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This paper seeks to explore the educational theories developed by world renowned theorists Piaget and Vygotsky to explain the process of learning. Educational theories refer to the speculative educational thoughts that are used to explain the nature of education as an important tool that guides and explains certain aspects and concepts to human beings. Educational theories were originally developed by the Greek philosophers to address the aspects of learning, educational policies and leadership.
The philosophers had the main idea of generalizing explanatory models for learning thereby creating a body of knowledge that would be used to theorize knowledge and create obversive practices that would be used in educational thought. Educational thought, which is an important component of most educational learning theories, deals with concepts of theory such as sociology, philosophy, critical thinking theories and psychology (Thomas, 2007, p.5).
The creation of educational theories was seen to be an important step by many educationists as it enabled them to determine the cognitive processes of human beings during the learning process. Jean Piaget and Lev Semionovich Vygotsky’s educational theories sought to explain the psychological processes that took place in human beings when learning took place.
According to the two theorists, cognitive development in educational theories was meant to explain how teachers used the cognitive processes of children to design learning programs that would meet their educational needs. With regards to Piaget’s educational theory, the main assumption that formed the framework for the theory was that intelligence came from actions performed by individuals as a result of interacting with their surrounding environment.
Vygotsky conversely based his educational theory on the fact that the learning process took place as a result of a series of reflexes that would be translated into educational thoughts. He founded his theory on the premise that all human behavior originated from reactions to stimuli that emanated from the external environment.
Vygotsky also viewed the use of private speech patterns as useful techniques that would allow children to internalize and understand educational information as well as the zone of proximal development which allowed teachers to determine the actual and potential learning ability of a child (Shaffer & Kipp, 2010, p.293). The following discussion will therefore shed more light on Piaget’s and Vygotsky’s educational theories.
Main Ideas of Piaget
Piaget’s interest in knowledge and education saw him develop the four stages theory of cognitive development that highlighted the various stages of learning which took place in human beings. He was able to come up with the theory after observing children and their train of thought when participating in educational thought processes. Piaget used standard questions to determine the kind of response children had to these questions so that he could ascertain their cognitive processes and line of thinking.
He was mostly focused on determining the logic and reasoning that was used to arrive at an answer rather than whether the children had gotten the questions rights or wrong. Piaget arrived at the conclusion that brain growth usually as a result of the relations amid genetic and ecological factors as the learning process went on. From his analysis, Piaget was able to develop the four stage intellectual development theory that would be used to explain the process of learning and education in human beings (Oakley, 2004, p.14).
Oakley, (2004) indicates that the first stage of Piaget’s educational theory, the sensor motor stage, deals with how children rely on their sensory motor skills to develop their cognitive senses during learning. Intelligence usually manifests itself in these children when they engage in activities that require motor skills such as walking or sensory skills like touching. Children are able to learn in the sensorimotor stage by engaging in physical activities that require them to use their sensory motor skills.
Piaget developed this stage by observing the cognitive development of children between the ages of zero to two years old who lacked any communication skills and mostly relied on their sensory and motor skills to learn about their surrounding environment. However, at a more advanced age, the infants were able to acquire some language skills that lead to the concept of object permanence in this stage (Oakley, 2004, p.16).
The preoperational stage of Piaget’s theory dealt with how symbols were used by children to learn about various educational concepts. Founded on his observations, Piaget was able to determine that children used symbols and symbolism derived from their perceptions of the world where they believed that everyone thinks out their actions exactly as they do.
During the preoperational stage, the memory and oral language of children developed enabling them to communicate and also retain information. The third stage of the theory that was also known as concrete operational stage dealt with how children aged seven years and eleven years were able to experience some dramatic change in their thought and cognitive processes (Oakley, 2004, p.18).
This stage according to Piaget symbolized the introduction of logical reasoning to children’s line of thought which enabled them to engage in thinking processes during their learning. The ability of children to reverse their thinking to the beginning also manifested itself during the concrete operational stage. The final stage of Piaget’s educational theory was the formal operational stage which dealt with how adults were able to master abstract thought processes as well as use symbolism in hypothetical situations.
This stage was mostly developed to deal with intricate situations that required the use of a mastery of thinking strategies to arrive at a suitable answer. This final stage of Piaget’s educational theory was however put to test as many theorists argued that only 35% of human beings were able to attain formal operational thought (Oakley, 2004, p.22).
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Main Ideas of Vygotsky
The main idea that was used by Vygotsky to develop his educational theory was the use of private speech or talking to oneself as a way of developing the cognitive and behavioral processes of an individual. Vygotsky involved the use of private speech especially in teaching young children because it enabled them to think through an issue and develop a solution that would be used to deal with the problem.
