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Piagetian Versus Vygotskian Perspectives on Development and Education
Conference Paper · April 1994
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R. Clarke Fowler
Salem State University
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Piagetian Versus Vygotskian
Piagetian Versus Vygotskian Perspectives on
Development and Education
R. Clarke Fowler
Education Department
Salem State College
Salem, MA 10970
Paper presented at the annual meeting of the American Educational Research Association,
New Orleans, April 4, 1994.
Author Notes
I would like to thank Tom Bidell, Kathleen Camara, Sylvia Feinburg, David Feldman, and
Michael Glassman for their comments on prior drafts of this article. Correspondence
regarding this paper may be sent to the author either at Education Department, Salem State
College, Salem, MA 01970 or via e-mail at: rfowler@salemstate.edu.
Piagetian Versus Vygotskian
This article contrasts the differing perspectives of Piaget and Vygotsky on a number of critical
issues in intellectual development (i.e., the nature of intelligence, the relationship between
thought and language, and the influence of social factors) and in education (i.e., the aims of
education, the teacher-child relationship, the curriculum, vertical and lateral transfer, and the
relationship between development and education). This effort was spurred by observations that
recent research in the Vygotskian tradition--a tradition which many researchers have subscribed
to in an effort to overcome some of Piaget's perceived limitations--appears to be moving, along
some dimensions, back in the direction of Piaget. The question raised by this perceived shift in
direction, though, is whether these two perspectives may be integrated? The aim of this article is
to facilitate debate of this important question by mapping some of the theoretical ground such
discussions will need to cover.
Piagetian Versus Vygotskian
Piagetian Versus Vygotskian Perspectives on
Development and Education
Over the last 30 years, Piaget has informed much of the research on child development in
the United States. Within the last decade, though, as the social sciences have become
increasingly concerned with understanding the impact of both culture and context on
development and on education, the influence of Piaget has diminished while that of Vygotsky
has risen. This shift has occurred, in part, because cultural and contextual influences are
perceived as playing a major role in Vygotsky's account of development, but a minor role in
Piaget's. Although contemporary Vygotskians have described many of the early attempts to
flesh out the implications of Vygotsky's sociocultural approach as "one-dimensional," they have
also noted and welcomed the emergence, "during the 1980's, [of] a broader and richer picture of
the Soviet and sociohistorical school" (Minick, Stone & Forman, 1993, p. 5). It is interesting to
note, however, that Contexts for development (Forman, Minick & Stone, 1993), the most recent
effort to produce a "broader and richer" account of development from the sociocultural
perspective, appears to Hatano (in his commentary on five of this volume's chapters) to lead back
in the direction of Piaget: "There is a recognizable tendency ...to move away from transmission
and toward constructivism" (1993, p. 163).
The question raised by this perceived shift in direction is as follows: to what extent are
the views of Piaget and Vygotsky compatible? Even if researchers are moving back in the
direction of (Piagetian) constructivism, can these two perspectives really meet? This question,
which has been considered by a number of writers in recent years, has produced a conflicting set
of responses: some have portrayed their theories as complementary (Bearison, 1991; Forman &
Kraker, 1985; Glassman, in press; Rogoff, 1988, 1990; Tudge & Rogoff, 1989, Tudge &
Winterhoff, 1993; Zimmerman, 1993), others as conflicting (Bakhurst, Cole, Middleton &
Nicolopoulou, 1988; DeVries & Zan, 1992; Downs & Liben, 1993; Forman, 1993; Wertsch,
1985; Wozniak, 1987).
However the debate is resolved, it will have important implications for both research and
practice. Yet, in order for a broad-based debate to take place, it will require that the nature of the
differences that separate as well as the commonalities that unite these two thinkers be
understood, not "from without", as Piaget wrote of his critics (Piaget in Chapman, 1988, p. 1),
Piagetian Versus Vygotskian
but from within. Unfortunately, the works of both of these researchers have often been
understood from without, and consequently, rejected--or even accepted--for the wrong reasons
(Bidell, 1988, 1992). It is in order to facilitate mutual understanding and informed debate
between the Piagetian and Vygotskian camps, therefore, that the current paper seeks to delineate
a number of issues relevant to the compatibility of Piaget's and Vygotsky's perspectives on
development and education. Since fully addressing both their differences and similarities is too
large a task for one paper, however, this article will focus on their differences.
Before proceeding, though, it is necessary to comment on the perils of this endeavor,
perils which stem primarily from the limited availability of primary sources. In Vygotsky's case,
a serious problem is presented by the fact that the bulk of his opus is still not available in
English. This absence is largely due to the fact, for many years, his works were, for political
reasons, not even available in Russian. Fortunately, his collected works have been published in
Russian and are now appearing in English. Unfortunately, since only two of this projected six
volume series has been printed in English, the bulk of his thought is still unavailable to those
who, like the current author, do not read Russian.
In Piaget's case, the problem is not that the bulk of his work is unavailable--indeed, a
staggering number of books, articles, and essays are in existence in English--but that certain key
texts have not yet appeared in English. Specifically, his sociological essays (Piaget, 1977) which
address, among other topics, one of the most misunderstood aspects of his thought: the influence
of social interaction on intellectual development. (These works are not scheduled to appear in
English [Piaget, in press] until 1994.) Given the remarkable theoretical consistency of Piaget's
work over the years (Chapman, 1988), though, the limited availability of one set of his essays is
a relatively minor problem, especially when compared with the amount of Vygotsky's work that
is still unavailable.
Due to these limitations, the current paper seeks not so much to settle the debate over the
(educational or psychological) compatibility of these two theories, as to map the territory to be
covered in discussions between Vygotskians and Piagetians. In mapping out this terrain,
however, my goal is not to adjudicate, but to explicate, in broad terms, some of the major
differences separating Piaget and Vygotsky, beginning with their differing perspectives on
intellectual development.
Piagetian Versus Vygotskian
Perspectives on Development
Research Problems
The principal problem addressed by Piaget concerned the formation of knowledge. His
approach to this problem consisted of an
elaboration of a scientific epistemology: As he saw it, epistemology calls for an interdisciplinary approach, while the main instrument for its construction resides in genetic
psychology. Piaget replaced Emmanuel Kant's question "How is knowledge (e. g., pure
mathematics) possible?" with this other question: "How is knowledge constructed and
transformed in ontogenesis?" (Inhelder, 1992, p. xi, emphasis added)
In other words, Piaget addressed a question drawn from the world of philosophy with tools
forged in the realm of scientific psychology, and he called this enterprise genetic epistemology.
At its heart, this novel endeavor sought an "explanation of what is new in knowledge from one
stage of development to the next. How is it possible to attain something new?" (Bringuier, 1989,
p. 19).
Vygotsky addressed a very different kind of problem, one that is better described as
cultural psychology than as genetic epistemology: Specifically, he sought "to specify how
human mental functioning reflects and constitutes its historical, institutional, and cultural setting"
(Wertsch, 1990, p. 115). Vygotsky felt that psychology could answer this question, but only by
explaining consciousness; and a proper explanation of consciousness entailed specifying
precisely how culture and context influence the "gradual reorganization of consciousness" (Lee,
1985, p. 71) within the individual. In brief, then, he wanted to understand the relationship
between consciousness and culture--terms which Kozulin (1990) has characterized as the key
elements of Vygotsky's theory. And his effort to understand the relationship between culture and
consciousness led him to investigate specifically how human consciousness and functioning is
raised to higher levels through the successful transmission of culturally developed mediational
means of thought. For example, he attempted, in his research, to describe and explain how a
child's level of intellectual functioning is qualitatively raised when she masters a social tool, such
as speech, on an intrapsychological (i.e. internal) level.
Thus, the problems investigated by Piaget and Vygotsky are related in that they both
addressed issues that are crucial to any account of intellectual development; their approaches to
these problems, however, differ in two important ways. First, they sought to explain different
Piagetian Versus Vygotskian
moments in development: Piaget focused on the creation of new knowledge; Vygotsky,
however, focused on the transmission and acquisition of preexisting tools of knowledge. Or, to
put it briefly, Piaget was primarily interested in invention, and Vygotsky was primarily interested
in transmission.
