Plaget and Vygotsky Research Paper

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Jean William Fritz Piaget (1896-1980) and Lev Semyonovich Vygotsky (1896-1934) are two giants in psychology and education whose theories of men-development are highly influential. Each pursued research and sought to explain mental development in a way that was more satisfactory than the nondevelopmental associationist or subjectivist theories that held sway earlier. Here, the reader will find highlights of personal histories, a discussion of theoretical similarities and differences, and a comparison of how these theories are currently reflected in American educational practices.

Personal Histories

The personal histories of Vygotsky and Piaget provide clues to the sources of their ideas—the contexts in which their minds developed. Although contemporaries, Piaget and Vygotsky never met. They did, however, read and comment on each other’s early work. It is obvious that Piaget’s long life of 84 years gave him the opportunity to develop his research and theory much further than could Vygotsky in his short life span that was tragically ended by tuberculosis at the age of 37. Followers of Vygotsky agree that what we have are actually fragments of an unfinished work.


Vygotsky was born in 1896 to educated parents. His father was a bank official, a socially active citizen who initiated the founding of an excellent public library where young Lev read voraciously. Vygotsky grew up as the Russian Empire was breaking down. He was not sent to school but was tutored by a student who had returned from Siberia where he was sent for revolutionary activities. Later Vygotsky entered a private classical school where he was well-liked and started a school debating society, taking a leadership role in discussions of problems of literature, history, art, and philosophy.

At the age of 17, Vygotsky had a gold medal for academic achievement but nevertheless had to fight for entry into the Imperial University of Moscow because czarist rules allotted only 3% of student places to Jews. Vygotsky studied law at this university but also studied at the unofficial people’s university, Shanyavsky University, which was not regulated by the government and had complete autonomy in academic affairs. Privately funded Shanyavsky was open to women as well as men and to all, regardless of nationality, religion, or political views. Here Vygotsky could hear liberal, democratically minded scientists who enjoyed the opportunity to lecture without censorship. This account of Vygotsky’s story is based largely on Michail Yaroshevsky’s (1989) biography.

Vygotsky’s interests were primarily in literature, theatre, and art, especially philosophical analysis of art and art criticism. According to Yaroshevsky, Vygotsky’s biographer, constant reading of Shakespeare’s Hamlet during his university years was the means for confronting existential concerns and gaining insights into his inner self. Poetry (particularly Pushkin’s tragic poems) and Shakespeare’s Hamlet appealed to his psychological interest in the individual and his fate. In 1917, the year of a revolution that shook Russia, Vygotsky received his law degree.

The following years were turbulent: Germany incorporated Gomel in its territory, his brother contracted tuberculosis, Vygotsky undertook a dangerous trip with his mother and brother to the Crimea to obtain treatment for his brother, and they became stranded in Kiev for months by the civil war. By the time they returned, Gomel was peaceful and Soviet power was restored. At this point, Vygotsky consciously began work to contribute to the building of a new culture. He taught literature at the first “labour school” established after the occupation. Later, he taught history of the arts, psychology, and philosophy and also gave lectures to various groups.

One of Vygotsky’s main activities during his 5 years in Gomel was teaching pedagogical psychology at several educational institutions. He created a psychological laboratory at Gomel Teacher’s College for the evaluation of children. As he worked to establish a new school and new culture, he began to view the teacher’s role from the perspective of creating the conditions for changing the child’s psyche.

While he was in Gomel, Vygotsky wrote a manuscript on understanding language in which he wrote that thought is impossible without the word but is not identical to it. This led him to studies of the relationship between the nonobservable act of thought and the word as a phenomenon of culture that is observable.

Vygotsky’s studies in psychology led to a significant change in his thinking. In Russia experimental research was showing that behavior could be modified by external stimuli. This evidence of control over physiological responses by external stimuli led Soviet scholars to the principle of socially conditioned consciousness and behavior. In the early 1930s, Vygotsky developed a new model of the development of all “higher functions” that he expressed as “stimuli—the cultural sign as a psychological tool (leading to) the behavioral reaction” (in Yaroshevsky, 1989, p. 241).

Upon hearing Vygotsky make an outstanding presentation at an important national conference on psychology, the director of the Psychological Institute in Moscow offered Vygotsky a position. Vygotsky and his wife Roza moved to Moscow where they had a daughter. Vygotsky began working at the People’s Commissariat for Public Education with blind and deaf children. Rejecting the old views of “abnormal” children, Vygotsky talked about positive characteristics of such children. He talked about the compensations children made for their deficiencies as “tools” and developed a theory of the mechanisms by which such individuals organize their minds.

