Initially the study of lifespan development rose due to Darwin’s desire to understand human evaluation (Boyd & Bee, 2006). Developmental psychology is concerned with the changes of people during their life span including motor skill changes, problem solving changes, moral understanding changes, but it is originally concerned with these changes during infancy and childhood (Boyd & Bee, 2006). Without any doubts, Jean Piaget (1896-1980) and Lev Vygotsky (1896-1934), are two major contributors who have affected developmental psychology with their theories on human development. According to Lerman (1996), Piaget and Vygotsky belong to two different traditions; Piaget belongs to the constructivism perspective that sees learning as construction and Vygotsky to the activity theory perspective that sees learning as an appropriation.
According to Piaget, cognitive development results from the development of the brain, acquiring new abilities and experiences, thus he separated development into stages (as cited in Santrock, 2008). Piaget developed four stages the sensori-motor stage (0-2 years) where the infant is trying to make sense of the world, and acquires the development of object permanence (Shaffer & Kipp, 2007). The pre-operational stage (2-7 years) where language development, animism, egocentrism and the use of symbols hallmark this stage (Shaffer &Kipp, 2007).
The concrete operational stage (7-11 years) where children start classifying objects and are able to conserve and think logically about objects and events (Shaffer & Kipp, 2007). And the formal operational stage (11 years and beyond) where children develop hypothetico-deductive reasoning and imaginary audience and believe in the uniqueness of oneself and one’s experiences (Shaffer & Kipp, 2007).
On the other hand, Vygotsky developed his sociocultural theory indicating that cognitive development is promoted in a “sociocultural” context which influences the form it takes (Shaffer & Kipp, 2007). Furthermore, Vygotsky indicated that many of the child’s most important cognitive functions develop from social interactions with parents, teachers and other more competent associates. Moreover, Vygotsky elaborated his Zone of Proximal Development (ZPD) where the child is the learner and can manage independently and the difference between what the children can learn with guidance of a more skilled and competent partner and expect further cognitive growth, by internalising the help of the skilled partner (Shaffer & Kipp, 2007).
Starting on the debate and trying to shed light upon the different approaches on development from Piaget and Vygotsky, the differences on egocentric speech and language will be analyzed. Vygotsky in one of his main books published in 1934 “Thought and Language” wrote about Piaget “Psychology owes a great deal to Jean Piaget. It is not an exaggeration to say that he revolutionised the study of child language and thought” (Vygotsky, 1962, p.9). Though, even if he exalted Piaget he differed his approach around the concepts of egocentric speech and egocentrism.
In line with Vygotsky (1962, p. 14-15), the outcome of the observations of Piaget led him to the conclusion that children’s speech can be divided only in two distinct entities, the egocentric speech and socialized speech. The difference between them is due to their functions, during egocentric speech the child talks only about him having no interest in other people and expecting no answers, whereas socialized speech attempts exchanges with other people.
According to Vygotsky, the conclusions of Piaget showed that the majority of preschool children talk is egocentric, though when the child reaches school age, egocentric speech declines (Vygotsky, 1962, p. 16).Vygotsky differed his view from Piaget on egocentric speech believing that it has a specific function and this function other than its communicative role, it also serves as a thinking tool and as a tool to solve problems (Vygotsky, 1962, p. 18).
Piaget and Vygotsky seem to agree that inner speech develops from egocentric speech which leads to logical thinking, though Vygotsky highlighted language as an apparatus of thought other than another way of expression. On the other hand, Piaget awarded to language a less significant role than Vygotsky toward the development of thought (Piaget, 1970).
Moreover, Vygotsky praised the use of language and egocentric speech as thinking tools which promote development, but Piaget disagrees indicating that Vygotsky could not understand that egocentrism could be a main obstacle for learning, concluding that language can also reduce learning and development (Piaget, 1962). Another main issue where Vygotsky and Piaget collide is the role of the social and the role of the individual in learning. Piaget indicates that teaching is divided in two sides, the one is the rising individual, and the other side consists of social, intellectual, and moral values that the educator attempts to transmit (Piaget, 1969).
Piaget’s aim was to make children capture the solution of the problem on their own strength, self-regulation, and their own experiences rather than receiving help from any rules or from a more skilled individual (Piaget, 1969). Thus, Piaget points out that learning is not social, and that the individual on his own entirely captures the surrounding knowledge. On the contrary, Vygotsky who belongs to the activity theory indicates that learning is an active process from the child’s perspective, and that the child can duplicate culturally accumulated knowledge with assistance from social support (Vygotsky, 1962).
