Jean Piaget’s theory of cognitive development is probably the most popular theory of child development and provides a comprehensive basis from which to view the mental schemata of the developing mind. It is important to mention, however that his theories were developed by observing his own three children.
Since his original works were published, further experimentation, and observation have given rise to information that may call into question some of his observations.
He divides the growth of the mind into four major stages. His stages of development are paired with chronological age. The first is the sensorimotor stage where such things as seeing, touching, and tasting are paramount. The child is beginning to learn of the world through the use of physical means. Object permanence is the most obvious development in this phase. According to his theoretical structure, this stage ends at age two.
The preoperational stage begins from age two and ends at age seven. Symbolic thinking begins at this stage and the child is learning to equate images and words with internal mental meanings. The phenomena of reasoning appears at this stage along with concepts, abstractions, and egocentricity. In this stage, animism begins and intuitive thought arises.
The concrete operational stage presents itself next from age seven to eleven years. Logical reasoning appears and replaces intuitive reasoning. The element of conservation arises which allows the mind to understand that even when objects change into other shapes, their basic composition does not change. A shape of an object may change, but the concrete items mass, volume, area, and weight do not. Classification is also developing in this stage which gives the mind the ability to classify objects and know how they compare to each other.
In the formal operational stage from age eleven to fifteen, the mind is beginning to form abstract thoughts and understand the world by verbal presentation only. Problems may be solved by mental reasoning and verbal interchanges. This stage is also characterized by an increased ability to think about thought. Egocentrism is more pronounced in this stage as the mind begins to form definite ideas about what is “other” and what is “me.”
In cultural-historical psychology, the mind learns its tasks and functions through an interaction with culture, society, significant others, and teachers. The primary focus of this learning model by Vygotsky is to learn how to “be” in the world by knowing what those have done who have lived before.
Every function in the child’s cultural development appears twice: first, on the social level, and later on the individual level; first, between people (interpsychological), and then inside the child (intrapsychological). This applies equally to voluntary attention, to logical memory, and to the formation of concepts. All the higher functions originate as actual relations between human individuals.
Vygotsky also advanced the idea that humans have a proclivity towards using objects and pertinent social icons to derive meaning. Fundamental to his theory is the notion of proximal development. In this zone of development the child is allowed to function to his highest mastery alone. When assistance is required, the teacher or significant other steps in to assist the child in obtaining the accomplishment of any higher order task.
Scaffolding is the technique of adding more complex structures to the child’s learning processes. The concept of private speech is important in this theory. According to Vygotsky, this self-talk is allowed but must be self monitored. Providing learning experiences within a meaningful context is important to Vygotskian theory. Not just learning for the sake of learning, but learning for social and meaningful tasks.
The primary difference I discover in these two theoretical approaches to human development is that one is internal and the other is external. That is, Piaget posits that the development of the mind is organic, predisposed, individual and orderly. Vygotsky declares the mind develops as a result of social interaction and meaningful understanding of the role of objects. This development is not structured and orderly like Piaget’s theory, but happens when social interchanges happen. These can be haphazard and applied at numerous ages. The child, in Piaget’s theory ends in a definite concrete operational phase fully capable of reasoning, abstract thought, and analyzing. For Vygotsky, the child is fully developed when the culture in which they have grown determines they are developed.
The strength of Piaget’s theory is that he has been able to foster and motivate a great deal of research into child development. He has provided a structure that provides a benchmark for evaluation. The weakness of his theory is that much work has been done since then and certain aspects of his sensorimotor stage have been called into question. The strength of Vygotsky, I think is that he allows for the community, the culture, and family to influence the developing mind of a person. Everyone can participate and have a role in the development of the child. This is significant. The educational process should include a host of people because learning does not take place in a vacuum. It takes place within the teachings, the structures, and the freedoms of culture.