Second, they were interested in different spheres of intellectual development. Vygotsky
was interested in a narrow range of intelligence: namely, that which was uniquely human. What
he wanted to explain, in part, was how humans--and only humans--raise themselves above their
evolutionary animal ancestors through the acquisition, use, and mastery of sociohistorically
evolved mental tools, such as language.
By contrast, Piaget, who began his intellectual career as a biologist, was interested in a
broad range of intelligence. That is to say, he was interested in intelligent behavior on the part of
any living organism, be it plant or animal (1980a). Although most of his research was conducted
with children, he was "convinced that there is no sort of boundary between the living and the
mental, or between the biological and the psychological" (Bringuier, 1989, p. 3). This is not to
say that Piaget wasn't interested in the highest achievements of human intelligence; indeed, he
was passionately dedicated to explaining the origins of logic, mathematics, and science. One of
his basic assumptions, though, was that the mechanisms of intelligent behavior (i. e.,
equilibration, assimilation, and accommodation) were, structurally speaking, the same at all
levels of life. In fact, Cellerier (Bringuier, 1989) calls this one of Piaget's greatest insights.
What is significant about the different problems they addressed, though, is not so much
that these particular issues led them to consider different bodies of evidence--in fact, both wrote
about research conducted with both human and non-human subjects--but that the problems they
chose to investigate reveal their differing views on the nature of human intellectual development.
For Piaget, qualitative changes in the aspects of cognition of interest to him are primarily the
result of, but may not be reduced to, endogenous factors; for Vygotsky, however, qualitative
changes in the aspects of cognition of interest to him are largely the result of, but may not be
reduced to, exogenous factors. These contrasting views on the mechanisms of cognitive
development are most salient in their respective accounts of the influence of social interaction on
the development of human cognition.
Piagetian Versus Vygotskian
Social Influences on Human Intellectual Development
One of the most misunderstood aspects of Piaget's work concerns the influence his theory
assigned to social factors on development. Often he has been portrayed as giving, at best, a
small role or, at worst, no role to social influences. Such criticisms of his work, however, are
mistaken, as evidenced by the following excerpt from one his most important works, The
Psychology of Intelligence (1966).
The human being is immersed right from birth in a social environment which affects him
just as much as his physical environment. Society, even more, in a sense, than the
physical environment, changes the individual, because it not only compels him to
recognize facts, but also provides him with a ready-made system of signs, which modify
his thought (p. 156).
It is crucial to note, however, that Piaget distinguished between two kinds of social
factors: "[1] interactions or general social (or interindividual coordinations) that are common to
all societies, and [2] transmissions or cultural and especially educative formations which vary
from one society to another, or from one restricted social milieu to another" (Piaget, 1976a, p.
148, emphasis added). That is, he distinguished between the universal aspects of social
interactions that occur in all cultures--"In every milieu, individuals gather information,
collaborate, discuss, oppose one another, etc." (p. 148)--and the unique aspects of social events
that occur in particular cultures.
Since Piaget, as a genetic epistemologist, was interested in knowledge in general, as
opposed to contextually or culturally specific knowledge, he studied social factors of the first
kind: namely, the universal features of social interactions that children interiorize from social
exchanges. And, in order to study the contribution of these universal features to intellectual
development, to study what made the creation of knowledge possible in all contexts, he had to
avoid studying it in specific contexts. Accordingly, he strived, in his research, "to strip away the
effects of culture and to explore basic concepts in their 'uncontaminated' form" (Downs & Liben,
1993, p. 1993). Consequently, the fact that he consciously and purposely refrained from
examining contextual factors shows, not that he minimized these factors, but, to the contrary, that
"he did recognize the importance of sociocultural influences" (Downs & Liben, 1993, p. 179). If
he actually believed that contextual factors had little or no influence on the development of
knowledge, he would not have had to avoid these influences in the first place; nor would he have
Piagetian Versus Vygotskian
stated that, without verification from cross-cultural research, genetic epistemology remained
"essentially conjectural" (1976a, p. 160).
Although specification of the many ways in which the universal aspects of social
interaction contribute to the formation of cognitive structures is beyond the scope of this paper, it
is worthwhile to mention one type that occurs between peers that is of particular importance;
namely, cognitive conflict. When one child contradicts or opposes another's opinion, this often
leads to cognitive disequilibrium, a disturbance that brings the child to reflect upon her world
and, ultimately, spurs her to construct more adequate intellectual structures. It is because peer
relations are rife with conflict among equals, the kind of conflict that leads to the creation of
newer and more valid intellectual structures, that Piaget valued their contribution to intellectual
(and also moral) development (1965). Such conflicts are among the most important of the
universal aspects of social interaction that contribute to cognitive development.
Contrary to many depictions of Piaget, then, social relations play not just an important,
but a necessary role in his account of development. Social relations, however, play an even
larger, indeed a truly formative role, in Vygotsky's account of development. To understand this
role, however, it is important to digress for a moment to briefly describe what constituted
cognitive development for Vygotsky in order to understand the role culture played in it.
Vygotsky (1987) posited the existence of two lines of intellectual development within the
child, the natural and the cultural. The products of the natural line were characterized as lower
functions, and the products of the cultural line were characterized as higher functions. For
Vygotsky, the key moment in child development occurs at around two years of age when these
two lines cross and begin to interact with each other. This moment is so important because it
marks the time when natural evolution begins to come under the control of the individual
through the products of cultural evolution. For example, children's natural memory, a lower
function, has a certain level of performance that it achieves naturally; however, when it comes
under the control of a child via speech, it becomes logical memory, a higher function that is
qualitatively superior to its natural incarnation.
Since Vygotsky posits 1) that there are two lines of development, and 2) that qualitative
advancement consists of moving from the lower natural level to the higher cultural level, then the
key question he has to address is, in form, quite simple: How does this shift occur? His answer,
Piagetian Versus Vygotskian
which gives a primary role to social factors, is found in his general genetic law of cultural
Any function in the child's cultural development appears twice, or on two planes. First it
appears on the social plane, and then on the psychological plane. First it appears between
people as an interpsychological category, and then within the child as an
intrapsychological category. (1981, p. 163)
What this means, as Wertsch (1981) has pointed out, is not simply that "social interaction leads
to the development [of children's higher functions]....rather he [Vygotsky] is saying that the very
means (especially speech) used in social interaction are taken over by the child and internalized"
(p. 146, emphasis added). In other words, the child's level of functioning is (qualitatively)
heightened when she internalizes the (formerly) external means of social relations.
It is important to note, however, that Vygotsky did not conceive of this process as an
implantation of something new into the individual; rather, he wanted to portray this process as a
reshaping (or restructuring) of that which the individual already possessed. In other words,
social tools, introduced via social relations, don't create new abilities--"Culture creates nothing
new" (1981, p. 166); instead, they transform children's preexisting (and continually developing)
natural abilities by restructuring (or reorganizing) what they already possess. (Whether
Vygotsky actually succeeded in portraying this process as restructuring, rather than as importing,
is, of course, subject to debate and has even been questioned by his intellectual heirs [Wertsch &
Tulviste, 1992], although Glassman [in press] argues that Vygotsky succeeded in this effort.)
To summarize, social interactions are important for both Piaget and Vygotsky, but they
are important for different reasons. For Piaget, they make a necessary contribution to the
endogenous invention of new mental structures and schema. For example, children's social
interactions, especially those with peers, are a rich source of cognitive conflict. They produce,
within the individual, a state of disequilibrium which stimulates the creation of more powerful
domain-general structures. For Vygotsky, however, social interactions are important because
they lead to the appropriation (Rogoff, 1990) of culturally developed skills and functions. For
example, children's interactions with adults enable them to acquire speech, a principal means of
mastering the higher mental functions. Thus, social interactions are important for Vygotsky
Piagetian Versus Vygotskian
because of what children take from them, and for Piaget because of what children make of them.
