Overview & Objectives

In this unit you will be introduced to many of the issues to understanding and applying Cognitive Development Theories for instructional design purposes. The objectives for this unit are these:

  • Articulate the underlying assumptions and worldviews of Bruner, Piaget, and Vygotsky in terms of their theories of learning
  • State and provide examples of the types of knowledge , the stages , and the processes of Piaget's theory of cognitive development
  • State and give examples of Bruner's modes of representation
  • Analyze and compare Vygotsky's notion of zone of proximal development with scaffolding
  • Evaluate the efficacy of each theorists ideas in terms of instructional design
  • Articulate the similarities and differences among the three theorists

Required Readings

Textbook: Driscoll, Chapters 6 and 7

Available through course website:
Jaramillo, J. A. (1996). Vygotsky's sociocultural theory and contributions to the development of constructivist curricula. Education, 117 (1), p133-140.
Lipman, M. (1991). Squaring Soviet theory with American practice. Educational Leadership, 48 (8), 72-76.
Nyikos, M. & Hashimoto, R. (1997). Constructivisit theory applied to collaborative learning in teacher education: in search of ZPD. The Modern Language Journal, 81 , 506-517.
Shayer, M. (2003). Not just Piaget; not just Vygotsky, and certainly not Vygotsky as alternative to Piaget. Learning and Instruction, 13 , 465-485
Wood, D. & Wood, H. (1996). Vygotsky, tutoring and learning. Oxford Review of Education, 22 (1), 5-16.

Instructor Notes

Although we will examine the works of Piaget, Bruner, and Vygotsky out of chronological order, it will be the order in which these learning theorists influenced education in the United States . That is, Piaget's notions of cognitive development had a profound effect on U.S. education in the middle portion of the 20 th century. Bruner adopted and adapted Piaget's ideas to influence education in the 60's, 70's and 80's. Vygotsky, whose work was conducted in the Soviet Union in the early part of the 20 th century, had a posthumous influence as American educators in the 80's began to readdress and popularize his social constructivist ideas that continue to have a strong, and some might state controversial, influence today. Let's begin with Piaget.

Piaget: Knowledge types, stages of development, and processes of cognitive development
Jean Piaget was employed at the Binet Institute in the 1920s, where his job was to develop French versions of questions on English intelligence tests. He became intrigued with the reasons why children submitted wrong answers on the questions that required logical thinking. Over the next fifty years, this curiosity led to the development of his theory of "genetic epistemology".

Piaget's theory differs from the others we have studied in several ways, which you should certainly keep in mind:

  • It is concerned with children, rather than all learners
  • It focuses on development, rather than learning per se, so it does not address learning of information or specific behaviors
  • It proposes discrete stages of development, marked by qualitative differences, rather than a gradual increase in number and complexity of behaviors, concepts, ideas, etc.

The goal of the theory is to explain the mechanisms and processes by which the infant, and then the child, develops into an individual who can reason and think by formulating and testing hypotheses. To Piaget, cognitive development was a progressive reorganization of mental processes as a result of maturation and experience. Children construct an understanding of the world around them. Changes in these constructs occur when they experience discrepancies between what they already know and what they discover in the environment. This is a fundamental principle underlying Piaget's theory.

Piaget's theory is comprised of three basic components:
  • Three types of knowledge - physical , logical-mathematical , and social-arbitrary
  • Four stages of development - sensorimotor , preoperational , concrete operational , and formal operational
  • Three processes that enable the transition from one stage to another - assimilation , accommodation , and equilibration

Piaget's proposed stages of development
An important thing to understand about these different levels is that they are qualitatively different. In other words, at each successive stage, it's not just a matter of doing something better, but of doing something altogether different. The function of cognitive growth is to produce increasingly powerful cognitive structures that permit the individual to act on the environment with greater flexibility.

The sensorimotor period ranges from birth to about age 2. Infants learn mostly through trial and error learning. Children initially rely on reflexes, eventually modifying them to adapt to their world. Behaviors become goal directed, progressing from concrete to abstract goals. Objects and events can be mentally represented by the older child during this stage, sometimes called object permanence . For example, if you place a toy under a blanket, the child who has achieved object permanence knows it is there and can actively seek it. Before this stage, the child behaves as if the toy had simply disappeared. The attainment of object permanence generally signals the transition to the next stage.

The preoperational period ranges from about ages 2 to 7 . Children in this stage can mentally represent events and objects (the semiotic function), and engage in symbolic play. Their thoughts and communications are typically egocentric (i.e., about themselves). They are able to focus on only one aspect or dimension of problems. For example, suppose you arrange two rows of blocks in such a way that a row of 5 blocks is longer than a row of 7 blocks. Preoperational children can generally count the blocks in each row and tell you the number contained in each. However, if you ask which row has more, they will likely say that it is the one that makes the longer line, because they cannot simultaneously focus on both the length and the number. The ability to solve this and other "conservation" problems signals the transition to the next stage.

