Wednesday, October 24, 2012

A Synthesis of Vygotsky's and Piaget's Theories

One might naturally see the antithetic relationship of Vygotsky's and Piaget's theories; the former believed language drives thought, the latter that thought drives language (Santrock, 2008). This, only one difference in a long list of perceptions and beliefs that vary widely. In comparing the two, one does begin to see how they perceived the cognitive nature of the learning environment, and that children, in most situations, learn.

                                            Two Theories: A Synthesis

Cognitive development takes place because of biological maturation as well as through the level of stimulation in children's environments (Santrock, 2008). The pace of development aligns with Piaget's notion of the child's ability to assimilate information and with the quality of interaction surrounding the developing individual (described by Vygotsky). As children grow and develop, they contrive Piaget's schemes that help them organize, interpret, and learn; in effect, making meaning from information gathered from interacting as in Vygotsky's theory of the effects of the sociocultural environment (Santrock, 2008). The interplay of the child's intrinsic capacity for learning, as Piaget believed, influences how deeply and to what extent, the social environment will affect and advance cognition as in Vygotsky's theory. Piaget's idea of the intrinsic cognitive framework depends upon Vygotsky's notion of social interaction to give expression to the intrinsic capability (Santrock, 2008).

Piaget's idea of assimilation occurs because of increased biological capability compounded by the ability to take social experiences and extricate new learning as Vygotsky believed (Santrock, 2008). As children's logic develops because of the increased ability to reason, as discussed by Piaget, they are more able to perceive and use cultural tools and understandings that help create the parameters for more complex learning as presented by Vygotsky (Meyer, 2009). Vygotsky's emphasis on the role of history in human development is vitally expressed through Piaget's stages when an increase in individual accomplishment offers a deeper capacity to assimilate broader and more complex knowledge (Vianna, 2005). This is based, at least in part, on Vygotsky's notion of scaffolding, wherein knowledge grows exponentially based on previous knowledge (Santrock, 2008).

                                 Comparing and Contrasting the Two Theories
A primary difference between Piaget and Vygotsky was that Piaget's roots were in biology and the evolutionary adaptation of humans, and Vygotsky's in Marxist theory as it explains how people transform their world rather than adapt to it (Vianna, 2006). An obvious difference in their theories is the primacy of the individual versus society; Piaget emphasized individual cognitive development, whereas Vygotsky placed importance on the psychosocial roots of development (Erdener, 2009). Piaget believed learning was a product of individual accomplishment, and perceived cognitive development from a biological perspective wherein the maturation of the child predisposed the child to learning (Mayer, 2009). Vygotsky, however, perceived learning from a collectivist and social perspective - learning was only as prevalent and powerful as the community surrounding the child (Santrock, 2008). Rather than individual maturation, Vygotsky believed humans have innate elementary functions that must be expressed in social circumstances (Van Geert, 1998). Piaget's stages were hierarchical in nature, and one must be completed prior to forward movement, whereas Vygotsky's perception of development had little dependence on time, but on social interactions (Santiago-Delefosse & Delefosse, 2002). Both theorists agreed that everyone is different and learning is a cognitive adventure, and both believed that social interaction is mechanistic in human learning and development (Kim & Baylor, 2006; Santiago-Delefosse & Delefosse, 2002).

                                    Strengths and Weaknesses of the Theories

Vygotsky's Theory

The most obvious shortcoming in Vygotsky's theory is his failure to account for any developmental stages in children, and, more importantly, how such cognitive stages effect the ability to integrate and assimilate the inherent value in socialization (Vianna, 2006). Vygotsky's description of the boundaries between the self and society as part of the relationship between cognitive development and learning remains important in education (Miller, 1983). His theories consider cultural differences, which supports usability across cultures (Miller, 1983).

Piaget's Theory

Development does not always occur as neatly as Piaget's theory predicts (Santrock, 2008). Some children have the capacity to learn material in advanced stages and some may not automatically develop formal operational functioning (Vianna, 2006). Furthermore, Piaget drastically underestimates social factors in cognitive development (Erdener, 2009). His theory does, however, provide a useful approximation of childhood development and some guidelines for education (Beilin, 1992).


There exists an extraordinary amount of developmental theory from Piaget and Vygotsky. In some cases, the strengths and weaknesses of one complement those of the other. Indeed, the theories may be more appropriately categorized as different rather than conflicting. Many of Vygotsky's conceptual understandings of development have no definitive counterpart in Piaget's theory and vice versa. Perhaps a synthesis presents a more effective and comprehensive overall perspective of human development than does a contrast or comparison, and is far more inclusive than one theory on its own.


Beilin, H. (1992). Piaget's enduring contribution to developmental psychology. Developmental Psychology, 28(2), 191-204. doi: 10.1037/0012-1649.28.2.191

Erdener, E. (2009). The arguments of Vygotsky on thought and language: A critical view to Piaget. Journal of Turkish Educational Sciences, 7(1), 85-103.

Kim, Y., & Baylor, A. L. (2006). A social-cognitive framework for pedagogical agents as learning companions. Educational Technology Research and Development, 54(6), 569- 596. doi: 10.1007/s11423-006-0637-3

Mayer, S. J. (2009). Dewey's dynamic integration of Vygotsky and Piaget. Education and Culture, 24(2), 6-24. doi: 10.1353/eac.0.0026

Miller, P. H. (1983). Theories of developmental psychology. San Francisco: W.H. Freeman.

Santiago-Delefosse, M. J., & Delefosse, J. O. (2002). Spielrein, Piaget and Vygotsky: Three positions on child thought and language. Theory & Psychology, 12(6), 723-747. doi: 10.1177/0959354302126001

Santrock, J. W. (2008). A topical approach to life-span development (3rd ed.). New York, NY: McGraw-Hill.

Van Geert, P. (1998). A dynamic systems model of basic developmental mechanisms: Piaget, Vygotsky, and beyond. Psychological Review, 105(4), 634-677. doi: 10.1037/0033- 295X.105.4.634-677

Vianna, E. (2006). Embracing history through transforming It: Contrasting Piagetian versus Vygotskian (activity) theories of learning and development to expand constructivism within a dialectical view of history. Theory & Psychology, 16(1), 81-108. doi: 10.1177/0959354306060108

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