Jean Piaget had a very difficult childhood. He had a cold, distantfather and a mentally ill mother. Her condition contributed towards atroublesome marriage and family life. Piaget himself had two nervous breakdownsin his youth. He was not especially close to his other siblings or have closefriends of his own age, and depended upon older mentors and self-study to growhis learning. The Swiss culture that emphasized individuality and freedomperhaps led Piaget to focus on learning from an individual standpoint ratherthan exploring the group influences on learning.

(Pass, 2004) He combined hisinterest in biology with his interest in philosophy and began exploring theworld from the age of 11 years old. (Sigelman & Rider, 2017)Over the next fewdecades of his life, Piaget worked towards understanding cognitive developmentin children. He was the one of the first people to take children’s thinkingseriously, and study it actively. (Houde, 2015) According to him,intelligence is a process that allows an individual to adjust to his/herenvironment. This adjustment involves a process of active construction ofunderstanding of the world based on interactions with it.

Children are not bornwith an innate understanding of the way that the world works, but rather learnthrough their contact with it. (Sigelman & Rider, 2017) The environment providesthe stimuli, both physical and intellectual that children need to constructtheir knowledge. Piaget used concepts such as schema, accommodation,assimilation and equilibrium to explain the process of cognitive developmentand the subsequent growth and learning that takes place. (Iqbal, 2015)Schemas are mentalrepresentations of concepts that are used to make sense of new information.Children who are in the process of development interact with the world throughthese schemas. When they encounter new information that does not fit into theirpre-existing schema, they experience a process of disequilibrium. This leads tothe process of assimilation or accommodation.

Assimilation occurs in thepresence of information that only partially fits into schemas that are alreadypresent. The schemas are adjusted to include the new information. Accommodationoccurs when the information presented is completely new. New schemas areformed, and the process may involve restructuring basic beliefs. (Johnson, 2014) Once assimilationand/or accommodation have occurred, equilibrium is restored, and meaningfullearning is achieved. (Iqbal, 2015) This is acontinuously repeating process, and moves the child along the stages ofcognitive development. Piaget proposedfour major stages of development.

This theory can best be characterized as astage theory. This implies that the development in children occurs in stages,and that the advancement to a higher stage is based on the completion of tasksof the previous stages. (Johnson, 2014) However, taking intoaccount factors like heredity, environment, and experiences for cognitive stimulation,different children may progress through these stages at different paces. Thefour stages are: sensorimotor stage (0-2 years old), pre-operational stage (2-7years old), concrete operational stage (7-11 years old), formal operationsstage (11-12 and older). Sensorimotor stage: Infants use their senses and motor skills to explorethe world. They are born with just innate reflexes, but slowly develop’intelligent’ actions as their interactions with the world increase.

Infants atthe end of this stage are characterized by the capability of symbolic thoughtusing images and words, leading to solution-planning. Pre-operational stage: This stage involves the development of language,pretend play and problem-solving. Thinking is distinctly egocentric andillogical to a large extent. Concrete operations: Children in this stage acquire concrete logicaloperations that enable them to mentally classify, and act on concrete objectsin their heads. They have the ability to solve practical, real-world problemsthrough the process of trial and error, but they struggle with abstract orhypothetical problems.

Formal operations: Hypothetical thinking and abstract conceptualizationsis the characteristic feature of this stage. Individuals in this stage can formhypotheses and test them systematically using the scientific method. (Sigelman & Rider, 2017)Piaget’s termed these stages an ‘invariant sequence’, implying that childrenprogress through the levels in the suggested order, without skipping orregressing to earlier stages. (Sigelman & Rider, 2017) He also generalizedthese stages to apply to every human being, regardless of their social,environmental, cultural and political backgrounds. Thus, he was a universalist.

Universalism in this theory embodies the belief of the universal progression ofchildren through the four stages of development, albeit at their own pace. The theory of cognitivedevelopment has been widely criticized for neglecting the consideration of asocio-cultural perspective. However, some have argued that Piaget took thesocial and cultural influences into account, but approached them from adifferent perspective, influenced by his own social and cultural environment. Hefocussed on the individual as an active learner influenced by the environment. (Matusov & Hayes, 2000) The theory ofcognitive development is aimed towards autonomy.