Children in the concrete operational period are typically ages 7 to 11 . They gain the abilities of conservation (number, area, volume, orientation) and reversibility. Their thinking is more organized and rational. They can solve problems in a logical fashion, but are typically not able to think abstractly or hypothetically.

The formal operational period begins at about age 11 . As adolescents enter this stage, they gain the ability to think in an abstract manner, the ability to combine and classify items in a more sophisticated way, and the capacity for higher-order reasoning.

Processes of cognitive development and maturation
The continual process of resolving the discrepancies between knowledge and experience moves the child's intelligence into a more mature stage of understanding. Piaget used the concepts of assimilation and accommodation to explain this continual process.

When children and adolescents encounter something reasonably similar to what they already know, it is assimilated into their existing knowledge. So, for example, when small children put everything they grasp into their mouth, or call all small animals "dogs," they are assimilating.

On the other hand, when children encounter something that is different from what they know, they may change their way of thinking to take into account this new knowledge. This is accommodation . A child sees a four-legged animal and labels it a "dog". Mother responds, "No, Johnny, that's a cow.” Change must then take place in the child's schema for four-legged animals: they are not all dogs. Note that assimilation and accommodation may stimulate you to recall similar principles covered in the previous unit, i.e., meaning reception learning and schema theory. Can you identify those principles?

According to Piaget, reorganization to higher levels of thinking is not accomplished easily. The child must "rethink" his or her view of the world. An important step in the process is the experience of cognitive conflict . In other words, the child becomes aware that he or she holds two contradictory views about a situation and they both cannot be true. This step is referred to as disequilibrium . According to Piaget, learning cannot occur without disequilibrium.

Equilibration is a regulatory process that maintains a balance between assimilation and accommodation to facilitate cognitive growth. Think of it this way: We can't merely assimilate all the time; if we did, we would never learn any new concepts or principles. Everything new we encountered would just get put in the same few "slots" we already had. Neither can we accommodate all the time. If we did, everything we encountered would seem new. There would be no recurring regularities in our world. We'd be exhausted by the mental effort!

According to Piaget, teaching can support these developmental processes by the following:
  • Provide support for the "spontaneous research" of the child appropriate to the stage of development
  • Use active methods that require rediscovering or reconstructing "truths" so that disequilibrium is imposed
  • Use collaborative, as well as individual activities, again increasing the odds of disequilibrium
  • Devise situations that present useful problems, and creating disequilibrium in the child

Bruner: Modes of representation and instructional implications
The outcome of cognitive development is thinking. The intelligent mind creates from experience "generic coding systems that permit one to go beyond the data to new and possibly fruitful predictions." Thus, children as they grow must acquire a way of representing the "recurrent regularities" in their environment. So, to Bruner, important outcomes of learning include not just the concepts, categories, and problem-solving procedures invented previously by the culture, but also the ability to "invent" and “discover” these things for oneself.

Cognitive growth involves an interaction between basic human capabilities and "culturally invented technologies that serve as amplifiers of these capabilities." These culturally invented technologies include not just obvious things such as computers and television, but also more abstract notions such as the way a culture categorizes phenomena, and language itself. Bruner would likely agree with Vygotsky (see below) that language serves to mediate between environmental stimuli and the individual's response. This is what is labeled as a semiotic view of thinking: individuals do not have access to the environment directly, but do so through signs, symbols, and indices. Note this is a radical turn from Behaviorist and Cognitivist traditions.

For Bruner, and this is a point unique to his position, the aim of education should be to create autonomous learners.

Three modes of representation
Jerome S. Bruner hypothesized that the usual course of intellectual development moves through three stages: enactive , iconic , and symbolic . However, unlike Piaget's stages, Bruner did not contend that these stages were necessarily age-dependent, or invariant. Given this assumption, it would appear that instructional designers will have “more to work with” in Bruner. And indeed, this has been the case as instructional designers cited Bruner widely during the period when his ideas were most popular (from the mid-60's to the mid-80's in the U.S. ).

In the enactive stage, knowledge is stored primarily in the form of motor responses. And this is not just limited to children. Many adults can perform a variety of motor tasks (typing, sewing a shirt, operating a lawn mower) that they would find difficult to describe in iconic (picture) or symbolic (word) form. This works the other way around as my 6-year old son has to grab the controls away to demonstrate to his inept father that you have to hold the “dash” key down to make the screen character crouch down and slide.

