Difference between Piaget and Vygotsky Theories

January 14, 2016 by Editorial Team

Both Piaget and Vygotsky stipulated that social interactions play a crucial role in cognitive development of an individual. At the time their theories had been developed and had been gaining influence among psychologists, Piaget and Vygotsky claimed that their theories were mutually exclusive. However, more recent studies have shown that the two theories are more complementary than opposing. In this article, we will see what the basic differences between the two theories are.


Jean Piaget at the University of Michigan campus in Ann Arbor

A Swiss developmental psychologist and philosopher Jean Piaget (1896-1980) is recognized as an influential figure in studies of cognition with children. He is the author of the theory of cognitive observational learning.

According to Piaget, there are four stages of cognitive development an individual passes through:

  1. Sensorimotor stage. During this stage, infants are developing their sensory motor skills and cognition.
  2. Preoperational stage. During this stage, toddlers and young children are developing preoperational abilities, such as the ability to recognize and understand symbols.
  3. Concrete operational stage. During this stage, children from the age seven to eleven are learning logical skills, called “concrete operations.” Around the age of eleven, children begin to understand abstract concepts. That means, according to the Piaget theory, that children under the age of eleven can already reverse concepts, or make projections based on the knowledge they acquired. During this stage, children can hardly perform reflective exercises or make distant planning. They can’t have a realistic picture of their future. They also have a hard time understanding another person’s point of view.
  4. Formal operational stage. During this stage, children from the age of eleven to approximately fifteen-twenty are starting to think logically and to comprehend abstract propositions. They also become concerned with their future and start to form its image in their minds. According to Piaget, this stage, that he called “hypothetico-deductive reasoning”, is formed. That includes several things: individuals are getting to observe situations that are not rooted in reality; individuals acquire metacognition (thinking about thinking) and problem-solving (the ability to solve problem methodically.)

Piaget’s adaptation theory

According to Piaget’s theory, there are two important processes that are characteristic of each of the stages of cognitive development:  assimilation (transformation of the knowledge base in face of new information) and accommodation (child makes changes in his cognitive structure so the newly emerged things in child’s life start to make sense.) Both processes comprise adaptation, which is the ability to adapt to new situations and tasks.

Piaget observed adaptation via the concept of “the mental schema.” Individuals have mental schemas that explain their world based on the knowledge they have so far. A mental schema has to be taken down and reconstructed when individuals receive new pieces of information that conflict with what they already know. People who have difficulty changing their mental schema should be encouraged to investigate others’ viewpoints and be encouraged to be more flexible in thinking.

Flow chart showing the Piaget’s adaptation theory

A Russian psychologist Lev Vygotsky (1896-1934) was the author of the theory of cognitive development called “the sociocultural theory.” Lev Vygotsky studied the mental development of children, including how they play and speak. He also studied the connection between thought and language.

Lev Vygotsky
Portrait of Lev Vygotsky, Russian Psychologist

Vygotsky’s theory includes three crucial concepts connected to each other:

1) The connection between language and the cognitive development of children
During his studies, Vygotsky found out that infants do not have internal speech because they don’t necessarily understand the language. At some point children start to internalize their language, and they  speak constantly while they are playing, essentially speaking aloud. Because thought and language are so closely connected, the children’s learning is affected by their own language and their own culture.

2) The concept of internalization

Internalization describes the stage-by-stage cognitive development of a child.  A child starts learning the new concept by imitating, then imitating and understanding, then internalizing the concept.

The stages of internalization include:

  1. Inability to complete tasks by self.
  2. Ability to complete the task with verbal help from skilled peer (scaffolding.)
  3. Ability to complete the task with guided assistance from peer (scaffolding.)
  4. Complete internalization: the ability to complete the task by self without a peer (scaffolding removed.)

3) “Zone of proximal learning”

Social factors are influential in the development of intelligence of an individual. Zone of proximal learning describes not the actual, but the potential of human cognitive development. This is the zone in between what an individual already knows and what he is not ready to learn.

proximal development scheme
Lev Vygotsky’s zone of proximal development scheme

Comparison chart

Piaget theoryVygotsky theory
Cognitive development is a product of social transmissionCognitive development is a product of social interaction
Claims that the development of thinking and language can be traced back to actions, perceptions and imitations by little childrenClaims that there is a strong connection between learning language and the development of thinking
Does not include mentor in observations on cognitive developmentHighlights the role of a mentor in cognitive development
Shows  preference for learning potential of an individualIs well-applied to teaching strategies


  • Piaget’s theory states that cognitive development essentially is influenced by social transmission, which describes learning from people around. On the other hand, Vygotsky’s theory states that cognitive development is influenced by social interaction; meaning that when an individual is engaged in social activity, his language and cognition are developing.
  • Piaget’s theory claims that the development of thinking and language in an individual can be traced back to the actions, perceptions and imitations by little children. Vygotsky’s theory, on the other hand, postulates that there is a strong connection between learning language and the development of thinking
  • Piaget and Vygotsky approach learning in different ways. Piaget observed in detail how children’s learning works, but he didn’t highlight the role of a mentor or a teacher. Vygotsky’s theory, on the other hand, doesn’t observe the actual mental development, but rather discusses general acquisition of a new concept or skill. Both Piaget and Vygotsky thought that there is always a certain range of tasks outside of students’ understanding. Vygotsky, however, believed that with assistance from a mentor, these tasks could be performed. Piaget, on the other hand, didn’t suggest anything regarding the matter.
  • Vygotsky’s theory is well applied to teaching strategies. Piaget’s theory, on the other hand, shows a preference for discovering and learning done by individuals themselves.


In this video you can see an analysis that explains the differences between Piaget’s and Vygotsky’s theories of cognitive development: