Pioneers: Jean Piaget and Lev Vygotsky (2023)

Here, we take a closer look at Jean Piaget and Lev Vygotsky, two of the most influential figures in the history of early childhood education whose influence is still felt today.

Key points

  • Piaget believed that children experienced four developmental stages.
  • Consider the similarities and differences between Piaget and Vygotsky – they were both constructivist in their theories about how children learn.
  • Collaboration between learners and being able to learn cooperatively with others is at the centre of Vygotsky’s approach to children’s learning and successful development.

Note: This article was first published in the December 2007 edition of eye

In the third of this series on early years pioneers, we look at the work and influence of Jean Piaget and Lev Vygotsky, two psychologists whose work has had far reaching influence around the world.

Jean Piaget (1896-1980)

Jean Piaget was born, lived and studied in Neuchatel, in Switzerland. During his educational career, Piaget graduated as a scientist and gained a doctorate. During this time he was a prolific writer and published many academic papers and articles that disseminated his research ideas and findings.

Piaget was a biologist who was interested in epistemology – the study of knowledge; essentially studying how human beings construct their knowledge and ‘knowing’. He also studied psychology, which clearly influenced his research and future writing about child development.

Piaget understood that acquiring knowledge, especially for young children involved the processes of learning and development. His interests led him to observe his three children and to systematically (through observation) record the behaviours, tendencies and patterns of learning the children demonstrated as they lived, worked and played.

Working alongside Alfred Binet in Paris, observing the intelligence testing of young children and talking to them about their own ideas and concepts, enabled Piaget to gain many insights into children’s learning. At that time intelligence was seen as something that could be measured; a person’s overall mental operations/capacity could be tested. However, intelligence is more complex than these early tests suggested and involves a whole range of processes, such as listening, speaking, reasoning, problem solving, thinking, remembering and learning.

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Piaget was interested by the ways in which children would find incorrect, but also different answers, to the questions they were asked and this inspired him to formulate his theory of cognitive development. After working in Paris, he moved to Geneva where he conducted further research.

The importance of Piaget’s work continues to influence developmental psychology, early childhood education and care throughout the world. His contribution has been essential to our understanding of how young children learn and develop, particularly in Western culture.

His research, and its application to early years practice, underpins, rather than dominates, modern early childhood education; other researchers and practitioners have progressed the ideas and theories of cognitive/intellectual development over time, and some, such as Lev Vygotsky and Jerome Bruner also appear in this series. Important contemporaries, such as Chris Athey (schema theory) and Barbara Rogoff (guided participation/apprenticeship model) are also using Piaget’s research as the basis for their own current theories.

Practical activities that reflect Piaget's approach:

  • Understanding the World: In character
  • Understanding the World: Swirl by Swirl

The constructivist approach

Piaget was fascinated by the ways in which children constructed their knowledge, and through his research into cognitive development, which involved a series of experiments and interviews with children, Piaget established his theory about the progress and sequence of learning in young children to adulthood.

Piaget’s theory was constructivist – he saw children as actively constructing their understanding of the world, for themselves, and as being active seekers of solutions to problems. Early childhood professionals recognise the importance of child-initiated activity as being essential for meaningful learning and development. is ‘learning through experience’ is often called ‘discovery learning’.

Therefore, new concepts, knowledge and understanding are integrated into existing concepts, which become more complex and sophisticated. This can be considered a ‘stage theory’ because it outlined a pre-determined set of stages that children pass through towards mature intellectual development.

Piaget believed that children’s thinking emerged through infancy and that each new experience or challenge assisted in the process as part of the interplay between nature (genes) and nurture (environmental influences, such as experience, materials and opportunities).

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However, Piaget believed that children had to have reached a certain stage in their development before they could build towards the next set of ideas or concepts. Each stage grows out of an earlier one and involves a reconstruction, or transformation, of earlier knowledge. This leads to the child having a novel perspective on their world and the possibilities in it. Piaget believed that children pass through the following four stages in the same order:

  • Sensorimotor stage (birth to two-years-old).
  • Pre-operational stage (two to seven-years-old).
  • Concrete operational stage (seven to 11-years-old).
  • Formal operations stage (11-years to adulthood).

