Piaget and Vygotsky

By Joanna

‘All grown-ups were once children… but only few of them remember it’

(Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, 1948)

The environment. The deeply supportive, nurturing prepared environment of the Montessori classroom where human and more-than-human hierarchies are flattened, where matter most definitely matters and where a culture of freedoms and respect affords all children the time-space to explore every inch of it as they navigate the long forgotten myriad pathways of self-construction.

I ask how the grand theories of Jean Piaget (1896-1980) and Lev Vygotsky (1896-1934) can still be heard in Montessori practice today, one fifth sized bite into the 21st century. I ponder the environment, communion, and play, but for the most part I seek out the voices of these ceased-to-be-cited pioneers and wander alongside their echoes deep into the delicious secret realms of childhood.

In current narratives surrounding Early Years Education and Care (ECEC), Jean Piaget (1896-1980) and Lev Vygotsky (1896-1934) are omnipresent but no longer cited. The following excerpt taken from Development Matters in the Early Years Foundation Stage (EYFS, DfE, 2021), illustrates how traces do remain (if you know what you are looking for) and are inextricably fused and woven into 21st century ideology of good practice.

Children need opportunities to develop their own play and independent exploration. This is enjoyable and motivating. They also need adults to ‘scaffold’ their learning by giving them just enough help to achieve something they could not do independently.

(EYFS, DfE, 2021:6)

I apologise for not offering much of a base level re the tenets of the theories. It is not an assumption, it is just that this conversation is more about today’s whispers than yesterday’s shouts, and rather than adding more words to my already too many, I have decided to include infographics as to the basic elements of the theories below.

Congruence, difference

Over the years the theories of Piaget and Vygotsky have been ceaselessly compared to each other. It is an easy comparison. Both were born in the same year (1896); both were deeply curious as to understanding ways in which children think such that they made it their lifetime’s work, and both believed that knowledge is constructed through interaction with the environment. Piaget’s theories focused on hands-on exploration, discovery and the continuous adaption of cognitive structures to the environment: the intrapersonal processes of cognitive development. His fixed stages of development have been much criticised for their perpetuating of a deficit model of the developing child’s abilities (Donaldson, 1978), as has the ethical rigour of his research, and his lack of emphasis on the social and cultural environment led to the ‘popularized reduction’ (Aslanian, 2018:419) of child as ‘lone scientist’. But Piaget remains one of the best known cognitive development theorists today and he was amongst the first to recognise that children think differently to adults (Aslanian, 2018). Vygotsky also believed that knowledge is constructed, with ‘construction’ taking place through and with another on the social plane in a mediated space through cultural tools such as language with dialogue driving development and higher-level thinking. Today aided greatly by neuroscientific research, a collective understanding increasingly sees, ‘the biological and the social as interwoven and the ramifications of this interconnectivity is increasingly reflected upon within education research’ (Youdell, 2016 in Aslanian, 2018: 419). Brocke (2022) suggests that a focus on the differences (of Piaget and Vygotsky) has, ‘hindered pedagogical progression in the early years’ preventing the seeing of, ‘One of the most important advances in early childhood education that these two great theorists have contributed to is the notion of emergence, emergent development’ (L. Brocke, ‘personal communication’, November 2, 2022). And, despite the two never having met, texts about them are peppered with reference to their either re-evaluating aspects of their own theories (Piaget) through the other’s findings or lamenting such binary interpretation of their theories (Bruce, 2006 in Conkbayir & Pascal, 2014:78; Cole and Wertsch (2004)). Overlaps are many and elements of Vygotsky’s theories and a more social zone of mediation is conjured by Piaget’s description of the developing child as an ‘organism, in constant mutual interaction and mutual development with its environment (Piaget, 1952 in Aslanian, 2018:419). The very young child says Brocke (2022) are formulating their schemes and schemas ‘through observation and imitation; they learn most of their new actions and behaviours from significant adults and children around them’ (L. Brocke, ‘personal communication’, November 2, 2022). And so too a more-than-human focus might be glimpsed in Vygotsky’s centre-stage placing of ‘object’ in child’s play as ‘pivotal’ role in driving development of symbolic thought (Sawyer, 2003). ‘

