In addressing the intellectual development of children, several cognitive development theorists play an integral part in shaping what we know today as the standards by which we frame the norm for children. In essence, cognitive development is the gradual and orderly changes that occur making ones mental process more complex and sophisticated. (Slavin, 2003) By this concept, theorists Piaget, Bruner, and Vygotsky drew their cognitive theories, each emphasizing different areas and ideas for development.
Jean Piaget’s theories on cognitive and moral development are some of the most widely used in preschool and primary school programs. One can see such use of learning through the development of the child’s interests and discovery. The idea of learning through discovery was also, and more prominently, put forth by Bruner, who for the most part found more common ground with Vygotsky. Piaget emphasizes teaching through discovery, by challenging the child’s abilities, and using concrete experiences.
Piaget believed that intelligence was not gained with age and that younger children were not dumber than their older peers, but that they merely thought differently. His theory of cognitive development was a “progressive reorganization of mental processes as a result of maturation and experience.” (Cognitive Development Theories, 2002)
Piaget based his theory of development on four stages that are accompanied by age ranges by which each stage should be accomplished in or near. The first of the four stages is the sensorimotor stage, which ranges from birth to age two. During this stage infants learn mostly through trial and error. Objects and events can be mentally represented by the child, this process is sometimes called “object permanence.” The attainment of object permanence generally signals the transition to the next stage, the preoperational stage.
The preoperational stage occurs from around age two to age seven. In this stage children begin to mentally represent events and objects, as well as engage in symbolic play. The next stage, the concrete operational stage, is where children gain the ability to understand and participate in conservation, the meaning of numbers, area, volume, and orientation, as well as learning the concept of reversibility. This ranges from the age of seven to just around eleven years old bringing the child to the next stage. The Formal operational stage is an open-ended stage that begins at age eleven and can go on from there. As the adolescent enters this stage they gain the ability to think in an abstract manner and classify and combine items in a more sophisticated way. It is during this stage that the child develops the ability for higher-level order and reasoning. However, since not all development can be described in stages such as those listed above, a reason for criticism by other theorist, Piaget describes the continual process of development by defining the concepts of assimilation, accommodation, and equilibration.
Assimilation is described as the instance when children and adolescents encounter situations that are reasonably similar to one they have already encountered. Thus it is assimilated into their current knowledge base. In contrast, accommodation occurs when children encounter something that is different from what they know. This many cause them to change their thinking to take on the newly acquired knowledge. Equilibration maintains the balance between always taking in new knowledge, and always assimilating knowledge with previously gained knowledge. Thus, equilibration is merely a regulatory process by which growth may continue instead of being stunted.
Through Piaget’s theories we can find several useful applications for the classroom. Since Piaget’s theories focus so strongly on learning through discovery and other “hands-on” means it is important to create situations for students that present dilemmas to shake the child’s equilibrium causing the child to have to regain it. (Slavin, 2003.) As stated earlier equilibrium is the balance between new knowledge and knowledge currently possessed. As such, when the equilibrium is off the child has to not only take in new knowledge, but work it in with current knowledge so it all fits evenly creating a new state of equilibrium.
Another method based on Piaget’s work, and a general rule known as “common sense,” is that application of new information leads to better retention of that information. As such, it becomes crucial for a teacher to create lessons in which the information taught is worked into an application based activity. One such activity can be a puzzle of information which the student must then piece back together in appropriate order. This allows for the student to have time to discover new information, and apply it appropriately. Additionally, it creates a means by which the student becomes a part of the presentation instead of sitting back and watching it.
Assessments under Piaget’s theory can be implemented through experiments that the students conduct, along with questions that they must answer. This allows for the “hands-on” learning that Piaget so adamantly supports and assesses students based on this. They are able to not only demonstrate what they have learned through words, but also apply it in a participatory form.
With few things in common with Piaget, Bruner sides more with Vygotsky. However, Bruner also developed a set of stages by which development is theorized to take place. Yet instead of age spanning time frames, Bruner contended that these stages were not necessarily age dependent or invariant. Bruner’s three stages are as follows: the enactive stage in which knowledge is primarily stored in the form of motor responses. This stage in particular is not only limited to children as “muscle memory” is often used in adults as well. The second stage is called the iconic stage. During this stage knowledge is primarily stored in the form of visual images. The third stage is the symbolic stage in which knowledge is principally stored as words, mathematical symbols, or other symbol systems.
Bruner differs from Piaget in the way that he believed the outcomes of learning include not only concepts, categories, and problem-solving procedures already present in society, but also by the ability to create or invent new things. Bruner’s stages focus attention on words, symbols, and pictures instead of Piaget’s concepts. He believed that ones interaction with “culturally invented technologies” serves to aid in the development of capabilities.
Another point of contention between Piaget’s theory and that of Bruner’s is that Piaget thought that a child must be made ready for a subject matter to be introduced. Bruner said the opposite. He stated that the fundamental principles of any subject matter could be taught at any age provided that the material is converted to a stage and age appropriate level for the learner. Bruner, as well as Vygotsky agreed that an instructional challenge could provoke children into more powerful and important thought processes. As we have just looked to Vygotsky for his similarities with Bruner, we shall next look to him for his individual theories following the application of Bruner’s theories.
As a key in Bruner’s theory a teacher must remember that all materials must be made ready for the student. Meaning, the material must be age or level appropriate in order for the child to fully grasp and acquire the material. Additionally, a teacher should create instances of learning that are recurring. Daily routines of language skills or math problems on the board, routine recitations of alphabet, multiplication tables, historical dates, whatever the material may be, can help to create better memorization and retention of materials.