At the same time, Vygotsky was studying how schoolage children use speech and language to form mental tools that he posited as leading to the development of thought. He is best known for his research and theory concerning the development of and relationship between thought and speech. Vygotsky’s theory is referred to as a sociocultural, cultural-historical, or social-historical theory. His idea was that learning (of language and other cultural tools) leads to development, in contrast to Piaget’s notion that development makes learning possible.

Vygotsky was influenced by Charles Darwin’s evolutionary theory and Ivan Pavlov’s research showing that physiological and behavioral characteristics could be changed as a result of environmental challenges. Pavlov’s demonstration of conditioned reflexes (for example, that a dog’s natural salivation in the presence of food could be modified to become salivation at the sound of a bell) and his stimulus-response theory had a profound impact on Vygotsky’s work, but Vygotsky modified this theory by inserting an “inner space” between the stimulus and the response. The influence of Marxian theory that humans are inherently social can be seen in Vygotsky’s particular concern with showing the influence of culture and history of culture on phylogenetic and ontogenetic development.

Vygotsky is reported to have authored 120 publications, of which many are now available in English. The Collected Works of L.S. Vygotsky consists of six volumes. Vygotsky’s work was suppressed during part of the 1930s in Russia but circulated underground and was continued by his colleagues and students. Further elaboration of Vygotsky’s theory is presented in the course of comparing his theory with that of Piaget, in a later section.


Piaget was born in Switzerland where his father was a professor of medieval literature. He was the oldest of three, having two sisters. In his autobiography, Piaget (1976) notes that his father had a scrupulous and critical mind and that his father taught him the value of systematic work. He said his mother was very intelligent, energetic, and good hearted, but that her rather neurotic temperament made family life difficult. He felt that a direct consequence of this situation was his early neglect of play for serious work—not so much to imitate his father as “to take refuge in a world that was personal but not imaginary” (p. 2). He always detested any flight from reality, an attitude he attributed to his mother’s instability. For a while early in his career his interest in psychology was focused on problems of psychoanalysis and pathology, but in his lifework he preferred the study of normal cases and intellectual functioning to that of the “mischievous unconscious” (p. 2). This account of Piaget’s work is based on his (Piaget, 1976) autobiography and Ducret’s (1990) biography.

Piaget received all his schooling in Neuchatel. From the age of 7 to 10 years, he was interested in birds, fossils, and seashells. According to Jean-Jacques Ducret (1990), Piaget’s biographer, young Jean developed the habit of writing at a young age, perhaps because of observing his father work. Piaget (1976) recounts that at the age of 10 or 11 years, he sent a one-page article on albino sparrows he had seen in a public park to The Journal of Natural History of Neuchatel. It was published, and his career was launched! At that point young Piaget wrote to the director of the Museum of Natural History, asking permission to study its collections of birds, fossils, and shells after museum hours. Director Godet invited the enthusiastic child to help him organize and label collections of shells. In exchange, Godet each week gave Piaget rare specimens for his own collection and offered advice on the shells and fossils Piaget gathered on long walks in Swiss romande and in Brittany (on summer vacations near his maternal grandmother). Most important, Godet inspired Piaget’s lifelong interest and research on mollusks. When Mr. Godet died in 1911, Piaget at the age of 15 was knowledgeable enough to publish a series of articles on his own about mollusks. He recounted amusing experiences as a result of his publications. For example, colleagues he did not know wanted to see him, but as he was just a schoolboy, Piaget said he did not dare meet them. He was even offered the position of conservator of the mollusk collection at the Museum of Natural History in Geneva. Piaget responded that he still had 2 years of secondary school and could therefore not accept! In his autobiography, Piaget commented that these experiences were very important in his scientific formation and allowed him to catch a glimpse of what science represents before a series of religious and philosophical crises in adolescence absorbed all his time. Briefly, these crises related to the 6 weeks of Christian instruction insisted upon by his mother, a book on religious agnosticism philosophy discovered in his father’s library, and his godfather’s (Samuel Cornut, a Swiss scholar) recounting of Bergson’s philosophy on long walks in the countryside. Piaget (1976) related that he experienced an emotional shock when he heard about Bergson’s idea of the identification of God with life itself. Piaget was ecstatic because this allowed him to see in biology the explanation of everything and of the mind itself. The problem of knowledge suddenly presented an entirely new perspective and became a fascinating subject. Then he read Bergson and was disappointed because he felt that Bergson’s ingenious argument unraveled at the end without any experimental evidence to support the philosophical ideas.

