Jean Piaget had a very difficult childhood. He had a cold, distant
father and a mentally ill mother. Her condition contributed towards a
troublesome marriage and family life. Piaget himself had two nervous breakdowns
in his youth. He was not especially close to his other siblings or have close
friends of his own age, and depended upon older mentors and self-study to grow
his learning. The Swiss culture that emphasized individuality and freedom
perhaps led Piaget to focus on learning from an individual standpoint rather
than exploring the group influences on learning. (Pass, 2004) He combined his
interest in biology with his interest in philosophy and began exploring the
world from the age of 11 years old. (Sigelman & Rider, 2017)

Over the next few
decades of his life, Piaget worked towards understanding cognitive development
in children. He was the one of the first people to take children’s thinking
seriously, and study it actively. (Houde, 2015) According to him,
intelligence is a process that allows an individual to adjust to his/her
environment. This adjustment involves a process of active construction of
understanding of the world based on interactions with it. Children are not born
with an innate understanding of the way that the world works, but rather learn
through their contact with it. (Sigelman & Rider, 2017) The environment provides
the stimuli, both physical and intellectual that children need to construct
their knowledge. Piaget used concepts such as schema, accommodation,
assimilation and equilibrium to explain the process of cognitive development
and the subsequent growth and learning that takes place. (Iqbal, 2015)

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Schemas are mental
representations of concepts that are used to make sense of new information.
Children who are in the process of development interact with the world through
these schemas. When they encounter new information that does not fit into their
pre-existing schema, they experience a process of disequilibrium. This leads to
the process of assimilation or accommodation. Assimilation occurs in the
presence of information that only partially fits into schemas that are already
present. The schemas are adjusted to include the new information. Accommodation
occurs when the information presented is completely new. New schemas are
formed, and the process may involve restructuring basic beliefs. (Johnson, 2014) Once assimilation
and/or accommodation have occurred, equilibrium is restored, and meaningful
learning is achieved. (Iqbal, 2015) This is a
continuously repeating process, and moves the child along the stages of
cognitive development.

Piaget proposed
four major stages of development. This theory can best be characterized as a
stage 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 tasks
of the previous stages. (Johnson, 2014) However, taking into
account factors like heredity, environment, and experiences for cognitive stimulation,
different children may progress through these stages at different paces. The
four stages are: sensorimotor stage (0-2 years old), pre-operational stage (2-7
years old), concrete operational stage (7-11 years old), formal operations
stage (11-12 and older).
Sensorimotor stage: Infants use their senses and motor skills to explore
the world. They are born with just innate reflexes, but slowly develop
‘intelligent’ actions as their interactions with the world increase. Infants at
the end of this stage are characterized by the capability of symbolic thought
using 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 and
illogical to a large extent.
Concrete operations: Children in this stage acquire concrete logical
operations that enable them to mentally classify, and act on concrete objects
in their heads. They have the ability to solve practical, real-world problems
through the process of trial and error, but they struggle with abstract or
hypothetical problems.
Formal operations: Hypothetical thinking and abstract conceptualizations
is the characteristic feature of this stage. Individuals in this stage can form
hypotheses and test them systematically using the scientific method. (Sigelman & Rider, 2017)
Piaget’s termed these stages an ‘invariant sequence’, implying that children
progress through the levels in the suggested order, without skipping or
regressing to earlier stages. (Sigelman & Rider, 2017) He also generalized
these 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 of
children through the four stages of development, albeit at their own pace.

