Vygotsky vs Piaget (A Comprehensive Guide)

There are two major theories which explain the process of cognitive development in children.

First is Piaget’s theory of cognitive development given by Jean Piaget and other is socio-cultural theory of cognitive development given by Lev Vygotsky.

This article first explains both the theories and then a comparison will be drawn between Vygotsky vs. Piaget theory analyzing how they differ in a variety of dimensions. 

Piaget theory of cognitive development:

Jean Piaget was the first person who developed the first systematic theory of cognitive development.

He joined Binet institute in 1920. His job was to translate English intelligence tests into French.

He observed the systematic errors made by children while attempting intelligence questions. This observation grabbed his attention and he attempted to theorize this phenomenon.

His major contributions were development of stages of cognitive development, detailed observation on cognitive development in children and establishment of many tests to reveal the cognitive abilities of children. 

According to Piaget’s theory of cognitive development (1939), intelligence is not a fixed trait in individual rather cognitive development of a child is a result of his interaction with environment and biological maturation.

He explained how children make mental models of the world.

Piaget was not interested in measuring cognitive abilities of children by their spelling learning or problem solving abilities rather he was more interested how fundamental concepts such as time, number or space emerge in them. 

Before Piaget’s theory, it was a common assumption in psychology that children are less of a thinker than adults but Piaget observed that children just observe in strikingly different way than adults.

They are born with an inherited mental map on which further learning and development is based. 

Major focus of Piaget’s theory was on following three aspects:

  • He focused on children rather than all learners
  • His theory focuses on the process of cognitive development rather than on the learning
  • He divided the process of cognitive development in discrete stages distinguished by qualitative differences, rather than think of process as gradual with increasing complexity

The objective of his theory is to explain how a child goes through cognitive and starts to reason like an adult using hypothesis.

According to Piaget, cognitive development is progressive reconstruction of mental processes resulting from biological maturation and child’s interaction with the world.

Child develops the understanding of the world through a particular cognitive structure.

When there is a discrepancy between what they have learned and what is out there while interacting with the world around them, they restructure their understanding of the world and move from one stage of development to another. Piaget

Basic components of Piaget’s theory:

  1. Schemas:

According to Piaget schemas is:

“a cohesive, repeatable action sequence possessing component actions that are tightly interconnected and governed by a core meaning.”

In simpler words, schemas are the building blocks of cognitive representation of the world, which allow us to make use of the information and use it effectively.

Schemas can be understood as units of knowledge which can be related to the outside world including objects, abstract ideas or actions. 

  1. Process to move from one stage to other:

According to Piaget, there are processes which help a child to move from one stage of cognitive development to the next stage.

Thus intellectual growth is a result of adaptation or adjustment to the outside world which occur through following processes:

  • Assimilation:

Assimilation is a process in which a child incorporates the incoming information to already existing schemas.

  • Accommodation:

It is a process in which existing mental schemas do not support incoming information and thus should be changed to process incoming new information.

  • Equilibration:

According to Piaget, cognitive development is not a steady process; rather it occurs in leaps and bounds.

When a child encounters new information which is coherent with existing knowledge, it leads to equilibrium (assimilation), but it does not happen most of the time when the child encounters new information which does not match with pre existing schema leading to disequilibrium and frustration.

Equilibration is a force which leads a child to resolve the frustration by mastering this new information.

  1. Stages of Cognitive development:

Piaget proposed four stages of cognitive development which represents sophistication of child thought processes and his reasoning.

According to Piaget each child goes through these stages and no stage can be missed out. These stages are as follow:

  • Sensorimotor stage:

It is a stage recognized by object permanence. It is the idea that an object still exists even if it is out of sight.

For object permanence, there should be a schema of objects. Tertiary Circular Reactions is one of the sub-stages of Sensorimotor stage.

  • Preoperational Stage:

At this stage, the child starts to think of an object in terms of symbols.

It implies that a child can think of and stand for something else other than itself. 

  • Concrete operational stage:

According to Piaget, at this stage child can work things out mentally rather than physically 

Abstract and logical thinking develops at this stage. 

Vygotsky’s theory of cognitive development:

Lev Vygotsky, a Russian psychologist, developed another theory of cognitive development known as socio-cultural theory of cognitive development.

According to Vygotsky, child goes through the process of cognitive while interacting with his environment especially with those who are more skilled than him.

This necessitates that learning precedes cognitive development and a child actively constructs knowledge. 

  1. Zone of Proximal development:

Vygotsky is known for his concept of the zone of proximal development (ZPD).

According to him if for a particular task, a child is in the zone of proximal development he can almost complete this task without any assistance but will need assistance to complete the task successfully (Scaffolding).