During this period in secondary school Piaget decided to devote his life to the biological explanation of knowledge. In fact, he realized this goal with his research-based theory of intelligence and knowledge. In 1936 he published Origins of Intelligence in the Child that described microanalytically how intelligence evolves from origins in organic reflexes of the baby at birth, and in 1937 he used the same data to discuss the evolution of knowledge of various aspects of reality such as space, time, causality, and so on. Thirty years later Piaget (1967) again addressed the issue of a biologically based theory of knowledge. Piaget’s interest in biology continued throughout his life, and he conducted many experiments with mollusks. Piaget found clues to human adaptation in his research on mollusks’ and sedum’s adaptations to various environments.

Ducret (1990) notes that even though Piaget’s narrow interests in biology gave way to epistemological and psychological research, the heart of this work never ceased to rest on the notion of biological organization and its laws.

By the time Piaget received his baccalaureate from secondary school in 1915, his health was affected by work on his mollusk studies; reading everything he could find and filling many notebooks on philosophy, sociology, and psychology; and preparing for his baccalaureate examinations. He was sent to recover in the mountains. There he filled his free time by writing a philosophical novel in which he expressed ideas that exactly prefigured the theory he would work out through later scientific research.

Piaget formally entered the University of Neuchatel while in the mountains, and shortly after returning he received his license in natural sciences, then his doctorate in 1918, also in natural sciences, with a dissertation on the mollusks of Valais.

After his doctorate, Piaget became a traveling scholar. He spent a year in two psychological laboratories in Zurich and in Bleuler’s psychiatric clinic, and two years in Paris, studying abnormal psychology, logic, and philosophy of science at the Sorbonne (University of Paris). Brunschvieg’s historico-critical method and his appeal to psychology for explanations had a great influence on Piaget’s thinking. When Piaget undertook a job in Paris that involved interviewing schoolchildren, he had his first encounter with their unique reasoning.

Piaget moved to Geneva in 1921 to become Head of Research at the Jean-Jacques Rousseau Institute and to teach a course on child psychology in the Faculty of Sciences at the University of Geneva. Piaget married Valentine Chatenay in 1923 with whom he had three children, two girls and a boy. He spent 4 years continuing his research in Geneva and teaching courses on psychology, philosophy of sciences, and sociology in Neuchatel. In 1929 he became professor of the History of Scientific Thought in the Faculty of Sciences at the University of Geneva. The same year he became Director of the International Bureau of Education (located next door to the Rousseau Institute), a position he held until 1939. In 1932 Piaget became co-director, with Bovet and Claparede, of the Institute. He taught experimental psychology and sociology in Lausanne, and from 1939 to 1952 he was Chair of Sociology at the University of Geneva. He was appointed at the Sorbonne in 1952 where he gave a course on Intelligence and Affectivity, which was published in 1980.

Piaget remained in Geneva for most of his life. From 1907, the date of his first publication, he published 80 books that were translated into many languages and disseminated all over the world. It is fortunate for many that Piaget had “to write in order to think” as he noted in his autobiography (1976). He worked until the age of 84 to bring research evidence to the problem of how knowledge develops. He invented the field of genetic epistemology, a new branch of philosophy requiring scientific evidence for its assertions.

Piaget focused on the integration of biological, cognitive, and social aspects of mind. He studied how children adapt intellectually and morally to social and object worlds, recognizing that adaptation to the object world (referring to phenomena related to physics and chemistry) is the same in all social contexts. In all social environments babies’ encounters with animate and inanimate objects and their own bodies pose problems that motivate efforts toward understanding. Like Vygotsky, Piaget said that children’s environments may differ in social and physical characteristics that portend well or less well for their learning and development.

Comparison of Piaget and Vygotsky on Some Theoretical Points

Similarities listed here are similarities only up to a point. Scratching beneath the surface of similar ideas of Vygotsky and Piaget often reveals differences.

Development Is Characterized by Qualitative Changes

Changes in quality of thought refer to its nature or structure, not its quantity. Both Vygotsky and Piaget saw development as characterized by qualitative changes. Both rejected nondevelopmental theories then current such as Gestalt and associationist psychology. Both fought against an idea of quantitative change—accumulation of bits of information. Despite this similarity in their forward thinking, Vygotsky and Piaget focused on different aspects of development.