The outstanding difference in learning is that Piaget perceives the individual as the onset of learning and also children can learn through repetitive interaction and experience with the environment, moreover the egocentric speech serves as a tool for logical thinking, though it can also intricate the meaning (Piaget, 1969). On the other hand, Vygotsky is emphasising more that an individual (child) cannot produce knowledge and learn without the verbal interaction and activity of other probably more skilled individuals (Vygotsky, 1962). Thus, Piaget seems to combine and emphasise on both the individual side and the social side, whereas Vygotsky emphasises more on one side, the social side. Additionally, Vygotsky proposes that knowledge arrives from the outside, on the contrary though Piaget points out that learning lies on a child’s innate capability.
Piaget was mainly affected from his biological roots which influenced his approach on human development, and Vygotsky was influenced by the Marxist tradition forming his own ideas about human development and that is where the foundational difference lies on these two approaches on the essence of humanness (Newman & Holzman, 1993). On the contrary to Piaget who has strongly settled in a biological worldview and asserts human development in the adaptation to the environment, Vygotsky emphasizes on the centrality of transformative collaborative practices by individuals who do not adapt to their environment but as a whole transform it, and through this transformation also alter themselves and acquire their own status and essence (Newman & Holzman, 1993).
For Piaget what promotes cognitive growth is disequilibration, a revolution made from the connection of two elemental processes. Concurrences with the world were either adapted, assimilated to anterior existing mental functions, or prevailing functions were altered to accommodate them. According to Piaget, there is this double connection between assimilation and accommodation highlighting that this double connection leads to cognitive growth, but none of these two functions can serve on its own the purpose of cognitive growth (Bruner, 1990).
On the other hand, Vygotsky did not attribute to the mind this logical calculus. For Vygotsky, the mind is determined to consist of processes for attributing experience with meaning. Vygotsky indicated that meaning does not entirely depend upon language but also on the ability to apprehend the cultural context where language is used (Bruner, 1990). Vygotsky believed that cognitive growth would be promoted by acquiring essential order culturally allocated symbolic structures, with each of these symbolic structures having the ability to blend or switch pre-existing knowledge (Bruner, 1990). Additionally, these essential orders are manufactured by culture and cognitive growth is not formed by the biological perspective unless they are aided by language and culture which rely upon endured social interactions.
Piaget was mainly concerned with the balanced order of mental development, whereas Vygotsky was merely concerned with how other more skilled individuals or the society implement the cultural patterning that constructs the process of cognitive growth and makes development achievable.
According to Vygotsky’s general genetic law of cultural development any function the childe displays during his cultural development will appear two times. Firstly, it will appear in the social stage and then on the psychological stage. For Vygotsky, the unit of analysis is the individual engaging in social activities rather than psychological activity of the individual’s characteristics, arguing with Piaget’s position that children’s development must precede learning, Vygotsky’s position was that the development process lies behind the learning process.
These two major theorists seem to disagree ontologically about learning due to the fact that Piaget is a constructionist and Vygotsky belongs to the activity theory. Ontologically constructivism indicates that there is no reality that exists outside of human thinking, whereas the activity theory points out that for everything that exists it does include physical characteristics. Furthermore, constructivism indicates that knowledge and thinking are inextricably on people’s brains and they just construct from their personal experiences.
On the contrary, the activity theory indicates that knowledge is formed from a social negotiation involving people. Another issue which differs Vygotsky’s approach from Piaget’s is that the Piagetian theory does not provoke that children perform tasks that are far away from their cognitive capabilities. The teacher simply prepares the environment for the child’s developmental level of mental operations, concluding that the child is limited by its own developmental stage. On the other hand, Vygotsky’s zone of proximal development welcomes the child to attempt beyond its potential mental capabilities.
Both theorists have contributed with their approaches of human development. The Swiss psychologist Jean Piaget and the Russian Lev Vygotsky consequently influenced from their environments and cultures and also from their beliefs in constructivism and the activity theory formed their approaches on human development were in some parts seem to agree, but have major differences between them.
Most critiques reflecting on these two approaches seem to weigh more on Piaget due to the fact that several developmental tasks he applied on children especially in the pre-operational stage are not clearly stated and it seemed that Piaget often underestimated children’s mental capabilities. Piaget claimed that pre-operational children cannot decentre on the ‘three mountain task’ though new studies have shown that by altering the objects with something more familiar, children were able to decentre.
Also in some other Piagetian tasks children performed better than expected by Piaget. And that has revealed that Vygotsky’s approach to the socio-cultural aspect seems more appropriate than Piaget’s constructivist approach.
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Newman, F., & Holzman, L. (1993). Lev Vygotsky: Revolutionary Scientist. London: Routledge.
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