The Relationship between Thought and Language
Underlying the contrasting views presented by Piaget and Vygotsky on the influence of
social factors in development is a dispute concerning the relationship between thought and
language. Vygotsky holds that thought is qualitatively elevated when mediated by speech;
Piaget holds that it is not. This dispute, which constitutes the basis of the only direct (albeit
posthumous) intellectual exchange between these two theorists, will be considered below. In
considering their differences, though, I shall not review the specific details of this exchange
because Vygotsky's (1987) criticisms of Piaget's account of language have been (justifiably)
questioned from both a Vygotskian (Wertsch, 1985) and a Piagetian (Brown, 1988) perspective.
Instead, I shall focus on each theorists's account of the role of language (and speech) within his
own theory.
Vygotsky's account begins with the observation that children learn to speak by
collaborating with adults in conversation. This constitutes, for him, an illustration of how a
socially developed tool is not invented, but acquired, by the child. One of Vygotsky's greatest
insights, though, was that the value of speech is not solely as an external tool of communication,
but as an internal tool of self-regulation and reflection. In other words, the child appropriates
speech from the social (intermental) realm and then applies this tool in a new realm, namely the
individual (intramental) one. Thus, speech, which once mediated social thought, comes to
mediate individual thought; and this new use of speech qualitatively raises the child's level of
The specifically human capacity for language enables children to provide for auxiliary
tools in the solution of difficult tasks, to overcome impulsive action, to plan a solution to
a problem prior to its execution, and to master their own behavior. Signs and words serve
children first and foremost as a means of social contact with other people. The cognitive
and communicative functions of language then become the basis of a new and superior
form of activity in children, distinguishing them from animals. (1978, 28-29)
Speech becomes, on the intramental level, a "way of sorting out one's thoughts about things"
(Bruner, 1986, p. 72). And it is this ability to sort things out that enables humans to effect the
shift from the natural to the cultural level of development and gives human intellectual
development its unique character. He concluded, therefore, that the use of speech on an
Piagetian Versus Vygotskian
intramental level was the most important moment in cognitive development.
The most significant moment in the course of intellectual development, which gives birth
to the purely human forms of practical and abstract intelligence, occurs when speech and
practical activity, two previously completely independent lines of development,
converge. (1978, p. 24)
Speech and language played a very different role in Piaget's account of development.
Although he recognized that language was a very important component of human intellectual
functioning, he did not give it the privileged position it plays in Vygotsky's theory.
If it is legitimate to regard language as playing a chief role in the formation of thought,
this is so to the extent that it constitutes one of the manifestations of the symbolical
function, the development of the function being in turn dominated by intelligence in its
total functioning. (Piaget, 1976b, p. 118)
Thus, for Piaget, language was an important manifestation of what he called the symbolic
(or semiotic) function, but this did not mean that language acquisition should be credited with the
production of higher forms of knowledge. He would not dispute the fact that language enables
one to have an internal dialogue, or to "sort things out;" but he would dispute the proposition that
language can raise the level of functioning with which he was concerned: namely, the underlying
intellectual structures of knowledge.
In a word, language is not sufficient to transmit a logic, and it is only understood thanks
to logical instruments of assimilation whose origin lies much deeper, since they are
dependent upon the general coordination of actions of operations (1971, p. 40)
For Piaget, language reflects, but does not produce, intelligence. The only way to advance to a
higher intellectual level is, not through language, but through action.
To summarize, Vygotsky felt that children appropriated from the social world
mediational means of thought, and the most important of these means was speech. Once thought
is mediated by speech on an internal level, the child's level of functioning is lifted up to a
qualitatively higher level. Thus, just as men and women have transformed their outer physical
world through the use of physical tools, such as the steel plow, so have they transformed their
inner intellectual world though the use of mental tools, such as speech (Vygotsky, 1987). By
contrast, Piaget did not grant mediational means of thought a special role in his account of
development, not even to language. This is because he did not concede that language can lead to
qualitative change in the overall structure of thought. For Piaget, "language is a product of
Piagetian Versus Vygotskian
thought, rather than thought being a product of language" (1980b, p. 167).
The Nature of Human Intelligence
The final contrast between Piaget and Vygotsky to be considered in this section concerns
their views on the nature of intelligence. For Piaget, intelligence was a unitary construct. He
believed that intelligent behavior was subordinated to "general structures of the mind" (Gardner,
1983, p. 7); that the child's ability to understand is limited by the level of development of her
intellectual structures, structures which constrain the child's abilities in all arenas. Equally
important, he contended that these general structures of the mind developed in the same
sequence, but not necessarily at the same rate, in all cultures.
Vygotsky, however, did not advocate a unitary concept of intelligence. To the contrary,
he contended that "the mind is not a complex of general capacities, but a set of specific
capabilities" (1978, p. 83, cited in Cole, 1990, p. 92, emphasis added). The specific capabilities
he envisioned were what he referred to as the higher mental functions, which included speech,
mathematics, and writing. Moreover, these abilities were not universal, but culturally specific.
Thus, although Piaget and Vygotsky both wrote about intellectual development, their
notions of what develops in ontogenesis are quite different. For Piaget, mind is a domaingeneral intellectual structure that proceeds through the same stages in all settings. For Vygotsky,
mind is a set of domain-specific abilities that are not universal but contextually and culturally
In summarizing the differences outlined above between Piaget and Vygotsky, it is useful
to consider how each would have treated the following extract in which Marx comments on the
difference between man and nature.
The spider carries out operations reminiscent of a weaver and the boxes which bees build
in the sky could disgrace the work of many architects. But even the worst architect
differs from the most able bee from the very outset in that before he builds a box out of
boards he has already constructed it in his head. At the end of the work process he
obtains a result which already existed in his mind before he began to build. The architect
not only changes the form given to him by nature, within the constraints imposed by
nature, he also carries out a purpose of his own which defines the means and the
character of the activity to which he must subordinate his will. (Cited in Vygotsky, 1978,
p. xiv)
Piagetian Versus Vygotskian
Vygotsky, who frequently cited this excerpt from Marx, ascribed to the essential
discontinuity that Marx posited between man and nature. In fact, Vygotsky felt that the goal of a
truly human psychology was, in part, to explain how this separation from nature was achieved.
His answer, in brief, was that by mastering the products of cultural evolution, those semiotic
tools which are acquired in social interaction, the engineer is able to be planful, mindful, and
volitional. Consequently, the engineer can build things mindfully, but the bee cannot.
What is clear in this account is the large role that cultural tools play in raising humanity
to higher levels of intellectual functioning. But what these tools ultimately make possible,
though, is the capacity for conscious awareness of his own actions. And it is because the
engineer is conscious of what he can do, and of what he wants to do, that he can master his
actions. Thus, an expanded explanation of how man separates himself from nature is that it is
through social interaction that man first becomes conscious of his actions and then, by actively
appropriating and using (internally) the tools of social interaction, he gradually achieves control
over the actions of which he has been made aware. Consequently, the discontinuity between
man and nature is a direct product of human cultural evolution; and this discontinuity is
sustained in the present via continued cultural transmission of a distinct and diverse set of
semiotic tools that allow humanity to function at a high level in a variety of settings. What
humanity ultimately achieves, though, thanks to the consciousness awareness achieved through
the tools of culture, is self-regulation; but not the mindless self-regulation deeded by natural
evolution, but the mindful self-regulation that can only be realized with the assistance of the
products of cultural evolution.
