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By Pierre Moessinger

I was surprised to recently find several YouTube videos on the Piaget-Vygotsky debate, apparently made by American educators openly siding with Vygotsky, and conveying old prejudices against Piaget. Here is an example :

This video, in particular, suggests that Piaget underestimates the importance of language and social transmission, and that he is not able to explain learning due to his focus on the stages of cognitive development.

Behaviorism + Vygotsky

These criticisms are not new. They have two origins, not always very distinct: one in the American behaviorist tradition, the other in currents of thought influenced by Vygotsky. These criticisms are now largely outdated, except in educational circles. I will just briefly revisit Piaget’s position on these points. First, Piaget has always been interested in social development factors, and although he did not himself make studies on this topic, he often cited international comparisons or comparisons between town and country in different places, showing significant age differences in the acquisition of stages. He said that social circumstances are necessary (but not sufficient) for cognitive development. We cannot say that he underestimated the role of social circumstances, but we can certainly say that he had little interest in studying them.

Talking about language

The same can be said for the role of language. Piaget thought that the role of language in learning and development was overstated, which does not mean that he ignored it, neither that he underestimated it or neglected it. To show that he underestimated language, one would have to show the importance of language in cognitive development, i.e., in processing to the next cognitive stage. I note, in passing, that Piaget was not much interested in affectivity either, and he has not been blamed for this. When, one day, Marvin Minsky asked him why he was not more interested in affectivity, he replied that it was too complicated. Minsky then noted that Freud had said the same thing when asked why he was not interested in cognitive development. And again, Freud was not, that I know, criticized this lack of interest in cognitive development. But back to Piaget and Vygotsky. In Thought and Language, Vygotsky takes issue with the “egocentric language” of Piaget, which Vygotsky sees as the beginning of verbal thought and communication, whereas for Piaget it is more egocentric than social. This is Vygotsky’s major disagreement with Piaget on the question of language. But I note that Jean-Paul Bronckart (a Piaget student turned Vygotskian) has scrutinized this question, and has come to the conclusion that nowhere has Vygotsky shown how signals could be transformed into thoughts, in other words that Vygotsky has not shown precisely the role of language in thinking and learning (Bronckart, 1996).

Learning and development

I have to address the issue of the “zone of proximal development” mentioned in the video above. This Vygotskian concept designates the area in which learning is possible. Matthew Lipman (in Natasha: Vygotskian dialogues) says that this is the great idea of Vygotsky’s. According to Lipman, Piaget is only interested in what the child is capable of understanding now, while Vygotsky is interested in what he is capable of understanding tomorrow. Obviously, presenting things in this way gives a kind of advantage to Vygotsky, at least an educational advantage. It is useless to mention that Piaget has never denied the possibility of learning – nobody claims this – but it is true that learning is not his primary focus. Nevertheless, his theory allows specifying precisely the type of concepts that the child will be able to learn tomorrow, and even more specifically, the ones he will not be able to learn. It also predicts the kind of things he will be able to learn after tomorrow, when he will be in the next stage. In turn, what Vygotsky says with the “zone of proximal development,” basically, is that, in order to learn, there must be some learning potential. I’m not sure he saw how trivial or trite this idea is.

American versus Genevan theories of development

Although I am surprised these controversies still exist, I cannot say they surprise me by their novelty. The hazards of my career path have led me into the center of the “learning” controversy around Piaget, even forcing me to take part, while it was not my specialty (I was interested in moral and social psychology). In the late 70’s I was invited to the Department of Psychology at the University of Montreal, which hosted the best specialists of Piaget in North America, Adrien Pinard and Monique Laurendeau. The controversy around Piaget, which was in a way arbitrated by Pinard and Laurendeau, was about knowing whether cognitive development could be triggered by “models” – that is, by the environment in the broad sense, or by external stimuli if you will (it was the “American” theory), or by the child becoming aware of his own contradictions (it was the “Genevan” theory). In other words, supporters of the American theory were much closer to the idea of a zone of proximal development that Genevans, even if the issue was not raised in Vygotskian terms. Let’s say, for the sake of brevity, that this problem has absorbed a huge amount of energy, to end up in a kind of tie, the Americans having shown that there could be cognitive development without the subject being faced with a contradiction, while the Genevans demonstrated that their method gave more stable results.

Vygotsky again

Urie Bronfenbrenner, who claimed to be Vygotskian, was one of the first, in the 70’s, to publish studies criticizing Piaget for not bringing enough attention to the social environment of the child. He was followed by Klaus Riegel, among others, and researchers he had attracted around Human Development. In the early 80’s, I was invited by John Broughton, with whom I edited New Ideas in Psychology, to teach at Columbia University. John introduced me to Klaus Riegel’s circle. I found myself again in the center of attacks against Piaget, though very different from those of behaviorist psychology, as I wrote a few articles about Piaget’s recent work for Human Development. It was no longer a battle of experiments, but rather open-minded debates about ideas. The individuals involved in these discussions were looking for a kind of theoretical support for resisting behaviorism; they were interested in Piaget, but tended to consider him too rationalistic. Broughton and the Riegel group were among the people who had chosen to rely on Marxism and Vygotskianism (and also Hegelianism for Riegel). But participants in these debates came from very different backgrounds, and the Piaget-Vygotsky opposition, after a period of questioning Piaget, eventually faded out to make room for other issues (cultural psychology, lifespan development, moral psychology, identity, etc.).

The fact that today’s Vygotskians say what yesterday’s Vygotskians said is not in itself surprising. What is at issue, it seems to me, is that today’s Vygotskian declarations continue to support – perhaps I should say to rely on – very rough ideas about Piaget, suggesting, for example, that Piaget’s theory cannot account for learning, or that Piaget did not understand the importance of language or social transmission. It is true that Piaget is difficult to access: he uses an obscure language, and the least we can say is that he does not try to seduce the reader; moreover, he wrote extensively, which may also discourage students of his work. But the most important thing about these misunderstandings, maintained primarily by educators, is that Piaget is not an educationalist. He comes very close, but is beside problems posed to teachers, which is without doubt somewhat frustrating for them.

Some may dream of a “grand theory” for pedagogy, but this prospect is bound to remain a dream, as pedagogy is not a fundamental (or basic) discipline, like psychology or sociology, but an applied (or technological) one. Its purpose is to transform the world, not just to study it. In this regard, it could be compared to social work, clinical psychology, or nursing, for example, which have practical aims, and are thus subject to these aims. Of course, pedagogy rests on psychology, sociology, and some other fields: one cannot transmit knowledge without using  notions borrowed from these disciplines. Of course, pedagogy tries to elaborate its own “tools”, but tools always depend on what we want to do with them; again, some would wish to anchor these tools in an independent theory. It is this desire for theoretical independence which makes Vygotsky’s ideas so attractive to educationalists. But any “grand” theory about teaching and learning is bound to slip out of pedagogy and to switch to a fundamental discipline.

Bronckart, J.P.  (1996) Units of analysis and their interpretation: Social interactionism or logical interactionism?  In J. Voneche & A. Tryphon, Piaget – Vygotsky: The Social Genesis of Thought.

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