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Three psychologists of the 20th century developed three different theories of child and cognitive development. Two of these (Montessori and Piaget) said that children learn and develop in sequence. Vygotsky said that children learn using their social environment. He believed that a child’s community holds a major role in how children learn to “make meaning” of the world around them.

Each psychologist’s theory has had a strong impact on the education of today’s early childhood education methods. Montessori said that children should be allowed to direct their learning to the point that, if they are in an independent work period, they should not be required to interrupt it for a group activity.

Piaget said that the cognitive development of a child involves changes in their cognitive process and abilities as they age. Early cognitive development influences later progression into how the child adapts their mental operations as they get older.

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Piaget’s Stages of Cognitive Development

Jean Piaget, a Swiss psychologist, developed several key concepts. First, “schemas” involve the physical and mental actions in learning, understanding, and knowing. Schemas involve anything a child is learning about. If the child’s family has a cat, they develop a schema about felines: small, fluffy, cute, makes purring sounds.

If the child goes to the zoo with their family and they see the tigers’ cage, they may be surprised at the size of those cats. This forces them to modify an existing schema about cats. Now, they need to add new information about the large size of tigers and lions. Mentally, they will modify that previous schema so they can easily include the new information.

Next, Piaget said that children who are adding new information to a schema are assimilating that information. Children try to modify information or their experiences so that they fit into beliefs they already hold.

Next, they attempt to create a comfortable balance between assimilation and accommodation, using a process called equilibration. As children move through each stage of cognitive development, they work at keeping that balance between using new knowledge and changing their behavior/schema to account for new knowledge they have learned (assimilation and accommodation). By using equilibration, children can progress more easily from one developmental stage of thought and into the next one.

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Vygotsky’s Theory of Social Development

Vygotsky’s theory differs a little because he says that social interaction has a strong influence on how children develop cognitively. Children rely on people or devices with knowledge they don’t yet have.

The adult, more experienced peer, or (in today’s world) an electronic learning device is referred to as the More Knowledgeable Other or MKO. A teen or adult child can be an MKO to an adult who wants to learn something new about teen culture or a new electronic device.

Learners work within a Zone of Proximal Development or ZPD. This zone consists of three circles, with 2 inside the outermost circle. Within the smallest, interior circle, is what the child already knows. The next, larger circle contains information that the child still doesn’t know but is capable of learning with assistance from an MKO. The largest, exterior circle consists of information, skills, or knowledge that the child can’t yet learn, even with help.

Vygotsky believed that the MKO should teach the learner only what is within reach, in the zone of proximal development, with guidance and encouragement. The MKO demonstrates the new skill, then begins to guide the child through each step, and then the student can progress to more complicated skills that were previously out of range for them.

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Montessori Theory of Education and Learning

After Montessori was able to successfully treat mentally disabled children who were thought to be impossible to educate, she decided she wanted to determine the potential of regular children who had no problems learning.

Working with children living in the San Lorenz slum, she developed her own theory, which is based on Periods of Development. She proposed the idea of Conducive Learning, where children were grouped based on periods of development. Children are grouped in three-year or six-year spans and work with the same teacher during this period.

The youngest group (Nido) is aged 0 to 1, or until the child is walking. The second group is the Infant Community, aged 1 to about 2 and a half or three. Group three is the “Casa dei Bambini,” aged 2.5 or 3 to 6.

Group four covers a wider age range, from 6 to 12. The children in this group have the same learning habits and tendencies. Their emotional and physical growth tends to be steadier, and their intellectual work is strong. In this group, the younger children are inspired by and learn from the older children. Finally, the next grouping is 12 to 15-year-olds. Montessori proposed a farm school for this age group, giving the children real farm work to do.

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Stages vs. Planes of Development

Piaget based his theory on what he saw as a child’s stages of development. These included:

  • Sensorimotor, from birth to 2 years. They use their senses to learn about the world.
  • Preoperational Period, from 2 to 7 years. They learn and develop language and learning skills, but are self-centered, and can’t understand abstract reasoning or logic.
  • Concrete Operational Period, from 7 to 11 years. Now they think logically and organize their knowledge. They classify objects and work on thought problems.
  • Formal Operations Period, 11 to 15. The child starts reasoning more realistically about their future and deals better with abstractions.

Montessori worked using her own Planes of Development. These included:

  • Birth to 3 years: An absorbent mind, learning from the sensory
  • 18 months to 3 years: Begins muscle development and working on coordination - Likes smaller objects
  • 2 to 4 years: Refines movements - Focuses on truth and reality - Develops awareness of order sequences in time and space
  • 2.5 to 6 years: Sensory refinement
  • 3 to 6 years: Becoming susceptible to adult influence
  • 3.5 to 4.5 years: Works on writing
  • 4 to 4.4 years: Tactile senses begin to mature
  • 4.5 to 5.5 years: Works on reading

Piaget vs. Vygotsky

Piaget didn’t spend much time thinking about a child’s social context. Instead, he believed that their cognitive development revolves around changes in the cognitive process and the child’s abilities. Early cognitive development uses processes based on actions, then progresses to changes in mental operations.

