Discussion and Comparison of Piaget's and Vygotsky's Theories

In this essay, I will discuss how Vygotsky’s theory of social construction account for the limitations of Piaget’s cognitive constructivist theory. I will refer to both Vygotsky and Piaget work, define terms and discuss the limitations.

Who is Vygotsky?

Lev Vygotsky was born 17th November 1896 was a Russian psychologist who is best known for his sociocultural theory and his work in developmental psychology. He believed that social interaction plays a critical role in children's learning. Through such social interactions, children go through a continuous process of learning. Vygotsky noted, however, that culture profoundly influences this process. Imitation, guided learning, and collaborative learning all play a critical part in his theory.

Vygotsky's Theory of Social Construction

“Vygotsky challenged the idea that development is a universal, a natural process. He described child studies of this kind as a search for the ‘eternal child’. He proposed that child psychologists should instead study ‘historical child’, arguing that any particular child’s development - their social relationships, sense of self, ways of thinking, etc- is embedded in the social and cultural contexts of their lives at a particular point in history.” (Woodhead, 2013)

The Zone of Proximal Development according to Vygotsky, is 'the distance between the actual developmental level as determined by independent problem solving and the level of potential development as determined through problem-solving under adult guidance or in collaboration with more capable peers.'- (Lev Vygotsky, Mind in Society, 1978) Essentially, this zone is the gap between what a child knows and what he does not yet know. The process of acquiring that information requires skills that a child does not yet possess or cannot do independently, but can do with the help of a more knowledgeable other. Parents and teachers can foster learning by providing educational opportunities that lie within a child's zone of proximal development. Kids can also learn a great deal from peers, so teachers can foster this process by pairing less skilled children with more knowledgeable classmates.

Vygotsky suggests the more knowledgeable other as a person who has greater knowledge and skills than the learner. In many cases, this individual is an adult such as a parent or teacher. Kids also learn a great deal from their interactions with their peers, and children often pay even greater attention to what their friends and classmates know and are doing than they do to the adults in their life. No matter who serves as the more knowledgeable other, the key is that they provide the needed social instruction with the zone of proximal development when the learner is so sensitive to guidance. Children can observe and imitate or even receive guided instruction to acquire the new knowledge and skills.

In relation to sociocultural theory Lev Vygotsky also suggested that human development results from a dynamic interaction between individuals and society. Through this interaction, children learn gradually and continuously from parents and teachers. This learning, however, can vary from one culture to the next. It's important to note that Vygotsky's theory emphasizes the dynamic nature of this interaction. Society doesn't just impact people; people also affect their society.

Who is Piaget?

Jean Piaget was born in Switzerland on August 9, 1896, Jean Piaget was a Swiss psychologist and genetic epistemologist. He is most famously known for his theory of cognitive development that looked at how children develop intellectually throughout the course of childhood. Prior to Piaget's theory, children were often thought of simply as mini-adults. Instead, Piaget suggested that the way children think is fundamentally different from the way that adults think. Piaget's (1936) theory of cognitive development explains how a child constructs a mental model of the world. He disagreed with the idea that intelligence was a fixed trait, and regarded cognitive development as a process which occurs due to biological maturation and interaction with the environment. According to Piaget, children are born with a very basic mental structure (genetically inherited and evolved) on which all subsequent learning and knowledge are based.

There are several limitations to Piaget’s theory because it is concerned with children, rather than all learners. It focuses on development, rather than learning so it does not address learning of information or specific behaviors. It proposes discrete stages of development, marked by qualitative differences, rather than a gradual increase in number and complexity of behaviors, concepts, ideas, etc. The goal of the theory is to explain the mechanisms and processes by which the infant, and then the child, develops into an individual who can reason and think using hypotheses.

Piaget’s Theory on the Cognitive Constructivist

To Piaget, cognitive development was a progressive reorganization of mental processes as a result of biological maturation and environmental experience. Children construct an understanding of the world around them, then experience discrepancies between what they already know and what they discover in their environment. There are three basic components to Piaget's cognitive theory, firstly Schemas which means building blocks of knowledge. Next Adaptation processes that enable the transition from one stage to another :equilibrium, assimilation, and accommodation. Finally, Stages of Cognitive Development: sensorimotor, preoperational, concrete operational, formal operational.

