Using Piaget and Vygotsky in the Classroom

This nine page article that underscores both the theory and practice of Piaget and Vygotsky:

Developmental Psychology: Incorporating Piaget’s and Vygotsky’s Theories in Classrooms Barbara Blake and Tambra Pope in Journal of Cross-Disciplinary Perspectives in Education, Vol. 1, No. 1 (May 2008) 59 – 67. 


Generally, we can say, that students learn individually and collaboratively, and each approach depends on what needs to be learned or expanded upon. And, also generally, Piaget is focused on the individual learner while Vygotsky is focused on learners as a group. With this in mind, lessons may be planned using either Piaget or Vygotsky as models with assessable outcomes that depend on a lesson plan’s fidelity to the model selected.

In a practical sense, individual learning of new content adapts well to Piaget’s hands-on approach through the use of introductory direct instruction, teacher modeling, and then independent modeling by the student. When the student needs to enhance, expand, or adapt previous learning Vygotsky’s model may be appropriate through the use of group collaboration, project learning, and peer (and teacher) mentoring.

Understanding Piaget’s concepts of assimilation and accommodation apply also to Vygotsky’s model of proximity or ZPD and guide the classroom teacher is using either Piaget’s or Vygotsky’s models. For example, at the beginning of a unit using Piaget’s model of individual learning may be appropriate (here the concept of accommodation applies) while later in a unit Vygotsky’s model may be appropriate (here the concept of assimilation applies).      

Piaget: For our purposes, we are interested, generally, in the last two stages (concrete and formal operations) of Piaget’s theory. 

Sensorimotor stage (birth – 2 years old) – The child, through physical interaction with his or her environment, builds a set of concepts about reality and how it works. This is the stage where a child does not know that physical objects remain in existence even when out of sight (object permanence).

Preoperational stage (ages 2-7) – The child is not yet able to conceptualize abstractly and needs concrete physical situations.

Concrete operations (ages 7-11) – As physical experience accumulates, the child, now a student, starts to conceptualize, creating logical structures that explain his or her physical experiences. Abstract problem solving is also possible at this stage. For example, arithmetic equations can be solved with numbers, not just with objects.

Formal operations (beginning at ages 11-15) – By this point, the student’s cognitive structures are like those of an adult and include conceptual reasoning.


A difference exists between what a student can do on his or her own and what the student can do with help. Vygotsky called this difference the zone of proximal development (or ZPD).

  • Since much of what a student learns comes from the culture around a student, and much of the student’s problem solving is mediated through a more knowledgable student peer or an adult’s help, it is necessary to focus on students as members of a collaborative group.
  • Interactions with surrounding culture and social agents, such as parents and more competent peers, contribute significantly to a student’s intellectual development.

Curriculum: Since students learn much through interaction, curricula should be designed to emphasize interaction between learners and learning tasks.

Instruction: With appropriate adult help, students can often perform tasks that they are incapable of completing on their own. With this in mind, scaffolding–-where the teacher continually adjusts the level of his or her help in response to students level of performance-–is an effective form of teaching. Scaffolding not only produces immediate results, but also instills the skills necessary for independent problem solving in the future.

Assessment: Assessment methods must take into account the zone of proximal development. What students can do on their own is their level of actual development and what students can do with help is their level of potential development. Two students might have the same level of actual development, but given the appropriate help from a teacher, one might be able to solve many more problems than the other. Assessment methods must target both the level of actual development and the level of potential development.


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