The Influence of Piaget and Vygotsky on Everyday Elementary Classroom Teaching and Learning

Keywords: cognitive developmental theory, guided learning, kinesthetic learning,

sociocultural theory


Despite their academic findings taking place more than half of a century ago, the influence of educational researchers Jean Piaget and Lev Vygotskycan be found in school classrooms around the world today. Let’s look at how seminal theories provided by Piaget and Vygotsky are not only complementary but how they are commonly used in classroom teaching and learning.

Cognitive Developmental Theory

Piaget (1985) developed cognitive developmental theory which proposes that children actively construct knowledge as they manipulate and explore their world. Piaget (1970) observed that in infancy and early childhood, a child’s understanding is different from an adult’s understanding. His theory on cognitive development focused on adaptation. Adaptation is the building up of schemes through direct interaction with the environment. Schemes are psychological structures that are organized ways of making sense of experience (Berk, 2009).

Sociocultural Theory

Lev Vygotsky’s sociocultural theory focuses on culture, the values, beliefs, customs and skills of a social group and how it is transmitted to the next generation
(Vygotsky, 1978). Vygotsky asserted the importance of individual zones of proximal development (Z.P.D.) in collective interrelated zones. A zone of proximal development is a range of tasks too difficult for the child to do alone but possible with the help of adults and more skilled peers (Berk, 2009). Thus, we can view this thinking as a collaborative setting in which collective zones of proximal development exist.

The Complementariness of Piagetian and Vygotskian Thinking

Piaget and Vygotsky were in agreement that when one speaks of child development, one must give great attention to social factors. That is to say that internalization, which is the process of moral development as a matter of adopting societal standards for right action as one’s own, is not a process of copying material from the environment, but is a transformative process (DeVries, 2008). Moral development
through self- regulation was an important point of agreement for Piaget and Vygotsky. However, while Vygotsky viewed moral self-regulation, that is, the ability to monitor one’s own conduct, constantly adjusting it as circumstances present opportunities to violate inner standards, as behavioral in origin, Piaget (1985)
viewed moral self-regulation as psychological in origin.

Piaget is identified by educationalists as a cognitive constructivist because he viewed children as discovering or constructing, virtually all knowledge about their world through their own activity. Cognitive constructivism focuses on how the individual learner understands things, in terms of developmental stages and learning styles.
Educationalists identify Vygotsky’s approach to child development as that of a social constructivist. Social constructivism emphasizes how meanings and understandings grow out of social encounters. This approach focuses on the learner as an active maker of meaning in their world. The role of the teacher is to enter into a dialogue
with the learner, trying to understand the meaning to that learner of the material to be learned, and to help him/her to refine their understanding until it corresponds with that of the teacher (Bee, 2002). Additionally, both Piaget and Vygotsky recognized the important role that language plays in child development. While Vygotsky saw words as giving children scientific concepts, Piaget emphasized that children often use the same words as adults but that they mean something quite different (DeVries, 2008).

How have these theories affected curricula and pedagogy in Elementary

Assisted Discovery

Both of these theories on cognitive development have had a profound influence on the way Elementary schools structure their curricula and learning styles. Vygotskian classrooms accept individual difference and provide opportunities for children’s active participation through assisted discovery (Vygotsky, 1978). Teachers guide children’s
learning, tailoring their interventions to each child’s zone of proximal development. Assisted discovery is also fostered by peer collaboration. Vygotsky advocated the value of literacy activities once a child begins formal schooling. As children talk about
literature, mathematics, science and social studies, their teachers inform, correct and ask them to explain. As a result, children reflect on their own thought processes and shift to a higher level of cognitive activity in which they think about how to symbolize ideas in socially useful ways (Berk, 2009). Gradually, they will refine their ability to do so.

Reciprocal Teaching

While reciprocal teaching is a Vygotskian method of teaching often used to improve reading comprehension. In reciprocal teaching, a teacher and a small group of
students, for example two to four students, form a collaborative group and take turns leading dialogues on the content of a text passage. Within the dialogues, group members apply four cognitive strategies: questioning; summarizing; clarifying and predicting. The four cognitive strategies can take the following direction: the dialogue teacher, who is usually at first the teacher, begins by asking questions about the content of the text passage. Students offer answers, raise additional questions, and in case of disagreement re-read the original text. Next, the leader summarizes the passage, and children discuss the summary and clarify unfamiliar ideas. Finally, the leader encourages students to predict upcoming content based on clues in the passage. Reciprocal teaching creates a zone of proximal development in which children gradually learn to scaffold one another’s progress and assume more responsibility for comprehending text passages (Berk, 2009). Also, by collaborating with others, children forge group expectations for high level thinking and acquire skills vital for learning and success in daily life.