He viewed the use of private speech as a stepping-stone to proximal development which formed the second part of his educational theory. According Vygotsky, proximal development referred to the level of development that fell immediately above a person’s current cognitive level and children who were within the proximal level of development were unable to carry out cognitive processes by themselves (Kozulin, 2003, p.15).
According to Kozulin (2003), Vygotsky proposed that children who were taught within the proximal zone of development would be able to achieve maximum learning where techniques such as scaffolding could be used to provide assistance during the learning process. Scaffolding according to Vygotsky involved using hints and clues provided by teachers so that the children could be able to form their own path of understanding the various concepts presented to them by their instructors.
The use of scaffolding was also meant to ensure that the teacher worked with the child during classroom exercises by providing them with explanations to questions and also correcting them in the event they got a question wrong. Vygotsky’s zone of proximal development was therefore the main idea that underlined his theory as it determined the definite levels of development of a child during the learning and also their potential development anchored in their problem solving skills (p.39).
Similarities and Differences
Piaget and Vygotsky’s educational theories are both founded on constructivism which is a learning and teaching approach that deals with cognitive processes that result from mental construction. Constructivism refers to a learning process that takes place when people relate information with what they already know enabling them to mentally construct new information with already existing information.
Constructivist theorists base their arguments on the fact that learning is determined by the context or setting in which the idea is being taught. Constructivism also covers the attitudes and beliefs that student’s have towards their education and the learning strategies that are used by their instructors to impart knowledge (Davis & Sumara, 2003, p.409). Both Piaget and Vygotsky held the belief that the educational process was directly affected by the boundaries of cognitive growth that existed in the individual’s society.
According to their theories, the cognitive development of human beings was usually determined by the type of social influences that affected their cognitive development in their current environments. Piaget and Vygotsky’s shared a similar belief in the cognitive growth of individuals determined by societal influences made it possible for them to develop educational theories that would encompass various influences in the social process (DeVries, 2000, p.6).
Another shared similarity between the two theories was that both theorists viewed the internalization of information as a transformative process rather than a copying material gained from the external environment.
Piaget’s stage theory described the different structures that were used to internalize knowledge to ensure that intellectual development was achieved while Vygotsky used the internalization process during the proximal development stage to ensure that the actual and potential knowledge levels were achieved during learning.
The two theories were also similar when it came to psychological transformation of human beings once they interpreted educational information to be part of the transformational process (DeVries, 2000, p.7).
With regards to differences DeVries, (2000) indicates that one contrasting aspect between Piaget’s and Vygotsky’s theories was the idea that formed their theoretical framework. To begin with, Piaget derived the idea for his educational theory on the belief that human intelligence was mostly derived from actions. He based his educational theory on the belief that children and individuals were able to learn by interacting with their surrounding environments which in turn enhanced their cognitive development process.
Alternatively, Vygotsky held the belief that learning occurred before any cognitive development took place in children. He based his educational theory on the fact that human beings learned because of history and symbolism where individuals placed value on various aspects of learning from their surroundings and their interactions with other people (p.9).
While Piaget’s educational theory was made up of four distinct stages, Vygotsky’s education theory was in sharp contrast as it lacked any well-defined stages. It rather involved the use of private speech and the zone of proximal development to relay the fundamental concepts of the theory.
There is also a further difference that exists between the two theories is that the nature of stimuli that was used in the learning process differed between the two theories. Piaget viewed stimuli to be effective during learning only if it was acted on by the subject. Vygostky focused on the content of the stimuli that would be used to derive certain actions from the subject (DeVries, 2000, p.9).
The nature of knowledge and the psychological instruments that were used in explaining the two theories also differed given that Vygotsky placed a lot emphasis on the development of content through the use of psychological instruments and the mental functions of an individual during the learning process.
Piaget focused his theory on the development of structures where he emphasized the use of proto-logical structures, cooperative interaction between peers and turn taking to illicit certain types of responses from individuals during the learning process.
The role of the participant according Piaget’s educational theory was mostly seen to be competent and in line with the expectations of the teacher or guide who related the cognitive development of the student to the structure of the interaction. Vygotsky’s use of psychological instruments differed from that of Piaget where Vygotsky used psychological instruments as cultural representations rather than structural adaptations (DeVries, 2000, p.10).
The aspect of self-regulation also offered a contrasting difference between the two theories. According to Vygotsky, self-regulation was seen to be a behavioral aspect that occurred in individuals as a result of regulating certain learning tasks.
Vygotsky viewed self-regulation to be a skill that was acquired by human beings as they took part in the learning process thereby developing their behavioral and cognitive abilities. Self-regulation in learning according to his proximal development theory was gained through external factors such as timetables, time schedules and timers which would enable the individual to regulate their learning behavior (DeVries, 2000, p.11).
