Lev Vygotsky Jean Piaget Education Theory how Children Learn Zone of Proximal Development Cognitive

Two of the most influential psychologists in education are Jean Piaget & Lev Vygotsky. Both psychologists developed theories into understanding how individuals learn and both psychologists recognized the increase of knowledge with the progression of age. Together, these theories are the basis of modern education.


Lev Vygotsky, a social constructivist, created a sociocultural cognitive theory to explain how interaction between one’s culture and society simulates cognitive development. Vygotsky said that knowledge is distributed throughout a society and that knowledge can be advanced through cooperative activities. Basically, the best way to expand one’s understanding of the world is to reference the various resources available and interact with people of greater understanding. His sociocultural cognitive theory ties into his cultural development theory where he says development occurs first between the child and the others (interpsychological) and then within the child (intrapsychological).

Within Vygotsky’s sociocultural cognitive theory is the zone of proximal development (ZPD). Vygotsky believed that children follow the examples set by adults. Over time, children will gradually develop their own abilities to perform certain tasks. The zone of proximal development (ZPD) is the gap between what a child is able to do on his or her own and what the child can do with guidance from an adult. The lower level of the ZPD is where the child works independently on certain tasks. The upper level of the ZPD is where the child is able to do more advanced work with the assistance of an adult or a more-skilled child. Vygotsky believed this collaboration of assistance is important in the determination of a child’s growth. A similar approach is known as scaffolding adjusting assistance to a person given the level of current performance.

Being a social constructivist approach, Vygotsky’s theory places an emphasis on the social context of learning as well as the construction of knowledge by means of social interaction. Vygotsky believed that formal education was an integral part in the array of collaboration to aid a child in growth. Parents, peers, the community, and technology all interact to influence the child’s development.


Jean Piaget’s Cognitive Development theory identifies the process of coming to understand the world through active involvement and the stages individuals move through to acquire this ability. In the process of actively constructing their understanding, individuals organize their experiences and adapt their way of thinking as new experiences bring in information that then furthers our understanding. New information alone does not lead to cognitive development, but rather organization and adaptation of this information increases understanding and cognitive growth. This theory divides cognitive development into four different, increasingly complex stages of cognitive development. The stages are progressive and rely on elements from the previous stages that are then differentiated and incorporated into the next stage. It differs from the psychoanalytic theories because it does not include the unconscious mind.

The first stage occurs between birth and two years of age; it is known as the sensorimotor stage. During this stage, infants and young toddlers are learning how to use their bodies. They learn to coordinate their motor functions by reacting to external stimuli. Also by the end of this period, individuals begin to recognize symbols.

The second stage occurs between two and seven years of age; it is known as the preoperational stage. It is during this stage that a child comes to understand and use symbols. Children begin to associate words with objects as well as images as representations of something else. Although they can now identify and use symbols, the child is still incapable of using it in an operation, thus the name preoperational.

The third stage is the concrete-operational stage and occurs between seven and eleven years of age. During this stage, children are able to perform physical operations as well as use logical and organized reasoning. That is, children can use logical reasoning in science or concrete matters; however, they are unable use abstract reasoning, such as solving an algebraic equation.

In the fourth stage, known as formal-operational stage, individuals are able to think abstractly. That is, around age eleven and up, individuals are able to systematically solve abstract problems and develop hypothesizes. Their logical reasoning skills are more refined and can be used to identify an ideal circumstance. They are able to compare standards and develop their own theory, in a sense.