Discovery Learning

Piaget has had a major impact on education, especially during early childhood and middle childhood where Piagetian theoretical undercurrents that have had widespread influence on teacher training and classroom practices include: discovery learning; sensitivity to children’s readiness to learn; and the acceptance of individual differences (Berk, 2009). Through discovery learning, instead of providing ready-made knowledge verbally, teachers provide a rich variety of activities designed to promote exploration and discovery. Some examples of discovery learning activities may include art, puzzles, games, natural science tasks etc. Teachers carefully select and arrange materials so children who often vary widely in developmental progress
can construct more developed understandings. Teachers observe their students by watching and listening to them, and by introducing experiences that permit them to practice newly discovered schemes that challenge their incorrect ways of viewing the world and by not trying to hasten development by imposing new skills upon children
before children indicate interest or readiness, teachers can avoid educating children to superficially accept adult formulas rather than true understanding (Berk, 2009). Rather than only planning activities for the class as a whole, it is common for educational classroom leaders to plan and integrate small group and individual
centred learning activities too (Berk, 2009). Teachers evaluate educational progress in relation to the child’s previous development, rather than on the basis of normative standards, or average performance of same-age peers. By questioning, prompting and suggesting strategies, a teacher can keep a student within his/her zone of proximal development, and at a manageable level of difficulty. Consequently, Vygotsky (1978) saw inter-subjectivity, that is, the process whereby two participants who begin a task with different understandings arrive at a shared understanding, creating a common ground for communication, as each partner adjusts to the
perspective of the other. Teachers try to promote inter-subjectivity by translating their own insights in ways that are within the child’s grasp.

Scaffolding & Guided Participation

Scaffolding, that is, a Piagetian process of adjusting the support offered during
a teaching session to fit the child’s current level of performance, can be used to help a child to understand how to perform a task (Piaget, 1985). An adult can use direct instruction or simplify a task into understandable units, and by suggesting strategies, and offering reasons for using them. Scaffolding can be used effectively as a teaching and learning tool for children who are working on school or school-like tasks, such as academic assignments. A broader concept than scaffolding is guided participation (Rogoff, 1990) which involves the sharing of learning between an expert and less expert participants, without specifying the precise features of communication. It allows for variations across situations. Adult cognitive support through teaching in small steps and offering strategies encourages children’s mature thinking. Furthermore, adult emotional support by offering encouragement, and transferring
responsibility to the child fosters greater children’s effort (Berk, 2009).

What Elementary school classroom practices are inspired by these theories?

Both theorists recognized that children are active in the construction of knowledge. In particular, they both advocated a Whole Language approach to literacy. Vygotsky’s sociocultural theory of cognitive development denotes the importance of children acquiring language skills and gaining the ability to participate in dialogues with
others in order to learn. Piaget’s cognitive development theory encourages children to engage in discovery learning and have direct contact with the environment. Both theories identify with the value of a child participating in his/her learning development and that interaction with others, teachers and/or students, is beneficial to learning. These theories promote the collaboration of children in classroom activities as a positive and beneficial factor in learning. In particular, the sociocultural theory of cognitive development denotes the importance of establishing a sense of community in the classroom.

Guided learning – a Literacy class example

One example of the influence of the sociocultural theory of cognitive development in practical classroom learning activities is a whole language classroom approach taken in the literacy class. For example, students begin with a reading session where students can select books from a classroom library that they are interested in and use their own judgement about the degree of difficulty of the literary text and its
suitability for that student’s reading comprehension level. When a student finishes reading a book from cover to cover in class, they record this result on a collective class ‘finished book record’. This visual display can be successfully used to encourage students to demonstrate, at their own pace, what they have been reading and how
many books they have read. It can be suggested that any public record in the classroom demonstrates individual goals being completed in a group learning environment, rather than in a competitive goals being achieved by individuals. Upon the completion of a silent reading exercise, the whole class can be divided into workshop study groups that enable students to share their reactions, analyses and questions about books with peers and teachers. In groups of four students,
groups use a twice weekly rotational group system of one group reading aloud with the teacher, from a class library text (of which there need to be several copies); a second group reads together and practices the content of the next page or next chapter; a third group plays a word bingo game to build vocabulary and practice sounds; the last group works on grammar, punctuation and puzzle laminated word
sheets (of which there are tens in the series and made by the teacher). In this last rotation group, each student writes the work content into their Reading Exercise pads and answers the questions. While ability grouping may be evident, groups can be arranged so that there are stronger and weaker readers. Students, in mixed ability
workshop settings, have opportunities to study and enjoy learning literacy based learning tasks with students of varying abilities. They share each other’s learning experiences through verbal, written and aural communication. By creating a highly literate environment centred on different types of literacy based tasks being used, understood and learned, students learn reading and writing skills but not in
isolation or in a successive stage manner, for example, reading only assigned texts, filling out worksheets, and taking tests. This emphasizes the creation of authentic social contexts, in which children use, try out and manipulate language as they make sense and create meaning (Bee, 2002). This whole language approach to teaching
and learning allows students to internalize the dialogues that they participate in and subsequently use their language and communication skills to guide their own thoughts and actions and to acquire new skills. This approach to cognitive development is congruous with Vygotsky’s sociocultural theory.