Vygotsky’s theory focused on qualitative changes in a child’s cultural development. He and his colleagues utilized phylogenetic and ontogenetic data to identify “genetic roots of thinking and speech” (Vygotsky, 1934/1987). Vygotsky also examined cultural and social-historical influences on qualitative changes in development of humans. For example, he compared the thought of primitive humans with that of children and found similarities such as belief in magic. Vygotsky (1930/1993) wrote about an “evolution of forms of behavior” (p. 37) through stages. He drew a phylogenetic picture of qualitative development of ways of gaining control over the environment—from the ape’s tools to the use of psychological signs in primitive humans to higher mental functions in modern humans. The first stage is instinctual—innate behaviors just after birth such as moving hands and legs, crying, sucking the breast, and swallowing milk. None of these behaviors is learned but are “useful adaptations to the environment” (Vygotsky, 1930/1993, p. 41). The second stage consists of conditional reflexes as a result of training or learning, and the third is the intellect that results from blocking of instinctual or conditional reflexes.

Piaget’s account of qualitative stages begins with a microanalytic study of how infants from birth adapt to the world of objects in space and time. Unlike Vygotsky, he saw this period not of mere instincts but of innate reflexes that babies differentiate and organize into systems of mental relationships. Piaget saw a broad qualitative change at about 2 years of age with beginning symbolic development, not just language but also gesture and especially imitation and pretense. Piaget found a qualitative change in 4-year-olds who can make a line of eight tokens in correspondence to an existing line of eight yet nevertheless believe that when one line is lengthened, the longer row has more tokens. Piaget called this the stage of preoperational reasoning. By 7 or 8 years, at the stage of concrete operations, most children understand that number is independent of length or space occupied. The stage of formal operations occurs in adolescence for those able to think about hypotheses and make scientific deductions. Piaget’s new genetic epistemology, which sought to explain stage changes, was rooted in biology. He sought scientific evidence to answer philosophical questions—the fundamental, overarching question being how new knowledge develops.

Social Factors Play an Important Role in Development

The most important similarity has usually been considered a great difference between these theorists. Many otherwise educated professionals say they need Piaget for intellectual development and Vygotsky for social development. But Piaget and Vygotsky are equally insistent on the important role of social factors in child development.

As noted by Moll and Whitmore (1993), Vygotsky “viewed thinking not as a characteristic of the child only, but of the child-in-social-activities with others” (p. 19). With regard to social factors, Vygotsky was concerned with cultural influences on development. He studied how children learn cultural tools in school.

Piaget is often misunderstood as viewing the child as a lonely scientist apart from the social context (for example, Bruner, 1985). This misconception may have arisen because Piaget did, in fact, tell a story recounted to him by a mathematician friend who as a child one day was fascinated by the fact that when he counted stones arranged in many different ways, he always counted 10. Piaget used this as an example of a child discovering the principle of order, one aspect of understanding number. But this little story certainly neither implies that all children experience such a conscious precocious moment nor represents the whole of Piaget’s thought on how children come to acquire knowledge.

The misunderstanding of Piaget’s position on the role of social factors in development derives from an incomplete reading of Piaget’s work. When some people hear only of his effort to understand the origins of intelligence and knowledge in his own three children (Piaget, 1936/1950; 1937/1952), they conclude that his theory was based on only three children! Piaget’s research with many collaborators included thousands of children. Some get an incorrect impression from knowing that his research utilized a research methodology of interviewing individual children to learn how they thought in domains such as substance, space, time, chance, and so forth. In fact, Piaget’s early research focused on the role of social factors in development (in a number of articles and three books: in 1923, Language and Thought of the Child; in 1924, Judgment and Reasoning of the Child; and in 1932, The Moral Judgment of the Child). In virtually all of his publications on how knowledge or intelligence develops, Piaget referred at some point to the role of social factors in child development; he clearly recognized the importance of social factors.

In assessing the role of social factors in Piaget’s theory, it is important to distinguish between his statements as an epistemologist and his statements as a psychologist. The main goal of his research was epistemological—to explain how knowledge develops, not how the individual child develops. When Piaget spoke as an epistemologist, he focused on general and universal—not individual—changes in knowledge or intelligence. When Piaget did talk about individual child development, he always talked about social factors. For example, Piaget (1964) discussed four factors in development, one of which is social transmission—although he believed this factor to be insufficient to account for the acquisition of knowledge. In addition to the books mentioned above, Piaget also talked about social factors in individual child development in his two books on education in 1949 and 1965.

Piaget (1932/1965) distinguished between heteronomous morality that is based on obedience to authority and autonomous morality that is based on self-constructed, personal convictions about what is right and good. These two types of morality correspond to two types of adult-child relationships.

A heteronomous relationship is coercive and supports a morality based on obedience to authority. When governed continually by the values, beliefs, and ideas of others, the child practices a submission that can lead to mindless conformity in both moral and intellectual spheres. Piaget argued that coercion socializes only the surface of behavior and actually reinforces the child’s tendency to rely on purely external regulation.

