Theories of Cognitive Development and Behavior

Most would agree that children develop through a series of stages until they reach adulthood.  As children make this progression from infant to adult, they are continuously strengthening their thought processes which include the ability to remember information, solve problems and make decisions.  According to the Encyclopedia of Children’s Health, cognitive development “refers to how a person perceives, thinks, and gains understanding of his or her world through the interaction of genetic and learned factors. Among the areas of cognitive development are information processing, intelligence, reasoning, language development, and memory.”  (2007, para. 1)

 Out of what behaviorists began to understand as cognitive development came cognitive development theories.  Now considered archaic, babies were once thought to not have the ability to think or process thoughts until they had the ability to communicate and understand language.  We now know that this statement is not true.  Infants from the time of birth are using their senses to gather and process information around them and this process continues through adulthood.  Cognitive development theories are “theories based on the belief that human development progresses smoothly and gradually from infancy to adulthood.”  (Slavin, p. 31)  Humans, infants through adults, naturally follow a set of internal steps that allow them to process different information at different points in their lives; our thinking abilities change as we age and progress through these steps.  Two important contributors to this theory are Jean Piaget and Lev Vygotsky.

 Both influential contributors to the theories of cognitive development, Jean Piaget and Lev Vygotsky share some similar beliefs as to the development of intelligence.  Both theorists believe that a child most work through a series of steps as he or she gains knowledge in their journey to adulthood.  To Piaget “cognitive development was a progressive reorganization of mental processes…”  (McCloud, 2007, Piaget’s Theory of Development, para. 7)  Likewise, Vygotsky “claimed that infants are born with the basic materials/abilities for intellectual development… (and) are curious and actively involved in their own learning…”  (McCloud, 2007, Vygotsky’s Theory of Social Development, para.  13)  Each believed that from the infancy stage onward, children have the ability to process information and form their own thoughts and opinions in learning. 

Both men also believed that children naturally think on a different level than an adult does.  Children are not merely miniature adults but come to sometimes very different conclusions when presented with the same information to process.  Also, children come to different conclusions based upon what stage they are progressing through in their cognitive development.

While both Piaget and Vygotsky share similarities as to their beliefs on the development of intelligence, they differ on the actual process a child goes through as his or her intelligence is developing.  Piaget felt “cognitive development was a progressive reorganization of mental processes as a result of maturation and experience”  (McCloud, 2007, Piaget’s Theory of Development, para. 5).  In other words, Piaget believed that development proceeded learning.  In direct contrast to this theory, Vygotsky believed that learning proceeds development.  “…Learning is a necessary and universal aspect of the process of developing…”  (McCloud, 2007, Vygotsky’s Theory of Social Development, para. 3) 

Vygotsky felt that a child’s cultural background played a viable role in the development of a child’s intellect allowing the child to attain knowledge from interacting socially and then taking that gained knowledge and internalizing it and processing it into self-knowledge.  Vygotsky also placed high value on cultural and social experiences and language.  The child, he felt, would as he or she gained language skills, use their language to talk themselves through a problem.  As the child got older, he or she would eventually internalize this self-dialogue.  Again, in contrast, Piaget’s theory places more emphasis on a child’s inherited mental structure and the ability to grasp certain concepts during certain stages of their life.  Learning for a child, according to Piaget, starts from the inside-out in direct contrast to Vygotsky’s theory of learning starting from the outside-in.

 Both Vygotsky and Piaget felt that children went through a series of stages while developing cognitively.  Each also felt that before a child could progress cognitively, he or she must master the stage he or she was at.  Piaget felt that children went through a sensorimotor stage “during which infants learn about their surroundings by using their senses and motor skills”.  (Slavin, p. 33).  Likewise, Vygotsky felt “the first step in the development of self-regulation and independent thinking is learning that actions and sounds have a meaning.  For example, a baby learns that the process of reaching toward an object is interpreted…as a signal…the infant wants the object.”  (Slavin, p. 43).

 While both Piaget and Vygotsky argued that children must complete a series of stages while reaching adult cognitive development, they disagreed as to the type of stage and ages a child would develop at.  Piaget felt that there were definite ages at which a child should experience cognitive development.  For example, Piaget has outlined only four stages of cognitive development beginning with the sensorimotor stage and ending with formal operational.  Sensorimotor is from birth to 2 years, preoperational is from 2 to 7 years, concrete operational is to happen between 7 and 11 years, and formal operational is to occur from 11 years to adulthood. 