Cognitive processes are builtinternally, following which external repercussions can be observed in thechild’s interactions with his/her environment. It could be conceptualized as a’inside-out’ theory. (Lourenco, 2012) Thus, Piaget’stheory of cognitive development does not neglect the role of culture and thesocial nature of human beings, but rather approaches it from a differentperspective. These criticisms arise in comparisons of Piaget’s and Vygotsky’stheories of development.

Given the heavy emphasis of Vygotsky on the social andcultural influences on development, it seems to people that Piaget eliminatesthe socio-cultural perspective entirely. When viewed independently, it can beseen that the theory of cognitive development does take the social and culturalinfluences into account when describing development. It cannot be denied that thefocus of this theory is on cognition more than the social and cultural aspectsof one’s life though. These criticisms have generated research relating topotential ‘improvements’ or changes that could be made to the theory to make itmore encompassing. The volume of this research is massive, so this paper willelaborate only on one exploration.Piaget’s theoryaccounts for integration of new information into pre-existing schemas, and thecreation of new schemas in the presence of new information.

However, whathappens to the non-adaptive components of information that already exist in thebrain in the process of accommodation and assimilation? This process ofcognitive dissimilation has been explored by Y.S. Dodonov and Y.A. Dodonov(2011). They classified the non-adaptive data as neutral or impedimental to theprocess of development.

The neutral data eventually becomes extinct. There is noactive involvement of that data in the cognitive processes of the individual inthe future. However, the impedimental non-adaptive data could lead to harm tothe individual, whether intellectual/cognitive, physical or social. This isdone, according to Dodonov and Dodonov through the creation of a new, veryspecific schema that is activated when the potential to harm due to thenon-adaptive information arises. This schema functions as an internalpoliceman, playing an active role in blocking the individual from harm.

(Dodonov & Dodonov, 2011) Thus, the harmfulnon-adaptive information is not ignored, but rather actively utilized as aguardian tool for the individual. This is just one of the many, many research projects being conducted inattempts to make Piaget’s theory of cognitive development ‘better’. The aim isto make it more universally applicable in the conceptualization of individuals,whether in a therapeutic environment, or otherwise.

In sum, Piaget hasbeen considered to be a pioneer in the field of cognitive development. Histheory of cognitive development emphasizes on the growth and development of anindividual through four stages: sensorimotor, preoperational, concreteoperations and formal operations stage. These stages are assisted by theprocesses of equilibrium, assimilation and accommodation. Piaget has beenfrequently criticized for his lack of inclusion of the influence of social andcultural factors during development in comparison to Vygotsky. When viewed as astandalone theory however, it can be seen that he does account for thosefactors, but not to as great an extent as does Vygotsky. These criticisms havealso generated a lot of research on potential changes and improvements to makethe theory more all-encompassing. While this research is encouraged, it is alsoimportant to recognise that no theory will ever be able to completely explainhuman beings and their development in all its complexity. This should be keptin mind while planning interventions and treatments with clients well.

Piaget’s theory has been hugely influential, generating vast amounts ofresearch and debate around the world. The next section will explore Vygotsky’stheory of development. VygotskyLev Vygotsky, likePiaget, had a very difficult childhood.

He grew up a Jew in Czarist Russia, andfaced overt prejudice and discrimination on an everyday basis. In his childhoodhe witnessed two pogroms; the second of which prompted his father to take uparms to defend his family and neighbours. Subsequently, his father had todefend himself in court. Vygotsky was exposed to a difficult socio-politicalenvironment for the majority of his life- the first world war, the RussianRevolution, and finally Stalin and his ‘cleansing’. Due to his slight build, hebecame infected with tuberculosis in 1918, a disease which eventually killedhim in 1934, when he was just 38 years old. The difficult conditions that Vygotsky had to live in for such a large portionof his life led him towards researching the intellectual development inchildren. (Pass, 2004)Vygotsky too,believed that children actively construct knowledge which facilitates theirdevelopment.