Piaget contrasts the heteronomous adult-child relationship with a second type that is characterized by mutual respect and cooperation. The adult returns the child’s respect by giving him or her the possibility to regulate behavior voluntarily. In so doing, the adult helps the child to construct a mind capable of thinking independently and creatively and to develop moral feelings of reciprocity. Obviously, children and adults are not equals. But when the adult is able to respect the child as a person with a right to exercise his or her will, one can speak about a certain psychological equality in the relationship. These ideas lead Piagetian constructivist educators to the view that teachers should minimize the exercise of unnecessary authority to the extent practical. This philosophy is in contrast with the view of Vygotskians that ideal adult-child relationships are unequal.

The Function of Thought Is to Adapt to the World

Both theorists expressed this idea, but they differed in their conceptions of the “world” to which the child is adapting, how thought functions, and the nature of adaptation.

Vygotsky focused on the social-cultural world to which the child must adapt. He viewed thought as functioning with language and saw the nature of individual adaptation as an interpersonal process through acculturation that results eventually in thinking. Perhaps his best-known quote is that “every function in the child’s cultural development appears twice: first, on the social level and, later, on the individual level. . . . All the higher functions originate as actual relations between human individuals” (Vygotsky, 1935/1978, p. 57).

Piaget saw the world to which the child must adapt as both social and physical. He viewed thought as functioning through a fundamental process of the mind’s assimilating (mentally acting to recognize an aspect of experience already known or constructed) and accommodating (mentally acting by modifying content and structure of thought as a result of a contradiction to expectation in an aspect of experience) and saw the nature of adaptation as this process of assimilating and accommodating. In a posthumous work, Piaget (Piaget & Garcia, 1987/1991) understood meaning to be the essence of assimilating and accommodating.

Egocentrism Is a Characteristic of Children

Both Piaget and Vygotsky described the same phenomenon of egocentric speech in young children. This type of speech is not adapted to a listener but is for the child himself or herself. That is, it does not take account of another’s perspective; it is not socialized speech. Piaget’s 1923 book Language and Thought of the Child was widely read and translated. Vygotsky wrote an introduction to the Russian translation of this book that is critical of Piaget’s early work. Vygotsky’s criticism comprises a chapter in his 1934 book Thought and Language, later more accurately translated as Thinking and Speech, which appeared in a volume of collected works in 1987. Piaget responded to Vygotsky’s criticisms in an introduction to the 1962 English translation of Vygotsky’s 1934 book. The idea of egocentrism is the only point on which each commented on the other’s work. Piaget wrote that Vygotsky misunderstood his point that egocentric speech is only one form of egocentric thought.

It is important to note that Piaget agreed with many of Vygotsky’s criticisms (although he admitted he would not have been in so much agreement in 1934). Piaget clarified that he meant by “egocentrism” (better termed “centrism”) an unconscious cognitive and emotional centering on one’s own point of view—an inability to “decenter” or shift perspective. For him, egocentric speech was just one manifestation of an inability to decenter that Piaget’s later research showed to be expressed in every domain of thought he studied. In all domains, according to Piaget, an individual must decenter in order to progress cognitively, morally, socially, and emotionally—intrapsychically and interpersonally. Piaget saw the mental operations necessary for logical thought as the same mental operations necessary for mental cooperation in interpersonal relationships.

This view is a very different interpretation of the facts of egocentric speech from that of Vygotsky who saw egocentric speech as the point of departure for inner speech. According to Yaroshevsky (1989), Vygotsky argued that “the meaning of the word is the primary unit of consciousness” (p. 297). This meaning comes from the culture and all its history of social relations and is meant to convey the idea that the individual’s inner world is rooted in “something external, social, cultural, and historical” (p. 297).

Progress in Thought Occurs When an Individual Encounters a Difficulty or Obstacle

Briefly, for Piaget, the source of progress is disequilibrium (when an individual consciously realizes that what he or she thought is contradicted by experience). Only when disequilibrium occurs can the individual begin to figure out a more adequate understanding through a process of equilibration. Equilibration includes moments of uncertainty or disequilibrium, an intellectual as well as emotional experience. The emotional aspect may be feelings of puzzlement, frustration, surprise, and so forth. The discomfort of disequilibrium is the impetus for seeking solutions. The result of trying out an erroneous idea informs the child’s next effort. Such error-informed experimentation describes an equilibration process. The child attains equilibrium when she or he constructs a more adequate network of mental relationships that enable the child to anticipate and avoid potential problems in trying to do something. Sometimes a child responds to a contradiction to an expectation by not accepting the result and repeating the same action over and over again. In this case, the child does not make new mental relationships until he or she decides to try something new. Sometimes an equilibration (making a new relationship) occurs so quickly that disequilibrium is hardly noticeable.