The theory of cognitive
development has been widely criticized for neglecting the consideration of a
socio-cultural perspective. However, some have argued that Piaget took the
social and cultural influences into account, but approached them from a
different perspective, influenced by his own social and cultural environment. He
focussed on the individual as an active learner influenced by the environment. (Matusov & Hayes, 2000) The theory of
cognitive development is aimed towards autonomy. Cognitive processes are built
internally, following which external repercussions can be observed in the
child’s interactions with his/her environment. It could be conceptualized as a
‘inside-out’ theory. (Lourenco, 2012) Thus, Piaget’s
theory of cognitive development does not neglect the role of culture and the
social nature of human beings, but rather approaches it from a different
perspective. These criticisms arise in comparisons of Piaget’s and Vygotsky’s
theories of development. Given the heavy emphasis of Vygotsky on the social and
cultural influences on development, it seems to people that Piaget eliminates
the socio-cultural perspective entirely. When viewed independently, it can be
seen that the theory of cognitive development does take the social and cultural
influences into account when describing development. It cannot be denied that the
focus of this theory is on cognition more than the social and cultural aspects
of one’s life though. These criticisms have generated research relating to
potential ‘improvements’ or changes that could be made to the theory to make it
more encompassing. The volume of this research is massive, so this paper will
elaborate only on one exploration.

Piaget’s theory
accounts for integration of new information into pre-existing schemas, and the
creation of new schemas in the presence of new information. However, what
happens to the non-adaptive components of information that already exist in the
brain in the process of accommodation and assimilation? This process of
cognitive dissimilation has been explored by Y.S. Dodonov and Y.A. Dodonov
(2011). They classified the non-adaptive data as neutral or impedimental to the
process of development. The neutral data eventually becomes extinct. There is no
active involvement of that data in the cognitive processes of the individual in
the future. However, the impedimental non-adaptive data could lead to harm to
the individual, whether intellectual/cognitive, physical or social. This is
done, according to Dodonov and Dodonov through the creation of a new, very
specific schema that is activated when the potential to harm due to the
non-adaptive information arises. This schema functions as an internal
policeman, playing an active role in blocking the individual from harm. (Dodonov & Dodonov, 2011) Thus, the harmful
non-adaptive information is not ignored, but rather actively utilized as a
guardian tool for the individual.
This is just one of the many, many research projects being conducted in
attempts to make Piaget’s theory of cognitive development ‘better’. The aim is
to make it more universally applicable in the conceptualization of individuals,
whether in a therapeutic environment, or otherwise.

In sum, Piaget has
been considered to be a pioneer in the field of cognitive development. His
theory of cognitive development emphasizes on the growth and development of an
individual through four stages: sensorimotor, preoperational, concrete
operations and formal operations stage. These stages are assisted by the
processes of equilibrium, assimilation and accommodation. Piaget has been
frequently criticized for his lack of inclusion of the influence of social and
cultural factors during development in comparison to Vygotsky. When viewed as a
standalone theory however, it can be seen that he does account for those
factors, but not to as great an extent as does Vygotsky. These criticisms have
also generated a lot of research on potential changes and improvements to make
the theory more all-encompassing. While this research is encouraged, it is also
important to recognise that no theory will ever be able to completely explain
human beings and their development in all its complexity. This should be kept
in mind while planning interventions and treatments with clients well.
Piaget’s theory has been hugely influential, generating vast amounts of
research and debate around the world. The next section will explore Vygotsky’s
theory of development.



Lev Vygotsky, like
Piaget, had a very difficult childhood. He grew up a Jew in Czarist Russia, and
faced overt prejudice and discrimination on an everyday basis. In his childhood
he witnessed two pogroms; the second of which prompted his father to take up
arms to defend his family and neighbours. Subsequently, his father had to
defend himself in court. Vygotsky was exposed to a difficult socio-political
environment for the majority of his life- the first world war, the Russian
Revolution, and finally Stalin and his ‘cleansing’. Due to his slight build, he
became infected with tuberculosis in 1918, a disease which eventually killed
him in 1934, when he was just 38 years old.
The difficult conditions that Vygotsky had to live in for such a large portion
of his life led him towards researching the intellectual development in
children. (Pass, 2004)