In short, they represent children’s capacities in cognitive skills and learning at different points in their developmental journey. The progress that each child makes through each stage will be dependent on their ability, and the mutual interaction between people and the environment.

Critics of Piaget’s approach suggest that there is not enough emphasis on social interactions and the emotional aspects of thought in relation to play. Additionally, the idea of developmental stages can be misleading because development is usually described as being fluid, and influenced by both cultural and environmental change. His research methodologies have also come under scrutiny in recent years given the advancement in research techniques and in our understanding of child development.

Play is a key tenet of Piaget’s cognitive development approach. This reinforces the importance of stimulating play environments that allow children to follow their own interests. Being allowed to experiment and explore through play provides children with the opportunities to construct knowledge. It also creates situations where meaningful interactions between peers and adults can take place.

Piaget knew that practitioners who were adept at using observation could analyse children’s responses to their learning experiences, which, in turn, would give them an insight into the child’s perspective of the world. Ultimately, Piaget’s work was inspired by his interest in, and desire to discover, how children learn and how they think about the world.

Lev Vygotsky (1896-1934)

Vygotsky was a Russian psychologist who established one of the major theories of cognitive development and has influenced contemporary educational thinking, both in the United Kingdom and across the world.

Vygotsky wrote many papers and books, although his writings and ideas were only translated into English in the latter part of the last century. e scope extends from the development of language and thought to the social and cultural processes in children’s learning – including those with disabilities – to his findings regarding teaching approaches. His influence is felt today in the fields of developmental psychology, education, health and social care.

There are similarities between the approaches of Piaget and Vygotsky – they are both constructivists.

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Piaget focused on the child as an individual, constructing their knowledge and understanding in a personal way. Vygotsky also saw development as being rooted in social relationships that provide a framework for learning through dialogue and instruction.

Key to his theory is the role of language and instruction, and of cognitive development. Piaget neglected the role of language, although he did acknowledge its relationship to thought and for expressing the concepts that were being developed.

For Vygotsky, intelligence is the capacity to learn through instruction – the role of culture is important in this process. This has implications for early years educators, whether you are teaching children in the foundation stage, in a reception class, or with younger children in nursery, because practitioners can consider how the communication between adults and children influences development.

The social and cultural influence of the environment are central to children’s cognitive development because the social context is an ongoing stimulus for learning. These can be interactions with carers, parents, extended families and significant others in the community, but also other children, like siblings and peers. This theory can be mirrored in Bronfennbrenner’s ecological theory (1979) where social and cultural systems are also seen as a key mechanism for child development.

Children actively construct meaning through the social and cultural activities taking place within the nursery/school or community. This process occurs, therefore, in context rather than in isolation.

The zone of proximal development

Vygotsky’s theory of cognitive development includes the key concept of internalisation. He argued that children internalise knowledge as part of a gradual process, essentially through the social interactions with others, and particularly between adults and children.

For Vygotsky, the ‘zone of proximal development’ (ZPD) describes the gap between what the child can achieve alone and what they can accomplish with the help of a more able adult or child. This theory supported his belief that the ability to learn through instruction is essential for cognitive growth and is located at the core of human intelligence. Vygotsky believed that everyone has both an actual level of developmental and a ‘zone of proximal development’.

In contrast, Piaget saw the child as being at a particular point in a stage to learn. Children as learners, in the broadest sense, are able to develop through shared social experience because learning itself is a social activity. Early childhood professionals will recognise the benefits of peer play and group work where ‘more able’ children can share their ideas and instruct the less experienced child.

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The more experienced child can also benefit in this process – by expressing something publicly (externalising) they clarify, and add depth to, their knowledge. is also increases children’s social and language skills. For Vygotsky, the child’s ability to learn from others was more important to their development rather than how much knowledge is acquired.

Vygotsky stressed the importance of language in the development of thinking and abstract thought – this includes the labelling process attached to emerging concepts. Language provides a way of constructing the world, it is not just about the labels we apply to it because our individual constructions are saturated with personal meaning. Language can enable fuller expression of ideas and feelings.

