget’s theory of cognitive development could be implemented into practice through a teaching strategy that offers the class many practical, interactive, engaging experiences through the use of purposeful play. (Hansen, 2015) This enables the pupils to possess fundamental skills, like phonemic awareness, that act as stepping stones to much more advanced skills like reading comprehension.

After, the concrete operational stage occurs between the ages of seven-eleven. By this stage, the child will have drastically grown in maturity, however, they won’t be fully developed. (Cherry & Gans, 2019) Children will begin exhibiting indications of using adult-like critical thinking skills however their reasoning will be confined to using a justification for real-life scenarios only. (Lewis & Legg, 2020) An example of this could be demonstrated by informing a pupil that the sky, during the daytime, is the color blue; due to their existing schemas on color, they will be able to use adaptation to process and understand the sky is blue.

The concrete operational stage of Piaget’s theory of cognitive development could be implemented into classroom practice through a teaching strategy that involves hands-on activities, uses props and visual aids, asking open-ended questions to help cognitive growth, as well as continuing to build upon the child’s previous knowledge. (Carroll & Alexander, 2020) For example, a class science activity that assesses the ideal conditions for a sunflower to grow would provide the children with an interactive activity that challenges their previous knowledge on plants, allowing for assimilation and accommodation, and enables the teacher to ask questions to promote individual thinking.

There are some criticisms regarding Piaget’s Theory of Cognitive Development, like Piaget miscalculating the capability of a child’s mind during each of his stages. Most experts believe children possess certain abilities at a younger age than Piaget had suggested. Theory of mind research has shown that four–five-year-olds acquire an extremely advanced understanding of their own thought processes as well as that of others. (Wellman & Diu, 2004) For instance, children between the ages of four-five have some capacity to recognize and sympathize with another person’s viewpoint, implying that children of this specific age group are much less egocentric than Piaget had believed. Research, such as Henrike Moll and Andrew N. Meltzoff book ‘Child Development ‘ which explores the different levels of development a child goes through during their earlier years and how the brain develops throughout these stages (Moll & Meltzoff, 2011), has shown that even children as young as three years old have some capacity to comprehend that other people can express different perceptions of the same situation.

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Unlike Vygotsky, Piaget also failed to recognize the potential impacts of a child’s culture and societal group on their cognitive development. Piaget’s theory proposes cognitive growth is largely affected by social transmission, which is when you learn from the people around you. However, Vygotsky’s theory notes that cognitive development is influenced by social engagement; which is when a person participates in social activity resulting in his vocabulary, and cognitive development improving.

Lev Vygotsky founded multiple theories focused on a child’s cognitive development: scaffolding, the zone of proximal development, and social learning theory. Unlike theorists like Piaget, Vygotsky believed that social and cultural factors impacted the quality of a child’s cognitive development and that cognitive development impacted by the child’s home life, especially their societal class. (McLeod, 2020) Vygotsky also recognized that society heavily influences the development of individual children due to each child’s unique upbringing, making it virtually impossible for any theorist to establish a set of universal patterns for learning development.

Vygotsky’s beliefs on social and cultural impacts on children’s education are acknowledged by The National Curriculum in England Key Stages 1 and 2 Framework Document under section 4: ‘Inclusion.’ This section of the National Curriculum promotes equality within the classroom regardless of a child’s potential disabilities, cultural differences, race or first language. Each child should be taught to the same high standard regardless of any additional needs or special educational needs they are subjected to. Teachers must take this into account when planning a lesson where they know a child’s physical disability may hinder their learning experience.

Vygotsky’s social learning theory is based upon his belief that as a child learns and develops, they need to engage/interact with their teacher often to absorb new knowledge. He theorized that in order for children to learn independently, they need the guidance of a teacher, parent, or tutor to initially introduce them to the new information. Vygotsky’s social learning theory links another one of his theories; that children can learn from a ‘more knowledgeable other’ (MKO). An example of both these theories taking place can be directly taken from any primary school classroom where group reflection strategies (Heick, 2020), like pair sharing with another pupil or brainstorming together either in small groups or as an entire class, are used to help children consolidate the new information given to them by their more knowledgeable other, in most cases who would be their teacher. After either failing or misunderstanding the task they will soon be skilled enough to complete it on their own. Because of the guidance of their tutor, children will eventually become much more competent at completing tasks and will reach a stage where they are capable of completing them by themselves.

A counterargument to Vygotsky’s theory, that children can utilize guidance from mentors to help advance their individual learning can be taken from Jane Elliot’s classroom experiment. Jane Elliot, an American teacher, and a vocal anti-racism advocate combined her shared passions to test her young third-grade class’s response to the idea that having a particular eye color made some pupils more intelligent than others.