Reflexes Play an Important Role in Development

For Piaget (1936/1952) the origin of intelligence is in the biological reflexes of the infant at birth. The baby’s first sucking is not precise, but as the infant tries to suck many objects, he or she adapts the sucking to the shape. As the baby finds hunger satisfied or not satisfied with sucking different objects, he or she begins to differentiate these and make the first mental relationships—between objects that satisfy hunger and those that do not.

Vygotsky also attributed an important role to reflexes. He was influenced by his Russian forebear, Ivan Pavlov, whose theory of conditional reflexes was very important to psychologists during the 1920s. Vygotsky used this theory but postulated complex psychological processes (of which speech was of principal importance) between stimulus and response that really contradicted Pavlov’s mechanical theory without being politically incorrect in the environment of Soviet psychology’s emphasis on physiological psychology.

The Relationship Between Learning and Development

Briefly, for Vygotsky, learning leads development, and, for Piaget, development leads learning.

Early Education Based on the Theories of Vygotsky and Piaget

The National Association for the Education of Young Children in its position statement (Bredekamp & Copple, 1997) says that principles of developmentally appropriate practice “are based on several prominent theories that view intellectual development from a constructivist, interactive perspective” (p. 13). From their citations, it is clear that the work of both Piaget and Vygotsky currently influence thought about early education. Convergences in educational thought and practice of Piagetians and Vygotskians testify to the growing consensus in the field about what constitutes high-quality early education.

Convergences in Educational Influences of Piaget and Vygotsky

It may be clarifying to consider eight convergences in educational practices of Piagetian constructivists and some Vygotskian educators.

  1. Children are active. A number of Vygotskian educators do not take up the behaviorist aspects of Vygotsky’s theory, but agree with Piagetians that the child is active in the construction of knowledge.
  2. Rote learning should be avoided. Agreement also exists among Piagetians and some Vygotskians that rote learning is not consistent with their theories of learning.
  3. The whole language approach to literacy is advocated. Followers of both Piaget and Vygotsky claim that the whole language approach to teaching literacy reflects their theories of educational practice.
  4. Collaboration of children in classroom activities is advocated. Followers of both Piaget and Vygotsky also agree on the importance of children’s collaboration.
  5. Establishing community in the classroom is important. Vygotskians such as Moll and Whitmore (1993) talk about the connection of individuals in collective, interrelated zones. Piagetians such as DeVries and Zan (1994) talk about the importance of a “feeling of community” in a classroom. While these conceptions may not be precisely the same, they provide a basis for considering children’s co-constructions.
  6. Curriculum should be based on children’s interests. Both Piagetians and Vygotskians consider the element of interest essential to activities in a model program (Berk & Winsler, 1995; Bodrova & Leong, 2007; DeVries & Zan, 1994; Moll & Whitmore, 1993). These pairs of curriculum developers recommend that teachers consult children about what they want to study and view children’s interests as crucial to successful individual construction of knowledge. They concur that the curriculum is an emergent process.
  7. External rewards should not be used with children. DeVries and Zan (1994) and Berk and Winsler (1995) agree on this point, but Bodrova and Leong (2007) do not agree.
  8. Pretend play is an important part of the curriculum. Followers of both Vygotsky and Piaget advocate organizing a center in the classroom to promote pretend play.

Constructivist Early Education

Constructivist education takes its name from Piaget’s research showing that children actively create—construct— new knowledge from their experiences that goes beyond what they already know. The following main ideas from Piaget’s research and theory are relevant to education:

  • Children construct knowledge.
  • Interest is necessary for the constructive process to begin and continue.
  • Experimentation with physical phenomena is essential to the constructive process.
  • Cooperation characterizes the interpersonal atmosphere in which the constructive process thrives.

A challenge for constructivist teachers is to identify content that intrigues children and arouses in them a need and desire to figure something out. Cooperation, according to Piaget, refers to the type of social context necessary for optimal development of intelligence or knowledge, and of emotional, social, and moral aspects of personality. By “cooperation,” Piaget did not mean submissive compliance. For Piaget, cooperation is an essential characteristic of active education that respects the ways in which children think and the ways they transform their thinking by making new mental relationships. Mutual respect creates the basic dynamic in which individuals want and try to cooperate—that is, to operate in terms of one another’s desires and ideas.

