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Child cognitive development is a field of study in psychology focusing on a child’s development in terms of his abilities of information processing, problem solving, knowledge learning and understanding of the world. The result of child cognitive development study is recognised as an important reference and guidance for the society, educator and parents to help the children grow as expected and fit in the society. There are two main academic views regarding child cognitive development, once is maturation which is developed by Jean Piaget and the other is socialisation theory by Lev Vygotsky. This article is going to review both theories by comparing the differences and similarities of them. Then I will critically evaluate them and conclusions will be made to determine which is better to account for this phenomena.
Piaget is considered as the first one to make a systematic study of cognitive development. His main contribution is the stage theory, in which he separates life from birth to adult maturation into four stages: Sensorimotor stage, Preoperational stage, Concrete operational stage and Formal operational stage (HaySlip, 2012). He believes a child could learn through active self-discovery and cognitive development is driven by his biologically inbuilt tendency to retain the equilibration between his existing schemas and new environment. In that case, he states that a child will not learn until he is biologically mature being in the right stage (Piaget, 1985).
In contrast, Vygotsky considers social interaction as the main driver in cognitive development, which however is treated as an important but non-crucial factor by Piaget. With Vygotsky’s theory, adults are important factor as children could learn through instructions and guidance. Compared with Piaget’s, Vygotsky believed the development could be accelerated with correct scaffolding within the zone of proximal development (Yasnitsky, 2018).
Besides the identification of different main drivers in terms of development processes, as summarised by Duncan (1995) that Piagetian and Vygotskian paradigms also differ markedly in broad patterns in human ontogeny. The two theories come up with different explanations for the phenomenon of decline of egocentric speech: for Piaget, egocentric speech was the speech in the process of being socialized while Vygotsky thinks it was an original social phenomenon before gradually being internalized. The underlying different views of the main driver also lead to the different relative importance of the influences of adults compared to peers. Piaget thinks peers play as a more important role in terms of internal-environment disequilibrium as children will regard adults as categorically different individuals, whereas Vygotsky considers it is the adult that leads and draws the child forward. Despite the difference, there are still similarities between Piagetian and Vygotskian. For example, both of them agree learning is gradual for children and new knowledge gets more complex when they get older, both of them recognize nature (maturation of the brain and body) and nurture(social interaction, culture etc) are critical and coexist in learning and development though the relative importance are regarded in different way (Taylor, 2019).
The increasing emphasis on education globally indicates that Vygotsky’s theories are widely adopted. It is less plausible that adult and social interaction should only be treated as extrinsic factors. In fact, they play significant roles in a child’s mental development and should be included in the cognition model. Firstly, Vygotsky thinks cognitive development varies across cultures, while Piaget thinks it should be universal (Duncan, 1995). As different personalities and psychological features are found across various countries’ children, it suggests culture influences some parenting cognition and practices, in turn, child mental health from a very early stage, thus affecting the establishment of future beliefs, values and relationships (Bornstein, 2013). Further study carried out by Super and Harness (1986) examining the substantial influences of three major culture aspects 1) The general physical social background, 2) the customs of child care and, 3) the psychology conditions of caretaker on a child development. Secondly, their different emphasis on the roles of adults and peers suggest that Piaget would agree the child will learn more through the interaction with his peers while Vygotsky would support the opposite. Though It is agreed that interactions with peers is an important arena in which foundation of future relationship is established, recent study finds children from age 3 are more engaged with adults in selective learning compared with peers, suggesting that child could possibly learn more from the interactions with adult educator rather than from their peers (Rakoczy, Katharina, Warneken, & Tomasello, 2010).
However, there are still examples that could be better explained through Piaget’s theory. According to Piaget there could still be development while Vygotsky thinks there would be no development as the child cannot move forward out the closest zone to their ZPD without external expert help. Though it is difficult to design experiments based on this hypothesis, we could still obtain some supporting data from the psychological study of feral children of Genie case (Fromkin, Krashen, Curtiss, Rigler & Rigler, 1974). Genie was a victim of severe abuse, neglect and social isolation, who was kept in a locked room since 20months old without being exposed to any significant amount of language. Genie was rescued at the age of 13 years and her mental age was only scored as 13 months. Since then special designed language programs were carried out to Genie and it was found she made substantial advances in her overall psychology development. It was recorded that Genie’s mental age has risen to 5 years old in 10 months. Then out of some reasons the programs were stopped and it was found those newly acquired skills were very rapidly regressed. The feral child case possibly supports Vygotsky’s theory as adult interaction seems as the main factor driving Genie’s psychology development. However we have to admit that the main factor that she could quickly grasp social skills is because she has built up the mature internal stage ready for quick learning. With the same adult interactions we might not be able to teach a 13 months toddler to talk like a 5 years old child in 10 months. In fact, one of the main findings from the feral child study is identifying critical periods during which humans learn to understand and use language. It could be explained that language and social interaction are critical to be involved at human’s certain age, which could not be sufficiently learned later. Therefore Piaget’s stage theory could be used to effectively explain the feral child case.
In this article we have introduced and compared two main streams in psychology development and then critically evaluated both Piaget’s and Vygotsky’s theories via cross-culture, adults/peers influences on mental health and the feral child study. Research studies on cross-culture differences and relevant importance of adults/peers on psychology development suggest that social interactions are essential. The feral child study, in the other way, is better to be explained with Piaget’s theory. It is believed that both biological internal mature and social interactions should be treated as intrinsic factors and included in the mental development model. Stage theory serves as the foundation as a child will not be able to learn unless ready internal schemas, and social interaction is a necessary factor if needed to develop.
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