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Piaget and Vygotsky emphasise different aspects of cognition. What are the educational implications of their ideas? How have the criticisms of writers such as Donaldson affected the standing of their theories? Aspects of cognition and the theorists behind them have had much literature devoted to the subject. Since the 1970’s Piaget’s theory has received extensive evaluation and in recent times writers such as Donaldson and in the last ten years Flavell, have been criticising and disproving aspects of cognition that theorists like Piaget have published. In this essay I will be describing briefly what Piaget and Vygotsky’s aspects of cognition are, and the difference between them. I will then show using evidence from Curtis, O’Hagen1 and Sutherland2, the different educational implications of their ideas. Finally I will then consider what affect the criticisers of Piaget and Vygotsky have had on their relevance in today’s world.

Piaget suggested that children pass through a uniform sequence of different stages of cognitive development, each with its own characteristic form of thinking. The central concept of Piaget’s theory is the schema. A kind of mental structure that the child uses as it interacts with the outside world. A schema contains all the ideas, memories and information about a certain object that a child associates with it.

Piaget believed that schemata develop as result of our interaction with the environment. For example a baby develops the schema of shaking a rattle and then applies this schema to shaking a doll. Once used for other situations then it is known as assimilation, however if the baby shakes the doll then throws it, the schema is said to be accommodated. The third process that Piaget uses is a link between assimilation and accommodation called equilibrium. Piaget listed four stages of cognitive development believing that all children progress through the four stages in the same order at roughly the same time. These stages are the sensorimotor stage (0-2 years), pre-operational (2-7 years), concrete operational (7-11 years) and formal operational (11+).

The core theory of Vygotsky’s concept is the zone of proximal development that provides an explanation for how the child learns with the help of others. The ZPD is the distance between the child’s actual development level and his or her potential level of development under the guidance of more expert adults or in collaboration with more competent peers. Unlike Piaget, Vygotsky did not wait for the child to be ‘ready’3 instead he argues being influenced by people who are more informed, benefits the child’s learning. The expert intervention should be at a level so that it provides some challenge but not too far ahead. This is when the child learns from experience to do something they could not have done by itself. Vygotsky also produced stages for speech, pre- intellectual, social speech (0-3), egocentric (3-7) and inner speech (7+).

The educational implications of Piaget’s ideas have been notably for child centred learning methods in nursery and infant schools, for mathematics curricula in primary school, and for science curricula at the secondary school level. Though his theories may have criticisms now, Piaget’s approach provided the most comprehensive account of cognitive growth. Most notably Piaget initiated that a teacher should make an effort to adapt to the child and that active learning ideas a key component in the development of a child. A teacher must recognise that each child needs to construct knowledge for him or herself. In today’s classroom, the government expects of a teacher that all the pupils should reach the average for that age. This expectation conflicts with the findings of cognitive development.

Those at a higher stage of cognitive development e.g. formal operations should be attaining a higher level than the average. In this respect the government is restricting the learning of children. However ‘various arrangements are being tried to facilitate this, e.g. taking GCSE a year early or narrowing the range of National Curriculum subjects to allow the brighter pupil to take more options.’4 The child must initiate the activity, but choose from tasks set by the teacher. For example, nursery school can provide children with play materials that encourage their learning, such as play areas like the Wendy house where children can develop role taking skills through imaginative play, and materials like water, sand etc, that can help children make their own constructions and create symbolic representations.

A teacher’s role is to create the conditions in which learning may best take place. Piaget felt that nursery teachers had the biggest responsibility as he felt that for the performance of those pupils later on in junior and secondary schools the stage of pre-operational must be maintained. A teacher should be concerned with process rather than end product. For example, the teacher should look at the reasoning behind the answer that a child gives rather than just whether it is correct or not. In Piaget’s view, ‘knowledge is not something to be transmitted from an expert teacher to an inexpert pupil’5. In mathematics and science lessons at primary school, children are helped to make the transition from preoperational thinking to concrete operations through carefully arranged sequences of experiences, which develop an understanding. Learning should be individualized, so that tasks are appropriate to individual children’s level of understanding.

The views of Vygotsky is that the adult and child can work together to construct new schemes, the difference with Piaget is that the role of the teacher is to stand back and allows the child to find out knowledge for his/herself. The more the teacher’s behaviour is contingent on the child’s behaviour, the more able the child becomes to work independently. In general Curriculum planning should be concerned to enhance learning as an active and problem solving process. This scaffolding function supports the young learners to direct them to the relevant way. Bruner who like Vygotsky thinks teachers should be actively recreating distinctive ways of thinking.

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