Everyday life is characterized by conscious purpose. From reaching for food to designing an experiment, our actions are directed at goals. This purpose reveals itself partly in our conscious awareness and partly in the organization of our thoughts and actions. Cognition, as defined as “… the activity of knowing and the processes through which knowledge is acquired” (Shaffer et al., 2002), is the process involved in thinking and mental activity, such as attention, memory and problem solving. Much past and present theory has emphasized the parallels between the articulated prepositional structure of language and the structure of an internal code or ‘language of thought’. In this paper I will discuss language and cognition and two famous theorists who were both influential in forming a more scientific approach to analyzing the process of cognitive development: Jean Piaget and Lev Vygotsky. Jean Piaget was known for his establishment of the four major periods of cognitive development. Lev Vygotsky was the complement to Piaget’s theory with his sociocultural perspective on cognitive development. Both were keenly interested in the relationship of thinking and language learning.
Jean Jacques Piaget was born in Neuchâtel, Switzerland on August 9, 1896. His father, Arthur Piaget, was a professor in Medieval Literature. His mother, Rebecca Jackson, was an intelligent woman but Jean found her a little bit neurotic. When he was in his late youth he had a faith crisis. His mother encouraged him to attend church to only found it foolish. So he had decided to focus less on philosophy and more on psychology (Smith, L.). Piaget attended the University of Neuchâtel. There he studied natural sciences. He then attended the University of Zürich were he gained an interest in psychoanalysis. In 1919, he went to Paris, France where he met Dr. Simon at the Binet Laboratory. While in Paris, Piaget planned and administered many reading tests to school children and became interested not in their correct answers, but in their incorrect answers. He wanted to explore the reasoning process that children have. By 1921 he began to publish his research findings.
He developed a new way of questioning the children; it was a psychiatric method of question and response. It is called the methode clinique or the clinical method. The clinical method is a type of interview in which a participant’s response to each successive question (or problem) determines what the investigator will ask (Shaffer et al., 2002). Piaget was interested in learning the differences between a child’s acquisitions of knowledge compared to an adult’s. He formed the theory that the growth of knowledge is a progressive construction of logically embedded structures superseding one another by a process of inclusion of lower less powerful logical means into higher and more powerful ones up to adulthood. Therefore, children’s logic and modes of thinking are initially entirely different from those of adults” (Smith, L.). By the time Piaget died in Geneva in 1980, he had written over 300 papers, book chapters and introductions as well as thirty books on cognitive development.
Piaget’s idea was that children had learned through action. He believed that children are born with and acquire schemas, or concepts for how to act and respond to the world. As children explore their world, they form and reform ideas in their minds. The more actively involved children are, the more knowledge is gained. McGee and Richgels (1996) note, “Because children construct their own knowledge, this knowledge does not come fully developed and is often quite different from that of an adult” (p.7). Accordingly, the Piagetian perspective of literacy acquisition emphasizes a child’s stages of development and reflects “concepts of reading and writing as the child has constructed them,” state McGee and Richgels (1996, p. 10). They add, “Children ‘s concepts of reading and writing are shaped more by what they accomplished in preceding developmental stages than by their simply imitating adults’ behavior or following adults’ directions” (p. 10).
Piaget believed that children are born with the innate tendency to try to organize the way in which they think about their environment, that is, to make sense out of it. He believed that human beings organize the material about the environment in different ways as they mature. These mental changes are related to an interaction between age and environment. Piaget further believed that his theory was universal, that the stages of development he outlined would exist in all societies. He viewed the development of the child’s cognitive ability as a four-stage process. Children would move up through the stages in a fixed order. He assigned estimations of age for each of the four stages, but did not see the process as connected to specific ages. Piaget’s theory identifies four developmental stages and the processes by which children progress through them.
The four stages are as follows: Sensorimotor stage (birth – 2 years old)–The child, through physical interaction with his or her environment, builds a set of concepts about reality and how it works. This is the stage where a child does not know that physical objects remain in existence even when out of sight (object permanence). Preoperational stage (ages 2-7)–The child is not yet able to conceptualize abstractly and needs concrete physical situations. Concrete operations (ages 7-11)–As physical experience accumulates, the child starts to conceptualize, creating logical structures that explain his or her physical experiences. Abstract problem solving is also possible at this stage. For example, arithmetic equations can be solved with numbers, not just with objects. Formal operations (beginning at ages 11-15)–By this point, the child’s cognitive structures are like those of an adult and include conceptual reasoning (Shaffer et al., 2002).
While Piaget did not conduct cross-cultural research, his research in Switzerland was comprehensive. As the text points out, Piaget’s original observations and hypotheses were based on his observations of his own three children. He then tested his theories by designing experiments for children to perform. These experiments were passed on to teachers being trained at the institute. Over the years, Piaget and these teachers have conducted an estimated 20,000 of his various experiments. For example, if one child had been taken on trips around the world, spent much time in museums, and read many books, she might be prepared to move up to the next stage at an earlier age than a child who spent his time playing video games and watching TV all day (Driscoll, 1994).
Piaget accounted for varying levels of preparedness by explaining that each child possessed a schema, and that a child could not move to the next stage until his or her schema was at a threshold level. Schemata were expanded through what Piaget termed as assimilation (adding to prior knowledge) and accommodation (changing prior knowledge to fit new information). In this manner, children adapt to situations in response to their need for equilibrium (solving dilemmas; mastering skills). A soccer player who wishes to be a scorer, but lacks aiming skills, may practice at shooting at the goal until she assimilates knowledge of which angle to shoot from and how hard to kick the ball. When she adjusts her tactic (via accommodation) and score a goal, she moves from disequilibrium to equilibrium. Physical maturation, activities and socializing with peers to learn from them are all factors that can or do promote growth in schema (Driscoll, 1994).
