Two pivotal approaches to cognitive development that challenged Piaget’s widely-known theory are Vygotsky’s sociocultural approach and the information-processing perspective. In spite of the distinction between psychogenesis and epistemogenesis, Lev Vygotsky’s and Jean Piaget’s views manage to complete each other and reach a similar conclusion—knowledge is formed within a certain social context and has a specific material (Tryphon, 1996).
Piaget proposes that, during the development of human thinking, we go through stable, predictably structured sequences of stages. The consistency and stability of these stages are undoubtedly questioned by today’s standards in psychological research (Baron 1995). For Piaget individuals construct cognitive representations in their interaction with the world through the continuous process of adaptation— previous mental representations are updated with recent experience. Through assimilation, we integrate novel information into our current mental pattern. When these processes fail and cannot manage the novelty, a new way to handle one’s medium must be formed through the process of accommodation. In addition to that, Piaget thought that mental development and adaptation are produced by the tension that results from the tension between the processes of assimilation and accommodation. The basic idea behind Piaget’s theory is the equilibration principle – mental and affective development advance towards progressively stable and complex stages of organization through the process of adaptation. Piaget proposed that children’s cognitive development consists of a series of four essential stages.
During their first two years, children go through the sensorimotor stage during which they move from mental structures marked by instinctive drives and undifferentiated affection to better structured organization of concepts and differentiated emotions and fixations. This stage is characterized by a primarily egocentric nature, making them incapable of taking into consideration other individuals’ perspectives. The world is understood through sensorimotor impressions without being able to utilize cognitive representations to represent objects.
The second stage, the preoperational one, lasts until the age of seven, and it is during this phase that children start using language to make sense of their experiences, by categorizing object after various criteria or manipulating numbers. Their newly acquired linguistic structures offer them the possibility to socialize/communicate effectively (Baron, 1995).
At the formal-operational stage, extending from age 11 into adulthood, children start developing their capability to make complex cognitive operations and reach an advanced state of mental and emotional maturity. They also learn how to test or create complicated hypotheses about concrete ideas and objects, in addition to acquiring the ability to make sense and take into account other individuals’ perspectives.
Admittedly, Piaget’s theory has its own shortcomings. While it underestimates infants’ mental abilities (Baillargeon, as cited in Baron 1995), it overestimates adolescents’ cognitive ability. Regarding the phases of cognitive change, he proposes that children’s cognitive development is achieved in subtle stages that must be completed individually before entering the next, but new research suggests that cognitive shifts happen gradually, and new abilities do not make sudden appearances (Baron, 1995). Perhaps most importantly, he does not consider performance variability and underestimates the sociocultural context’ role in children’s development. This criticism is best illustrated by Vygtosky’s description of the role of social influence and private speech, which was subsequently confirmed by recent studies (Bivens, as cited in Baron 1995).
Vygotsky regretted Piaget’s use of egocentrism and criticized the linearity of the latter’s understanding of mental development (according to which cognitive development begins with the baby’s solipsism, continues with the child’s egocentrism and then with the adult’s de-centration). Vygtosky could not accept the existence of a linear change from egocentrism to socialized language, and proposed that egocentric language is more than a mere emotional release of tension or a simplistic method of self-expression. He considered it to be a cognitive tool meant to manage various problem-solving situations, by assisting the child in defining problems and generating solutions.
Lev Vygotsky proposed that the process of development is an apprenticeship during which children enhance their abilities as they interact with other individuals who possess more sophisticated skills than they do. In consequence, they make little progress when their development is a solitary undertaking. For sociocultural theorists like Vygostky, the social aspect of mental development is illustrated by the idea of inter-subjectivity—mutual understanding among individuals sharing an activity. Through guided participation, cognitive growth is achieved through involvement with skilled participants.
For Vygtosky language was originally and mainly social, whereas for Piaget development stages go from the individual sphere to the social one. However, the Soviet psychologist did not accept the idea that egocentric language disappears in time. Instead, he argued that an internalized (and therefore less obvious) version of egocentric language continues to be used by school-aged children for cognitive purposes. Therefore, for Vygtosky language is originally social and for Piaget developmental processes moves from the individual to get to the social and egocentric language is a tool for transferring outer social behaviors into inner psychic functions (Tryphon, 1996). Piaget disagrees with Vygotsky’s claim that egocentric and communicative languages are socialized and that the only difference between them is related to their functions. While Piaget does not reject the environmental influence of psychological genesis, he questions the extent of its contribution to development. According to Piaget, development is marked by distinct stages of biological evolution, whereas Vygotsky insists that, in reality, it is a human generalization filled with meaning—which to Piaget seemed to be an incomplete, inadequate description.
While Vygotsky did not provide a comprehensive theory of cognitive development like Piaget or provide concrete accounts of mental changes like information-processing psychologists, his ideas managed to fill in some empty spaces, in information-processing and Piagetian accounts. Vygotsky’s and Piaget’s theories have significant common elements. For Piaget cognition development is not reduced to inside/out just like Vygotsky’s is not reduced to outside/in and both share elements that constitute the block for development. Nonetheless, for Piaget cognition is a natural event in a natural medium, and for Vygotski it is a socially and historically constructed human act embedded with meaning (Tryphon, 1996). Adopting a Kantian approach, Piaget is focused with universal processes development for knowledge validation and Vygotsky is concerned with the interpretation of psycho-socio-historical development.
The so-called “hard-core” IP approaches have the promising potential of applicability in a variety of systems, by means of computational simulations, to create self-modifying systems that illustrate both development and task performance (Klahr, 1988), making it a powerful research tool. The IP theory, Piaget’s and Vygotsky’s theories harmoniously complete each other in various ways and stand in stark contrast with the Gestalt model. Both Piaget and Vygotsky were dedicated to the same brand of rationality reminiscent of Enlightenment philosophy and viewed the human mind as the rule of the universal over the particular, the timeless over the ephemeral (Tryphon 1996).
Baron, R.; Earhard, B.; & Ozier, M. (1995). Psychology (Canadian Edition, pp. 326-329). Scarborough, ON: Allyn & Bacon
Bivens, J. & Berk, L. (1990). A longitudinal study of the development of elementary school children's private speech. Merrill-Palmer Quart.
Kail, R. V. (2012). Human development: A life-span view. Wadsworth Publishing Co Inc
Klahr, D. (1988). Information processing approaches to cognitive development (No. AIP-42). CARNEGIE-MELLON UNIV PITTSBURGH PA ARTIFICIAL INTELLIGENCE AND PSYCHOLOGY PROJECT.
Tryphon, A., & Vonèche, J. J. (1996). Piaget-Vygotsky: The social genesis of thought (No. 14). Psychology Press.