Furthermore, modeling concepts are essential. The teacher must become a model for the lessons being taught. In this way the child can learn how the information is to be used, or can be applied. A child with a thorough model can acquire the information and effectively use it as part of his theory on visualized learning. Such modeling can be applied to science experiments, grammar lessons, reading, etc… A teacher can model these things and have students do the same. Later on they should be able to do it alone, thus showing the acquisition of the new information.
As an assessment under Bruner’s theory students can be asked to solve problems which consist of several layers of thought. Problems in which a student must create a specified object using specific materials and information would give the student the opportunity to apply what they have learned through the teacher’s modeling. And example of such a problem could be to give each student a box of assorted supplies and ask them to create a device which allows them to breathe underwater, or something of this nature for a science exam. Information learned is processed by the students and practically applied. Another example for a math assessment would be to have the students create a floor plan for a house. It requires applied geometry skills, practical reasoning, and allows for creativity, while still assessing the student’s understanding of geometry.
Unlike the previously mentioned two theorists, Vygotsky’s theory on development comes from a Marxist view on psychology. He held a much broader view of development than did his peers looking very heavily to the structure and practices of socially organized labor to provide a context for how people act and think. (Slavin, 2003.) He promoted the idea that higher mental processes in an individual have their origin in social processes. Unlike Piaget, Vygotsky stated that no single principle could account for development. He believed that intelligence in higher forms of human behavior had its roots in the individual actively modifying the stimulus situation as a part of the process of responding to it. (Cognitive Development Theories, 2002)
Vygotsky states that development does not proceed toward socialization, that development is the conversion of social relations into metal functions; all higher functions originate as actual relations between individuals. His theory puts social relations into psychological functions which the child converts through mediation. The “mediation” occurs through linking a tool or sign to new information or one’s current knowledge base.
Though many theorists give ways by which to apply their theories to everyday learning, Vygotsky is one of the only to take into account the cultural differences that occur socially and developmentally. He reminds us that since cultures vary so too might development.
The zone of proximal development or ZPD was also introduced by Vygotsky and is defined as the difference between the problem solving a child is capable of performing independently, and the problem-solving he or she is able to do with guidance. The ZPD defines the area in which maturation/development is currently taking place and suggests an appropriate target for instruction. Along the lines of the ZPD, Vygotsky also introduced the method of studying slightly outside a student’s zone with peers who are a level or two above so that learning continues to expand. This was the first mention of such an idea, no one else had ever put forth such a notion before.
One way to apply Vygotsky’s theories in the classroom is to heavily rely on teacher and student collaborations. There are four areas in which one should focus to create concrete and effective skills in students; summarizing, questioning, clarifying, and predicting. (Cognitive Development Theories, 2002) These can be applied through various projects in reading and summarizing. Creating questions or predictions for science experiments, essays or papers on topics or subjects that are being learned, or even predicting laws or theories in math or science. Even these mentioned are only some of the possibilities. It becomes the teacher’s job to create a lesson that implements these key areas and effectively use them to create higher learning.
When implementing these the teacher should also focus the lesson on the edge of the ZPD instead of an area the students are comfortable with. It’s best for the teacher to push the envelop a little and try to make the students work to gain new information. Additionally, in this feat, the teacher can implement pair work and have students of higher levels work with those of lower levels so each is growing and learning. This is especially useful when working in subjects such as math where many problems are usually encountered. By the higher level student helping the lower the higher can gain a deeper understanding and better practice. In turn, the lower gains a firm understanding and practical practice.
In assessing a student under Vygotsky’s theory a teacher can create an exam based around a collaborative presentation. This allows for the student to be tested at the edge of their ZPD, while still applying the knowledge they’ve acquired in class. Additionally, it allows students to work in pairs and teach each other any of the material the other missed. In essence, the exam is the embodiment and application of the lesson. If a student is easily able to perform the task, they have gained the skilled needed for that section.
Similarities between Piaget and Vygotsky
Since these two are the focus of the paper, we will look at similarities between their theories and applications. Keep in mind that the relationship between Bruner and both Piaget and Vygotsky were previously mentioned in as much detail as this paper will go into in the section on Bruner.
It is best to start by saying that both Piaget and Vygotsky view cognitive development as one being taken in stages where the individual must interact with their environment. (Educational Psychology, n.d.) Additionally, both agree that development may be created by conflict in cognition. This leads to the agreement that early childhood speech is also key in the development of one cognition. The difference is only in how Piaget and Vygotsky view the importance of this speech.
In conclusion it can be said that each of these theories can be used in pieces during classroom instruction without ruining the originality of each. One theory alone can provide a powerful means on creating understanding and the acquisition of new knowledge. Thus, perhaps combining them can create a lesson which spans and elaborates on all areas on learning to create a higher level of retention and application. It seems that all the mentioned theorists agree upon one thing, that cognitive development is extremely important, and that methods implemented in a timely manner are key to this development. Their timely implementation creates skills in the child that can help in future development.
Although each theorist holds his own theories, and areas in which they will always differ from one another, it can be stated that each also focuses on healthy and effective development of cognitive skills. Because of the groundbreaking work of Piaget, Bruner, and Vygotsky, teachers are now able to create and implement a well-rounded lesson plan suited to all learning types no matter what their needs are. It then merely becomes the decision of educators to decide which theory should be implemented to best fit their classroom and the needs of the students involved.