When studying the theories of childhood, there are many different beliefs and opinions available, many different interpretations, and many varying points of view. How does one decide what is right and what is not so? How can one determine which is fact and what is false? How can one decide which theorist is the one which makes the most sense? Is one theorist necessarily right, or perhaps is a combination of two or more different theories perhaps more to one’s liking or beliefs? It really can be quite confusing and has proven to be so for many people over many years, and continues to be so today.
Jean Piaget and John Dewey were both theorists who believed in the constructivist theory of child development. This theory holds that learning is based on the learners’ previous learning experiences and background knowledge. Learning is always occurring by building on what one already knows. A teacher acts as a facilitator, working with a child by introducing concepts for the child to use to build on or inquire about to gain new knowledge or insights. Maria Montessori also embraces this learning style in her classrooms by having many hands-on learning manipulates as a means for children to be able to use them as tools for exploration and to solve problems. These theorists all believe that knowledge does not just exist, rather, it is constructed. Educators provide students with the opportunities to build their own knowledge.
Piaget had a more rigid view of how a child learned. He was not an educator, but a scientist. He studied biology. It is this scientific background that probably brought about this rigid interpretation of four learning stages as opposed to Dewey’s more progressive thoughts of learning by doing or Montessori’s beliefs of solving puzzles or using manipulates to learn (Ultanur, 2012).
Vygotsky is quite a bit different in his studies of child development. His studies can be put into three different phases of study, divided by years, as he seemed to vary in his interests at different times. From 1925 – 1930 he focused on mediation and a child’s use of higher level though processes. During the years 1930 – 1932 his focus shifted to interfunctional relations and how children acquired their understanding of the meaning of words. In 1933 and 1934 his focus changed yet again to the study of functional differentiation and analysis. Each of these will receive a very short explanation as to their meanings (Fox & Riconscente, 2008).
Lower level thought processes are simple such as memorization and attention. The higher level functions are human and occur as the lower functions are transformed and mature. These require the process of language development, understanding of algebraic concepts, diagrams, conventional signs and elements of culture. During lower level functions, a child solves a problem using direct means, but as a child matures, external signs, and then internal signs are used, demonstrating development.
Interfunctional relations are the combination of being able to use language and thought as the mind matures as well as the entire mental functioning system. He made the distinction between systems such as memory, and attention. Language and speech become more valuable in development as one approaches functional differentiation and analysis because they then play the double role to a psychological tool to form mental functions and they are also a function as they are a cultural development. His framework is considered to be cultural-historic (Khatib, 2011).
Erikson’s focus was on the theory of one’s identity. How do people come to know themselves? Erikson inquired about how people came to understand their relationships with others, which is also based on one’s sense of self. This is the basis of much of what is studied in student development theory and practice. Many people followed Erikson’s lead into the study of identity development and practices and an entire new field of study evolved based on his theories. The recognition of the studies of people’s gender, social class, sexual orientation, and other differences became important concepts as the differences were identified.
A key area of difference that Erikson’s studies began was the study of higher education and a framework of who studies at the post-secondary level. This began a new theory and school of thought as feminism played a role and intersectionality was evidently apparent as an important factor. Furthermore, Erikson’s work has evolved into studies in higher education and many social components using auto-ethnographic studies (Jones, Kim & Skendall, 2012).
Dewey, Montessori, and Piaget could all be compared to Erikson in that they agree that discovery is an important element in learning about oneself. The main similarity is that they all focus on self-discovery. Although the process of self-discovery is slightly different for each, the general concept is the same. Erikson’s process is the most different in that the discovery of what is around the individual is not of great importance unless it is helping the individual learn about the self.
The difference between Erikson and Piaget, Montessori, and Dewey is that Erikson focuses much more on self-discovery rather than discovery about what is around him. Erikson is more like the person that says he is going to go off on his own to find himself. Although many people do not understand what that means, or just do not bother to understand what that means, to Erikson, that would be the epitome of what a person should do. In Erikson’s mind, one can understand everything better, more fully, with deeper meaning, if one understands oneself more completely first. The individual must be the starting point of understanding in order for other things to make sense. Piaget, Montessori, and Dewey, on the other hand, thought that one could learn through discovery. Multiplication up to 10 by 10 could be learned by using one hundred blocks or other manipulative. Geometry skills could be learned and understood by using and manipulating shapes and figures such as squares, rectangles, circles and triangles to understand the concepts on which the mathematical concepts are constructed. Role playing could be used to understand different social scenarios. Science experiments could be used to teach skills and demonstrate concepts for a more clear understanding of concepts. With these visualizations, learning occurs.
Vygotsky is different than the other theorists in his primary focus being on language acquisition as being so important in so many aspects in learning, as this ends up being the primary focus on much of his work. He is so different than the other four theorists in most ways. He has his beliefs and thoughts and is undaunted by the beliefs of others, positive that his are right and unrelenting in his beliefs. Everything comes down to speech. As such, he may be able to successfully argue that it is humans ability to communicate effectively with others that have enabled us to become the most advanced species on the planet, developed more each generation, and continue to do so with an extraordinarily high rate of speed, primarily because our communication devices now enable instant communication globally, and beyond.
There is a similarity between Vygotsky and the other theorists in understanding that they all understand the importance of language in learning. It is the emphasis that is the differentiating factor. The other theorists would probably not argue that their emphasis would need to be different if the children, primarily, but not exclusively, that they are researching were unable to communicate. If the subjects for Montessori, Dewey, Piaget, or Erikson were not able to communicate, in much the way a deaf person would before he learned sign language, almost none of their studies would have been able to be performed. Communication was most certainly crucial for each theorist.
These educational theorists are most certainly some of the most important for study in education today.
Fox, E., & Riconscente, M. (2008). Metacognition and self-regulation in James, Piaget, and
Vygotsky. Educational Psychology Review, 20(4), 373-389.
Jones, S. R., Choe Kim, Y., & Cilente Skendall, K. (2012). (Re-) Framing authenticity:
Considering multiple social identities using auto-ethnographic and intersectional
approaches. Journal Of Higher Education, 83(5), 698-723.
Khatib, M. (2011). Contributions of Vygotsky's theory to second language acquisition.
European Journal Of Scientific Research, 58(1), 44-55.
Ültanir, E. (2012). An epistemological glance at the constructivist approach: Constructivist
learning in Dewey, Piaget, and Montessori. International Journal Of Instruction, 5(2),