Piaget, who was more of a biologist than a psychologist, would have rejected the
discontinuity that both Marx and Vygotsky drew between the bee and the engineer. Instead, he
would have insisted on the basic continuity between these two biological organisms. This is not
to say that he would deny that mediation contributes to man's planfulness, consciousness, or
control; nor that he would deny that man can use semiotic tools to "sort things out." What he
would challenge, though, is Vygotksy's reliance on consciousness as playing either a central or a
formative role in higher level mental functioning. He would challenge this idea on two points:
first, he would claim that Vygotsky is anthropocentric in claiming that only humans have
consciousness (Bringuier, 1989); second, and most importantly, he would reject the notion that
Piagetian Versus Vygotskian
merely raising one's consciousness can raise one's intellect. For Piaget, consciousness is
subordinated to one's overall level of intellectual development. That is, we can only be aware of
that which our intellectual structures allow us to be aware. (1976c, 1976d)
For Piaget, the engineer becomes more capable than the bee, not due to the acquisition of
conscious awareness of his own actions, but to the endogenous construction of a domain-general
tool of intelligence; a tool that is spontaneously constructed through action, and not through
language; a tool that actually makes possible the existence of the very same skills which
Vygotsky valued; and, in the final analysis, a tool that is important, not because it leads to
increasingly differentiated and organized levels of consciousness, but because it leads to
increasingly valid forms of knowledge. A tool, in fact, that ultimately leads closer to truth.
(Wartofsky, 1971, 1983)
Clearly, then, Vygotsky and Piaget have produced very different accounts of both the
nature and manner of human intellectual development. It is important to remember, however,
that these accounts were produced in response to different research questions. Consequently,
attempts to compare and contrast these views must be done with great care. As Glick has noted,
"confusion is generated when theories are compared in terms of the mechanisms without at the
same time understanding that the range of phenomena (the "facts") to which the theory applies is
also different" (1983, p. 37). Glick's solution to this problem, when comparing three theories of
development, was to consider the adequacy of each account with respect to a common domain,
the investigation of the child. In an analogous manner, I shall proceed, in the following section,
to compare the implications of their work for education.
Perspectives On Education
Although there is room for debate concerning the implications of Piaget and Vygotsky
for education--debate both within and between the camps of their respective followers--there is
no doubting the fact that each had serious objections to the traditional rote practices of their time.
Although Piaget did not write frequently on education, when he did, he passionately condemned
schools for their tendency to teach meaningless facts. He was disturbed by teachers who thought
that their "task was not so much to form [the child's] mind as simply to furnish it" (1971a, p.
160). He characterized this kind of approach as the "enduring curse of education--verbalism"
(1967, p. 14). Similarly, according to Van der Veer and Valsiner, Vygotsky also felt that a
Piagetian Versus Vygotskian
teacher should not--indeed, could not--be a "provider of finished knowledge" (1991, p. 274):
Pedagogical experience demonstrates that direct instruction in concepts is impossible. It
is pedagogically fruitless. The teacher who attempts to use this approach achieves
nothing but a mindless learning of words, an empty verbalism that stimulates or imitates
the presence of concepts in the child. (Vygotsky, 1987, p. 170).
Accordingly, Piaget and Vygotsky would both have agreed with Whitehead's
condemnation of educators who seek to implant "inert ideas" (1929, p. 15) into their students.
Such an enterprise was, in their shared view, not just pointless, but even harmful. However,
once one moves beyond this shared condemnation of "verbalism," of what teachers should not
do, it is difficult to find agreement concerning what teachers should do. A number of these
differences are treated below, beginning with their divergent views on the aims of education.
The Aims of Education
It should, perhaps, not be surprising to find that Piaget, the man who made the creation of
new knowledge the focus of genetic epistemology, also made the creation of new knowledge the
primary end of education: "The principal goal of education is to create men who are capable of
doing new things, not simply repeating what other generations have
done--men who are creative, inventive, and discoverers" (Piaget in Elkind, 1989, p. 115). In
order to achieve this goal, Piaget contended that "the second goal of education ....[should be] to
form minds which can be critical, can verify, and not accept everything that is offered" (Piaget in
Elkind, 1989, p. 115). In other words, it is not enough just to think of new ideas. If this was
sufficient, then we could all be philosophers. However, since Piaget (1972) holds that
philosophy, alone, is not an adequate basis for producing valid knowledge, then it is necessary to
test our new ideas against reality. Thus, broadly stated, the aim of education for Piaget is to
enable people to invent and verify new knowledge (Forman & Kraker, 1985).
Although Vygotsky's educational aims are not as straightforwardly articulated as Piaget's,
they are discernable in his major work, Thinking and Speech (1987), where they are found in his
theory of intellectual development. As noted earlier, Vygotsky posited the existence of two lines
of intellectual development: a lower natural line and a higher cultural line. Since development
consisted of moving from the lower to the higher lines, it is clear that realizing such
developmental advances constitutes one of his educational aims. "The focal point of
development for the school-age child is the emergence of the higher mental functions" (p. 187).
Piagetian Versus Vygotskian
For Vygotsky, therefore, the school's job is to ensure that children acquire higher mental
functions, functions such as reading, mathematics, and grammar.
It is important to note, however, that Vygotsky advocated teaching higher functions, not
simply as ends in themselves, but as a means of achieving the end of mindful self-regulation.
Attainment of higher level functioning allows people, like Marx's engineer, to plan and realize
their own goals. This goal, however, can only be achieved by mastering one's natural abilities
with the aid of culturally deeded and internally adapted tools and structures.
What is not as discernable in the educational writings of Vygotsky--at least, in those
writings currently available in English--is to what purpose he sees people putting the abilities
they have acquired in school. Whereas Piaget's ultimate goals of invention and verification
saturate his educational writings--indeed, the only things that are truly clear about Piaget's
writings on education are the goals, as to opposed to the means, of education--such larger goals
are not apparent in Vygotsky. Thus, although, they agree that an aim of education is the
formation (albeit by different means) of minds, it is not, yet, evident that they agreed on the
ultimate purpose of this endeavor.
The Teacher-Child Relationship
One of the most salient differences between Piaget's and Vygotsky's perspectives on
education concerns the relationship between the teacher and the child. Although Piaget did not
write much about this issue, his position is evident in the following comments he wrote about the
role of the teacher.
It is obvious that the teacher as organizer remains indispensable in order to create the
situations and construct the initial devices which present useful problems to the child.
Secondly, he is needed to provide counter-examples that compel reflection and
reconsideration of over-hasty solutions. What is desired is that the teacher cease being a
lecturer, satisfied with transmitting ready-made solutions; his role should be that of a
mentor stimulating initiative and research" (1973, p. 16).
What's implicitly indicated, if not explicitly stated, is that the teacher and student should stand on
relatively equal ground with regard to knowledge. Rather than imparting, instructing, and
informing, the teacher's job is to arrange environments, ask probing questions, and stimulate
reflection while working alongside the student. This means that the teacher must cease acting as
the source of knowledge, because that kind of stance does not lead the child to true knowledge,
Piagetian Versus Vygotskian
but to imitation knowledge--what Piaget called "school varnish" (DeVries, 1990). To form true
knowledge, the teacher must lead the child to think her own thoughts, rather than acquiesce to
the teachers' thoughts.
From a Vygotskian perspective, however, teachers should stand, in terms of knowledge,
not on equal, but unequal footing with regard to the student. The teacher does not just arrange
environments and ask stimulating questions, as in a Piagetian approach, but he also "explains,
informs, corrects, and forces the child himself to explain" (p. 215-6). To understand why
Vygotsky advocated a more assertive role for the teacher than Piaget, it is necessary to digress
for a moment to explain his most famous construct, the Zone of Proximal Development (ZPD).
Vygotsky's notion of the ZPD emerged from his critique of I. Q. tests which he criticized
for, among other things, underestimating children's true intellectual abilities by measuring only
what the child could do alone, and thereby neglecting to measure what she could do with (adult)
assistance. His point was that if a child could perform at an 8-year-old level on her own, but at a
10-year-old level with guidance, then traditional intelligence tests fail to capture that potential
He proposed, therefore, that the child has two levels of development at any one time.
First, she has a zone of actual development, which represents what she can do alone. But she
also has a zone of proximal development, which
is the distance between the actual developmental level as determined by independent
problem solving and the level of potential development as determined through problem
solving under adult guidance or in collaboration with more capable peers. (1978, p. 86)
Having defined Vygotsky's ZPD it is now possible to explain the two principal reasons
why a Vygotskian teacher would be more directive than a Piagetian teacher in the classroom.