In Piaget called the schema the basic building block of intelligent behavior – a way of organizing knowledge. Indeed, it is useful to think of schemas as “units” of knowledge, each relating to one aspect of the world, including objects, actions, and abstract (i.e., theoretical) concepts. For example, a person might have a schema about buying a meal in a restaurant. The schema is a stored form of the pattern of behavior which includes looking at a menu, ordering food, eating it and paying the bill. This is an example of a type of schema called a 'script.' Whenever they are in a restaurant, they retrieve this schema from memory and apply it to the situation.

Schema as mentioned in the previous paragraph, Piaget described that as a child gets older, his or her schemas become more numerous and elaborate. Piaget believed that newborn babies have a small number of innate schemas - even before they have had many opportunities to experience the world. These neonatal schemas are the cognitive structures underlying innate reflexes. These reflexes are genetically programmed into us. For example, babies have a sucking reflex, which is triggered by something touching the baby's lips. A baby will suck a nipple, a comforter (dummy), or a person's finger. Piaget, therefore, assumed that the baby has a 'sucking schema.'

In addition to this statement, Piaget proposed four stages of cognitive development which reflect the increasing sophistication of children's thought, he did not include ages but studies by other theorists gave a rough account of what age range would relate to the different stages that Piaget proposed. The first one is the Sensorimotor stage which is from birth to two years old. The main achievement during this stage is object permanence - knowing that an object still exists, even if it is hidden.

The second is the Preoperational stage which is from two years old to the of age seven. During this stage, young children can think about things symbolically. This is the ability to make one thing which could be a word and an object exist for something other than what it is. According to Piaget this stage was important in a child’s mental development, logical and operational thought begins.This means the child can work things out internally in their head, rather than physically try things out in the real world.

Thirdly, Concrete operational stage which starts from the age of seven till the child reach the age of eleven. The last stage is the Formal operational stage which begins at the age of eleven till adolescence/adulthood. Piaget explained that each child goes through the stages in the same order, and child development is determined by biological maturation and interaction with the environment. Even though no stage can be missed out, there are individual differences in the rate at which children progress through stages, and some individuals may never achieve the later stages. The formal operational stage begins at approximately age eleven and lasts into adulthood. During this time, people develop the ability to think about abstract concepts, and logically test hypotheses.

Vygotsky vs Piaget:

Piaget and Vygotsky were contemporaries and their ideas shared some similarities, there were some significant differences, for example Piaget broke down development into different stages. Piaget believed that development is universal. Piaget’s theory focuses a great deal of attention on peer interaction while Vygotsky’s theory stresses the importance of more knowledgeable adults and peers. Vygotsky’s theory heavily stressed the role that language plays in development, something that Piaget largely ignored.

Limitations when ,easuring Cognitive Construction

I would argue that despite the difficulties in accurately measuring cognitive development, this cannot underestimate Piaget’s discovery that there is more to cognition than meets the eye. Furthermore, Vygotsky’s social constructivist approach presents the same challenges in measuring cognitive development. However, Vygotsky’s recognition that children learn in different ways, based on social and cultural values accounts further for the limitation of Piaget’s work, which ‘it seemed, was committed to universal, rational accounts of intellectual development’ (Morss, 1995:11), based on western values.