Each classroom and school has a sociomoral atmosphere. This is made up of the entire network of interpersonal relationships among children and between adults and children. In this atmosphere, children feel safe, securely attached to the teacher, and free to be mentally active. According to DeVries and Zan (1994), the first principle of constructivist education is that the teacher must establish a cooperative sociomoral atmosphere in which mutual respect is continually practiced.

A constructivist teacher tries to help children put aside their usual view of adults by relating to children as a companion or guide. Constructivist teachers express respect for children in a variety of ways: (a) having class meetings to discuss and evaluate how their classroom is and how they want it to be, (b) allowing children to make selected decisions about classroom procedures and curriculum, (c) encouraging children to discuss and make rules they feel are necessary to prevent or solve problems, (d) conducting social and moral discussions about interpersonal problems in children’s literature and problems arising in the classroom, and (e) engaging children in conflict resolution with the goal of children learning to take account of another’s point of view and resolve their own conflicts. These activities are defined and discussed in Moral Classrooms, Moral Children (DeVries & Zan, 1994).

Cooperating with children means that the constructivist teacher refrains from unnecessarily controlling children. Many people misunderstand this principle as permissiveness—that is, allowing children to do anything. The constructivist teacher is not permissive. Sometimes, of course, external control is necessary. When the teacher has to exercise external control, its negative effects can be minimized by empathizing with the child’s feelings, explaining why the child must comply, and being firm but not mean. The goal of the constructivist teacher is to minimize external control to the extent possible and practical and to promote the child’s internal control. In other words, teachers help children help themselves.

The constructivist classroom context embodies the characteristics of respect mentioned above. Teachers respect children’s interests by giving children choices during activity time among such activities as pretend play, reading books, painting, listening to and acting out stories, playing musical instruments, and water, sand, and block building or woodworking. Constructivist activities added to this traditional curriculum in early education include physical knowledge activities (Kamii & DeVries, 1978/1993; DeVries, Zan, Hildebrandt, Edmiaston, & Sales, 2002) and group games (Kamii & DeVries, 1980; DeVries, et al., 2002). In physical knowledge activities, children engage with physical phenomena involving movement (physics) or changes (chemistry) in objects. They also engage in group games that require cooperation, even for competitive games. In all these activities, teachers plan, intervene, and evaluate in terms of mental relationships children have the possibility to make. For example, in a physical knowledge activity involving making marble pathways with lengths of wood having a groove down the middle, children can make the mental relationship between height of support (a block or box) and speed of marble or distance marble travels off the end of an incline. In a game of tag, children have the possibility to make the reciprocal relationship between chaser and one who is chased—between the intention to tag and the intention to avoid being tagged. All children’s activities are thus evaluated in terms of what mental relationships children are making, including those that are social, emotional, and moral as well as intellectual.

Vygotskian Early Education

Vygotskian educators draw particularly on the idea of the zone of proximal development (ZPD), seeking to identify teaching that uses the competence of the adult or more capable peer as the guide for a child’s participation in an activity. As noted above, this idea does not specify how to intervene in the ZPD. Fostering higher mental functions is an educational goal. Vygotskian educators differ widely in the teaching they present as models. Some examples of these models are given below.

Kamehameha Elementary Education Program (KEEP)

The Kamehameha Elementary School is the only school that has actually been based on Vygotsky’s theory. In their book Rousing Minds to Life: Teaching, Learning, and Schooling in Social Context, Tharpe and Gallimore (1988) describe the development from 1970 to 1983 in Hawaii of an elementary school program based on “neo-Vygotskianism” (p. 6). They comment that “in no works known to us does he [Vygotsky] provide any useful treatment of instructional practice or in any way attempt a differentiated description of schooling processes” (p. 106). Therefore in trying to work toward a unified theory that includes a new discipline and science of schooling, they turned to present-day Vygotskians and to their own classroom experimentation for practical guidance. In writing about teaching in the ZPD, Tharpe and Gallimore (1988) list six means of assisting children’s performance: (1) modeling, (2) contingency management of rewards and punishments, (3) providing feedback about accuracy of performance, (4) instructing on matters of deportment and assigning tasks, (5) questioning that requires a reply in language, and (6) cognitive structuring that organizes, evaluates, and groups and sequences perceptions, memory, and actions (p. 177). Like many other Vygotskians, Tharpe and Gallimore refer to the assistance of performance through scaffolding in which the child’s role is simplified by means of “graduated assistance from the adult/expert” (p. 33). In this approach, rewards (including praise) and punishment are seen as props that strengthen learning through the ZPD. The importance of reinforcement to this approach is reflected by newly hired teachers spending “16 weeks learning to use praise effectively” (p. 193). This is in contrast to the constructivist view that praise should not be used to manipulate or control children; genuine appreciation, of course, is another matter, and constructivist teachers do sometimes praise children to express appreciation.