Elliot initially informed her class that the members of the classroom with blue eyes were more intelligent than those with brown eyes. In response to this information, the class divided into groups based upon eye color which resulted in the ‘superior’ blue-eyed group beginning to suppress the ‘inferior’ group. (A Class Divided, 1985) The blue-eyed group, influenced by both Elliot and their fellow classmates, verbally abused the brown-eyed group and even went as far as physically assaulting them. This reaction occurred as members of the class started to believe that since they had blue eyes this made discrimination against those with brown eyes acceptable. The next day, Elliot reversed her statement and claimed that pupils with brown eyes were now superior to those with blue eyes. Similar gang mentality behavior which Elliot had witnessed from the blue-eyed group previously was rapidly adopted by the brown-eyed pupils.

From this two-day experiment, teachers can conclude that the aggressive behavior of classmates or a disorderly older influence like teachers or parents, can have a negative impact on the behavior of the pupil who is learning from those around them. This highlights a weakness in Vygotsky’s theory of using a more knowledgeable other to teach children new information.

When using his theory in practice, the teacher must be aware of the potential risk that a child could develop bad behaviors if paired with another child recognized for being a troublemaker or a child who isn’t aware of their possible bad behaviors yet. The teacher, prior to utilizing this theory, should ensure they have established strong bonds with their pupils, and that pupils have also developed strong bonds with each other to minimize the risk of using an MKO teaching the child negative traits.

Jerome Bruner is an American cognitive psychologist responsible for multiple cognitive and cognitive constructive theories related to child development. His theories include Bruner’s Spiral Curriculum, Bruner’s 3 modes of representation, scaffolding, and discovery learning.

Unlike Piaget, Bruner also believed that the involvement of adults with more knowledge than a child throughout their learning process can have a big impact on both the speed and quality of their cognitive development. (Bruner, 2009) This resulted in him creating his theory of scaffolding. He believed that adults should withhold themselves from excessively managing a child’s learning environment or the activities they carry out in that environment and instead should work together with them to help build upon the schemas they currently possess on a subject, such as basic addition, by directing their learning.

A possible example of a teacher effectively implementing scaffolding into planning an effective learning situation could be shown through teaching a class how to confidently read out loud. This lesson plan could take place over a monthly period, beginning with the teacher reading a short story aloud to the children. Next, the pupils should be encouraged to read together in intimate groups. The teacher should allow the children to work together to figure out the proper pronunciation of a word within the text. However, the teacher should enter the discussion when it’s apparent the group requires help comprehending the pronunciation of a word within the text or is struggling to decipher its meaning. When they’re more confident in their ability to properly read, pupils will be more responsible for learning to read. This confidence will be displayed through reading, both internally and externally, much more proficiently. The more frequently pupils practice their reading both in class and in their spare time, the less often they will rely on the support of their teacher.

However, there are some potential issues that could arise during planning an effective learning situation through the use of Bruner’s theory of scaffolding. Scaffolding is a potentially problematic theory for new teachers to attempt to use within the classroom. It requires the teacher to give away some of their authority over their class in order to allow pupils to learn at the speed they find easiest. Another issue that arises with scaffolding is that teachers are not initially trained to use this technique within the classroom, meaning that newly qualified teachers, in particular, could end up applying this theory incorrectly during a lesson. This would result in the lesson not going to plan and the pupils potentially failing to understand the subject that the use of scaffolding was supposed to be helping them with.

The previous learning theories have convincingly demonstrated both the positive and negative impacts of cognitive development on the way children study and process new information. It is clear cognitive development enables the modern teacher to effectively plan a lesson revolving around purposeful play as well as pupil’s engagement in group activities. Teachers should know that cognitive development supports the children taking part in acting lessons. From this information, they can plan an effective learning situation that captures their class’s utmost attention, assisting them in effectively absorb new knowledge. Teachers should acknowledge the potential flaws with cognitive development and deliberately try to avoid the issues associated with them. It’s critical for teachers to also recognize that some cognitive and constructive cognitive theories lapse with one another, like Piaget’s and Vygotsky’s respective cognitive theories. They should also understand these theories frequently disagree with some of the key points the other theory made. Despite acknowledging its potential flaws, cognitive development remains an effective method of development for primary school children which promotes active learning in an enjoyable, interactive way. Its beneficial impacts on learning have allowed cognitive theories to be implemented into both the classroom and the primary national curriculum.

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Respective Cognitive Theories By Piaget And Vygotsky. (2021, September 26). Edubirdie. Retrieved August 7, 2022, from
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