First, by explaining, correcting, and informing, the teacher can identify a child's potential for
development. In this sense, the ZPD is used, not to inculcate knowledge, but to prognosticate
imminent areas of intellectual growth in the child by ascertaining precisely what she can achieve
with assistance from others. That is, by assisting the child, the teacher identifies
those functions that have not yet matured but are in the process of maturation, functions
that will mature tomorrow but are currently in an embryonic state. These functions could
be termed the 'buds' or "flowers' of development rather than the 'fruits' of development.
(1978, p. 86)
Piagetian Versus Vygotskian
There is a second sense in which the ZPD is used and that is as a means to ensure that the
potential buds of development really do bear fruit. In other words, the teacher does not merely
identify possible future growth and then watch it mature, rather he uses "instruction to bring out
those processes of development that now lie in the zone of proximal development" (1987, p. 211)
that he has already identified.
Thus, there's a clear contrast between the Piagetian and Vygotskian perspectives on the
nature of the relationship between the teacher and the child. For Piaget, teacher-child relations
should be symmetrical, with regards to knowledge, because this arrangement allows the child to
advance to higher levels by constructing increasingly valid intellectual structures; and this
construction occurs best when the teacher works with, not over, the student. By contrast, for
Vygotsky, the teacher-child relationship should be asymmetrical, allowing the child to advance
by appropriating, within the ZPD, an increasingly differentiated set of social tools; and this
appropriation occurs most readily when the teacher guides, corrects, and directs the child as she
participates in valued cultural practices.
Education and the Formation of Higher Level Concepts
An important question to ask of any educational theory is as follows: How do children
learn higher level concepts? Piaget and Vygotsky provide different responses to this question,
and their differences stem from the fact that they have conflicting views on the relationship
between scientific and spontaneous concepts. In order to understand these differences, though, it
is necessary to begin this section by defining these two constructs.
Spontaneous concepts are the ideas that children make of the world based on everyday
activities. What's important about them is that they
are acquired by the child outside of the control of explicit instruction. In themselves
these concepts are mostly taken from adults, but they never have been made to connect
them with other, related concepts (Van der Veer & Valsiner, 1992, p. 270)
On the other hand, scientific concepts are concepts with formal definitions that, usually, "have
been explicitly introduced by a teacher at school" (Van der Veer & Valsiner, 1992, p. 270). Such
concepts are not necessarily scientific, in the formal sense of the word, though, and are often
referred to by contemporary scholars as "schooled" concepts (Tharp & Gallimore, 1990, p. 193).
Children generally are familiar with, and have built a spontaneous concept of the term "brother,"
Piagetian Versus Vygotskian
based on their informal experiences; by contrast, their knowledge of schooled concepts, such as
Archimedes's law, does not stem from everyday experience, but from formal instruction
(Vygotsky, 1987).
Piaget and Vygotsky would both have agreed that a legitimate goal of education is for
people to master higher level concepts. Where they seriously disagreed, though, was on the
wisdom of using schooled concepts to lead young children to this goal.
Piaget clearly recognized that societies have always conveyed to
the individual an already prepared system of ideas, classifications, relations--in short, an
inexhaustible stock of concepts which are reconstructed in each individual after the ageold pattern which previously moulded earlier generations. (1966, p. 159)
It is these ideas and relations that have traditionally been seen as the proper content of classroom
instruction. For Piaget, however, exposure to such concepts is not truly educative because it
does not--indeed, cannot--raise the child's level of intellectual functioning. This is because,
when exposed to these higher level thoughts,
the child begins by borrowing from this collection only as much as suits him, remaining
disdainfully ignorant of everything that exceeds his mental level. And again, that which
is borrowed is assimilated in accordance with his intellectual structure; a word intended
to carry a general concept at first engenders only a half-individual, half-socialized preconcept. (1966, p. 159)
The lesson for educators who seek to instruct children in these ideas is that, when exposed to
adult thought, children cannot help but pull it down to their level.
However dependent he may be on surrounding intellectual influences, the young child
assimilates them in his own way. He reduces them to his own point of view and therefore
distorts them without realizing it" (1966, p. 160, emphasis added).
For Piaget, exposing children to high-level thinking is pointless. The only way for
children to acquire schooled concepts is to first construct the intellectual structures that will
eventually allow them to be assimilated. It is only after the appropriate structures have been
endogenously constructed through spontaneous activity that higher level concepts can be truly
Vygotsky agrees with Piaget's contention that children's initial attempts to produce adult
concepts will invariably be unsuccessful; that they will not produce accurate schooled concepts,
but a developmental sequence of "preconcepts" (Vygotsky, 1987, p. 189). For Vygotsky,
Piagetian Versus Vygotskian
however, preconcepts do not represent a failure of educational transmission, but the beginning of
the educational process; a process in which the child will produce, with the assistance of the
teacher, a series of "failed," yet increasingly adequate concepts. This developmental process is
not straightforward, though. It involves a dynamic interaction, a dialectic, between the child's
spontaneous concepts and society's scientific ones, all of which occurs within the ZPD with the
teacher guiding the process. While this process may take place over a long time, the final
outcome of this productive clash (between the spontaneous and the systematic) will be a fully
developed concept, one that has both the experiential richness of everyday concepts and the
systematic advantages of schooled ones.
To summarize, Piaget and Vygotsky are alike in conceiving of children's attempts to
grasp scientific concepts in formal instructional situations as initially resulting in failure. Their
views of this failure differ, though, in much the same way that people view a glass of water as
half-full, or half-empty. For Piaget, a preconcept is half-empty; it illustrates the failure of
children to grasp ideas beyond their stage of intellectual development. For Vygotsky, however, a
preconcept is half-full: it shows that children grasp some part, however limited, of a higher-level
concept. And it is this "failed" concept which the teacher and child use to climb to
developmentally higher levels. Thus, whereas Piaget "sees only the break, not the connection"
(Vygotsky, 1987, p. 174) between schooled and spontaneous concepts, Vygotsky focuses on the
connection and advocates using it as a link to the development of higher level concepts.
The Curriculum
Piaget's approach to the curriculum is evident in the following excerpt where he
differentiates subjects according to the way in which truth is ascertained.
There are some subjects, such as French history or spelling, whose contents have been
developed, or even invented, by adults, and the transmission of which raises no problems
other than those related to recognizing the better or worse information techniques. There
are other branches of learning, on the other hand, characterized by a mode of truth that
does not depend upon more or less particular events resulting from many individual
decisions, but upon a process of research and discovery... a mathematical truth is not
dependent upon the contingencies of adult society, but upon a rational construction
accessible to any healthy intelligence (1971a, p. 26).
Thus, he differentiated subjects according to their mode of truth: some subjects are best
characterized as social-arbitrary inventions; others as research-based scientific constructions.
Piagetian Versus Vygotskian
For Piaget, arbitrary subjects, such as history, could be taught via cultural transmission. Nonarbitrary subjects, however, such as math, science, and logic, could not be transmitted; they can
only be grasped when invented or re-invented by the child herself.
Of these two kinds of subjects, those characterized by rationality and research are more
highly valued from a Piagetian perspective. This is because these topics lead to the "formation
of individuals capable of inventive thought and of helping the society of tomorrow to achieve
progress" (1971a, p. 26). And it is these topics which are still the primary focus of much of
constructivist education today (Forman, 1993).
It is important to remember, though, that these subjects are not valued as ends in
themselves, but as a means to the greater end of intellectual freedom and creativity. This view is
evident in Piaget's rhapsodizing about the value of mathematics: "There is no field where the
full development of the human personality and the mastery of the tools of logic and reason which
insure full intellectual independence are more capable of realization [than in mathematics]"
(1973, p. 105).
In Vygotsky's writings (1978, 1987) a wide variety of school topics (e.g. reading, writing,
math, reasoning, science, social science, and drawing) are mentioned. Unlike Piaget, however,
he does not privilege topics according to their mode of truth, nor for their potential contribution
to an underlying intellectual structure. Instead, these activities are each valued in their own right.