Tharpe and Gallimore (1988) note that in the kindergarten year, one of the teacher’s responsibilities in the first few days of school is to teach children “the rules and the rest of the social system that make up the classroom and school” (p. 167). This contrasts with the constructivist approach in which children make classroom rules on the basis of the needs they experience for class members to regulate themselves by rules mutually agreed upon (DeVries & Zan, 1994).

Reciprocal Teaching

Palincsar, Brown, and Campione (1993) emphasize the importance of structured dialogues that provide guided practice toward the goal of understanding written texts. They give four concrete strategies for getting children to understand text:

  1. asking questions about text;
  2. summarizing to get consensus;
  3. clarifying to restore meaning upon misunderstanding; and
  4. predicting about an upcoming event.

They describe the teacher’s scaffolding role in terms of cued elicitations, paraphrasing children’s contributions, choral responses, framing children’s responses, selective use of praise, and silence (Palincsar et al., 1993, p. 54).

Classifying Grocery Items

Rogoff and Gardner (1984) give an example of adult guidance of cognitive development in the ZPD with an activity involving classification of grocery items on shelves in a mock kitchen. A mother instructs her 7-year-old daughter in the organization of grocery items on shelves. Then she tries to get the child to take greater responsibility in remembering where the items go. The mother tells the child to put the margarine with the bread, gives hints by looking toward or pushing items in the direction of their correct placement, corrects the child’s errors by giving the correct answer, and tells the child to think.

MOTHER, picking out margarine and handing it to child: This goes on bread.

(Child studies item.)

MOTHER: Where do you put that? (Touchesmargarine, practically pushing it in the correct direction as a hint.)

CHILD: Ah. (Makes unintelligible comment, then places margarine appropriately and returns to Mother.)

(Mother picks out can of pineapple, hands it to child, and smiles expectantly at child, hinting with her eyes moving pointedly toward the correct shelf. ). . . .

MOTHER, picking out ketchup and holding it toward child: What is this?

CHILD: Ketchup. (Moves to place it on incorrect shelf.] MOTHER: No.

(Childpauses in midstep, waiting for more information.)

MOTHER, providing no cue: Where does it go? Think.

(Child backs up to center of room and appears to think.)

MOTHER: Okay. (Looks at appropriate shelf, capitulating in giving a cue. )

( Child makes no move. )

MOTHER, pointing at correct shelf: It goes over here with the pickles and the olives.

(Points at pickles and at olives, making her cue quite explicit.)


(Child nods and places item on correct shelf.)

(Rogoff & Gardner, 1984)

For Rogoff and Gardner, this interaction illustrates how the mother tries to get the child to be more independently active and how the child seeks information needed for correct placement. In this situation, it is not possible for the child to figure out the correct placement because the organization on the shelves is arbitrary. It also contradicts in some ways the child’s experience at home (for example, at home the margarine goes in the refrigerator, not by the bread on a shelf). This example is in contrast to a similar situation in constructivist classrooms in which the teacher asks children to put away materials at cleanup time. The particular placement of groups of toys is also arbitrary; however, the constructivist teacher emphasizes the socio-moral reason for correct cleanup organization. That is, if things are not put away in an organized fashion, people will not be able to find what they need. Thus children have the possibility to make a moral relationship between their actions of cleaning up and the well-being of the group.


Education based on Piaget’s theory has been more fully detailed than education based on Vygotsky’s theory. More consensus exists among Piagetian constructivist educators than among Vygotskian educators. Vygotskians and Piagetians are currently critical of the other’s theoretical perspective. This derives principally from myths each group believes about the other group:

  1. Piaget focused solely on individual intellectual development and did not recognize the important role of social factors.
  2. Vygotsky focused solely on the role of culture and society in development and did not recognize the individual con-structivist process.

Vygotskian educators have specialized in intellectual classroom goals, especially with regard to literacy. Piagetian educators offer a broader view that can be seen as partially consistent with Vygotsky’s theory, incorporating affective and moral as well as intellectual goals in the conception of developmental aims. Advocates of both Piaget and Vygotsky continue to develop the practical implications of these theories. It remains to be seen the extent to which they work toward convergence or divergence.

See also:


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  2. Bodrova, E., & Leong, D. (2007). Tools of the mind: The Vygotskian approach to early childhood education (2nd ed.). Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson.
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