In the iconic stage, knowledge is stored primarily in the form of visual images. This may explain why, when we are learning a new subject, it is often helpful to have diagrams or illustrations to accompany verbal information.

In the symbolic stage, knowledge is stored primarily as words, mathematical symbols, or in other symbol systems. According to Bruner's taxonomy, these differ from icons in that symbols are "arbitrary." For example, the word "beauty" is an arbitrary designation for the idea of beauty in that the word itself is no more inherently beautiful than any other word.

Assertions/implications for instruction
The following statement probably endeared more educators and instructional designers to Bruner's ideas than any other:

Any subject can be taught effectively in some intellectually honest form to any child at any stage of development.


No, he probably would not contend that a one-year old could be taught astrophysics. But he might contend that kindergartners could be taught some principles of physics (e.g., force, mass, momentum, friction) in an enactive form. Later, these same principles could be repeated in iconic, then symbolic form. This “spiral” approach to instruction and learning, again, demonstrates the accessibility of Bruner's ideas to instructional design.

The subject matter must be made "ready" for the child. Piaget and, to an extent, Ausubel, contended that the child must be ready, or made ready, for the subject matter. But Bruner contends just the opposite . According to his theory, the fundamental principles of any subject can be taught at any age, provided the material is converted to a form (and stage) appropriate to the child.

The instructional challenge is to provide problems that both fit the manner of the child's thinking and tempt her into more powerful modes of thinking. This is similar to Vygotsky's notion (explored more deeply next) that learning should lead development.

The notion of engaging learners in a spiral manner through enactive, iconic, and symbolic stages may also be applicable to adults learning unfamiliar material. Here is another difference between Piaget and Bruner. Whereas Piaget's principles apply only to children, Bruner's can be adapted for adults. This should give trainers in corporate, military, and government settings something to think about.

Modes of representation (enactive, iconic, symbolic) imply the ideal sequence for instruction, but when learners have well-developed symbolic systems, it may not be necessary to go through the entire sequence. Also, the mode of instruction should match the criteria that will be used for measuring learning outcomes.

Finally, discovery is not just an instructional technique, but also an important learning outcome in itself. Educators should help learners develop the ability to find the "recurrent regularities" in their environment. The teacher's job is to guide the discovery process. In other words, in teaching a particular concept, the teacher should present the set of instances that will best help learners develop an appropriate model of the concept. The teacher should also model the inquiry process. Bruner would likely not contend that all learning should be through discovery. For example, it seems pointless to have children "discover" the names of the U.S. Presidents, or important dates in history. Of course, educators should keep in mind that members of different cultures will exhibit different kinds of reasoning and inference and so should adjust strategies appropriately.

Vygotsky: Social origins of higher psychological processes
Lev S. Vygotsky maintained a broader view of development than other theorists. Questions that motivated his research included: how did humans come to develop higher psychological processes in the first place? Within that framework, how do children come to possess the cognitive functions they exhibit later in life?

Given his worldview, Vygotsky maintained that individual psychological development could not be understood without reference to the social and cultural milieu in which it is embedded. Higher mental processes in the individual have their origin in social processes and contexts. Consequently, mental processes can be understood only if we understand the physical tools and psychological signs that mediate them. In higher forms of human behavior, the individual actively modifies the stimulus situation as a part of the process of responding to it.

No single principle (such as Piaget's equilibration) can account for development. Vygotsky claimed that the appropriate methods for studying intellectual development are these:
  • Emphasize experimentation and observation to take place in natural, authentic settings
  • Conduct cross-species comparisons
  • Account for and analyze sociohistorical factors that mediate development

The social origins of higher mental processes
Social context is so important to Vygotsky that it is not simply one more variable to be controlled. Rather, social activity (the interaction of the individual with a sociocultural milieu) is the appropriate unit of analysis in psychology. Development does not proceed toward socialization. Development is the conversion of social relations into mental functions. Vygotsky's oft-quoted principle runs thus:

Every function in the child's cultural development appears twice: first, on the social level, and later on the individual level; first, between people, then inside the child... All the higher functions originate as actual relations between individuals.

For example, children may argue with each other about who gets to play with what toy, or how a task should be completed. Eventually, this argument among people gets converted to a kind of internal, mental "argument" That is, it contributes to the ability to see an issue from different sides, and to weigh various courses of action before making a decision. The child internalizes social relations into psychological functions through mediation. Mediation occurs through a linking tool or sign. A tool is defined as something that can be used in the service of something else. A sign is something that stands for something else (indexical, iconic, symbolic). A triangular schematic of these relationships is provided below.

