Social Context Theories

"The principle goal of education is to create men who are capable of doing new things, not simply of repeating what other generations have done - men who are creative, inventive and discoverers”


Jean Piaget

Jean Piaget is known for his model of child development and learning. The basis of Piaget’s theory is within the idea that children develop in stages through building upon past experiences. Children use existing knowledge (schemas) to make sense of new understandings and ideas. Within their minds, children create mental networks that help them to understand unfamiliar information. Children work from existing schemas to create more complex understandings of the world around them. Known as cognitive development theory, Piaget’s ground breaking understanding of child brain development has changed the way psychologists, educators, and parents understand their children.

Cognitive Development Theory
Children and adolescents continuously construct intelligence as they operate and discover their world.
• Cognitive-Development take places in four main stages:
• Sensorimotor (Infant-2 years)
• Preoperational (2-7 years)
• Concrete Operational stage (7-11 years)
• Formal Operational stage (11 years and older)

“Knowledge, then, is a system of transformations that become progressively adequate.” -Jean Piaget

Stages of Intellectual Development

The stages of intellectual development formulated by Piaget appear to be related to major developments in brain growth. The human brain is not fully developed until late adolescence or in the case of males sometimes early adulthood. We often expect children to think like adults when they are not yet capable of doing so. It is important that parents know what to expect from their child as they develop and to be sure that the expectations they may have for their child at a given age are realistic.


•Each stage is based on the development in the previous stages.

•We are constantly reaching new levels of understanding.

•A person in a given stage will be in the same stage for all developmental domains: mathematical reasoning, social skills, conversation skills, etc.

•People develop through these stages regardless of culture.

“Anything you tell a child, you prevent him from discovering himself.” -Jean Piaget

The Nature of Intelligence According to Piaget

•Intelligence is not static.
•Intelligence cannot be quantitatively assessed.
•Intelligence is a living system that grows and develops.
•Knowing is a process.
•Intelligence is active, dynamic, and continually changing.

Constructivism Vs. Behaviorism

•Constructivism: children should develop at their own rates and learn things for themselves
•Behaviorism: emphasis on the stimulus and being able to control development through the appropriate conditioning

The Problem with Direct Teaching

•Children do not learn by repeating and internalizing someone else’s perception and reasoning. Children need to construct meaning for themselves if it is to have lasting impact on their thinking.

Sensory Motor Period
(0 - 24 months)

Developmental Stage
& Approximate Age Characteristic Behavior
Reflexive Stage
(0-2 months)
Simple reflex activity such as grasping, sucking.
Primary Circular Reactions
(2-4 months)
Reflexive behaviors occur in stereotyped repetition such as opening and closing fingers repetitively.
Secondary Circular Reactions
(4-8 months)
Repetition of change actions to reproduce interesting consequences such as kicking one's feet to more a mobile suspended over the crib.
Coordination of Secondary Reactions
(8-12 months)
Responses become coordinated into more complex sequences. Actions take on an "intentional" character such as the infant reaches behind a screen to obtain a hidden object.
Tertiary Circular Reactions
(12-18 months)
Discovery of new ways to produce the same consequence or obtain the same goal such as the infant may pull a pillow toward him in an attempt to get a toy resting on it.
Invention of New Means Through Mental Combination
(18-24 months)
Evidence of an internal representational system. Symbolizing the problem-solving sequence before actually responding. Deferred imitation.
The Preoperational Period
(2-7 years)

Developmental Stage
& Approximate Age Characteristic Behavior
Preoperational Phase
(2-4 years)
Increased use of verbal representation but speech is egocentric. The beginnings of symbolic rather than simple motor play. Transductive reasoning. Can think about something without the object being present by use of language.
Intuitive Phase
(4-7 years)
Speech becomes more social, less egocentric. The child has an intuitive grasp of logical concepts in some areas. However, there is still a tendency to focus attention on one aspect of an object while ignoring others. Concepts formed are crude and irreversible. Easy to believe in magical increase, decrease, disappearance. Reality not firm. Perceptions dominate judgment.
In moral-ethical realm, the child is not able to show principles underlying best behavior. Rules of a game not develop, only uses simple do's and don'ts imposed by authority.
Period of Concrete Operations
(7-11 years)

Characteristic Behavior:
Evidence for organized, logical thought. There is the ability to perform multiple classification tasks, order objects in a logical sequence, and comprehend the principle of conservation. thinking becomes less transductive and less egocentric. The child is capable of concrete problem-solving.
Some reversibility now possible (quantities moved can be restored such as in arithmetic:
3+4 = 7 and 7-4 = 3, etc.)
Class logic-finding bases to sort unlike objects into logical groups where previously it was on superficial perceived attribute such as color. Categorical labels such as "number" or animal" now available.
Period of Formal Operations
(11-15 years)

Characteristic Behavior:
Thought becomes more abstract, incorporating the principles of formal logic. The ability to generate abstract propositions, multiple hypotheses and their possible outcomes is evident. Thinking becomes less tied to concrete reality.
Formal logical systems can be acquired. Can handle proportions, algebraic manipulation, other purely abstract processes. If a + b = x then a = x - b. If ma/ca = IQ = 1.00 then Ma = CA.
Prepositional logic, as-if and if-then steps. Can use aids such as axioms to transcend human limits on comprehension.
Copyright © 1998- 2008 by Child Development Institute, LLCexternal image piagetal.gif

=Piaget's Key Ideas=



Adapting to the world through assimilation and accommodation.