This is because these subjects "are given the status of psychological functions rather than being
treated as derivatives" (Kozulin, 1990, p. 7). In other words, these skills and functions are
valued not solely as a means to a common end of development, as in Piaget; instead, they are
valued more as distinct ends in themselves, with each making a unique contribution to overall
This appreciation for the unique contribution of different functions is a reflection of the
fact, mentioned earlier, that Vygotsky conceived of intelligence as a domain-specific set of
abilities. This idea is succinctly captured in Wertsch's book, Voices of the Mind, (1991) where
he describes the mind as a "cultural tool kit." This image invites teachers to think of education
less as an effort to form a unitary mental structure, and more as an effort to provide children with
a diverse cognitive repertoire of quasi-distinct skills.
It is important to ask, though, whether any of the tools identified by Vygotsky are more
Piagetian Versus Vygotskian
valuable than others. While Vygotsky does not directly address this issue in Thinking and
Speech, it seems implicitly clear, given the central role of speech and language in mediating
thought, that the primary emphasis in a Vygotskian-based classroom would be placed on literacy.
And such an emphasis, based on Vygotksy's writings, is found in Chang-Wells's statement that
"it is precisely the development of the ability and disposition to engage in 'literate thinking'
through the use of texts that is the school's major responsibility in literate societies" (ChangWells & Wells, 1993, p. 61). It appears, then, that from a Vygotskian perspective, a teacher
would be justified in emphasizing the language arts and literacy; whereas, from a Piagetian
perspective, a teacher would be justified in emphasizing math and science.
In discussing Piagetian versus Vygotskian views on transfer (i.e., the notion that
something learned in one arena can facilitate learning in another arena) it is important to begin
by noting Gagné's (1971) distinction between lateral and vertical transfer. In vertical transfer,
which Lohman (1993) has characterized as the "general-to-specific dimension of transfer"
(Lohman, 1993, p. 21), "a capability to be learned is acquired more rapidly when it has been
preceded by preparing learning of subordinate capabilities" (Gagné, 1971, p. 233). By contrast,
"lateral transfer occurs when particular knowledge or skills are used to speed up or simplify
learning in some other domain" (Brophy & Good, 1986, p. 221). Thus, broadly speaking, lateral
transfer occurs between domains, whereas vertical transfer occurs within domains.
Historically, debates about transfer have been specifically concerned with lateral transfer,
and the argument in favor of this phenomenon was described by Piaget as
the hypothesis that an initiation into the dead languages [i.e., Latin or Greek] constitutes
an intellectual exercise, the benefits of which may then be transferred to other activities.
It is argued, for example, that the possession of a language from which the students' own
tongue developed and the ability to manipulate its grammatical structure provides logical
tools and develops a subtlety of mind from which the intelligence will benefit later on
regardless of the use to which it is put. (1973, Piaget. 61-62)
Piaget considered the evidence for transfer and concluded that research had "not yet led
to any certain conclusions" (p. 62). His rejection of lateral transfer, though, should not be
surprising, because his theory is basically at odds with the concept of transfer across subjects.
Since, according to Piaget, logical instruments are not created by language, but by action, one
Piagetian Versus Vygotskian
could hardly expect him to embrace the idea that learning Latin (or any other language) could
produce qualitative advances in a child's intellectual structures.
A case for lateral transfer is found, however, in Vygotsky's work. To understand why
Vygotsky accepted it, though, it is necessary to point out that when Vygotsky posited the
existence of higher functions, he differentiated between two different kinds of higher functions.
On the one hand, there is one group "which consists of the processes of mastering the external
means of cultural development, e.g. language, writing, counting, drawing" (Vygotsky, 1983,
cited in Kozulin, 1990, p. 113, emphasis added). These functions are the specific cultural tools
that children learn at school. There are, however, other higher functions, functions which
constitute the internal means of cultural development, specifically conscious awareness and
mastery, which are common to all of the functions listed above. "The common foundation of all
higher mental functions is conscious awareness and mastery. The development of this
foundation is the primary formation of the school age" (Vygotsky, 1987, p. 208). In other words,
it is the development of the common internal functions (of conscious awareness and mastery)
that make possible the eventual appropriation of the external domain-specific higher functions
(such as reading, writing, counting, etc.).
Thus, for Vygotsky, there is an element of intellectual functioning which can be developed in
one domain and transferred to another. In Vygotsky's case, however, what is transferred is not
logic or subtlety of mind, but conscious awareness and mastery.
In the case of vertical transfer, Vygotsky and Piaget are in alike in that they posit theories
of development that include a form of this phenomenon; they differ, though, in the particular
form this process takes within their respective theories. The case for vertical transfer in
Vygotsky's work begins with his observation that "in each [school] subject, there are essential
constituting concepts" (1987, p. 207). For example, dialectic is an essential idea in Marx, and
equilibration is an essential idea in Piaget. Once one masters such key concepts, then one has
mastered a new framework for understanding the world.
When the child masters the structure that is associated with conscious awareness and
mastery in one domain of concepts, his efforts will not have to be carried out anew with
each of the spontaneous concepts that were formed prior to the development of this
structure. Rather, in accordance with basic structural laws, the structure is transferred to
the concepts which developed earlier." (p. 217)
Piagetian Versus Vygotskian
For example, the description provided above of how concepts are restructured within the
ZPD constitutes a form of vertical transfer. That is, scientific concepts restructure and,
consequently, uplift spontaneous ones by transferring to them a systematic framework. It is
important to note, though, that this vertical transfer of structure (in this case from the scientific to
the spontaneous level of thought) is possible only because of the lateral transfer of conscious
awareness and mastery, functions which underlie the child's ability to grasp any formal structure.
(For a more detailed explication/description of the dynamic interplay between spontaneous and
scientific concepts, see Glassman [in press].)
Although Piaget did not write explicitly about vertical transfer, his theory of stage
development does constitute a form of this phenomenon. In contrast with the vertical transfer
found in Vygotsky, though, where structure is transferred from the top down (i.e., from the
scientific to the spontaneous, from the systematic to the unsystematic) in Piaget's theory structure
is transferred from the bottom up (Strauss, 1987). That is to say, in Piaget, knowledge is an
expanding spiral (Elkind, 1976) that can only be constructed from the bottom up through the
individual's spontaneous organization of experience.
To summarize, Vygotsky posits not only the existence of the lateral transfer of conscious
awareness and mastery, but he contends that it constitutes one of education's most important
contributions to children's intellectual development. For Piaget, however, lateral transfer of logic
had not been proved, and it is doubtful that he would have considered the lateral transfer of
conscious awareness and mastery to be as important as did Vygotksy, because he insisted that
consciousness is constrained by domain-general intellectual structures (Piaget, 1976c, 1976d).
By contrast, both would have agreed that spontaneous concepts are involved in a form of vertical
transfer, but they would have differed on the direction of this transfer. For Vygotsky, vertical
transfer occurs through the top down influence of schooled concepts whose systematic
organization gradually enables the restructuring of spontaneous concepts through the active
involvement of the child and the instructor. In Piaget, however, vertical transfer occurs only
from the bottom up; and it is based, not on the appropriation of preexisting structures acquired
through imitation of adult models (as in Vygotsky), but through the invention, via equilibration,
of intellectual structures that must necessarily precede any assimilation of higher level concepts.
Piagetian Versus Vygotskian
The Relationship Between Education and Development
The remaining difference between Piaget and Vygotsky to be considered in this section
concerns the nature of the relationship between education and development. This is a question
that Piaget explicitly treated in the 1960's in the following manner:
The development of knowledge is a spontaneous process, tied to the whole process of
embryogenesis. . . . a process which concerns the totality of the structures of knowledge.
Learning presents the opposite case. In general, learning is provoked by
situations--provoked . . . [for example] by a teacher, with respect to some didactic point. .
. . It is provoked, in general, as opposed to spontaneous. In addition it is a limited
process--limited to a single problem, or to a single structure.
So I think that development explains learning, and this opinion is contrary to the
widely held opinion that development is a sum of discrete learning experiences. . . . In
reality, development is the essential process and each element of learning occurs as a
function of total development, rather than being an element which explains development.