Unlike Piaget, however, Vygotsky “places more emphasis on culture affecting / shaping cognitive development – this contradicts Piaget’s view of universal stages and content of development”.  (McCloud, 2007, Vygotsky’s Theory of Social Development, para. 6)  Vygotsky did not feel there was an age limit to which a child could attain a higher level of cognitive development.  Vygotsky introduced what he termed the Zone of Proximal Development.  This Zone connects that gap of what is known by the child to what is not known.  While a child is in this zone, he or she encounters “skills too difficult for a child to master on his/her own, but that can be done with guidance and encouragement from a knowledgeable person.”  (McCloud, 2007, Vygotsky’s Theory of Social Development, para. 12)  Therefore, Vygotsky did not feel the expectations of a child’s level of cognitive development should be limited to the age the child is at but is rather influenced by others that have already achieved that level of learning.  For example, a child attempting to complete a puzzle on his or her own may not be able to but could do so with the guidance of someone older or a peer that has already mastered that skill. 

 Both Piaget’s and Vygotsky’s theories have contributed to the classroom.  These theories helped to direct the thought of developmentally appropriate education.  Developmentally appropriate education is defined as “instruction felt to be adapted to the current development status of children (rather than their age alone”.  (Slavin, p.41)  For instance, a teacher of third grade would not be trying to teach these children high school algebra but rather their addition/subtraction and multiplication/division facts. 

Both Piaget and Vygotsky instituted an “acceptance of individual differences in developmental process.”  (Slavin, p.42)  This recognition now has teachers making a special effort to address the intelligence level of all the children in the room.  Many times this can be accomplished by breaking the children up in to smaller groups while working together.  Working in smaller groups also reinforces Vygotsky’s theory that children can learn more than they already know by listening and interacting with their peers who are at higher learning levels.  For example, if a teacher was doing a unit on the book Charlotte’s Web, she could first assess the reading level of each student, i.e. comprehension and vocabulary.  This would be instituting Piaget’s theory that everyone learns at a different pace.  She could then take this a step further and put the children into smaller reading groups where teacher group would have a few children at the highest reading level, some in the middle and some at the bottom.  Within their own group, the children together could work on answers to comprehension questions and together work on key vocabulary words given to them by the teacher.  This would be instituting Vygotsky’s theory that children can be encouraged to bring their level of learning to a higher point through the influence of their peers.

 Again, although the theories of Piaget and Vygotsky have some similarities as to their application in the classroom, there are differences also.  As in the situation noted above, a teacher could break her classroom down into smaller groups in order to enhance the learning of a specific topic.  Piaget’s main goal in this exercise would have been to bring all the children to the same learning level that would be attainable for their age specific stage.  Vygotsky, on the other hand, would also encourage the students to be broken down into smaller groups, but he would want the students to work through their zone of proximal development.  If the fourth grader’s reading Charlotte’s Web were just on the cusp of attaining a fifth grade level of comprehension, the teacher would adjust her lesson plan accordingly and push them to work through to the higher level of thinking with her gentle guidance.  The teacher could guide the children to a higher level of reading comprehension with the use of scaffolding.  When starting the unit, the teacher would give out worksheets that have ask very specific questions with answers that would produce a fifth grade level comprehension.  By the end of the book, her goal would be to slowly weed out the hints as to what the answers should be and rather let the children answer them on their own.  By providing gentle guidance as to what the children’s level of thinking should be, by the end of the book, the children will have attained this level.

 Both Piaget and Vygotsky also felt that children learned by doing.  To enhance these principles, a teacher could set up small stations within her classroom so the child may discover some fundamental principle of science or math.  The difference would be that if she were following Piaget’s theory, the child would go through these activities on his or her own and work the problem out inside of his or her head.  If she were to follow Vygotsky’s principles, she may pair the children up so they can talk about the problem at hand and work it out together.  Likewise, the more advanced child may talk out the problem to himself with the other child watching and listening.  The other child then would be able to complete the task by emulating the actions of the advanced child.

 Both Piaget and Vygotsky have contributed greatly to the area of cognitive development and how it can be utilized within the classroom.  Although there are differences in their theories, there are similarities also.  It seems that the teacher that would benefit the most from these two men’s studies would be the one who utilizes a combination of both theories and practices within their classroom.

 Works Cited:

2007.  Infants through Adolescence:  C.  Encyclopedia of Children’s Health.  Retrieved

         April 9, 2009, from:


Slave, Robert E.  (2009).  Educational Psychology: Theory and Practice.  Upper Saddle

          River, NJ:  Pearson Education, Inc.

McCloud, S.A. (2007).  Piaget’s Theory of Development.  Simply Psychology.  Retrieved

        April 9, 2009, from:  http://www.simplypsychology.pwp.blueyonder.

McCloud, S.A. (2007).  Vygotsky’s Theory of Social Development.  Simply Psychology.  

        Retrieved April 9, 2009, from:  http://www.simplypsychology.pwp.blueyonder.