The Comparison of Piaget's and Vygotsky's Theories

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Learning is a word utilised recurrently in educational context, as well as a process presented in all aspects of lives. Gagné (1965) maintains that learning is “a change in human disposition or capability which persists over a period of time”, and it is not equivalent to the process of growth (p. 3). While according to Amborse, Bridges, Lovett, DiPietro and Norman (2010), learning is a progress evoked by experience to achieve higher-level performance. However, it is rather difficult for educators or theorists to develop a universally accepted learning theory, mainly due to the fact that learning is usually influenced by various factors. Piaget and Vygotsky are two leading constructivist theorists, whose theories of personal constructivism and social constructivism are highly influential. In this essay, these two views of learning will be evaluated and compared, combined with a narrative reflection based on my personal experience.

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The Comparison of Piaget’s and Vygotsky’s Theories

The Place of Language and Learning in Development

Language has a great place on the learning process; learning does not occur only by acting directly on objects. Piaget (1964) believes that “the development of knowledge is a spontaneous process” closely related to embryogenesis and “development explains learning” (p. 176), which shows considerable emphasis on using biological stance to explain learning and strong inclination towards the opinion that learning is of less importance compared with development. This view is further approved by Flatcher and Garman, who argue that Piaget’s focus on children’s cognitive development is mainly presented as “ ‘internal imitations’ of external actions” (p. 10), and the capacity of decentring underpins all the changes of behaviours, such as the use of language. However, learning and language are indispensable elements in development, the significance of which should not be underrated by the biological development. In order to explore the importance of language and learning, Landau, Smith and Jones (1988) investigated the 2-year-olds, 3-year-olds and adults’ cognition about shape and size and found that people’s development of cognition is originated from language learning instead of general perceptual processes. In this sense, Piaget, on the one hand, overemphasises the natural biological process, and on the other hand, underestimated the place of language and context. Simply put, Piaget’s theory which looks into learning from a biological perspective and regards human being as an organism that constructs knowledge and understanding within itself has some limitation, which is the ignorance of language and learning.

By contrast, Vygotsky acknowledges the positive effects of language and cultural context on learning and development of knowledge. Vygotsky (1978) believes that language is the major instrument which can enhance thinking, reasoning, as well as cultural activities, such as reading and writing. This view could be explained by the social line of development and natural line of development: the former centres on language development, which cannot be reduced to the latter featuring biological process, and language development could be seen as the prime motive of development, mainly due to the fact that linguistic signs act as the mediator in children’s intellectual and social life. According to the experiment conducted by Myers, Guttentag, Swank, Smith and Landry (2010) with the children aged 3 and 8 years old about the place of language in peer competence, it was found that the early language skills acquisition results in later proficient peer play in numerous aspects, such as social interaction, self-regulation and accomplishment of academic tasks. Therefore, language does play a vital role in development, which should be distinguished from ‘internal imitations’.

Vygotsky also recognises the importance of learning in the zone of proximal development (ZPD). “Under the guidance of adults and in cooperation with his more intelligent partners”, children can achieve higher level of performance. This is further explained into that learners should be kept in their ZPDs by giving them problem-solving and learning tasks that are more difficult than their current level, which can then make them to work with others, such as teachers or competent peers, to finish the task. In this case, learning, which occurs externally, should not just be reduced to internal process. However, scaffolding, as a main way of operationalising the concept of ZPD, still receives some criticism. For example, if applied unproperly, the teacher-learner interaction in classroom could be viewed as principally adult-driven and one-sided in nature (Stone, 1998), which may reduce teaching to the pre-Piagetian way of direct instruction (Verenikina, 2008). In this case, although Vygotsky’s theory may sound more reasonable in the aspect of language and learning than Piaget’s biological perspective, it still could be problematic if applied inappropriately.

Language and learning do play a vital role in my life, which can be proved by my struggling experience of studying in France as a child. In line with the view that “discussing negative emotions in early childhood may actually lead to a more positive portrayal of life” (Reese, Yan, Jack & Hayne, 2010, p. 33), I will endeavour to describe the event to reflect how it has shaped my views.

My mother reminded me of this experience when I recently complained to her about the exhausting university life. The moment I settled down in Lyon was definitely a new beginning for me and my family. At the age of 9, without any knowledge about French, I started school as an international student, which was the beginning of my nightmare. Once I learned some French, I started to understand what the other school mates talked about me in a mean and ironic way, which was not as pleasant as I thought. It was quite common for me to come back home, depressed and downcast, with tears spinning in eyes. For my mother, instead of comforting me, she just said I should not let others judge who I was and block my way to success.