The process by which a person takes material into their mind from the environment, which may mean changing the evidence of their senses to make it fit.


The difference made to one's mind or concepts by the process of assimilation. Note that assimilation and accommodation go together: you can't have one without the other.


The ability to group objects together on the basis of common features.

Class Inclusion

The understanding, more advanced than simple classification, that some classes or sets of objects are also sub-sets of a larger class. (E.g. there is a class of objects called dogs. There is also a class called animals. But all dogs are also animals, so the class of animals includes that of dogs)


The realization that objects or sets of objects stay the same even when they are changed about or made to look different.


The ability to move away from one system of classification to another one as appropriate.


The belief that you are the centre of the universe and everything revolves around you: the corresponding inability to see the world as someone else does and adapt to it. Not moral "selfishness", just an early stage of psychological development.


The process of working something out in your head. Young children (in the sensorimotor and pre-operational stages) have to act, and try things out in the real world, to work things out (like count on fingers): older children and adults can do more in their heads.

Schema (or scheme)

The representation in the mind of a set of perceptions, ideas, and/or actions, which go together.


A period in a child's development in which he or she is capable of understanding some things but not others

•We cannot learn anything without a frame of reference. Therefore, we are born with basic, reflexive schemas: looking, grasping, sucking.
•Everything babies learn is based from their existing schema.
•We would stay static in our development without some processes that allow use to expand our schema through assimilation and accommodation.

Assimilation and Accommodation
•Assimilation: we apply our current schemas to new situations and incorporate our new understandings with existing schema.
•Accommodation: this process is complimentary to assimilation. Accommodation is when learners adjust their current schemas to handle new information.

•When learners can not fully assimilate to a new situation or activity, they feel off balance, in a state of disequilibrium between assimilation and accommodation.
•If assimilation dominates and the learner does not accommodate, the learner will distort reality.

Disequilibrium/Equilibrium Example
A child’s mother said she was going to take him to the children’s museum. He began to cry and said, “Please don’t leave me at the Naughty Museum.” What did he mean? He had a schema for museums: We go to an art museum to see art; we go to a children’s museum to see children. He was a child. His mother was going to leave him there, probably because he had been naughty. His assimilation of “going to the children’s museum” to his limited museum scheme distorted reality.

Piaget’s Studies
•Children’s language and thought
•Children’s understanding of causality
•Moral development
•Arithmetic reasoning
•Stages of infant cognitive development
•The components of logical thinking


external image mountains.gif
The preceding diagram is an example of Piaget's study "mountains study." This study was to test the difference between the perceptions of adults in comparison to children. He would place children in front of a plaster model of a mountain range. He would then ask the children to identify which picture represented their view of the mountain range. Younger children would pick one based on their perception; older children chose the picture that correctly reflected the mountain model.


Teachers should be concerned with the process of learning rather than the end product; for example, the teacher should watch how a child handles and manipulates play dough instead of concentrating on a finished shape.

Children should be encouraged to learn from each other. Hearing other's views can help to breakdown egocentrism. Therefore, it is important for teachers to provide lots of opportunities for paired work and small group projects when conducting activities in the classroom.

Piaget believed teachers act as guides in children's discovery learning and should adapt the curriculum to individual needs and intellectual levels.

Teachers should carefully assess the current stage of a child's cognitive development and only set tasks that the child is "ready" for. The child can then be set tasks that are tailored to its needs and are therefore more likely to be motivating.

Teachers must provide children with learning opportunities that enable them to advance to each developmental step. This is achieved by creating disequilibrium. Teachers should maintain a proper balance between actively guiding the child and allowing opportunities for him/her to explore things by themselves and learn by discovery.

Sarah Gannon, PGCE Social Science 1999 - 2000

Hyperlinks to Piaget Resources





For Further Reading: Books By Piaget

The Origins of Intelligence in Children
by Jean Piaget - 1953
The Psychology of the Child
by Jean Piaget, Bärbel Inhelder - 1969

Psychology and Epistemology.
by JeanPiaget – 1971

Logic and Psychology
by JeanPiaget

Play, Dreams and Imitation in Childhood
by JeanPiaget

The construction of reality in the child
by JeanPiaget


Berk, L.E. (2000). Child development (5th ed.). Needham Heights, MA: Allyn and Bacon.

Bee, H.L. (2002). Cognitive Development 1: Structure and Process. In (Ed.), Child and Adolescent Development (9 ed., pp. 64-95). Pearson Education Company: Prentice.

Gredler, M.E. (2009) Learning and Instruction: Theory Into Practice, 6th ed. Pearson: Upper Saddle River, NJ.

Malcolm W. Watson. (2002). Theories of Human Development. VA: The Teaching Company.