However, he placed more emphasis on social interaction. (Iqbal, 2015) According to him,cognitive development in children is shaped by their social and culturalenvironment, and the individual’s interaction with other individuals withinthat environment. Culture encompasses the immaterial aspects such as language,values and beliefs as well as material objects used in everyday life, such ascomputers, books, the media, etc. Problem solving approaches are passed downfrom generation to generation. Thus, each child develops shaped by the culturethat they are born in. (Sigelman & Rider, 2017)In general, Vygotsky believed that cognitive skills in children could beunderstood only if developmentally analysed and interpreted. Observation of thechild’s progress from one stage to another is crucial.

This progress occursthrough the mediation of tools such as language, words, counting systems, etc.These tools are artificial and social in nature, as opposed to organic. Socialtools and relations form the foundation of cognitive skills. (Iqbal, 2015) Of all the toolsthat the children are exposed to, language is crucial in driving cognitivedevelopment. This takes the form of internal and external speech. Three stagesof speech development have been described:Social/external speech: In this stage, speech and thinking are notconnected to one another. Between birth and three years old, thinking isprimarily in the form of images, impressions and emotions. Speech occursexternally, to express desires or emotions.

Egocentric speech: This stage takes place between 3-7 yearsapproximately. Children in this stage tend to talk out loud to themselves whilethey do something. This kind of speech helps children solve problems, and is animportant stage to transition into more sophisticated inner thinking andproblem solving. Inner speech: This stage is characterized by soundless speech orthought. Speech is internalized and is used as a reference to guide thoughtsand behaviour. As the individual grows older, this kind of thinking becomesmore complex and sophisticated. (Johnson, 2014)The transitionsfrom one stage to another is facilitated through concepts called zone ofproximal development, scaffolding and the role that language plays as a toolfor promoting cognitive development.

The zone of proximal development, also known as the zone of potentialdevelopment (ZPD), is described as the gap between the level that the childcould attain under normal circumstances, and a higher level that the childcould attain with the help of more cognitively advanced individuals. This gapcan be narrowed or eliminated through scaffolding. Scaffolding is the help andguidance that a more cognitively advanced individual offers to the child in theprocess of solving a relatively difficult task.

This does not involve givingthe solution to the child, but rather adjusting the amount of guidance offeredto the child to help him/her arrive at the solution. Through these processes,language plays a very important role. Children use language to communicate withthe outside world, but also to communicate with themselves, and regulate theirthoughts and behaviours. For Vygotsky, the inner speech plays a very importantrole in in cognitive growth and development.

(Iqbal, 2015)Due to his earlydemise, Vygotsky was unable to refine and develop his idea very much. Thearrival of Piaget and Vygotsky’s work as English translations to the westernworld in the 1960s created a rapid rise in their popularity. However, themajority of individuals understood and/or had access to only fragments ofVygotsky’s work, taken out of the context in which they were written and meant.Thus, there was very little true understanding of the Vygotsky’s theory ofcognitive development. As a result, a great deal of research has been directedtowards the implications of the theory of cognitive development, in terms ofchanges and additions, as well as its applicability to different contexts.

However,Dafermos (2016) argues that the theory was selectively adapted to answerquestions in the fields of psychology, anthropology, linguistics etc. to answerquestions that had so far been unanswered. It did not take into account thecultural, historical, social and political contexts in which the theory wasfirst formulated, and its interpretation has been ‘westernized’. (Dafermos, 2016) Conflict has emerged with regard to the interpretations of Vygotsky’s work.

Oneperspective is the commonly known English-translated perspective. There isanother one that is little known outside former USSR. Therein lies theconflict. It cannot be said with certainty that the interpretations that weremade about his theory after it reached the western world in the 1960s wereentirely accurate, because it does not account for the knowledge that is knownand discussed only within former USSR. (Yvon, Chaiguerova, & Newnham, 2013)This has implications for the research that is being conducted as well. As withthe research generated by Piaget’s theory, the amount of research conductedaround Vygotsky’s theory of development is too large to be explored in itsentirety within the scope of this paper.

Thus, the paper will elaborate uponone example.The NationalInstitute of Mental Health (NIMH) has been funding an ambitious project titledResearch Domain Criteria (RDoC) for the past few years. There are multipledomains of research in this project, of which the Social Cognition domain formsa large part. The understanding of the concept of social cognition reliesheavily on the concept as proposed by Vygotsky, and the body of literaturepublished by him that is accessible to the researcher that are a part of theproject. (Kholomogorova, 2016)However, the lack of complete knowledge of Vygotsky’s theory and the contextwithin which it was written in addition to the ‘westernization’ of the theorywould impact the accuracy of the research in ways that may not be foreseeable.This would apply to all future research that places Vygotsky and his theory atits core. It cannot be denied that the theory, even in its limited form, inaddition to Piaget’s theory have applications in real-world settings. This paper willfocus on the applicability of the theories within the therapeutic set-up.