He used schemas or categorization to explain how children learn, using both the physical and mental in learning. Within schemas, assimilation and accommodation also take place. Children also place already-known information with newly learned information in a process called equilibration. In his theory of child and human development babies, toddlers, preschoolers, children, teens, and young adults progress through four stages of learning and development. He said that the early cognitive development of a child involves processes that are based on actions. This development then progresses into changes in mental operations.

Vygotsky believed that social interactions have a big influence on the development of cognition. He also felt that the community surrounding a child holds a role in how children make meaning out of everything they see, learn, feel, and hear.

He introduced the More Knowledgeable Other as a source of experience and learning for a child. This MKO can be a parent, teacher, or relative of the child. This person can also be a younger child or teen who teaches an older adult or family friend about using electronics or learning a new dance, for instance.

Next, he introduced the Zone of Proximal Development (ZPD) in where the most sensitive guidance should be provided, allowing the child to learn by practicing.

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What Do They have in Common?

Between Piaget and Montessori, both psychologists believe that young children begin to work on the refinement of their movements early. At 3.5 to 7 years (covering the developmental periods for both professionals), children begin to develop drawing and writing skills.

While Vygotsky didn’t divide child development into age groups, he did believe that a child could progress to this stage if that was what was culturally expected of him. If the majority of children in a certain age group know a certain skill, then one of them, or a teacher-figure, will act as the MKO for that child and he will inevitably also learn that skill.

In all three theories, the psychologists say that every child begins to learn about their world by using their senses. Vygotsky calls it “making meaning.” Piaget says that children obtain knowledge or their environment through the five senses.

Vygotsky’s Zone of Proximal Development (ZPD) is similar to Montessori’s Planes of Development and Piaget gives each developmental stage a name (sensorimotor, preoperational, formal operations).

Likewise, Vygotsky’s ZPD has an outer ring that denotes all the information that a child is not yet ready to learn. Montessori’s planes of development show that some learning may be out of reach of children at various stages. Piaget does the same thing, noting that there are things children can’t learn until they reach a certain cognitive level.


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How These Theories Manifest in the Classroom

Children are social creatures. When they start school, they are one of 20 or more other students who are ready to begin formal learning.

Montessori created a model for learning that is known the world over. Montessori-based schools exist in most communities around the world. Individual classrooms and teachers in a Montessori school don’t teach traditionally. Instead, they are based on conducive learning, with multi-aged groups. The teacher doesn’t actively teach the entire classroom. Instead, they have a more generalized lesson plan. They introduce children to a concept using a book, lesson, or lecture. As the children learn, individually and with older children, they process the information, then “know” the knowledge and demonstrate this by passing a test, completing a project, expressing what they have learned, or by teaching another student.

Montessori said that children are always learning something new, which prepares them to learn another new thing. This is indirect learning. The entire class isn’t learning the same thing as classmates; they are working at their own pace, using the environment, and working with other classmates. The teacher teaches one child at a time. All areas of study link together and students can work on them in the order they choose.

In Piaget’s theory, assimilation, accommodation, and equilibration all work in a classroom setting. Children learn something new in the primary grades; as they progress grade by grade, they encounter the same information at a higher level of difficulty.

Vygotsky’s theory relies much more on the social interactions between children, adults, and society in general. Because of the social networks between children and their families, children can go to someone they know to ask for help in learning something new.

Constructivism Explained

“Constructivism” is a learning theory that says humans construct their knowledge using hands-on experience rather than being taught abstract concepts from books. The teacher who uses constructivism in teaching students does everything they can to give students hands-on experiences, using people and objects. The teacher also asks students to use any skills they have already learned.

It’s a constructivist learning process to use materials to learn about assembly lines and what working conditions were like when assembly lines were most in use.

When the teacher has students use wrapping paper to determine whether it’s sufficient to wrap two cans, students put together a mathematical formula to determine a cylinder’s area.

It’s also constructivist to have students read persuasive articles, decide which of the articles have features that make them the most effective, and then create a rubric that includes all of those qualities for their own persuasive papers. Once they have written their reports out, they will be assigned to read more persuasive papers so they can fine-tune their criteria even more.

Maria Montessori was a constructivist. She wrote, “Education is not something which the teacher does, but a natural process which develops spontaneously in the human being. It is not acquired by listening to words but in virtue of experiences in which the child acts on his environment.”

Lev Vygotsky was another constructivist. He wrote, “A child’s play is not simply a reproduction of what he has experienced, but a creative reworking of the impressions he has acquired. He combines them and uses them to construct a new reality.”

Jean Piaget was also a constructivist and said, “Each time one prematurely teaches a child something he could have discovered himself, that child is kept from inventing it and consequently from understanding it completely.”

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