Kinesthetic learning – a Science class example

Both Piaget and Vygotsky thought that curriculum should be based on children’s interests. Curriculum developers recommend that teachers consult children about what they want to study. Thus, Piaget and Vygotsky saw children’s interest as crucial to successful individual construction of knowledge (Berk, 2009). They share the
perspective that curriculum is an emergent process. Based on Piaget’s theory of cognitive development, the instructional delivery in a ‘middle childhood aged’ grade classroom should be mostly kinesthetic, that is, the student actively carries out an
activity rather than passively learning via a teacher’s lecture or by watching a demonstration (Bee, 2002). Children should be given assignments that are hands on, something that they can physically do and experiment with and be able to see and touch the project at hand. An example of this approach to teaching and learning is a Science class experiment about surface tension. Students are given two coins, a smaller one and a larger one, the coins shared between partners, and students are given a water dispensing dropper and a small container of water. Students have to predict the number of water drops that they can place on the total surface area of the
coins without bursting the surface tension. By physically acting the experiment out, instead of just reading about it in a book, students are able understand and process the information so that they can retain the information learned. Students are likely to have knowledge of water and what happens to it when the volume of water tension is too great. They can use this prior knowledge to hypothesize for this new experiment. Each student, although in pairs, acts to construct knowledge and explore their
learning opportunity. The construction of knowledge is congruous with Piaget’s theory of cognitive development.

Classroom Management

In terms of classroom management, teachers often strive to understand the different developmental stages that children go through. At each stage, the child attains
something different, a new scheme. With this in mind, teachers often gear their classroom environment appropriately (Bee, 2002). Piaget recognized the importance of age related cognitive development and the need for learning objectives to match age periods of development. In the above stated Science class, the teacher will understand that rather than talking to the students, he/she should check with the
students for their level of understanding and talking in a register that suits the maturity of development that matches this grade level. This can be done by asking pairs of students and the whole class several questions, such as, “What we are doing right now?” and “What are the steps to do this problem? Student A? Student B?”
When a student does something or answers a question right, they are positively reinforced so that they will want to participate in the activity and succeed more. Through these teacher assisted student centered experiences, students learn the right and wrong things, thus they reinforce learning behavior (Bee, 2002).

Educational games

While Vygotsky viewed make-believe play and games as a central source of development during early childhood and early middle childhood. As children grow and mature, they realize that thinking of the meanings of words is separate from objects and that ideas can be used to guide behavior (Berk, 2009). Both in the classroom based and extra-curricular based activities, students in middle childhood enjoy
participating in organized games with rules. Formal games often involve two or more sides, competition, and agreed-upon criteria for determining a winner. Children use games flexibly to meet social and intellectual needs. For example, choosing sides may affirm friendship and a pecking order. Games provide children with shared activities and goals. Children often negotiate rules in order to create the game they wish to play and they can learn reasoning strategies and skills from strategy games like checkers and chess. Board games are often found in a classroom’s games section and are evidence of the significance of games in cognitive development. While
playing games, children must consider at the same time both offensive alternatives and the need for defense. In the case of card games students can be encouraged to gain awareness of mathematics and of the psychology of opponents. Such games can be intellectually motivating parts of primary school curriculum (Meluso, Zheng, & Spires, 2012).


In conclusion, the influence of both Jean Piaget and Len Vygotsky in everyday classroom teaching and learning is ubquitos. The study of theorists and their theories is something that all professional school teachers encounter on their journey through
pre-service teacher education and that they are likely to encounter again and again throughout their career as in-service teachers. As demonstrated in this paper, theories can be utilized in a vareity of practical forms of teaching and learning and that they can complement each other in their application of achieving educational