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Two of the most recognized cognitive psychologists, Jean Piaget and Lev Vygotsky, developed theories that addressed cognitive development and learning among children and adolescents. While there are similarities between the two theories, differences exist, and those differences are critical to the understanding and application of the theories in educational settings. This lesson will highlight those major differences.


Jean Piaget: ‘My theory of cognitive development is comprehensive and is the only perspective that should be viewed as correct!’Lev Vygotsky: ‘I disagree.

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My theory of cognitive development is the obvious choice for explaining how a child learns and develops.’Hmm, it appears that we have a difference of opinion here. There may be no right or wrong theory of cognitive development, but there are definitely differences between Jean Piaget’s theory of cognitive development and Lev Vygotksy’s cultural-historical theory.

This lesson will identify those similarities and differences.

Piaget’s Theory

Piaget focused on cognitive development in children and adolescents
Piagets Theory of Cognitive Development

Jean Piaget’s theory of cognitive development described and explained the changes in logical thinking of children and adolescents. Piaget proposed that children proceed through four stages based on maturation and experience.

Piaget’s theory is guided by assumptions of how learners interact with their environment and how they integrate new knowledge and information into existing knowledge. Briefly, he proposed that:

  1. children are active learners who construct knowledge from their environments
  2. they learn through assimilation and accommodation, and complex cognitive development occurs through equilibration
  3. the interaction with physical and social environments is key for cognitive development
  4. development occurs in stages

These assumptions are covered in more detail in another lesson.

Vygotsky’s Theory

Lev Vygotsky’s theory of cognitive development, referred to as his cultural-historical theory, focused on the role of culture and social interactions. Vygotsky maintained that speech is a major psychological tool in the child’s development of thinking.

As children age and develop, their basic speech becomes more complex.Vygotksy’s theory is guided by six major assumptions:

  1. children develop through informal and formal conversations with adults
  2. the first few years of life are critical for development, as this is where thought and language become increasingly independent
  3. complex mental activities begin as basic social activities
  4. children can perform more difficult tasks with the help of a more advanced individual
  5. tasks that are challenging promote cognitive development growth
  6. play is important and allows children to stretch themselves cognitively

These assumptions are also covered in more detail in another lesson.

Vygotsky recognized the importance of speech in development
Vygotsky Cultural-Historical Theory


Vygotsky and Piaget have similarities between their two theories of cognitive development. There are also several differences. Let’s see how these two psychologists differed and agreed on the cognitive development of children and adolescents.Piaget: ‘I think the development occurs because the child is an active learner.

The child must actively organize new information with existing information to obtain a state of equilibrium.’Vygotsky: ‘I agree! Children are actively involved in the learning and development process because they provide feedback to the adult or teacher about their level of understanding.’Piaget: ‘I also believe that development declines with age.’Vygotsky: ‘Yes, agreed. There is a steady increase of development in childhood; then cognitive development declines.

Piaget: ‘I propose that development may be initiated by cognitive conflict. For example, when a child realizes a new idea does not align with his current thinking or prior knowledge, he will seek out the correct answers in order to align his thinking.’Vygotsky: ‘I definitely agree with that idea.’Piaget: ‘Ah, how do you feel about egocentric speech? You know, the speech from a child that is not addressed to other people but helps the child move through an activity or problem. I feel that egocentric speech is important to the cognitive development of a child.

Vygotsky: ‘I agree with you that egocentric speech is important, but I think we may have differing views on why.’


Piaget: ‘I feel that development precedes learning.’Vygotsky: ‘No, I disagree. Learning occurs before development.’Piaget: ‘I stand on the position that maturation influences and drives development.’Vygotsky: ‘No, development is driven by the child’s enjoyment from learning and being around others.’Piaget: ‘I feel that children learn independently, and the source of their cognition comes solely from themselves.

Vygotsky: ‘I disagree. Children are social creatures, and the source of their cognition comes from their social environment. It is the interaction with other peers and adults that plays a critical role in children’s cognition.’Piaget: ‘Getting back to egocentric speech, I feel that development precedes language, and egocentric speech is simply for self-centered purposes because the child is unable to consider the point of view from others.

Piaget and Vygotsky agreed that cognitive development declines with age
Development Declines with Age

Vygotsky: ‘No, no. You have it all wrong. Language precedes development, and egocentric speech is a transition between the child’s learning language in a social, communicative context and attempting to internalize it as private or inner speech.’

Lesson Summary

As we can see from the discussion between Piaget and Vygotsky, there are similarities in their theories. They both agree that the child is an active participant in his or her own learning and that development declines with age. They also both accept the idea that development is driven by conflicts in thinking, and they both acknowledge the existence of egocentric speech.

Vygotsky believed that the child is a social being, and cognitive development is led by social interactions. Piaget, on the other hand, felt that the child was more independent and that development was guided by self-centered, focused activities.

Lesson Objectives

After watching this lesson, you should be able to:

  • List the four assumptions of Piaget’s theory of cognitive development and the six assumptions of Vygotsky’s
  • Compare and contrast the two theories

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