Piaget's Stages of Cognitive Development: The Universal Child

Piaget’s work has influenced many, including ‘social movements explicitly concerned with the comparison’ of individuals, using ‘tools of mental measurement, classification of abilities and the establishment of norms’. This idea that individuals can be compared and grouped can be found in Piaget’s well known ‘stages of cognitive development’: four distinct age related categories, correlated to ‘the development of a child’s thinking’. Although Piaget ‘emphasised that the approximate ages are a rough guide’, they were ‘linear’ and ‘universal’: ‘each person, regardless of time and place, progresses sequentially and linearly through these four stages’. Piaget’s certainty that all children follow the same order in cognitive development, without exception, is in contrast to Vygotsky’s understanding of variations in cognitive development, which reflects the ‘sociohistorical approach’: ‘individual development must be understood in […] the social and cultural context’. Vygotsky recognised that the observation of some children in a particular place, could not be applied to every child, as those children may demonstrate cultural knowledge that is relevant to specifically that location, which may not be transferable to another location. Furthermore, Vygotsky considered the influence that social and cultural interactions have on a child’s development particularly relating to the development of language, which Vygotsky believed was ‘acquired by children because of the transmission of culture across the generations’ (Morss, 1995:21). Therefore, Vygotsky’s understanding that language development occurs in social settings which reflects cultural practices is another example of how Vygotsky’s social construction theory accounts further for the limitation of Piaget’s theory. Piaget’s misunderstanding that language development is universal, based on an ‘age-stage checklist’ is referred to by Miller and others as the ‘universal fallacy’. ‘Unlike Piaget, who stressed universal sequences of cognitive growth, which were said to promote universal stages of social-personality development, Vygotsky’s theories lead us to expect wide variations across cultures in the course of development – variations that reflect differences in children’s cultural learning experiences. (Shaffer, 2009:92)

We will now examine further the limitations of Piaget’s assumption that children could be compared and grouped based on abilities, which have been implemented in many institutions seeking the establishment of norms. Assessing the ways in which Vygotsky’s understanding of cultural differences may account for these limitations.

For example, according to Smidt (2009:21-34), Vygotsky understood knowledge can be transferred using various cultural tools, which for some may include the transfer of knowledge physically, unlike western societies who impart knowledge more frequently with spoken or written language. The roles of the teacher, as valued by Vygotsky and Piaget will now be compared and contrasted.

Both Vygotsky’s and Piaget’s theories valued child-centred learning, placing importance on the teacher to support the child’s cognitive development. However, Piaget alleged knowledge is gain through ‘the process of active discovery’, valuing the teacher’s role as merely there to provide a learning environment for the child’s self-discovery of the world. In contrast Vygotsky alleged ‘that learning is a collaborative process’ (Arthur, 2006:55), gaining knowledge through social interactions, which could include peer learning, or even a child learning from younger siblings. This recreates the idea of a teacher in the traditional sense, to what Vygotsky referred to as a ‘more knowledgeable other (MKO)’. This role is not restricted to an adult, and places equal importance on the MKO as the learner, who must work in collaboration.

Burman explains that some believe infants free from social conditioning, which perhaps dictates the value and worth of knowledge, are closer to nature and are therefore ‘innocent bearers of wisdom’ (1994:10). To look at this another way, we could interpret Burman as suggesting that Vygotsky’s social construct theory, which places importance on social learning, used throughout this essay to account for the limitation of Piaget’s theory, may in fact oppress a children’s naturally higher level of knowledge, reduced overtime by social conditioning.


In Conclusion, we have assessed the limitations of Piaget’s work and found multiple ways that Vygotsky’s social construction theory accounts for the limitations of Piaget’s cognitive construction theory. However, it is fair to say that through this analysation, we have found ways that perhaps Piaget work was misinterpreted. This misinterpretation is not exclusive to Piaget and could be found in the work of many theorists, who often focus on explicitly stating what their work concludes, overlooking what it cannot. These unspoken exclusions and incomplete inclusions of the many factors that contribute to cognitive development, could equally be found to be a limitation of Vygotsky’s theories, as he died leaving much of his work incomplete. Perhaps also leaving much unsaid leading to misinterpretation. On the other hand, some limitations of Vygotsky’s theory have been presented, which Piaget’s theory may account for. However, with many examples of the limitations of Piaget’s theory, and numerous examples of how Vygotsky’s theory could account for these, it is fair to conclude that the overall finding of this essay suggests that Vygotsky’s theory of social construction does in many ways account for the limitations of Piaget’s cognitive construction theory. 

16 December 2021
Your Email

By clicking “Send”, you agree to our Terms of service and  Privacy statement. We will occasionally send you account related emails.

close thanks-icon

Your essay sample has been sent.

Order now
Still can’t find what you need?

Order custom paper and save your time
for priority classes!

Order paper now