In the case of Piaget, self-regulation was more of a psychological process rather than a behavioral process as he saw it to be present from infancy to the formative years of a child. For Piaget, self-regulation was instilled in children through the use of rules and guidelines where children would be able to regulate their behavior to increase their learning abilities (DeVries, 2000, p.11).
There is also one more difference that exists between Piaget and Vygostky’s theory was the aspect of novelty where both theorists held different views and opinions on what was novel. According to Piaget, novelty in education was in the form of content and the structure of mental adaptations that children would use to enhance their learning capabilities(DeVries, 2000, p.12).
Vygotsky’s contrasting view of novelty in education was that he saw to be in the form of conditioned responses that came about as a result of unconditioned responses to certain educational questions. Piaget saw the development of content to be a process that came about from the inside of a young child enabling them to control the novelty of the information. Vygotsky viewed the development of content as a process that emerged from the external factors that existed in the learning environment of a child (DeVries, 2000, p.12).
Opinionated Arguments and Counter Arguments
In analyzing Vygotsky’s educational theory, one gets the feeling that he is more of a constructivism theorist as his explanation of the learning process is also directed towards behavioral processes. In his 1926 work of Pedagogical psychology, Vygostky presented an idea where during the learning process, pupils acted as the reacting apparatus which many behavioral researchers saw as his explanation of human behavior which is mostly made up of a series of reflexes (Lytle, 2003, p.61).
In 1930, Vygotsky still used the conditioned reflex as one of the psychological tools that could be used to explain learning and education thereby reinforcing the behavioral aspect of his theory. He defended the idea that all human behavior was initiated by reactions to external stimuli which came from the surrounding environment (Lytle, 2003, p. 61).
While many researchers have termed his educational theory together with that of Piaget to be constructivism, Vygotsky’s use of behavioral processes in human beings points to a different story as it emerges that his theory is supports both the constructivism and cognitive theories of behavior.
To further explain this statement, he based the nature of stimuli in his educational theory to be related to social forces that were mostly influenced by behavioral laws. Vygotsky claimed that for individuals to control stimuli, they had to control their behavioral processes from within which would eventually allow them to gain useful information from their learning process (Lytle, 2003, p.61).
While Piaget’s four stage cognitive development theory was seen to be a mental constructivism theory, Vygotsky’s research was unable to determine whether Vygotsky was a constructivism theorist. This is mostly because he focused on the cognitive and behavioral development of children by focusing on their zone of proximal development rather than on the various stages of educational development that were needed by children when acquiring educational thoughts.
Many researchers such as Bedrova, Valsiner and Wertsch viewed Vygotsky to be a constructivist because his behavioral statements on acquiring knowledge could be translated into constructivist ideas (Lytle, 2003, p.62).
For example Vygotsky proposed that any new cultural experiences were usually gained from the zone of proximal development of an individual as well as from influences in the external environment.
This was viewed to be more of a constructivist point of view because the acquisition of cultural experiences by the subject enabled them to gain various forms of behavior that would enable them to adjust their mental development so that it could be in line with external factors.
Piaget’s theory was however classified as purely constructivist given that it focused on key developmental stages that were necessary for a child during the learning process (Lytle, 2003, p.62).
This discussion has dealt with Piaget and Vygotsky’s theories of education where each theory has been examined individually to determine the conceptual ideas used by the two theorists to develop their theories. The discussion also sought to determine whether any similarities and differences existed between the two theories where it was identified that Piaget’s four-stage educational theory bore several similarities to Vygostsky’s educational theory that was mostly focused on proximal development and private speech.
The research also focused on the differences that exist between the two theories where it was determined that both theories involved the use of different psychological instruments and stimuli to enhance the process of learning in individuals.
Various arguments have been presented derived from Vygotsky’s educational theory which has both behavioral and constructivist proponents despite Vygotsky being termed as a constructivist theorist. This research has been able to reveal that Vygotsky’s educational theory uses behavioral reflexes to react to external stimuli during learning a process which has been termed to be constructivist in nature.
Davis, B., & Sumara, D., (2002). Constructivist discourses and the field of education: problems and possibilities. Educational Theory. 52(4): 409-428
DeVries, R., (2000). Vygotsky, Piaget and education: a reciprocal assimilation of theories and educational practices. New ideas in Pyschology, 18(2): 187-213
Kozulin, A., (2003). Vygotsky’s educational theory in cultural context. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press
Lytle, D.E., (2003). Play and educational theory and practice. New York: Greenwood Publishing Group
Oakley, L., (2004). Cognitive development. New York: Routledge
Shaffer, D.R., & Kipp, K., (2010). Developmental psychology: childhood and adolescence. Belmont, California: Wadsworth
Thomas, G., (2007). Education and theory: strangers in paradigms. New York: Open University Press