Tudge, Johnathan and David Caruso. (1989) Cooperative Problem-Solving in the Classroom. IL: ERIC Clearinghouse on Elementary and Early Childhood Education.

Lev Vygotsky

Lev S. Vygotsky's Cultural-Historical Theory of Psychological Development

Biographical Overview

Lev Semenovich Vygotsky was born in the Belarus area of Russia in 1896. He was a Jewish intellectual who earned 2 simultaneous degrees from Moscow University and Shanyavsky People's University- one in Law and the other in the Humanities. His life experiences were widely varied, from writing theater reviews to assisting parents and schools with the needs of disabled students. Vygosky died at 37 from tuberculosis, which he contracted from caring for his brother. He left behind a legacy that endures today in the Russian educational system. His theories of social-cultural learning, while not fully fleshed out upon his death, continue to be viewed with interest to this day. Perhaps Vygotsky's best known contributions to educational theory were his ideas of the Zone of Proximal Development and scaffolding for the learner.

A Powerpoint Presentation of Lev Vygotsky's Theories:

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Insert Images and Files

Major Components of His Cultural-Historical Theory

Vygotsky believed that experiments should be on humans, not animals. He saw humans as rational beings who gradualy gain control of their own thinking by developing their complex intelletual capabilities. These ideas were influenced by Benedict Spinoza. Vygotsky was also influenced by the work of G.W.F. Hegel, and believed that cognitive change is "dialectical synthesis." Vygotsky felt that the development and use of tools by early humans has led to humans changing both nature and themselves. He believed that psychological tools are essential to the development of higher cognitive processes in humans. Because cognitive processes are dynamic in nature, they must be studied with appropriate research methods that take this into account.

Vygotsky's Social-Cultural Theory of Psychological Development

Vygotsky felt that children construct their own knowledge, and that language plays a key role in human development. He felt that developmant cannot be separated from its social context, becuase children learn from others in significant ways. He believed that learning can lead development. Another major component of Vygotsky's work in this area was the idea of signs and symbols ("Psychological Tools") being responsible for transforming human consciousness. These cultural tools are passed on in three main ways: through imitative learning, instructive learning, and collaborative learning. Although technical tools change an external situation, psychological tools direct the mind and change the thinking processes. These cultural tools differ across cultures and throughout human history. Signification is what moved us beyond the basic elemental and biological functions we share with animals. It occured when humans moved toward making and using signs- which meant that children inherited these cultural signs and used them to cognitively grow.


Vygotsky's Idea of Cognitive Development

A. Speech Development is related to developing the ability to use psychological tools.

B. The role of imaginary play in human development is to lead to the development of symbolic activity.

C. The role of imitation leads to mastery of an individual's own behavior.

D. The General Law of Genetic Development, which is the social behavioral relationship between child and teacher.

Vygotsky and Education/Instruction

"Instruction impells or wakens a whole series of functions that are ina stage of maturation lying in the Zone of Proximal Development."

Vygotsky believed that in order to teach a child, you must first determine the appropriate level of instruction. This is called the Zone of Proximal Development. In order to arrive at the ZPD, appropriate assessments are critical. Teachers must scaffold for students so they are able to be successful at concentrating on the tasks or items they are able to complete. He believed also in implementing the Law of Genetic Development, in developing a child's verbal thinking, and in the extreme importance of writng in the classroom as a way to guide cognitive development.

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Educational Implications of Vygotsky's Theories

Understanding individual differences and the readiness of the learner are essential for educators to help students learn. Assessments need to be dynamic and ever-changing. Standardized test are stagnant and may tell us little about the learner. A child's cultural symbol system will affect the acquisition of higher cognitive functions by that child. For example, if a child in Papua, New Guinea is trying to work with higher mathematics and has grown up with a number system that is counted on body parts and goes to only 29, that child will be cognitively limited. Social interactions with knowledgeable members of society will also affect the development and mastery of thought processes. An example would be a child growing up in a print-rich household who learns to read without direct instruction.

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A Comparison of Vygotsky and Piaget

Both Jean Piaget and Lev Vygotsky felt that developmental concepts shouldn't be taught until children reach the appropriate developmentsl stage. They also both wanted to explore how children master ideas and translate those ideas into speech. Vygotsky felt that language acquisition was the most influential development in a child's life. Piaget felt that the most important source of cognition is within the children themselves, while Vygotsky argued that a child's social environment could help further their cognitive development. A major area of contrast is that Piaget saw children acting independently on the physical world to see what it offers- leading to universal cognitive change for all humans. Vygotsky felt that human mental activity was the result of social learning- something that is highly variable rather than universal, and which depends on a child's cultural experiences in their environment.


Gallagher, C. (1999) Lev Semyonovich Vygotsky. Retreived online from:

Gredler, M.E. (2009) Learning and Instruction: Theory Into Practice, 6th ed. Pearson: Upper Saddle River, NJ.

Kerr, S. Why Vygotsky? The Role of Theoretical Psychology in Russian Education Reform. Retreived online from:

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Jean Lave