Practical activities that reflect Vygotsky's approach:

  • Communication and Language: Listen to this!
  • Communication and Language: A question of taste

Language acquisition underpins the development of thinking and learning in social relationships with others. Children learn to interpret, become aware of, and ‘make sense’ of situations – problem solving – through speech and actions. Children are exposed to different ways of thinking about the world through talking with their peers, and also with interested adults who can guide or scaffold their emerging potential.

Vygotsky believed that play and the imagination were vehicles for learning, and for the holistic development of the child. The emphasis given to social and collaborative activities can be demonstrated through play experiences. Practitioners can turn the theory into practice by:

  • Matching play and learning tasks to children’s interests and current development, and planning a child-centred curriculum.
  • Using observation to identify the ZPD for a child and respond with interactions that scaffold children’s learning.
  • Assisting children in their emerging view of the world they inhabit.
  • Observing the potential development and current needs of children.

Reading list

Athey C (1990) Extending thought in Young Children. Paul Chapman Publishing: London

Mooney C G (2000) Theories of childhood: an introduction to Dewey, Montessori, Erickson, Piaget and Vygotsky. Redleaf Press: St Paul, Minnesota, USA

Pound L (2005) How children learn. Step Forward Publishing Ltd: London

(Video) How Children Learn 3: Constructivism, Jean Piaget

Piaget J, Inhelder B (1969) The Psychology of the child. Prentice-Hall: Washington DC, USA

Rogoff B (1990) Apprenticeship in thinking. Oxford University Press: Oxford

Vygotsky L (1978) Mind in Society. Harvard University Press: Cambridge, Massachusetts, USA


What is Piaget and Vygotsky theory? ›

Piaget proposed that children progress through the stages of cognitive development through maturation, discovery methods, and some social transmissions through assimilation and accommodation (Woolfolk, A., 2004). Vygotsky's theory stressed the importance of culture and language on one's cognitive development.

Who were the pioneers in the study of child development? ›

Stanley Hall established child development as an academic field and questioned child development methodology. Alfred Binet created the first standardized IQ test for kids. Jean Piaget was the first to conduct a detailed study of children's cognitive development.

What is the main difference between Lev Vygotsky's work and Piaget? ›

Vygotsky argued that social learning preceded cognitive development. In other words, culture affects cognitive development. Whereas Piaget asserted that all children pass through a number of universal stages of cognitive development, Vygotsky believed that cognitive development varied across cultures.

What are some similarities and differences between Vygotsky's and Piaget's theories? ›

Piaget and Vygotsky also differ in terms of the view of learning and development. While Piaget's theory suggests that after cognitive development, learning occur, Vygotsky's theory claims that learning can lead development and sometimes after development learning occurs.

How Piaget's and Vygotsky's theories complement each other? ›

Both Piaget and Vygotsky thought learning is what leads to the development of higher order thinking. However, Piaget took a more constructivist view and focused on the individual, while Vygotsky used an active theory approach that focused on social interaction.

What is Piaget's theory known for? ›

Jean Piaget's theory of cognitive development suggests that intelligence changes as children grow. A child's cognitive development is not just about acquiring knowledge, the child has to develop or construct a mental model of the world.

Who are pioneers in psychology? ›

Two men, working in the 19th century, are generally credited as being the founders of psychology as a science and academic discipline that was distinct from philosophy. Their names were Wilhelm Wundt and William James.

Who are the pioneers of educational psychology? ›

There were three major figures in educational psychology in this period: William James, G. Stanley Hall, and John Dewey. These three men distinguished themselves in general psychology and educational psychology, which overlapped significantly at the end of the 19th century.

Who is the pioneer of learning in psychology? ›

Ivan Pavlov

Ivan Petrovich Pavlov (1849–1936) was a Russian physiologist, who contributed to research on learning.

What are three key theoretical similarities between Piaget's and Vygotsky's theories? ›

Similarities between Piaget's and Vygotsky's Theories:

Both believed that egocentric speech is vital to the process of cognitive development. Both believed the child is an active participant in his or her own learning. Both believed that the course of development declines with age.

Why is Piaget's cognitive theory important? ›

Piaget's theory of cognitive development helped add to our understanding of children's intellectual growth. It also stressed that children were not merely passive recipients of knowledge. Instead, kids are constantly investigating and experimenting as they build their understanding of how the world works.