Vygotsky too,
believed that children actively construct knowledge which facilitates their
development. However, he placed more emphasis on social interaction. (Iqbal, 2015) According to him,
cognitive development in children is shaped by their social and cultural
environment, and the individual’s interaction with other individuals within
that environment. Culture encompasses the immaterial aspects such as language,
values and beliefs as well as material objects used in everyday life, such as
computers, books, the media, etc. Problem solving approaches are passed down
from generation to generation. Thus, each child develops shaped by the culture
that they are born in. (Sigelman & Rider, 2017)
In general, Vygotsky believed that cognitive skills in children could be
understood only if developmentally analysed and interpreted. Observation of the
child’s progress from one stage to another is crucial. This progress occurs
through the mediation of tools such as language, words, counting systems, etc.
These tools are artificial and social in nature, as opposed to organic. Social
tools and relations form the foundation of cognitive skills. (Iqbal, 2015) Of all the tools
that the children are exposed to, language is crucial in driving cognitive
development. This takes the form of internal and external speech. Three stages
of speech development have been described:
Social/external speech: In this stage, speech and thinking are not
connected to one another. Between birth and three years old, thinking is
primarily in the form of images, impressions and emotions. Speech occurs
externally, to express desires or emotions.
Egocentric speech: This stage takes place between 3-7 years
approximately. Children in this stage tend to talk out loud to themselves while
they do something. This kind of speech helps children solve problems, and is an
important stage to transition into more sophisticated inner thinking and
problem solving.
Inner speech: This stage is characterized by soundless speech or
thought. Speech is internalized and is used as a reference to guide thoughts
and behaviour. As the individual grows older, this kind of thinking becomes
more complex and sophisticated. (Johnson, 2014)

The transitions
from one stage to another is facilitated through concepts called zone of
proximal development, scaffolding and the role that language plays as a tool
for promoting cognitive development.
The zone of proximal development, also known as the zone of potential
development (ZPD), is described as the gap between the level that the child
could attain under normal circumstances, and a higher level that the child
could attain with the help of more cognitively advanced individuals. This gap
can be narrowed or eliminated through scaffolding. Scaffolding is the help and
guidance that a more cognitively advanced individual offers to the child in the
process of solving a relatively difficult task. This does not involve giving
the solution to the child, but rather adjusting the amount of guidance offered
to the child to help him/her arrive at the solution. Through these processes,
language plays a very important role. Children use language to communicate with
the outside world, but also to communicate with themselves, and regulate their
thoughts and behaviours. For Vygotsky, the inner speech plays a very important
role in in cognitive growth and development. (Iqbal, 2015)

Due to his early
demise, Vygotsky was unable to refine and develop his idea very much. The
arrival of Piaget and Vygotsky’s work as English translations to the western
world in the 1960s created a rapid rise in their popularity. However, the
majority of individuals understood and/or had access to only fragments of
Vygotsky’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 of
cognitive development. As a result, a great deal of research has been directed
towards the implications of the theory of cognitive development, in terms of
changes and additions, as well as its applicability to different contexts. However,
Dafermos (2016) argues that the theory was selectively adapted to answer
questions in the fields of psychology, anthropology, linguistics etc. to answer
questions that had so far been unanswered. It did not take into account the
cultural, historical, social and political contexts in which the theory was
first formulated, and its interpretation has been ‘westernized’. (Dafermos, 2016)
Conflict has emerged with regard to the interpretations of Vygotsky’s work. One
perspective is the commonly known English-translated perspective. There is
another one that is little known outside former USSR. Therein lies the
conflict. It cannot be said with certainty that the interpretations that were
made about his theory after it reached the western world in the 1960s were
entirely accurate, because it does not account for the knowledge that is known
and discussed only within former USSR. (Yvon, Chaiguerova, &
Newnham, 2013)
This has implications for the research that is being conducted as well. As with
the research generated by Piaget’s theory, the amount of research conducted
around Vygotsky’s theory of development is too large to be explored in its
entirety within the scope of this paper. Thus, the paper will elaborate upon
one example.

The National
Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) has been funding an ambitious project titled
Research Domain Criteria (RDoC) for the past few years. There are multiple
domains of research in this project, of which the Social Cognition domain forms
a large part. The understanding of the concept of social cognition relies
heavily on the concept as proposed by Vygotsky, and the body of literature
published by him that is accessible to the researcher that are a part of the
project. (Kholomogorova,
However, the lack of complete knowledge of Vygotsky’s theory and the context
within which it was written in addition to the ‘westernization’ of the theory
would 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 at
its core. It cannot be denied that the theory, even in its limited form, in
addition to Piaget’s theory have applications in real-world settings.

