Lev Vygotsky

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Compare and contrast Piaget's and Vygotsky's theories of cognitive development.

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In order to compare and contrast Piaget's and Vygotsky's theories of cognitive development, you can consider their conceptions of how children move through development. Piaget believed that there were set stages that children progress through, while Vygotsky believed that development is continual.

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Vygotsky's work focused on what he called the Zone of Proximal Development. This zone is between the comfort zone of what a child can do easily and independently and what he cannot do at all, even with help. In the Zone of Proximal Development, then, a child relies on a "more knowledgeable other" to scaffold tasks for understanding. This type of theory is evident in many teachers' reading instructional plans. They assign books as independent reading which are slightly below a child's reading level, allowing for an easy read which will not need any (or very minimal) teacher-led scaffolding. In class, teachers work with children in their Zone of Proximal Development, just a bit ahead of their reading level, providing the supports needed to understand a text well. And most teachers avoid assigning books that far exceed a child's reading level, as it causes unnecessary frustrations.

Learning is a social undertaking and varies across cultures and social contexts. As children become more comfortable with a particular learning task, they learn to internalize the language needed to accomplish that task. The student actively participates in learning by solving problems with peers and the more knowledgeable other. Teachers facilitate learning by providing needed supports to individual learners, helping them to become more independent by slowly removing those supports.

Piaget, by contrast, viewed learning as occurring in stages:

  • Sensorimotor stage: birth to 2 years
  • Preoperational stage: ages 2 to 7
  • Concrete operational stage: ages 7 to 11
  • Formal operational stage: ages 12 and up

Using reading instruction as a basis for this theory, in the sensorimotor stage, children enjoy books that crinkle, have textures, and can be chewed on. In the preoperational stage, they need repetition to grasp sequencing in stories, so they enjoy hearing the same stories read over and over. In the concrete operational stage, children begin to form abstract thoughts about what they read. They can now read something independently and conceive of abstract ideas like theme and character analysis.

Piaget believed that students learn about the world around them and then add and modify existing knowledge to accommodate newly acquired information. The role of the student is to invent and modify knowledge through their interaction with the world. Learning is therefore much more individual than the social constructs of Vygotsky. A teacher's role is to create an environment that allows students to ask meaningful, individual questions to allow for personal growth.

In both theories, children are active participants in their learning. They are not passively absorbing knowledge but are constructing meaning through interactions with both their environments and teachers (or more knowledgeable others). Teachers are also key in both processes, though their roles differ a bit.

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Jean Piaget shaped a new way of thinking and looking at the stages of development. Piaget’s research proved that the way children think is qualitatively different from the thinking patterns of adults. According to Piaget’s theory, even young children attempt to make sense of their world by constructing reality, rather than simply acquiring knowledge. Social interaction is a factor in Piaget’s theory of cognitive development. Piaget defines social interaction as the interchange of ideas among people. This interchange of ideas leads to the construction of knowledge, which is incorporated into the individual’s schemata. Schemata evolve over time as new ideas are constantly being integrated and schemata change or adapt to fit new ideas. Piaget’s theory outlines a continuum of development where new schemata do not replace old schemata, but instead change the schemata or add to them. Through this process social knowledge is formed. Piaget argues that social knowledge, such as the concept of honesty, does not have physical references, such as the concept of a tree. For example, a child develops the socially acceptable concept of tree through physical knowledge, which is relatively independent of others. In contrast, the child cannot develop a socially acceptable independent construct of the concept of honesty. The child must construct this social knowledge through watching others and incorporating that information into her schemata. The child depends on social interaction for the construction and validation of social knowledge. Piaget states that social interaction exists on multiple levels; it can take place in the classroom or at home. Social interaction occurs between students, teachers, parents, and others within the environment. Piaget’s theory supports the claim that all forms of social interaction and experience are equally important in the child’s intellectual development.

Like Piaget, Vygotsky is particularly interested in the intersection between individual development and social relations. One of the most important points Vygotsky addresses is that of scaffolding, which views children as actively constructing themselves and their environment. The social environment acts as the framing that permits a child to move forward and continue growth. Vygotsky argues that one of the most important components of scaffolding is the engagement of children in interesting and culturally meaningful problem solving activities. This leads into what Vygotsky terms the Zone of Proximal Development. This is a range of experiences that are challenging yet manageable.

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The main difference between Piaget and Vygotsky is that Piaget believed that children go through set stages of cognitive development, and Vygotsky believed that cognitive development is continual.

Piaget and Vygotsky both focused on child development.  Piaget believed that children went through specific stages.  His stages were Sensorimotor (infant), Preoperational (toddler through early elementary), Concrete operational (school age) and Formal operational (adolescence through adulthood).

Vygotsky believed that learning occurs along a spectrum.  He coined the term zone of proximal development to describe the sweet spot between what a child already knows and what he does not know yet.  The middle ground, the ZPD, is where children can learn with assistance.

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Compare and contract Piaget's and Vygotsky's views on infant cognitive development.

Piaget believed that growth and development occur in predictable and universal stages, those that occur regardless of culture or environment. According to Piaget, much of a child's development was gained according to his or her own individual actions, such as a child's information gained through the senses, manipulation of objects, and his or her solitary interaction with the environment. This might involve individual actions such as pretend play and other imaginative activities where a child's self-discovery leads him to understanding.

Vygotsky believed that infant's development is less structured and predictable and was largely due to varying cultural factors. For example, Vygotsky held the belief that children learned mostly from the social interactions that they held every day with parents and other caregivers. He maintained, for example, that children observed and imitated their parent's behaviors and actions and this acted as a way of developing understanding.

So while Piaget might argue that a child was not physically capable at a certain age or point in development of learning or acquiring certain behaviors, Vgitsky would disagree and say that the acquisition of the skill depended upon a child's interaction with a more knowledgeable adult. If a child, for example, was guided by a more informed adult, he or she could accomplish the goal or activity.

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