Piaget believed that children who speak aloud in the presence of others will sometimes adapt their speech to take into consideration the hearer(s) but at other times would direct their remarks to no-one in particular and there would be no evidence that the child was attempting to take into account the knowledge or interests of a specific listener. Piaget called this egocentric speech – the inability of the child to separate their own perspective from those of other people. Piaget saw egocentric speech as being the reflection of thought processes of the young child, and he investigated this in detail. He saw egocentric speech as having no apparent function in the child’s behaviour, so it would have no reason to survive, eventually fading away as the child became more aware of the distinctions between themselves and others (Piaget, 1955).
Lev Semyonovich Vygotsky was born in the U.S.S.R. in 1896, the same year Piaget was born. His active career as a psychologist was only around 10 years long. He graduated with a law degree at the Moscow University. After graduation, he started teaching at various institutions. Vygotsky’s first big research project was in 1925 with his Psychology of Art. A few years later, he pursued a career as a psychologist working with Alexander Luria and Alexei Leontiev. Together, they began the Vygotskian approach to psychology. Vygotsky had no formal training in psychology but it showed that he was fascinated by it. After his death of tuberculosis in 1934, his ideas were repudiated by the government; however, his ideas were kept alive by his students.
While agreeing with Piaget that the child is an active learner, Vygotsky placed more emphasis on the child’s interaction with the social environment. Whereas Piaget visualizes the young child as a natural scientist, experimenting with the environment, Vygotsky sees the child as needing assistance at a critical point; he refers to the range of skills that a child can exercise with assistance but cannot perform independently as the zone of proximal development. With guidance or assistance from parents, adults, or even older children, the child is able to master a more difficult task or concept. In contrast to Piaget, Vygotsky believed that the child requires more socialization for cognitive development. While recognizing that maturation is important in cognitive development, he placed less emphasis on it.
Language and cognition emerge in development at about the same time and are intertwined. Children build new concepts by interacting with others who either provide feedback for their hypotheses or help them accomplish a task (McGee & Richgels, 1996). Vygotsky suggested that learning is a matter of internalizing the language and actions of others. According to McGee and Richgels (1996), “Vygotsky believed that children need to be able to talk about a new problem or a new concept in order to understand it and use it” (p. 8). As the child discusses a problem or task with an adult, the adult supplies language to assist the child in solving the problem; the child gradually internalizes the language until the task can be completed independently (McGee & Richgels, 1996). The instructional technique in which the teacher models the desired learning strategy or task and then gradually shifts responsibility to the students is called scaffolding.
Vygotsky perceived the process of cognitive development as less segmented and rigid than Piaget had. He believed that children learned from in two ways: from tools and from more capable peers and adults. Tools could be anything in the environment that children use to help them advance intellectually (e.g., the internet, cultural artifacts). He advocated that children be placed in learning contexts which were raised just slightly above their existing ability so that they would step up to reach the next level. For Vygotsky, learning was a social process from the beginning. Children learned only by interacting with adults, not with peers who were at there level of cognition. The adult provides the child with assisted learning and scaffolding until the zone of proximal development has been removed. An example of this might involve a mother teaching her child how to drink from a cup. The mother could model the action for the child; the mother could then hold the cup up to the child’s mouth; following that, the child could attempt to raise the cup to her own mouth; finally, the mother would help the child coordinate the activity until the child she has acquired the skill.
A main area Piaget and Vygotsky are both concerned about is the relationship between language and thought. This is the concept in which they show great dissimilarity. As preschoolers go through their daily activities, they frequently talk out loudly to themselves as they play and explore the environment. Piaget called these utterances egocentric speech, a term expressing his belief that they reflect the preoperational child’s inability to imagine the perspectives of others (Piaget, 1955). Piaget believed that egocentric speech reflects an inability to take the perspective of others, and plays no useful role in development.
Vygotsky believed that a child’s use of private speech – talking to himself/herself – is not an example of egocentrism but rather is pre-social conversation. Vygotsky placed a high value on private speech because it enables the child not only to practice talking but also to plan activities. Some modern investigators have suggested that private speech is a process of planning out loud – for example, when you are going to a new place, you verbalize the instructions for getting there aloud to yourself. It is an important developmental phenomenon, which helps children to organise and regulate thinking. As the Western world has more time to assimilate Vygotsky’s ideas, we may discover other contributions that are important in the cognitive development of young children (Vygotsky, 1962).
There are two cases of Piaget and Vygotsky’s differences that stand out the most in their world. First, Vygotsky was critical of Piaget’s assumption that developmental growth was independent of experience and based on a universal characteristic. Vygotsky asserted that development is complex and is effected by social and cultural contexts. Biological and cultural development are interrelated and do not develop in isolation. Vygotsky believed that intellectual development was continually evolving without an end point.
Second, the other conflict between Vygotsky and Piaget was the latter’s explanation of development as the notion that concepts should not be taught until children are in the appropriate developmental stage. This conflicts with Vygotsky’s zone of proximal development (ZPD) and developmental theories. Vygotsky noted that instruction that is oriented toward development is ineffective concerning the child’s overall development.
Both Vygotsky and Piaget were exceptional men with theories that have helped shaped the world of psychology. Piaget believed the universal acquisition of knowledge occurs within a four stage process. The Vygotskian perspective of cognitive development emphasizes social interaction but places less emphasis on stages of behavior. Although both theories had conflicted with one another, it is true to believe that Vygotsky had built his educational theories on the strengths of Piaget’s.
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