(1966, p. 176, emphasis added)
For Piaget, development explains learning because children cannot really learn something
unless they have already developed the intellectual structures that allow them to assimilate
information presented to them in an instructional situation. As noted earlier, when children are
presented with higher level material, they remain "disdainfully ignorant of everything that
exceeds [their] mental level. . . . [they] reduce [ideas] to [their] own point of view" (1966, pp.
159-160). This does not mean, as Vygotsky mistakenly implied, that Piaget's child is
"impervious" (1987, p. 89) to external (i.e., social) influences; but it does mean that attempts to
advance young children's level of intellectual development by exposing them to high-level
thinking will not lead to cognitive growth. For Piaget, true cognitive development can only be
produced by spontaneous activity.
Whereas Piaget's account of cognition subordinated education to development,
Vygotsky's account subordinated development to education. For Vygotsky, "the most essential
feature of our hypothesis is the notion that developmental processes do not coincide with
learning processes. Rather, the developmental process lags behind the learning process"
(Vygotsky, 1978, p. 90).
Vygotsky takes this position because he views instruction as 1) being a source of, and 2)
giving direction to, development: "It is reasonable to anticipate that research will show that
instruction is a basic source of the development of the child's concepts and an extremely
Piagetian Versus Vygotskian
powerful force in directing this process" (1987, p. 177). Instruction is a source of development
in that, when a teacher helps a child acquire, for example, a scientific concept, this provides the
child with an organized framework, a system through which she may view the world. The child,
however, neither automatically nor accurately adopts this framework; instead, she uses teachersupplied (scientific) concepts and terms in her own unique fashion. Consequently, instruction
must also provide direction to this process in order to ensure that the developmental sequence
produced by the dialectic between the child's spontaneous ideas and society's formal ideas leads
to the appropriate endpoint. And the strategies the teacher uses to guide this process include
explanation, modelling, and collaboration. It is this use of instruction to initiate and guide
development in a particular direction that occurs in the Zone of Proximal Development.
Consequently, for Vygotsky, "development based on instruction is a fundamental fact. . . . The
only instruction which is useful in childhood is that which moves ahead of development" (1987,
pp. 210-211).
When considering these opposing views concerning the relationship between education
and development, though, it is crucial to remember that each theorist focuses on a different set of
objects that develop in ontogenesis: Piaget, focuses on the development of a universal domaingeneral intellectual structure, a structure whose rate, but not direction, of growth is influenced by
educational practice; Vygotsky, however, focuses on the development of a set of quasi-distinct,
domain-specific functions and skills whose rate and direction of growth can vary.
I have considered above Piaget's and Vygotsky's differing positions on the aims of
education, (vertical and lateral) transfer, the curriculum, the teacher/child relationship, the
teaching of higher level concepts, and the relationship between development and education.
Rather than reviewing these differences, though, it will be more useful to complete this section
on their differing perspectives on education by highlighting the factors that underlay and explain
their differences on these issues: namely, the different mechanisms that lead to (what each
considers to be important in) intellectual development, and, consequently, the mechanisms that
need to be addressed in the classroom.
As mentioned above, the primary mechanism of cognitive advance, for Piaget, is
invention, via equilibration, of increasingly valid domain-general structures, structures that are
Piagetian Versus Vygotskian
universal. This position is clearly reflected both in the title of one of his volumes on education,
To understand is to invent (1973), and in his statement that "everything one teaches a child one
prevents him from inventing or discovering" (Bringuier, 1980, p. 102a). Accordingly, from this
perspective, the teacher's job is, neither to model, nor to explain, but to stimulate and support
exploration, invention, and research.
For Vygotsky, however, it is not invention, but imitation, that is at the heart of what
occurs (or should occur) in classrooms; and, accordingly, it is imitation that should be the
principal object of study for educational researchers.
A central feature for the psychological study of instruction is the analysis of the child's
potential to raise himself to a higher intellectual level of development through
collaboration, to move from what he has to what he does not have though imitation. This
is the significance of instruction for development. It is also the content of the concept of
proximal development. Understood in a broad sense, imitation is the source of
instruction's influence on development. (1987, pp. 210-211, emphasis added)
It is crucial to note, however, that this does not mean that the child is capable of "automatic
copying" (p. 210)--a view, characteristic of empiricist accounts of intellectual development, that
is thoroughly rejected by Vygotsky (and by Piaget [1971b]); nor does it mean that the child plays
a passive role in acquiring, through imitation, the social tools of higher thought. What it does
mean, though, is that Vygotsky saw the child as capable of "meaningful imitation" (p. 210). That
is, it is because the child can mindfully appropriate and use for her own purposes higher
functions and systems, via socially guided imitation in the zone of proximal development, that
imitation can lead to intellectual advance. And it is the reliance on imitation, as opposed to
invention, which accounts for the differing educational perspectives that have been reviewed in
this section.
In noting their reliance on different mechanisms, though, we run, once again, into the
difficulty of comparing aspects of theories designed to address different problems (Glick, 1983).
Although it is true that Piaget and Vygotsky rely on different mechanisms to account for the
transformation of intellectual structures in cognitive development, these mechanisms don't
produce the same product. Is it possible, then, given the same educational goal to realize, that
their approaches might prove to be similar? The best way to address this question is to consider
how they might realize the same goal. Since Vygotsky and Piaget both agree that a legitimate
Piagetian Versus Vygotskian
goal of education is the formation of mind, I shall, therefore, consider how, from each
perspective, instruction might promote the formation of critical thought in children.
For Piaget, the way to meet this goal is to facilitate the child's invention of intellectual
structures, of a logic that will allow her to think critically. Creation of such structures occurs
most readily in classrooms where free flowing discussion is encouraged both between instructors
and students, but especially between peers. "Criticism is born of discussion, and discussion is
only possible among equals." (Piaget, 1965 in Tudge & Winterhoff, 1993, p. 69).
From a Vygotskian perspective, promoting a critical attitude also starts with having a
classroom where there is much criticism and discussion. In his case, though, a critical stance is
not invented; instead, it is acquired from the models and structures present in the classroom.
This is evident in Brown and Campione's explication of the ZPD as a process where "the
supportive other acts as the model, critic, and interrogator, leading the child to use more
powerful strategies and to apply them more widely. In time, the interrogative, critical role is
adopted by the child, who becomes able to fulfill some of these functions for herself via selfregulation and self-interrogation" (1984, p. 145). Accordingly, from his perspective, there is a
more formative role for the teacher to play, and, correspondingly, less faith that unguided peer
interaction will lead to the desired endpoint.
In brief, then, given the aim of the formation of critical thought, Piaget and Vygotsky
would use related, yet distinct, strategies to achieve this end. They would concur that, to
promote critical thinking, criticism and discussion should permeate the classroom. Yet, they tell
a different story of how such an atmosphere influences the child. For Piaget, the teacher fosters a
critical environment in order to enable the child "to construct for [her]self the [domain-general]
tools that will transform [her] from the inside" (104, p. 121, emphasis added). For Vygotsky,
however, the teacher fosters a critical environment in order to enable the child to appropriate
from the outside the tools that, once internalized, will then transform her from the inside. And, it
is because they have different accounts of the origin of the structures that transform the child's
mind, that they have different conceptions of the teacher/child relationship, the curriculum, the
teaching of higher level concepts, transfer, and, ultimately, the relationship between education
and development.
Piagetian Versus Vygotskian
Although the points covered in this paper do not constitute an exhaustive exposition of
the differences which separate Piaget and Vygotsky, they clearly show that their differences are
substantial and substantive. They disagree on a number of issues which are fundamental to any
account of intellectual development: namely, the nature of human intelligence, the role of
mediational tools (especially language), the mechanisms of change in development, and the
influence of social factors. They also differ on a number of fundamental educational issues:
namely the aims of education, the teacher-child relationship, the curriculum, transfer, and the
relationship between education and development. These contrasts stem, in large part, from the
distinctly different problems they sought to investigate in their work. Before returning to the
question posed at her beginning of the paper, i.e. whether their answers to their respective
problems may be integrated, I shall first consider a problem common to both approaches when
applied to education.