 Play

Vygotsky’s theories on play are generally considered to have contributed greatly towards shaping current understanding of the crucial importance and unequivocal impact of ‘play’ upon human learning and development (Bruce, 2018; Bodrova, 2003). Believing that, ‘… play is in advance of development…In play a child is always above his average age, above his daily behaviour’ (Vygotsky, 2016:18). Vygotsky saw the child in play as creating their ‘zone of proximal development’ (ZPD). By this referring to how during play, the child’s thinking undergoes a major transformation whereby the ‘purely situational constraints of early childhood and thought’ are ‘free of real situations’, through ‘symbolic-functioning’ (Vygotsky, 2016: 14), whereby, ‘an object – becomes a pivot for severing the meaning of horse from a real horse’ (Vygotsky, 2016: 13). Piaget’s theories regarding play run parallel to his cognitive stage theory, commencing with the hands-on manipulation of sensorimotor. A belief that ‘manual work is essential to the child’s mental development’ (Piaget, 1962, in Lillard 2015: 428) is traced directly to Montessori (2005, in Lillard 2015). And, although lesser well known, Piaget’s findings on play continue to exert profound impact upon current understandings in that through play children work through (assimilate) difficult life experiences (Piaget, 1962, in Lillard, 2015: 428).

There is no ‘lone’ about being amidst the matter in the prepared environment.

With every detail of the prepared environment so carefully chosen and evaluated for its role in supporting agency and building a culture of exploratory disposition, there is no ‘lone’ in the learning community of a Montessori classroom.

Interestingly, the word used by Vygotsky is his original writings, ‘obucheniye’ translates from Russian to English as a merger of both teaching and learning (Bodrova & Leong, 2007). This is the ZPD within play, here is the ‘emergent child’, arguably Vygotsky’s most well-known legacy, described as ‘the distance between the actual developmental level as determined by independent problem solving and the level of potential development as determined through problem solving under adult guidance or in collaboration with more capable peers’ (Vygotsky, 1978:86). When I first read the following sentence by Beata Bednarczuk, ‘Learning in the prepared environment is interpreted as working in the zone of proximal development’ (Bednarczuk, 2022:167) I interpreted it as how flattening of the ontological hierarchy of the material and human within the Montessori environment has had the galvanizing effect of turning all elements in the prepared environment into the More Knowledgeable Other (MKO). The materials with their embedded incremental levels of complexity, control of error, and potential to motivate and challenge a curious child to the outermost borders of their capabilities. Matter and child mingle, and matter becomes mediator of culture. Interestingly, Vygotsky’s students later drew a similar parallel between his and Montessori’s theories through suggesting that embedded in the ‘prepared’ (Montessori) environment lay the ‘sensory standards’ of the prevalent culture offering the learner so much more than the hands-on manipulation of inherent physical qualities (Venger, 1988, in Bodrova, 2003:32).

With the notion of matter as MKO, I am brought to mind of one particular child at my school. I will call her Asami. Asami spoke neither of the bi-lingual setting’s two spoken languages but would spend her days tucked in next to the shelves of Practical Life deeply in communion with the materials. Bead threading and Piçage (following a drawn line on paper with the point of an awl to cut out a shape) were her favourites. I have never seen a child so deeply and utterly engaged for such long periods of time. On the edges of the map both physically and socially but participating so unequivocally and with such profound sensibility in the whole shifting form of the cohesion of the environment. Asami’s threading or Piçage was always accompanied by smiling, giggles and a stream of barely audible commentary in her mother tongue Japanese. The delicious secrets of childhood contained within these actions and this vocalised stream of conscience. And of course, Asami was surrounded by the constant stream of movement and babble of her peers as they steered their own myriad pathways – I see it clearly as a kind of simultaneously moving and static time-lapse photographic sequence. There was nothing ‘lone’ about Asami’s being amidst the matter.