Theunderstanding of Piaget’s and Vygotsky’s theories have led to applications inschool and education settings.  It isimportant to understand that a particular theory should not be the sole sourceof guidance when interacting with clients. Every theory of human developmentconceptualizes human beings in different lights, and a theory or multipletheories could be selected for reference, but cannot be the only source ofinformation and intervention. Given the age ranges within which the stages of cognitive development have beenset, Piaget’s theory is ideal for use in school settings. However, it cannot beused without taking other perspectives into account, to conceptualize thechildren more holistically, taking into account all the aspects of their life. Most developmental psychologists use an eclectic mix of appropriate theories intheir interactions with clients today.

This approach recognizes that no theoryof development can completely explain everything about humans, but that eachone contributes to the understanding of them.This leads to the comparison of theories in order to determine what their strengthsand weaknesses are in relation to each other. The next section will focus onthe comparisons made between Piaget’s theory and Vygotsky’s theory.

In the past, therewas a belief that Vygotsky’s theory of socio-cultural development was superiorto Piaget’s theory of cognitive development by virtue of it taking into accountthe social environment and culture as well as the biological aspects of development.However, the research that has been generated by the comparison of thesetheories has found more similarities than differences between the two theories.The phenomenon ofegocentric speech in children, while previously thought of as pitting the twotheorists against each other has been defined by both Piaget and Vygotsky, onlyin different ways. According to Piaget, egocentric speech is that which occursfrom the individual’s point of view, while Vygotsky defined it as speech for oneself.

(Obukhova, 2016)Similarly, boththeories place importance on the social environment and the interactions ofcognitive structures with it. These are further influenced by cultural aspectssuch as language, values, and instruments. The difference arises in theemphasis on one over the other. Cognitive developmental theory emphasizes onthe cognitive structures in the brain and their impact on the environment,whereas socio-cultural theory emphasizes on the social and cultural environmentand the impact it has on cognitive development. The differences in these emphaseschanges that way that these theories would conceptualize individuals.There is however, one fundamental difference between the two theories, that hasbeen touched upon to a within the comparison and previously in the paper aswell.The cognitive developmental theory is an ‘inside-out’ theory. Internalbiological changes create a change in the way that the individual interactswith the world.

In contrast, the socio-cultural theory is an ‘outside-in’theory. The outside environment and socio-cultural factors facilitate internalbiological development in the individual. (Lourenco, 2012)Thus, historicallyPiaget and Vygotsky have been thought of as having theories and approaches thatare diametrically opposite to each other. Recent research has proved that theyare, in fact, more similar than previously thought. They have different conceptualizationsof the same phenomena observed in children, but these conceptualizations are groundedin similar concepts. This has the potential to generate a lot of research inthe future, especially with regards to the integration of the two theories foruse in the counseling settings.

 In conclusion,Piaget and Vygotsky both developed their theories from places of greatadversity and struggle. Their theories account for the cognitive growth anddevelopment in children, albeit from different perspectives. Piaget’s theory ofcognitive development progresses in a stage-like, universal fashion, withindividuals moving up the stages in a fixed manner at different paces.

Vygotsky’stheory on the other hand, states that individuals develop through theirinteractions with their culture and environment. Language plays an especiallyimportant role is this approach. Both theories have generated vast amounts ofresearch, with multiple suggestions for changes, edits or additions that couldbe made to the theory that would make it better suited to the current socio-politicaland cultural context. However, some of this research, especially that relatingto Vygotsky must be explored with the understanding that the widely availableknowledge of his theoretical framework is limited and westernized.

In therecent years, the emphasis has shifted from comparing the two theories witheach other and recognizing instead, their similarities. This has the potentialto generate a great deal of research in the future.Piaget and Vygotsky were extremely influential in their time, and will continueto be the same in the future as well.

(Matusov & Hayes, 2000)


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