Piaget and Vygotsky are similar in that they both produced theories that present
challenges to anyone attempting to apply them to the classroom. To begin with, Piaget did not
make many explicit recommendations for educators; and the few recommendations he did make
were of a general nature (DeVries & Kohlberg, 1988). This absence of educational prescriptions
stems from the fact that he viewed himself "as a biologically oriented epistemologist first, a
psychologist second, and an educator not at all" (Elkind & Flavell, 1969, p. xviii). Since his
research focused on the development of knowledge in general, he had a limited foundation on
which to base any educational recommendations. "Educational applications of Piaget's
experimental procedures and theoretical principles will have to be very indirect--and he himself
has given hardly any indication of how one would go about it" (Sinclair, 1971, cited in DeVries
& Kohlberg, 1988, p. 40)
Although education was peripheral to Piaget's interests, it was central to Vygotsky's. He
contended that school is where children acquire so many of the uniquely human functions, sign
systems, and concepts that characterize higher intellectual functioning. This is why Bruner has
characterized Vygotsky's theory as, among other things, "a theory of education" (1987, p. 1).
Nevertheless, despite the centrality of education to Vygotsky's writings, there are serious
Piagetian Versus Vygotskian
problems with his work, problems which stem primarily from his imprecision (Elkonin, 1966).
Unfortunately, many of the core constructs of his theory were inadequately articulated. Wertsch
and Tulviste (1992), for example, have noted how culture, a key part of his theory (Kozulin,
1991), is poorly rendered. More importantly for the current discussion, though, even his most
famous educational construct, the Zone of Proximal Development, was also poorly defined
(Wertsch, 1984).
What is ironic about this state of affairs is that these theories which are among the
strongest influences on contemporary conceptions of young children's intellectual development,
and, consequently, on contemporary educational psychology, are both limited with regards to
their specific implications for education. On the one hand, Piaget's work is limited because of its
specific range of application. The research he pursued only permits comments of a general
nature to be made about the educational process. On the other hand, Vygotsky's work is limited
because of its imprecision. Although his theory does allow--indeed calls out for--educational
recommendations, those that he made himself are sketchy and need to be fleshed out.
Consequently, Vygotsky and Piaget are alike in that they both left much work for their
educational followers to refine and extend.
Nevertheless, even if the followers of Vygotsky and Piaget succeed in articulating
expanded and coherent educational applications of these two approaches, they will be hard
pressed to overcome the larger limitations that are inherent in the respective problems which
these two researchers initially sought to address, limitations that restrict their implications both
for education and for intellectual development. As noted earlier, Piaget set out to explain the
creation of new knowledge, and Vygotsky set out to explain the transmission (and acquisition) of
uniquely human forms of knowledge. The difficulty with building a theory on the answers to
either one of these particular problems, though, is that neither set of answers is likely to provide
a complete account of either intellectual development (Glick, 1983) or of education. Piaget
provides a theory of individual invention, but not of cultural transmission. Vygotsky provides an
account of cultural transmission, but not of individual invention. Yet, if we want, as Dewey did,
to have a theory "provide for both cultural renewal and cultural transmission" (Archambault,
1974, p. xxvii), then we need an approach that can explain invention and transmission.
Since, as Goodnow has noted, this need is apparently shared by most researchers and
Piagetian Versus Vygotskian
theorists--"no one finds it satisfactory to attribute development to either 'discovery' or
'transmission'" (1993, p. 376)--the question returns to how may we use the important insights of
both Piaget and Vygotsky to build a richer and more complete account of both development and
education. That is, we return to the question of the extent to which their theories may be
integrated. A number of affirmative responses to this question are considered below.
The most ambitious approach is that of Feldman (1980, 1988) who has proposed a theory
that includes developmental sequences that range from the universal to the unique. This approach
honors both the Vygotskian and the Piagetian perspectives by 1) acknowledging the universal
and the non-universal aspects of intellectual development and 2) attempting to explain the
relationship between invention and transmission along a spectrum of developmental sequences.
(Tulviste [1991] has proposed an approach that is similar to Feldman's inasmuch as he advocates
the study of activities that are both universal and culturally specific; it is dissimilar, though, in
that he eschews the Piagetian perspective and tackles these questions exclusively from a
Vygotskian viewpoint.)
Consonant with Feldman's approach are attempts to integrate Vygotskian and Piagetian
insights, not within a larger theory, but within a particular developmental sequence or domain.
Strauss, for example, who has relatedly advocated the establishment of a "middle-level of
educational-developmental psychology that allows investigators to have their work informed by
developmental psychology and, at the same time, to have their research impact upon education
theory and practice" (1987, p. 133), has pursued this strategy in science education (Strauss, 1987,
1991), as have others in both mathematics (Saxe, 1991), and play (Nicolopoulou, 1993). In
addition, Case has argued that a number of explicitly neo-Piagetian theorists, e.g., Case (1992a),
Fischer (1980), and Pascual-Leone (1988), have produced accounts that could "ultimately
become more congruent with, and perhaps even make some contribution to, sociohistoric theory"
(1992b, p. 95). (It should be noted, though, that Karmiloff-Smith has vigorously argued that
many "neo-Piagetian" accounts are not Piagetian, that they "retain none of the core features of
Piaget's theory" [1993, p. 3].)
Finally, there are also researchers who approach the integration problem, less from an
integrative, and more from an eclectic perspective: specifically, they have appreciated the
distinct contributions of Piaget and Vygotsky, but without explicitly placing these contributions
Piagetian Versus Vygotskian
within a single theory. These writers (Damon, 1984; Damon & Phelps, 1989: Forman & Kraker,
1985; Tudge & Rogoff, 1989; Tudge & Winterhoff, 1993) have all pointed out the valuable
contributions that Piaget and Vygotsky have made to our understanding of both development and
education, but they do not attempt to fully integrate these perspectives.
An alternate approach to the question at hand, of course, is not to attempt any integration
at all. This strategy is advocated by a number of writers who have largely dismissed the
possibility of a substantive synthesis of Piaget's and Vygotsky's theories (Bakhurst, Cole,
Middleton & Nicolopoulou, 1988; DeVries & Zan, 1992; Downs & Liben, 1993; Forman, 1993;
Wertsch, 1985; Wozniak, 1987). Rather than reviewing each of their arguments, though, I shall
outline below the two principal issues that should prove to be the most challenging to reconcile.
First, there is the question of the relationship between universal and non-universal
sequences of development (Downs & Liben, 1993). Although Vygotsky and Piaget would both
have agreed that there are universal and non-universal sequences of development, they would not
have agreed on the relative importance of these sequences. For Piaget, it is the development of a
universal (domain-general) tool of intelligence that both enables and constrains the development
of non-universal (domain-specific) tools of intelligence. For Vygotsky, however, the products of
universal development, alone, should not be given primary credit for realization of the highest
forms of human thought. For him, it is the products of non-universal development (i.e.,
culturally specific systems and structures) that allow thought to achieve its highest levels. In
particular, though, it is because, according to Vygotsky, thought can be mediated, and,
ultimately, elevated through (culturally developed) techniques, that non-universal development is
important. Therefore, it is the issue of mediation which constitutes the second major point of
contention between these two thinkers (Wozniak, 1986). Piaget does not credit mediation with
the capacity to qualitatively influence thought, whereas Vygotsky does; and this issue is
intimately related to their differing emphases on the development of universal versus nonuniversal structures.
The extent to which Piaget and Vygotsky may, or may not, be integrated will depend
largely on the extent to which these two overlapping issues may be reconciled. This is a matter
for debate. Although it is not presently clear how these questions will be resolved, it is clear that
both developmental and educational psychology need a theory that can deal with universal and
Piagetian Versus Vygotskian
non-universal development, with transmission and invention. To develop such a theory,
however, we need to understand that Piaget and Vygotsky have valuable insights to offer each
other. Accordingly, informed debate between the two camps should promote the development, if
not of the integration, of enriched and broadened extensions of these two monumentally
important perspectives.
Piagetian Versus Vygotskian
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