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Cognitive development encompasses human perception, thinking processes, and the way in which an individual gains an understanding of their world. This is done according to theorists, through interacting with others, and by past learned experiences. Cognitive development could therefore be said to be fluid and continually changing dependent on these factors. It involves gathering of information and processing of same, reasoning of information, the development of language and the brains memory system.
Cognitive development refers to the time between childhood and adolescence. Or as explained in Psychology: from inquiry to understanding. (Lilienfeld,S. 2015, p. 408)
Cognitive development shows how the brain develops throughout this period. Two of the dominant theories on Cognitive Development are from Theorists Jean Piaget and Lev Vygotsky. Piaget’s theory is built on ‘core principals’ around ‘stages’ of a child’s development, while Vygotsky believed that children are influenced by their environment and factors such as socio-cultural events and experiences.
Piagets theory was the starting point of cognitive development. He believed that development precedes learning and that children’s knowledge is constructed through interacting with the environment, thus enabling them to make sense of things by way of experience. He believed this way of learning changed with age and posits ‘stages’ are the way in which we develop.
Piagets focused on what he describes as the ‘4 stages’ and believed it is through these different stages that a child learns and develops. These stages are known as sensorimotor – birth to 2 years, preoperational – 2 – 7 years, concrete operational – 7 – 11 years and formal operational 7 years and up (Lilienfeld,S. 2015, p. 410). He teaches that as children move through these stages, they learn by inventing or reinventing their basic knowledge through their experiences within each stage.
The stages in which Piaget believes children learn, is universal across cultures and therefore could be seen by some as incorrect or flawed as it does not consider the impact a culture plays within society. That is, race, gender, socio economic status, etc, does not play a part in the cognitive development of a child, it is merely universal stages in which children develop regardless.
The belief that development occurs in stages, (jumps) from one stage of life to the next at certain times or at milestones, irrespective of the social interaction with those around us, may be a little inaccurate, where in fact development across childhood and adolescence is viewed by some as more of a continuous, fluid change involving many other factors rather than confined to ‘stages’. (Flavell, 1992; Klahr & MacWhinney, 1998; Siegler,1995)
Unlike Piaget, Vygotsky believed learning preceded development. He taught that social learning comes before cognitive growth. His theory shows that developmental growth is enhanced when one is confronted with new things, therefore we step into new arenas, accept new challenges and learn in this manner.
Vygotsky’s theories stress the fundamental role of social interaction in the development of cognition as he believed strongly that community plays a central role in the process of “making meaning”. (Vygotsky, 1978) His work and research have been widely used over the past few decades in the way of ‘Social Development Theory counselling’.
In noting the importance society plays on development, he suggests that children construct knowledge actively as they engage with others around them, hence the importance of interaction with others. As Vygotsky passed away in his 30s, he was unable to add to his theories, however many theorist came after him and continued his work. Psychologist and instructional designer Jerome Bruner also teaches Vygotsky’s theory and continues with the ‘scaffolding’ theory.
Bruner claims ‘In the field of education, the term scaffolding refers to a process in which teachers model or demonstrate how to solve a problem, and then step back, offering support as needed. Bruner first used the term ‘scaffolding’ in this context back in the 1960s. The theory is that when students are given the support they need while learning something new, they stand a better chance of using that knowledge independently. Bruner recommends positive interaction and three modes of representation during teaching: actions, images, and language. (2020)
We can see this theory differs from Piaget who poses ‘stages’ of learning occur, and development precedes learning. Vygotsky’ theory, as opposed to Piaget’, believes that the changes in cognitive development is a more fluid, steady change across the lifespan, influenced by society and experience.
Although the theories of Piaget and Vygotsky differ somewhat, they do share some similarities, and both acknowledge growth and development occur across the life span through various ways. One such similarity is the belief that interaction with the environment plays an irreplaceable role in cognitive development.
One key difference however, is that Piaget believed in self-discovery as a key part of development, that is a child discovers things through the stages of development, therefore learning along the way, whereas Vygotsky’s belief, was that learning occurred through the teachings and modelling behaviors of others whilst providing necessary supports.
Both theories play a key role in cognitive development. Whether we develop in stages as Piaget suggests, or we learn through social engagement as understood by Vygotsky, it could in fact be a combination of the two. Piaget does not include what Vygotsky states as imperative to learning, and that is to take into account the value of educational input and behavior modelling by adults in the childs’ world.
According to this one difference, it may be assumed that Vygotsky’s theory could be more widely accepted by teachers and educators as it places greater emphasis on the value teachers and society play in learning and development, as opposed to Piaget’s concentrating more on the stages of growth.
Lilienfeld, S. (2015). Psychology (2nd ed., p.408). Harlow: Pearson.
Vygotsky, L. S. (1978). Mind in society: The development of higher psychological processes. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
(2020). Retrieved 27 April 2020, from https://study.com/academy/lesson/scaffolding-in-education-definition-theory-examples.html
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