How does Piaget's theory impact learning? ›

A Piaget influenced curricula, upholds the belief that children need to explore, to experiment, (and something close to my heart), to question. It advocates that children should be provided with opportunities to discuss and debate with each other, with teachers acting as guides and facilitators.

What was Lev Vygotsky theory? ›

Vygotsky's social development theory asserts that a child's cognitive development and learning ability can be guided and mediated by their social interactions. His theory (also called Vygotsky's Sociocultural theory) states that learning is a crucially social process as opposed to an independent journey of discovery.

Who are the four fathers of psychology? ›

Terms in this set (5)
  • Wilhelm Wundt. - he was interested in consciousness, because it can't be observed. ...
  • William James. - also studied consciousness, but believed that by breaking it down into diffrerent parts it miss-represented the "wholeness" of consciousness. ...
  • Sigmund Freud. ...
  • John Watson. ...
  • Carl Rogers.

Who are the pioneers of movement and their contribution? ›

The early pioneers of movement education were influenced by the idea of the body being an expression of movement. Three of the most historically influential individuals were Francois Delsarte, Liselott Diem, and Rudolf von Laban.

Who is known as the father of child psychology? ›

Jean Piaget, (born August 9, 1896, Neuchâtel, Switzerland—died September 16, 1980, Geneva), Swiss psychologist who was the first to make a systematic study of the acquisition of understanding in children. He is thought by many to have been the major figure in 20th-century developmental psychology.

Who are the fathers of education? ›

Lord Macaulay was the father and founder of the present education system, as is referred to in the fourth line of the first paragraph. Was this answer helpful?

Who is the pioneer of social learning theory? ›

Psychologist Albert Bandura developed the social learning theory open_in_new as an alternative to the earlier work of fellow psychologist B.F. Skinner, known for his influence on behaviorism.

Who was the pioneer of observational learning? ›

Albert Bandura, who is known for the classic Bobo doll experiment, identified this basic form of learning in 1961. The importance of observational learning lies in helping individuals, especially children, acquire new responses by observing others' behavior.

Who is the founder of learning theories? ›

Founded by Jean Piaget, constructivism emphasizes the importance of the active involvement of learners in constructing knowledge for themselves. Students are thought to use background knowledge and concepts to assist them in their acquisition of novel information.

What are the main differences between Jean Piaget's assumption of cognitive development and Lev Vygotsky's in terms of how children acquire knowledge? ›

Piaget insisted that learning happens after development, while Vygotsky believed that learning takes place before development can occur. Piaget's theory has four phases; Vygotsky assumed there were no set stages, only three components.

What is Piaget's stage theory? ›

In his theory of cognitive development, Jean Piaget proposed that humans progress through four developmental stages: the sensorimotor stage, preoperational stage, concrete operational stage, and formal operational stage.

What is a Vygotsky theory? ›

Central to Vygotsky's theory is the idea that infants develop new social and cognitive skills through interactions with older individuals. From: Encyclopedia of Infant and Early Childhood Development (Second Edition), 2020.

What is Vygotsky learning theory? ›

Vygotsky's sociocultural theory of human learning describes learning as a social process and the origination of human intelligence in society or culture. The major theme of Vygotsky's theoretical framework is that social interaction plays a fundamental role in the development of cognition.

What is Piaget's key concept? ›

Piaget created and studied an account of how children and youth gradually become able to think logically and scientifically. Piaget believed that learning proceeded by the interplay of assimilation (adjusting new experiences to fit prior concepts) and accommodation (adjusting concepts to fit new experiences).

What did Jean Piaget believe in? ›

Essentially, Piaget believed that humans create their own understanding of the world. In theological terms, he was a psychological constructivist, believing that learning is caused by the blend of two processes: assimilation and accommodation.

Why is Vygotsky's theory important? ›

Vygotsky's theory has been used to inspire a focus on interactive and collaborative organisations of teaching and learning that encourage students to learn from social interactions with peers and with the teacher.


1. FLEX Time - Jean Piaget & Cognitive Development
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2. Piaget: Theory of Cognitive Development
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3. Pioneers in Education (The Prof. Ed. Proponents)
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6. Cognitive Development Video
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