For Vygotsky, language is the sign used in the acquisition of higher psychological processes/ Language frees children from the constraints of the immediate spatial-temporal environment, i.e., decontextualization . For example, a small child can respond only to its immediate needs or feelings: hunger, thirst, pain, fear, etc. But as adults, we can use language to regulate our behavior beyond our immediate needs or environment. For example, in the morning you may wake up and want a glass of orange juice, only to discover that you are out of orange juice. Later in the day, you are no longer thirsty for orange juice, but you can mediate your behavior through the use of a sign: that is, you can write "orange juice" on a grocery list and buy some on the way home. The use of this written sign allows one to regulate your own behavior (that of buying orange juice) even when you are no longer experiencing the immediate environmental stimulus of thirst. The diversity of symbols across cultures leads to differences in the kinds of mental functions that are developed. Thus, universal stages of psychological development across cultures cannot be identified. For example, people of different cultures have been shown to classify objects in different ways. One culture might group plants according to their use; another according to their appearance, another according to their location, etc.

Implications for instruction
When informed by a Vygotskian perspective, a basic principle to adhere by is this: instruction should lead development . Instruction should be targeted at the "leading" edge of the zone of proximal development. The zone of proximal development (ZPD) is defined as the difference between problem solving the child is capable of performing independently, and problem-solving she is capable of with the guidance or collaboration of a more knowledgeable teacher or peer. This defines the area in which maturation and development is currently taking place and suggests the appropriate target for instruction. For example, suppose a particular 9-year old can solve most arithmetic problems independently; can solve some simple algebraic problems with guidance from a teacher; and cannot solve calculus problems no matter how much help she is given. We would say that algebra problems are within her ZPD, and that this is the level at which instruction will be most efficacious. After all, it will be of little use to continue to present problems that she can already solve, or to present problems that will only frustrate her.

In an instructional setting, social "partners" should be at different levels of development, and they should jointly construct the problem solution. This helps to ensure that the teacher or more advanced peer can assist the less advanced one, and that they will be operating within the ZPD. Don't fall into the trap, however, of always thinking of one individual as the "tutor" or "teacher" and the other as the "learner" within a small group such as this. If the instructor arranges the topic, project, and discussions well, each student can play the "tutor" role during the completion of a project, even during the same class period. Instruction should provide learners with authentic situations in which they must resolve dilemmas.

Current applications of Vygotsky's work
A contemporary application of Vygotsky's theories is "reciprocal teaching", used to improve students' ability to learn from text. In this method, teacher and students collaborate in learning and practicing four key skills: summarizing , questioning , clarifying , and predicting . The teacher's role in the process is reduced over time. Also, Vygotsky is relevant to instructional concepts such as "scaffolding" and "apprenticeship", in which a teacher or more advanced peer helps to structure or arrange a task so that a novice can work on it successfully. Vygotsky's theories also feed into current interest in collaborative learning, suggesting that group members should have different levels of ability so more advanced peers can help less advanced members operate within their ZPD.

This brings the unit to a close. In a nutshell, what you should take away from this unit is an understanding of a threefold shift in theoretical perspectives covered: 1) a shift from a passive to an active learner; 2) a shift from invariant to variant stages of development; and 3) a shift from focusing on the individual in clinical isolation to authentic social activity in a complex sociocultural milieu.

Assignments & Deliverables

Lesson 5.1 summary & analysis
Concisely summarize what you have read and learned in this unit. Below are help and directions for completing this assignment.

  • How does Piaget define stages of cognitive development? Is each stage absolutely true in nature? What are instructional principles based upon Piaget's developmental theory?
  • How does learning occur based on Bruner's discovery learning?
  • What are differences on applying discovery learning between Bruner and Piaget?
  • How does learning occur according to Vygotsky's developmental theory?
  • What is the relationship between the “zone of proximal development” and “scaffolding”?
  • How does Vygotsky's views differ from Bruner's and Piaget's?

Additional directions:
  • Convey your knowledge of information found in readings and critically analyze in terms of personal position and larger issues at hand; you must cite at least one additional reading found in the syllabus or an education database.
  • The summary and analysis will not exceed 500 words and must be single-spaced.
  • You are required to use concepts and principles from textbook and readings, citing sources in APA format.

Lesson 5.2: Learning activity #3
Suppose you were faced with the task of teaching math to a culturally and socio-economically diverse group of second-graders (about 7 years old) at an urban elementary school, say, in Washington, D.C. Propose what you think Piaget, Bruner, and Vygotsky each would suggest concerning what to teach and how to teach it. (Don't be concerned about the specific content to be taught, just the nature of the learning tasks, and how they might be determined and organized.) Evaluate the usefulness of each theory in this situation. Post your response to the course discussion board.