Piaget’s and Vygotsky’s Child Development Theories

Subject: Psychology
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8 min
Study level: College

Piaget’s and Vygotsky’s theories are considered valuable contributions to developmental research. Piaget’s approach is grounded in the context of the learning experience, particularly, the assimilation and accommodation principles (Crain, 2014). Assimilation presupposes taking new experience into thought without forming a new concept, and accommodation involves creating a new idea. Meanwhile, Vygotsky argued that social interaction was the major determinant of cognition development (Crain, 2014).

For Vygotsky, learning from others, more experienced individuals, was the most important. While two theories have become crucial for understanding child development, there are some fundamental differences between them. Piaget believed that children are the main actors in the learning process whereas Vygotsky emphasizes the role of community.

Details of Learning Experiences

Up to this point in life, I can define my learning as quite successful although not void of difficulties. Sometimes, I find it rather complicated to memorize new things or understand their true meaning from the first time. In the majority of such cases, I tend to draw some similarities between the new experiences and the old ones. By doing so, I refer to Piaget’s assimilation and accommodation concepts. On other occasions, if I feel that I entirely fail to cope with some task, I refer to Vygotsky’s theory of social interaction. That is, I may ask my peers or teachers to explain some notion that I cannot comprehend.

As a learner, I had some emotional highs and lows during my educational experiences. For instance, I could cope quite easily with arts and literature and other creative subjects. However, I found it much more difficult to study mathematics and chemistry. Every time I felt incapable of performing some task, I try to deal with it by extra research. If this approach does not work, I ask for help from others. In general, I have always believed in myself and in my ability to overcome any problems. My narrative indicates that my identity as a learner is rather self-determined and hopeful.

Reflecting on past experiences, I can analyze my development as a learner. When I was little, my mother told me that fish lived in the ocean, so I used to think that all creatures living there were fish. Later, my school teacher explained that there were many different types of ocean inhabitants, and they all had different names: crabs, sharks, octopuses, jellyfish, and others. Thus, my understanding changed from the stage of assimilation to accommodation.

Another interesting example from my childhood is associated with viewing development from the point of Vygotsky’s theory. Once, my parents bought me a jigsaw puzzle, and I could not solve it despite all attempts. So my mother helped me by teaching me some basic techniques such as finding corners, looking for matching colors, and searching edge pieces for a start. Also, my mother found some matching pieces for me and encouraged me to continue working. As a result, social interaction helped to develop my cognition.

Comparing the Theories of Piaget and Vygotsky

The Basic Elements of Piaget’s Theory

The main difference between the two theories is the order of learning and development as predetermined by the two psychologists. Piaget considered that development should precede learning whereas Vygotsky argued that learning went ahead of development (Crain, 2014). Piaget (1964) emphasized the need to differentiate between the two notions, viewing development as a spontaneous and continuous process that “concerns the totality of the structure of knowledge” (p. 176).

Meanwhile, learning, according to Piaget (1964), should be “provoked” by a teacher, a psychological experimenter, or an external situation (p. 176). Unlike spontaneity in development, provocation in learning is limited by the situation. Therefore, Piaget (1964) argued that learning elements were functions of development rather than features explaining it. The psychologist concluded that intellectual development occurred through “direct interaction” with materials (Dyrli, 2013, p. 10). Therefore, the most active involvement of children is crucial for education.

Young learners’ engagement in the process of obtaining knowledge was explained by Piaget with the help of identifying stages of development. The first stage (newborn – 2 years old) is sensorimotor (Qayumi, 2001). At this point, the infant learns about the world through motor skills and sensory data. The phase presupposes the use of reflexes and progressive movement to voluntary actions.

The second stage (2-7 years old) is called preoperational, and it involves using mental images to think (Qayumi, 2001). At the third, concrete operational phase (7-11 years old), children start to think logically. However, they still depend on concrete events and objects. The last stage is called formal operational, and it incorporates the age of 12 and beyond (Qayumi, 2001). During this period, according to Piaget, people can operate logical thinking, dwell on abstract problems, and consider hypothetical situations. Piaget viewed his stages of development as growingly comprehensive approaches to thinking.

While Piaget’s division into stages helped to understand children’s development, the scholar did not trace any genetic disposition in the phases. Rather, with their help, the psychologist wanted to point out that by exploring the environment, children could build new and more extensive structures of knowledge (Crain, 2014). At the same time, there was some connection between Piaget’s theory and the study of biology. Particularly, the scholar observed reflexes of infants and analyzed children’s activities about the biological tendencies of organisms.

Such limited but substantial inclusion of biological concepts in Piaget’s scholarly work allowed him to identify several major biological trends that occurred in all organisms: organization, adaptation, and equilibration. The organization is a complex structure of incorporating knowledge to “make sense of reality” (Qayumi, 2001, p. 64). organization presupposes children’s use of senses, reflexes, and motor abilities to make up mental images of the world surrounding them. Such images are defined as schemes, and they become more elaborate when a child becomes older and gains more knowledge (Qayumi, 2001).

Adaptation is the second important biological tendency, and it incorporates assimilation and accommodation. Assimilation means grasping new data based on already existing knowledge. Accommodation presupposes altering existing data to add new information to it (Qayumi, 2001). Finally, equilibration is the process of looking for a “balance or fit” between the environment and the person’s thought structures (Qayumi, 2001, p. 64). Summing up Piaget’s theory of development, it is viable to note that he found learning secondary to development.

Vygotsky’s Approach

Unlike Piaget, Vygotsky emphasized learning as the key to development. Vygotsky’s theory of cognitive growth was concerned with the zone of proximal development (ZPD) (Kellogg, 2019). For Vygotsky, the most crucial contributions to the development process were the ones made by social interactions. He concentrated on the connections between individuals and socio-cultural situations in which they found themselves and shared experiences (Kellogg, 2019).

Vygotsky also considered cultural tools as the most prominent way of increasing children’s knowledge. Therefore, the psychologist emphasized the importance of language and writing for the process of mediating social environments. Because Vygotsky viewed learning as the key to development, he did not differentiate between stages of children’s progress.

However, Vygotsky established four genetic domains for the analysis of cognitive processes. These domains are the phylogenetic (people’s process of undergoing natural evolution), the cultural-historical (social activity), the ontogenetic (“individual lifespan”), and the microgenesis (instantaneous events) (Marginson & Dang, 2017, p. 116). For Vygotsky, frameworks of thought were “social in origin” (Marginson & Dang, 2017, p. 118).

The early speech development of a child, according to the scholar, was meant to arrange contact with others and become engaged in social conversations. As a result, Vygotsky gave much prominence to the child’s process of learning to speak since it enabled children to enter society and become a part of its processes. According to Vygotsky, the “true” development of thinking was “not from the individual to the social, but from the social to the individual” (as cited in Marginson & Dang, 2017, p. 118). To explain his views more precisely, the psychologist came up with the concept of the ZPD.

The ZPD involves the disparity between what a young learner can understand and learn alone and what he or she can gain with the help of more experienced individuals. Vygotsky only introduced the term and developed its initial concepts, so his understanding of the ZPD was different from that of his successors. For Vygotsky, the ZPD was inevitably associated with the socio-cultural context in which individuals were the “subjects of sociohistorical and natural (biological) evolution, mediated by artifacts” (Marginson & Dang, 2017, p. 118).

As the scholar mentioned, children followed the example of adults or more experienced peers to establish the ability to perform some tasks and functions by themselves. In the learning dimension, Vygotsky viewed the ZPD as a way of increasing children’s knowledge. The scholar encouraged educators to offer children tasks within their ZPD, which would lead to improved capabilities. As a result, young learners would gradually surpass their ZPD and enhance their skills and knowledge.

Points of Conflict and Agreement in Theories

Piaget’s and Vygotsky’s theories are rather different, but they are not void of some similarities. It is necessary to discuss both of these domains to understand the peculiarities of each approach and its effect on psychology and education.

Both scholars admitted that children played a decisive role in the construction of knowledge (Alves, 2014). However, whereas Piaget distinguished between levels of development, Vygotsky argued that the assimilation of new knowledge did not require a particular stage. Rather, Vygotsky claimed that the acquisition of new data should generate development through instruction (Alves, 2014). As a result, Vygotsky believed that higher psychological functions could develop under the circumstances of close cooperation between educators and students.

Piaget also viewed instruction as a crucial factor, but he did not put teachers’ roles in the first place. According to the psychologist, children should “construct” knowledge through “their actions on the world” (Cole & Wertsch, 1996, p. 251).

At the same time, it is necessary to note that Piaget paid due attention to the social world’s role in the construction of knowledge (Cole & Wertsch, 1996). Still, while Piaget acknowledged the significance of society, he found it much more crucial for children to learn through experimentation and invention. Moreover, there is also evidence of Vygotsky’s approval of the “active construction” of knowledge (Cole & Wertsch, 1996, p. 252). Such interchangeable beliefs testify that both psychologists acknowledge the right to existence of each of the opponent’s theories.

While Piaget and Vygotsky sometimes expressed some ideas that could have been considered as supportive of their rival’s views, their approaches were different to a great extent. There is a crucial disparity between scholar’s emphasis on socio-cultural context: while it was highly emphasized by Vygotsky, it did not find much support from Piaget. The same approach concerned the role of language: Piaget did not entitle much prominence to it whereas Vygotsky viewed it as a powerful tool in shaping thoughts (Cole & Wertsch, 1996). Another important distinction between the two theories referred to teaching implications. Piaget regarded teachers as supporters of children’s explorations while Vygotsky saw them as the primary actors in establishing learning opportunities.

The role of Piaget’s and Vygotsky’s attitude toward learning has served as the subject of investigations for many scholars. In most cases, Piaget’s approach is viewed as more beneficial for understanding and enhancing education than Vygotsky’s. However, this theory is not void of criticism, some scholars mentioning that Piaget’s views on moral development were erroneous (Withers, 1982). However, Piaget’s approach has helped to understand the trajectory of children’s development (Colliver & Fleer, 2016). Thus, despite some criticism, Piaget’s theory is still viewed as helpful in analyzing children’s progress.


Piaget’s and Vygotsky’s theories of child development are quite different, but the implications of both of them for the analysis and understanding of children’s learning are immense. Although there are some issues in common, the two approaches are quite contrasting at large. Piaget focused on development as the predecessor of knowledge while Vygotsky stated that knowledge predetermined development.

Given such opinions, scholars identified the main components of their approaches. For Vygotsky, it was the emphasis on the sociocultural environment. For Piaget, it was the belief that children’s assimilation and accommodation of knowledge served as the basis for further progress. Despite some criticism, both Piaget’s and Vygotsky’s theories are regarded as a crucial basis for researching children’s development.


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