Cognitive Development Theory: Piaget vs. Vygotsky

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Cognitive Development Theory: Piaget and Vygotsky
Why is it that a four year old thinks there is more of water in a tall narrow glass than there is in a short broader glass, when both glasses contain the same amount of water? The answer can be found if one determines the child's developmental level of cognition. In exploring the concept of cognitive development, two names are sure to come up, Piaget and Vygotsky.

Cognitive development theory was first coined by Jean Piaget as a biological approach to child learning. Cognitive development theory states that cognitive development can be defined as a process of gradual and orderly changes in a person's brain and behavior that take place throughout childhood and beyond, that make a person's mental process more intricate and sophisticated (Slavin, 2006). The nature of these changes and how these changes proceed is a topic of much debate throughout the years. Although Vygotsky and Piaget both have theories of cognitive development, they agree on only a few points.

Piaget and Vygotsky are both considered to be constructivists. Constructivism is an approach to intelligence and learning based on the premise that cognition is the result of " the mental construction of ideas with building blocks of information". Said another way, students learn by connecting new information together with what they already know. The mechanism in which an individual forms this intelligence is where these two theorists differ. Piaget believed that intelligence came from experience and action. Having a doctorate in biology, he believed that an individual can only reach the next level of aptitude if that individual had adequately developed cognitively. Vygotsky thought just the opposite, that is, one can only develop when one has reached a higher level of intelligence, hence intelligence drove development (Slavin, 2006).

Both Piaget and Vygotsky both believed that the environment influenced intelligence. Vygotsky believed that an individual places importance on the contribution of others and the environment, Piaget on the other hand did not. In other words, Piaget thought that the environment was passive in the development of an individual, that is, the environment was a world to be explored. Through this exploration and the experiences gained, a person constructs mental frameworks, or schemes (Slavin, 2006). Children use these schemes to deal with particular situations, by accessing the information therein. When new information is discovered using a scheme, the child incorporates this real-world finding into that scheme, thereby expanding the scheme through process called assimilation (Slavin, 2006). If however, a child encounters a real-world situation where a scheme has failed, the disparity between what is thought should happen and what actually happens creates confusion and an imbalance in the child. The existing scheme must be modified to accommodate the new experiences. Hence, the process of accommodation in order to create equilibrium is at the root of learning and intelligence. Creating, expanding and modifying schemes are the mechanisms by which intelligence is affected.

Vygotsky however had a different opinion. He believed that intelligence was gained by learning from others. The building blocks for intelligence are sign systems, systems that a society uses to communicate and solve problems (Slavin, 2006). Sign systems are learned by observing others to the point where an individual can solve problems on their own using the newly learned systems, a process called self-regulation (Slavin, 2006). Vygotsky believed that children receive this information from more capable peers or adults. This social learning requires great involvement from the teacher when beginning to learn the task; and as the child learns, the aid is lessened to the point where there is minimal aid and the individual is fully competent at the task at hand. This scaffolding process should...
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