Evaluating Piaget’s Theory of Cognitive Development
Although Piaget’s theory has been very influential, it has not gone unchallenged. Many more recent researchers have obtained findings indicating that cognitive development is considerably more continuous than Piaget claimed. For example, Diamond (1985) found that on the object permanence task discussed earlier, infants show earlier knowledge if the waiting period is shorter. At age 6 months, they retrieve the hidden object if the wait is no longer than 2 seconds; at 7 months, they retrieve it if the wait is no longer than 4 seconds; and so on. Even earlier, at 3 or 4 months, infants show surprise in the form of longer looking times if objects suddenly appear to vanish with no obvious cause (Baillargeon, 1987). Similarly, children’s specific experiences can greatly influence when developmental changes occur. Children of pottery makers in Mexican villages, for example, know that reshaping clay does not change the amount of clay at much younger ages than children who do not have similar experiences (Price-Williams, Gordon, & Ramirez, 1969). (51)
Vygotsky’s Sociocultural Theory of Development
Lev Vygotsky (1978), a Russian Psychologist, focused on how a child’s or novice’s thinking is influenced by relationships with others who are more capable, knowledgeable, or expert than the learner. In other words, a child’s cognitive development is guided by interactions with others. Vygotsky made the reasonable proposal that when a child (or novice) is learning a new skill or solving a new problem, he or she can perform better if accompanied and helped by an expert than if performing alone—though still not as well as the expert. Learning a new task first occurs on a social plane (or through social interactions), and then it becomes internalized and occurs on an individual plane. As the knowledge becomes internalized, it is transformed and is connected to previous experiences and knowledge.
Someone who has played very little chess, for example, will probably compete against an opponent better if helped by an expert chess player than if competing against the opponent alone. Vygotsky called the difference between solo performance and assisted performance the zone of proximal development (or ZPD for short)—meaning, figuratively speaking, the place or area of immediate change. From this social constructivist perspective, learning is like assisted performance (Tharp & Gallimore, 1991). “The zone of proximal development is a dynamic region of sensitivity to learning the skills of culture, in which children develop through participation in problem solving with more experienced members of the culture” (Rogoff, 1990, p. 14).
During learning, knowledge or skill is found initially “in” the expert helper. If the expert is skilled and motivated to help, then the expert arranges experiences that let the novice practice crucial skills or construct new knowledge. These experiences often use scaffolding. Scaffolding is when the expert provides structure as the child develops the new knowledge and/or skill. In this regard the expert is a bit like the coach of an athlete—offering help and suggesting ways of practicing, but never doing the actual athletic work himself or herself. Gradually, by providing continued experiences matched to the novice learner’s emerging competencies, the expert-coach makes it possible for the novice or apprentice toappropriate (or make his or her own) the skills or knowledge that originally resided only with the expert. (55)
Beyond social interactions, language and culture were also cornerstone concepts for Vygotsky’s sociocultural theory of cognitive development. For Vygotsky, thinking and language are inextricably intertwined. When you think, you typically use language. When you use language, you are thinking. For Vygotsky, children interact with others when completing tasks within a given culture (such as cooking or gardening), and the person guiding them in completing the task is speaking to them, assisting them in both developing language and learn the task. Vygotsky found that children will first use private speech (speaking aloud) when learning their language. For example, if you watch a three-year-old child playing alone, he or she is speaking the whole time about what is going on. However, over time, our language becomes internalized. If you watch an eight-year-old child playing alone, he or she is often silent. That is because he or she now has inner speech (or inner voice). The child can have the talking of their toys going on in his or her head. As language grows, so does our thinking ability. However, according to this theory, cognitive growth is dependent upon social interactions within a given culture. (1)
Comparing Piaget and Vygotsky
Piaget emphasized the ways that long-term development determines a child’s ability to learn, rather than the other way around. The earliest stages of a child’s life are thought to be rather self-centered and to be dependent on the child’s sensory and motor interactions with the environment. When acting or reacting to his or her surroundings, the child has relatively little language skill initially. This circumstance limits the child’s ability to learn in the usual, school-like sense of the term. As development proceeds, of course, language skills improve and hence the child becomes progressively more “teachable” and in this sense more able to learn. But whatever the child’s age, ability to learn waits or depends upon the child’s stage of development.
Social constructivists such as Vygotsky, on the other hand, emphasized the importance of social interaction in stimulating the development of the child. Language and dialogue therefore are primary, and development is seen as happening as a result—the converse of the sequence pictured by Piaget. Obviously a child does not begin life with a lot of initial language skill, but this fact is why interactions need to be scaffolded with more experienced experts— people capable of creating a zone of proximal development in their conversations and other interactions. In the preschool years the experts are usually parents; after the school years begin, the experts broaden to include teachers. (55)