Animism

This notion of communion with and of the powers inherent in the material elements of the environment is explored in Teresa Aslanian’s (2018) ‘re-cycling’ of Piaget. This stunning re-reading through a lens of post-humanist and current neuroscientific understanding, dusts off, re-sees and re-celebrates Piaget and providing a fresh and welcome perspective. Aslanian (2018) laments over how the complexity and nuance of Piaget’s earliest qualitative research and ground-breaking understanding of the child’s way of thinking as being ‘different’ (to the adult) has been lost through its being shaped as ‘deficit’ (to the adult’s ‘right’ versions of the world) (Donaldsons, 1978). A child’s, ‘intuitive sense of the entanglement of matter and meaning’ (Aslanian, 2018:422), which Piaget called, ‘ontological egocentricity’ (Piaget, 1929/1967, in Aslanian, 2018) is explored through participation of wills and animism, ‘the attribution of a living soul to plants, inanimate objects, and natural phenomena’ (Oxford Languages, 2022). Aslanian (2018) suggests we look instead at children’s understandings through an anthropological lens which sees ‘a child’s conceptions of the world as a type of local knowledge’ (Geertz, 1993 in Aslanian, 2018), and therefore not as deficit in any way.

Children’s conceptions of the world are children’s knowledge; they are the concepts through which children make meaning in the world and as such are more than preconceptions or misconceptions. Children’s knowledge matters, and for children, matter seems to matter.

(Alsanian, 2018:423).

Conclusion

The other day standing at the bus station in my local town, a grim cold place of concrete and metal where humankind and all sorts of unwanted grubby matter mingle, I was witness to a microcosm of learning in action. A child of approximately 18 months old was running in ever increasing circles away from her mother; round and round, active, engaged, engaging, agentic, using verbal language – ‘Bye’, non-verbal language – positioning, eye contact, facial expression, hand wave. With each successive circle she extended her reach away from Mum, capturing a larger circle of participants each time, observing, smiling, returning her ‘Bye’, mirroring her wave…Describing her granddaughters, Barbara (2022) recounts how, ‘Watching the interaction between our two granddaughters and how much social learning is taking place for both of them as they re-enact the classroom events of the day – this seems to be far more significant for both of them than the content of the learning’ (B. Isaacs, personal communication, 29 November 2022). These observations are timeless, as with the vignette of Asami, these children’s learning is palpable, fabulous; deeply owned. It is situated, embodied, relational; the children agentic, and with indefatigable creative resourcefulness, utilising and incorporating all available resources.

The list of learning theories we could apply to these vignettes is vast; the voices of Piaget and Vygotsky are here and here strongly but they are in good company and never alone. This circle too is ever growing larger and larger with new voices, new perspectives and new theories. Piaget and Vygotsky might have joined the ranks of the no-longer-cited but that is not to say that they are no longer heard.  

Reference List

Aslanian, T. K. (2018) Recycling Piaget: Posthumanism and making children’s knowledge matter, Educational Philosophy and Theory, 50:4, 417-427, DOI: 10.1080/00131857.2017.1377068

Baker,S. (undated) Oppression, agency, play and education, Play Pieces, Pedal, Play in Educational Development and Learning, Available from: https://www.pedalhub.net/play-pieces/post/o-oppression-agency-play-and-education/ (Date accessed 26 October 2022)

Bednarczuk Perspectives of Montessori edited by Jaap de Brouwer and Patrick Sins and published by Saxion Progressive Education University Press , October 2022.  The chapter is entitled Building a Montessori environment in Lublin: Past, Present and Future Perspective

Bodrova, E. Leong, D. J. (2007) Tools of the Mind: the Vygotskian Approach to Early Childhood, Journal of Cognitive Education and Psychology Volume 17, Number 3, 2018

Collins Dictionary Online

https://www.collinsdictionary.com/dictionary/english/in-theory Date accessed 29 October 2022

David, T, (Wednesday, January 18, 2006) Early Years Pioneers: Jean Piaget, Nursery world Available at: https://www.nurseryworld.co.uk/features/article/early-years-pioneers-jean-piaget(Date accessed: 30 November 2022)

Development Matters in the Early Years Foundation Stage (EYFS). Department for Education. Available at: < https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/development-matters–2 [Accessed 29 November 2022]

Grenier, J. (Thursday, 2 September, 2010) Susan Isaacs and Jean Piaget: a chance encounter, Inside the Secret Garden, Available from : http://juliangrenier.blogspot.com/2010/09/chance-encounter.html (date accessed 5 December 2022)

Lillard, A. S. (2015). The development of play. In L. S. Liben, U. Müller, & R. M. Lerner (Eds.), Handbook of child psychology and developmental science: Cognitive processes (pp. 425–468). John Wiley & Sons, Inc.. https://doi.org/10.1002/9781118963418.childpsy211

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