He further elaborated that, the zone of proximal development is largely characterized by culture and the assistance he receives as per their culture.

When a child encounters new information on performing the task successfully, he incorporates this new information with his pre existing mental schemas and then uses this new information to help in performing the task successfully.

  1. More Knowledgeable others:

According to Vygotsky, another important factor in the cognitive development of a child is his interaction with more knowledgeable others (MKO).

Children learn while engaging the dialogue with others who are more skilled and have more knowledge about the task being performed.

MKO can include mentors, teachers, parents or even peers. 

  1. Scaffolding:

Vygotsky’s concept of scaffolding is very closely related to the concept of zone of proximal development.

Scaffolding refers to the assistance given to the child while performing a particular task until a child is able to perform tasks independently.

This assistance is usually provided by the MKO.

The quantity and quality of assistance should be tailored according to the needs of the child while performing the task. 

Vygotsky also took into account the role of culture and cognitive and psychosocial development of children.

This contribution shifted the focus of researchers to the interaction units of children such as parents, teachers and peers.

According to Vygotsky, because of the cultural influence on a child’s cognitive development, children of the same age belonging to different cultures might have different levels of cognitive development. 

Vygotsky vs. Piaget: 

Viagotsky and Piaget both presented their theory of cognitive development. There are major different differences between their theories.

These differences are explored in terms of Vygotsky vs. Piaget conceptualization as follow: 

  1. Vygotsky vs. Piaget socio-cultural context:

Vygotsky and Piaget emphasize differently on socio-cultural context of a child’s cognitive development.

The role of socio-cultural context in Vygotsky vs. Piaget theory is as follow:

Piaget emphasizes little on the socio-cultural context while explaining his theory of cognitive development and focuses more on biological maturation and interaction with environment while on the other hand vygotsky put major emphasis on child’s socio-cultural context.

According to him culture can have a major impact on the way children go through the process of cognitive development.

  1. Vygotsky vs. Piaget distinct stages of development:

Vygotsky and Piaget differ in their conceptualization of cognitive development in terms of stages.

The emphasis on stages of cognitive development in Vygotsky vs. Piaget theory is as follow:

In Piaget’s theory, there are distinct stages of cognitive development and according to him a child goes from one stage to another through restricting mental representation of the world while on the other hand Vygotsky provides no distinct stages rather focuses on concepts like the zone of proximal development and scaffolding. 

  1. Vygotsky vs. Piaget Social factor:

Vygotsky and Piaget conceptualization of the role of social factors in the process of cognitive development mainly shapes their theory.

The difference in emphasis on social factors in Vygotsky vs. Piaget theory is as follow:

According to Vygotsky, cognitive development is mainly the result of his interaction with MKO in the form of his parents and teachers and co-construct knowledge with their guidance while Piaget maintains that the child constructs knowledge on his own with little influence of social factors.

Vygotsky also maintains that social factors influence what a child thinks about and they think about the world around them. 

  1. Vygotsky vs. Piaget Role of language:

Role of language in cognitive development of a child is conceptualized in Vygotsky vs. Piaget theory as follow:

For Piaget, it is important to have a thought for a development of speech. He necessitates thought for language while on the other hand Vygotsky maintains that language and thought are entirely different systems and combine only at the age of three when a child is able to have inner speech.

According to him, cognitive development is a result of internalization of language. 

  1. Vygotsky vs. Piaget Role of Adult:

Children have adults as their guiding force from very early in life. The role of adults in Vygotsky vs. Piaget theory is as follow:

Piaget does not emphasize the role of adults in the process of cognitive development as children reconstruct knowledge on his own while according to Vygotsky’s concept of MKO, adults not only play important roles but also have much impact on the cognitive development of children. 


Jean Piaget and Lev Vygotsky, both presented their theory of cognitive development to explain the child’s process of cognitive development.

If we explore Vygotsky vs. Piaget theory, they differ on many important dimensions such as discrete stages, role of adult and role of language in cognitive development of a child. 


How does Piaget and Vygotsky theory differ? 

The main difference between Vygotsky vs. Piaget is that according to Piaget knowledge is reconstructed through self-discovery while according to Vygotsky learning precedes cognitive development which is usually a result of interaction with the environment and more knowledgeable others. 

What is the difference between Piaget and Erickson?

Major difference between Piaget and Erikson is that Piaget focused on cognitive development from infancy to early teen years while Erickson explored the development throughout life.

Erickson’s major focus is on emotional development as compared to Piaget. 

What are the three main cognitive theories?

– Three main cognitive theories are as follow:

– Piaget’s cognitive development theory 

– Vygotsky’s socio-culture theory of cognitive development 

– Information processing theory 


Lev Vygotsky’s Sociocultural Theory of Cognitive Development




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