At that time, what my mother said was unreadable and complicated for me somehow, and from my guess, I should just learn French to show others how intelligent I was and stop bullying. Fortunately, I started learning French with considerable progress and feeling confident enough to speak it with the help of teachers, without which I could never master this unfamiliar language. Consequently, I became quite proficient in the aforementioned peer play, which means I did not only get satisfactory results in the school tests, but also gained confidence and made some friends. Besides, this experience helps me realise that foreign language learning contributes to my personal development and prepares me for my adult lives (Pachler, Evans, Redondo & Fisher, 2014), especially for my studies in a foreign country now.

The Place of Socio-Cultural Context in Learning and Development

Piaget also underestimates the necessity of sociocultural experience in terms of learning and development, which is a pervasive criticism of basic cognitive constructivism. For example, Murray (1983) argues that Piagetian theory does not refer to “social class, sex, nationality, culture, or personality”. However, Murray’s judgement appears extreme somehow. On the one hand, Piaget believes that development “has its ontogeny in sensory motor activity, the interaction between physiology and physical (not social) environment”, even though it could be affected by social factors, which means Piaget does put much emphasis on natural biological factors in terms of development. On the other hand, it is unprecise to maintain that Piagetian theory has no relationship to those attributes mentioned above, since in fact, he does not deny the role of social world in knowledge acquisition. For example, he argues that “la société est l’unité suprême et I’individu ne parvient à ses inventions ou constructions intellectuelles que dans la mesure où il est le siège d’interactions collectives” [society is the supreme unity and individual can achieve his inventions and intellectual constructions only to the degree that he is one part of collective interactions] (Piaget, 1966, p. 25), which means he realises and admits the necessity of socio-culture in individual development. Overall, his insufficient emphasis on sociocultural effects is still manifest, and the natural biological development plays a dominant and nonnegligible role in his basic constructivism theory.

In contrast, Vygotsky stresses the role of socio-culture, and “posit(s) a biologically fixed ’human nature’ with a simple ’wrap-around’ of tools and culture”, which “are indeed as much determiners of our nature as products of it”. Otherwise speaking, he (1979) recognises the importance of cultural mediation and how cultural artifacts play a vital role in human learning, by arguing that “the social dimension of consciousness is primary in time and in fact” while “the individual dimension of consciousness is derivative and secondary” (p. 30), which is further acknowledged by Cole and Wertsch (1996), who think that it is the society, the carrier of culture, that makes development of mind possible. Also, as shown in the case study conducted by Susi, many seemingly individual work activities are actually collaborative ones, where most coordination is achieved by the use of artefacts. In this sense, Vygotsky explores the issue of learning from a broader social context rather than the biological standpoint.

In comparison, contradiction and similarity coexist in these two theories, which could be explained by their disparate perspectives and emphasises. For social constructivists, they usually “downplay the mental construction of knowledge” and emphasise the “co-construction of meaning within a social activity”, and the situation is opposite for cognitive constructivists. However, it does not mean that Piaget disbelieves the role of socio-culture but signifies that he considers it as comparatively trivial. Similarly, Vygotsky does not deny the position of natural development, but regards it less dominant. It is the dissimilar perspectives that shape the heterogenous ideas.

Life is a combination of experiences, culture, and much more, and we should take advantage of the artefacts to adapt our environments. Based on the personal experience mentioned above, I do not only understand the importance of language and learning, but also believe that social activities, whether that be studying abroad, coping with unpleasant situations or being comforted by my mother, play an undeniable role in my personal development. Moreover, the development related to the negative event is everlasting, from childhood to adulthood. For instance, my mother’s comforting talk and reminding conversation with me can be regarded as a kind of social interaction or cultural mediation, aimed at assisting me in learning something out of the experience and overcoming the challengesmy original understanding shaped my desire to study hard as a child and my current comprehension helps me understand what learning is.


Based on the two different theories along with my personal reflections, learning can be a natural biological development of internalisation and construction of external reality, which is considered as a ‘weaker’ form of constructivism, or a result of social interaction and language use, which can be seen as a ‘stronger’ form of shared experience. In other words, compared with Piaget, a manifest improvement of Vygotsky’s theory is that it emphasises the significance of language, learning, as well as socio-culture, and divides them out of the biology-centred theory, which is acknowledged by Verenikina (2010), who believes that “there is unity but not equivalence of learning and internal developmental processes: it presupposes that the one is converted into the other” (p. 4).

From my own viewpoint, to a large degree, learning means continuous personal growth of acquiring knowledge, skills and experience which occurs in social interaction that is inclusive regardless of different cultural and social backgrounds and biological maturation with challenges. Otherwise stated, an individual should make sense out of the various artefacts or experiences in social process and reflect on them at different stages of life.

In conclusion, even though the writing style of this essay is to contradict Piaget’s ideas with Vygotsky’s, it does not mean the latter is better, since similarity and conflict exist simultaneously in two of them. Instead, we can only conclude that Piaget and Vygotsky explore the issue of learning from disparate perspectives, and the latter develops his theory based on the former. Both of them are still quite influential nowadays.


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16 December 2021

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