“Many educators see the works of Jean Piaget and Lev Vygotsky as exact opposites when it comes to their pedagogies. Jean Piaget, it is argued, focused on the primacy of the individual in his Genetic Epistemology. On the other hand, many believe that Lev Vygotsky focused in his Cultural–Historical Theory on the social aspects of learning.” (Susan Pass, 2007)
The opening of Dr. Susan Pass’ article brings to the forefront a dichotomy of theory and practice that many teachers struggle with. When implementing best practice, which is more important: social interaction and group work or individual study? Which method is most beneficial to students? Should more time be spent on individual learning or group work? Do we encourage students to work together to solve quantitative problems or does this undermine the individual's intellect?
In my experience, this question is so pivotal in early childhood philosophies that it is the distinguishing factor among alternative and non-traditional school methodologies. As parents, this question looms over our choices for early care, primary, and post-primary schooling. As teachers, it guides us to search for answers in the expertise of those in our field who made the study of children and learning their main focus in academia.
I have found this dichotomy of educational practice of great importance to myself as an educator and as a parent. As an advocate for best practice for early learners and as an involved parent I want to know that I am implementing what is best for my students and my children. The answer to this question (individual versus social) is key in order to continue creating interactive environments and activities that engage children on an emotional and academic level.
Both Jean Piaget and Lev Vygotsky are important figures in early childhood education. It is their theories that educators, psychologists and neuroscientists turn to when exploring how children learn and the best way to educate young learners. Jean Piaget and Lev Vygotsky, the founders of Constructivist Theory, paved the way for more unconventional thinking when it comes to the teaching of young children. It is them that we turn to now.
Jean Piaget saw children as constructing their own knowledge through experience and exploration of their environment. Heredity and environment held equal sway in the early stages of life because the child’s true learning came naturally through interaction with the world around her. He created the four stages of development based on chronological growth. The first three stages were unique to children in that their learning was based on activity and exploration rather than verbal skills or language acquisition.
Lev Vygotsky saw children in much the same way. He viewed them as capable of constructing their own knowledge through experience. He strongly believed that through social interaction children gained knowledge and skills that would otherwise elude them. His belief in social development led him to propose that verbal skills and language acquisition were paramount at a young age in order for optimal early learning experiences.
It is generally understood that although both psychologists were Constructivist, believing the need for the child to be the director of her own learning, they differed on the manner of how that learning was acquired. The general thought goes something like this: Piaget valued individualistic learning free of top down interpretation, while Vygotsky favored social interaction and relationship building as a means to form solid schemas. Being the leaders of early education pedagogy, it is not hard to see why there is a schism in teaching practices. While this general thought holds some validity, it is not entirely accurate.
It is because of this seeming rift in ideology that I was delighted, while doing research for a paper, to come across Susan Pass’ article detailing communicate between Vygotsky and Piaget. I was curious. What did they talk about? Did they argue? Were their ideas so polar opposite that they could not see the merit in each others philosophies? Nothing could be further from the truth.
Due to the tumultuous political situation of their time, Vygotsky and Piaget could only communicate in a limited way. Even so, they influenced each other’s work and theory, so much so that Vygotsky incorporated the four stages of human cognitive development into his theory. Before corresponding with Piaget he had only three stages. The only difference being that Vygotsky would not give them chronological equivalents. In turn, Piaget adopted Vygotsky’s view of the value of internal speech for cognitive development. Previously, in his book Language and Thought of the Child, Piaget concedes that the individual path is not the only way to learn.
Had the two researchers been able to communicate freely, their theories might not have ended up so opposed to one another. Interaction with the environment is key in both theories and the idea that the teacher does not and should never impose solutions without first allowing the child to test and try for themselves is also paramount to both. Their collaboration itself is inspiring. It moves educators and researchers to do the same. The more we cross communicate with other educators and researchers in our field the more we can introduce best educational practices in our schools and homes.
As Reggio educators, we try to value both methods of learning. We attempt to view the child, the environment, and the teacher as three essential and equally important components of a rich education. Working together in mutual symbiosis, the child and teacher develop and grow simultaneously. Time is provided for individual contemplation and problem-solving and time is provided for peers and teacher collaboration. The key is not that ‘Brad’ learned to count to fifty all by himself. It is that he learned how to do it and he did so by pulling from all available resources, whether that is personal knowledge he built over time or by collaboration with peers and co-researchers.
By seeking experiences that engage children both as individual learners and social beings capable of collaboration we create an environment of open communication where children are not afraid of not knowing an answer. In fact, ‘not knowing’ is the greatest thing that could happen in a Reggio-Inspired classroom, for now the entire class can embark on a journey of discovery.
The idea that knowledge is gained in isolation at a desk while a student writes notes and is encouraged to keep those notes private (or they’re cheating), is a fallacy. Ask any scientist, architect, lawyer, doctor, etc. and they will tell you of the many collaborative moments that led them to where they are now.
So when seeking education for your own child, look for a school that values both the individual aspects of knowledge acquisition and the social aspects. Learning and by proxy invention is gained through collaborative interactions coupled by time for deep individual thought.