Piaget – Vygotsky : lasting misunderstandings

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.

These criticisms are not new – far from it. 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 These criticisms are now largely outdated. I will not go back to them, but just briefly revisit Piaget’s position on these points. First, Piaget has always been interested in social development factors, and if he has not himself done 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; there is a difference here that has not always been recognized.

Piaget thought that the question of the role of language was already talked about a lot and preferred to focus on the cognitive domain, the domain to which he thought he could bring something new. 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 (Vygotskian and Vygotsky specialist) 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.

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. Again, Piaget is much clearer and more accurate than Vygotsky. 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.

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 ‘70s I was invited to the Department of Psychology at the University of Montreal, which had 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 (this 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.

Urie Bronfenbrenner, who claimed to be Vygotskian, was one of the first, in the ‘70s, 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 ‘80s, 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 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.

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