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Several aspects of Piaget’s theory have been questioned but other aspects remain influential. Piaget’s work has encouraged other theorists such as Vygotsky to study children’s cognition. Vygotsky took a socio cultural view of development that makes social interaction the centre of his theory. Cognition and behaviour arise from the interaction of a person with other persons and vents in the world, over time with the use of cultural tools. Vygotsky claimed that cultural tools are acquired through interacting with others, which children then adopt as their own: what was an interpersonal behaviour pattern becomes an intrapersonal cognitive process.
One major way in which Vygotsky’s theory is distinctive is the importance for him of instruction. He believed that the highest forms of thinking could only be achieved through appropriate instruction. Vygotsky claimed that purely abstract thinking is only found in highly technological cultures, which have a heavy emphasis on formal instruction. Whereas Piaget concluded that young children’s language is egocentric and non-social, Vygotsky reasoned that children speak to themselves for self-guidance and self-direction.
Because language helps children think about their own behaviour and select courses of action, Vygotsky regarded it as the foundation for all higher cognitive processes.
Vygotsky believed that through joint activities with more mature members of society, children come to master activities and think in ways that have meaning in their culture. He believed that children learn best when tasks are in their zone of proximal development, a range of tasks that the child cannot yet handle alone but can accomplish with the help of adults and more skilled peers.
This emphasises the role of the adult as a teacher.
Vygotsky’s theory has also influenced education through concepts and techniques such as assisted discovery, peer collaboration, reciprocal teaching, and cooperative learning. A new Vygotsky-inspired educational approach transforms classrooms into communities of learners, where no distinction is made between adult and child contributions; all collaborate and develop. An evaluation of Vygotsky’s theory indicates that its emphasis on the role of language may not accurately describe cognitive development in all cultures. Also, by focusing on the cultural line of development, his theory does not describe exactly how elementary cognitive processes contribute to higher cognitive processes derived from social experience.
Vygotsky’s theory was an attempt to explain consciousness as the end product of socialisation. For example, in the learning of language, our first utterances with peers or adults is for the purpose of communication but once mastered they become internalised and allow “inner speech”. Like Piaget’s theory, Vygotsky’s theory is also a stage theory. ‘Both Piaget and Vygotsky agreed that human development is made up of both continuous and discontinuous changes and that transitions in development are the result of changes in the organisation of mental structures. However, Vygotsky believed that instruction is essential to reach the highest levels of thinking. He argued that purely abstract levels pf thinking are only prevalent in technologically advanced societies which emphasise formal in struction.’ (Gupta and Richardson, 1995, p14)
Vygotsky believed the pattern of social interaction determines the structure and pattern of internal cognition: ‘the very mechanism underlying higher mental functions is a copy from social interaction; all higher mental functions are internalised social relationships. (Vygotsky, 1988,p74,p14) Piaget assumed that development and instruction are entirely separate, incommensurate processes; the function of instruction is merely to introduce adult ways of thinking, which conflict with the child’s own and eventually supplant them. Studying child thought apart from the influence of instruction, as Piaget did, excludes a very important source of change (Vygotsky 1962, p116 -17)
In summary, Vygotsky argued strongly that the child’s cognitive development took place as a result of social interactions between the child and other people. Vygotsky’s theory centred on the social construction of knowledge. The infant has elementary mental functions. This kind of thinking is not dissimilar to that of other primates. Around the age of two, the use of language and other cultural symbols transforms a child’s rudimentary abilities into more sophisticated cognitive abilities. These symbols are learned from others (experts) and are therefore external. In time they become internalised. This child learns to make sense of the world through the ‘shared meanings’ of others.
There is little empirical evidence for Vygotsky’s theory, but it is growing, as interest in the theory has increased. Glassman (1999) argues it is wrong to see Vygotsky and Piaget as opposites, that in fact the two theories are remarkably similar especially at their central core. Piaget focused on the natural laws of intellectual development while Vygotsky concentrated on the impact of social processes and culture. An integration of both views might therefore be highly productive.
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