This paper will
focus on the applicability of the theories within the therapeutic set-up. The
understanding of Piaget’s and Vygotsky’s theories have led to applications in
school and education settings.  It is
important to understand that a particular theory should not be the sole source
of guidance when interacting with clients. Every theory of human development
conceptualizes human beings in different lights, and a theory or multiple
theories could be selected for reference, but cannot be the only source of
information and intervention.
Given the age ranges within which the stages of cognitive development have been
set, Piaget’s theory is ideal for use in school settings. However, it cannot be
used without taking other perspectives into account, to conceptualize the
children more holistically, taking into account all the aspects of their life.
Most developmental psychologists use an eclectic mix of appropriate theories in
their interactions with clients today. This approach recognizes that no theory
of development can completely explain everything about humans, but that each
one contributes to the understanding of them.
This leads to the comparison of theories in order to determine what their strengths
and weaknesses are in relation to each other. The next section will focus on
the comparisons made between Piaget’s theory and Vygotsky’s theory.

In the past, there
was a belief that Vygotsky’s theory of socio-cultural development was superior
to Piaget’s theory of cognitive development by virtue of it taking into account
the social environment and culture as well as the biological aspects of development.
However, the research that has been generated by the comparison of these
theories has found more similarities than differences between the two theories.

The phenomenon of
egocentric speech in children, while previously thought of as pitting the two
theorists against each other has been defined by both Piaget and Vygotsky, only
in different ways. According to Piaget, egocentric speech is that which occurs
from the individual’s point of view, while Vygotsky defined it as speech for oneself.
(Obukhova, 2016)

Similarly, both
theories place importance on the social environment and the interactions of
cognitive structures with it. These are further influenced by cultural aspects
such as language, values, and instruments. The difference arises in the
emphasis on one over the other. Cognitive developmental theory emphasizes on
the cognitive structures in the brain and their impact on the environment,
whereas socio-cultural theory emphasizes on the social and cultural environment
and the impact it has on cognitive development. The differences in these emphases
changes that way that these theories would conceptualize individuals.
There is however, one fundamental difference between the two theories, that has
been touched upon to a within the comparison and previously in the paper as
The cognitive developmental theory is an ‘inside-out’ theory. Internal
biological changes create a change in the way that the individual interacts
with the world. In contrast, the socio-cultural theory is an ‘outside-in’
theory. The outside environment and socio-cultural factors facilitate internal
biological development in the individual. (Lourenco, 2012)

Thus, historically
Piaget and Vygotsky have been thought of as having theories and approaches that
are diametrically opposite to each other. Recent research has proved that they
are, in fact, more similar than previously thought. They have different conceptualizations
of the same phenomena observed in children, but these conceptualizations are grounded
in similar concepts. This has the potential to generate a lot of research in
the future, especially with regards to the integration of the two theories for
use in the counseling settings.


In conclusion,
Piaget and Vygotsky both developed their theories from places of great
adversity and struggle. Their theories account for the cognitive growth and
development in children, albeit from different perspectives. Piaget’s theory of
cognitive development progresses in a stage-like, universal fashion, with
individuals moving up the stages in a fixed manner at different paces. Vygotsky’s
theory on the other hand, states that individuals develop through their
interactions with their culture and environment. Language plays an especially
important role is this approach. Both theories have generated vast amounts of
research, with multiple suggestions for changes, edits or additions that could
be made to the theory that would make it better suited to the current socio-political
and cultural context. However, some of this research, especially that relating
to Vygotsky must be explored with the understanding that the widely available
knowledge of his theoretical framework is limited and westernized. In the
recent years, the emphasis has shifted from comparing the two theories with
each other and recognizing instead, their similarities. This has the potential
to generate a great deal of research in the future.
Piaget and Vygotsky were extremely influential in their time, and will continue
to be the same in the future as well. (Matusov &
Hayes, 2000)


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