In the Cognitive Developmental approach, mental processes (such as thinking) are seen as being of high importance in understanding people. However, in the learning theory and the psychodynamic theory, the importance of behaviour and emotion are emphasised instead. Piaget and Vygotsky are the main theorists in this approach, both having very different reasons why cognitive processes change with age, not to mention a more recent theory, the modular approach.
Firstly, Piaget understood that children think in a less sophisticated way to adults purely because they think in a completely different way to begin with, rather than the thought that they have less knowledge. He also emphasised the importance of agency, where the environment plays a big part in helping children explore the world in order to create their own mental representation of reality, which contributes to their existing understanding.
Vygotsky, on the other hand, emphasised the importance of social interaction, especially from more experienced children or adults in developing children’s understanding. Vygotsky’s Zone of Proximal Development shows the difference between how much the child can understand on its own and what it could understand with the help of social interaction, emphasising its importance in learning. In contrast, modular theorists, from the domain-specific approach, see different mental abilities developing independently of one another.
In the whole class vs. small class teaching debate, Piaget and Vygotsky ‘s theories have featured greatly, due to their contrasting views on how children learn. Piaget’s theory greatly supports the method of whole class teaching, where teachers should adapt to children’s way of understanding the world and facilitate discovery learning. The necessity for teachers to adapt to children’s understanding of the world is in order to avoid misunderstandings on the child’s part, due to their high level of egocentrism; especially at a young age. Their inability to decentre and think about what the teacher may have meant could cause a great level of confusion.
For example, Margaret Donaldson (1978) presents a confusing situation, in which the child misunderstands the teacher’s meaning of ‘present’, leaving him disappointed due to the teacher’s failing to appreciate his egocentrism and his inability to decentre. In addition to misunderstandings, whole class teaching enables some students to become ‘passive’ in lessons, and the teacher may over and underestimate abilities of some students, suggesting that this method may not be beneficial to all students.
Furthermore, Piaget’s theory suggests that we are more motivated to learn when we don’t understand something, which isn’t always the case with many people. It has also been said that Piaget underestimated the importance of the role of more experienced children in learning; and said that children work better individually, which Vygotsky’s theory contrasts with.
On the other hand, Vygotsky’s theory greatly supports the importance of children working in small groups, in order for social interaction to take place and help them to move through the zone of proximal development (ZPD). By moving through the ZPD, the need for scaffolding from adults or more experience peers decreases, until only general prompts are required to help the child progress. From Vygotsky’s point of view, cooperative group work is of major importance in speeding up the learning of children, which leads onto the importance of peer tutoring. By a more experienced child assisting someone less advanced than them, one child can guide the other through the ZPD by providing appropriate scaffolding for helping the other child to solve the problems they have already been faced with.
This has been shown to be very successful in a study by Oley (2002), which showed that the participants who used peer tutoring in order to research a five page essay scored significantly higher grades than those who worked alone. This study can be used as evidence for Vygotsky’s theories that peer tutoring helps children learn, despite what age. However, group work can also enable some students to ‘free ride’, by letting the higher ability students to do all the work, rather than contributing themselves. This method could also therefore not be beneficial to all students due to different abilities and attitudes to learning, although it could seem less likely due to peer pressure to contribute perhaps.
Furthermore, a more recent approach, the domain-specific, presents Cognitive Development with another theory, indicating that we should look at each developing ability, rather than education as a single process; due to the view that each mental process has developed from another. This theory suggests that some processes develop at different points for different people, who may therefore have alternative learning styles based on which processes have developed when. Unlike Piaget and many other teachers, who see children’s intelligence as being a characteristic, the modular approach thinks of students’ different strengths and weaknesses due to their cognitive development at that time. Moreover, learning styles can be difficult to accommodate into classroom teaching, due to the students’ differentiating individual learning styles, and the teacher’s.
In conclusion, all three different approaches provide similar and different views towards education, especially the modular approach. Vygotsky’s theory of working together contrasts with Piaget’s suggestion of working individually, whilst the modular approach provides more emphasis on learning styles and children more as individuals rather than part of a class.