Does Constructivism have limits?


Developmental Autonomy: Do Children Learn on Their Own or With Others?

Brittany Miller

Child development—especially in the early years—is so important because children acquire many skills in this time, including numeracy, language, and understanding of themselves and others. However, this is also a high-pressure time for parents, educators, and caretakers. Specifically in the realm of cognitive development, there are debates about which parenting and educating techniques are the most beneficial. One of the most important debates to base parenting, educating and caretaking decisions upon is that concerned with child autonomy in development: if provided with a rich environment, are children able to learn enough on their own, or is strategic adult intervention required for appropriate development? While the answer is not exactly cut-and-dry, there are two main academics upon which the debate is formed around, Jean Piaget and Lev Vygotsky.

Lev Vygotsky, a Russian psychologist who wrote in the 1920s and 1930s, developed what is often called the “sociocultural theory” of cognitive development (2018, Bjorklund & Causey, p. 68). This theory holds that most human development is guided by adult interaction with children, in which an adult helps guide along a child’s problem solving (2018, Bjorklund & Causey, p. 69). The theory focuses almost exclusively on collaboration between individuals to gain knowledge and tools (2018, Bjorklund & Causey, p. 69). According to Vygotsky, most cognitive progress cannot be made without the help of someone who is more skilled!

Within Vygostky’s framework, there are four important levels of development: 1.) Ontogenetic, 2.) Microgenetic, 3.) Phylogenetic, and 4.) Sociohistorical. The ontogenetic level is “development of the individual over his or her lifetime,” the microgenetic level “refers to changes that occur over relatively brief periods of time,” the phylogenetic level is change “over evolutionary time,” and the sociohistorical level refers to “changes that have occurred, usually across prior generations” (2018, Bjorklund & Causey, p. 69). The most important levels in this debate are the ontogenetic and microgenetic levels, because they refer directly to individual development. However, looking at all four levels is informative about Vygotsky’s larger framework. Something he focused on heavily was how adults or more-skilled individuals give survival-adaptive “tools” to less-skilled individuals in the social realm.

Something else Vygotsky stressed was the importance of viewing the interaction between children and their environment during development (2018, Bjorklund & Causey, p. 69). Instead of focusing just on the child’s genetic make-up or environment, Vygotsky proposed that they worked together to shape the development in the context of culture. Vygotsky claimed that learning is accomplished by obtaining evolutionary “tools of intellectual adaptation,” which Bjorklund & Causey define as “methods of thinking and problem solving that children internalize from their interactions with more competent members of society and that permit children to use their basic mental functions more adaptively” (2018, Bjorklund & Causey, p. 70).

As mentioned previously, adults or higher-skilled individuals give tools to children through social interaction. There are specific steps in the interaction, though, that are necessary for internalization of the tool to occur. The first step is to establish the zone of proximal development, which is the difference between what the child can do alone and what they can do with help (2018, Bjorklund & Causey, p. 78). This is where the adult comes into play. FIrst, they help the child work through the problem, then the child tries to recreate the problem solving on their own. If done correctly, the zone of proximal development (or gap) closes, and the child can perform the task on their own (2018, Bjorklund & Causey, p. 78). The adult helps by “scaffolding” or “mediation,” where they understand the abilities of the child and can help them along in a way that does not take over the entire task but also does not leave the child to flail aimlessly (2018, Bjorklund & Causey, p. 78). Another related concept is “guided participation,” which operates under the same principles but goes beyond formal instruction and is demonstrated during every-day, routine life, like chores, cooking, and listening to the conversations of others. (2018, Bjorklund & Causey, p. 80). While guided participation is not as common in an educational context, child-raising in the home normally contains both scaffolding and guided participation.

There is significant research to back up the claims that Vygotsky made. For example, conversations between the parent and child are very important in this framework. Research shows that children who are conversational partners with their parents develop language abilities further than children who are just “talked to” by parents (2018, Bjorklund & Causey, p. 81). Children who are conversational partners with their parents also tend to transition more easily to the school environment. Just reading to children, as well, does not lead to as many positive outcomes as interactive story-reading, in which the adult stops and asks questions to the child throughout the story (2018, Bjorklund & Causey, p. 82). This implies that just providing a rich environment is not enough to help a child develop; the adult needs to take an active role in helping the child learn to develop fully and properly.

Imaginative play, whether with adults or other children, is also an important part of development, because it requires mental representation and can help children act out things that happen in the real world. The Vygotskian framework recognizes sociodramatic play (acting out the real world) as necessary for gaining an understanding of self and others (2018, Bjorklund & Causey, p. 85). In this case, too, research shows that playing with a more-skilled sibling, friend or adult can help develop an understanding of self and others, as well as increase mastery of real-world skills (2018, Bjorklund & Causey, p. 85).

The other side of the argument is based on another one of the most impactful theories in cognitive-developmental psychology, Jean Piaget’s symbolic representation. While Piaget did not believe children were born with all necessary developmental structures, he did believe that children progressed through specific, age-constrained developmental stages. Most of his theory was centered around the activity of the child, not social interaction with others, in sharp contrast to Vygotsky’s theory. According to Piaget, children are intrinsically active and want to explore and learn about their environment, which is essentially curiosity (2018, Bjorklund & Causey, p. 154). Piaget believed that “[t]he motivation for development is within the child,” not extrinsic, unlike Vygotsky (2018, Bjorklund & Causey, p. 155). According to Piaget, children “are primarily responsible for their own development” (2018, Bjorklund & Causey, p.155). While interaction between the child and other is necessary in Piaget’s theory, he places the emphasis on child-environment interactions instead of child-adult interactions (2018, Bjorklund & Causey, p. 155). Note that Vygotsky also stressed the importance of the child’s interaction with the environment, but discussed it primarily in the context of social interaction.

According to Piaget, children developed an understanding of the environment by acting on the environment and creating “schemes,” or groups of knowledge and understanding. For example, if an infant accidentally hit a mobile above her crib, she might realize that hitting the mobile causes it to spin. After trying it multiple times, she would create a scheme for the mobile. This might cause her to hit other objects in an attempt to make them spin; for example, if she hit a different toy that also spun, she might add this to the same scheme of “objects that spin when hit.” This process of scheme-forming, as seen above, is wholly placed on the child and does not need others to help develop the child’s knowledge.

However, there are some similarities between Piaget and Vygotsky’s theories. While Vygotsky said that the individuals are motivated by discomfort to close their zones of proximal development, Piaget proposed the concept of “equilibration,” the “organism’s attempt to keep its cognitive schemes in balance” (2018, Bjorklund & Causey, p. 157). Piaget said that a dissatisfying state of disequilibrium is what motivated the child to balance schemes and maintain equilibrium (2018, Bjorklund & Causey, p. 157). Doesn’t this sound a lot like Vygotsky? When disequilibrium occurs, Piaget said that the child modifies their schemes to make more sense (2018, Bjorklund & Causey, p. 157).

What is important to note about both of these theories is that one places the role of development primarily on the adult or higher-skilled learner, while the other places the role of development on the child. However, research shows that both are important. While children cannot develop wholly by themselves, development is not entirely driven by social interactions. For example, recent cognitive-developmental research by Alison Gopnik shows that children can solve some difficult tasks on their own, without help. In one of Gopnik’s studies, when three and four-year-old children were presented with a blicket detector, which is a square that lights up and plays a song only when certain objects are placed upon it, many were able to identify which objects activated the detector and which did not (2018, Bjorklund & Causey, p. 188-189). This did not involve scaffolding or mediation on the adult’s part, showing that children are able to solve some difficult problems on their own at young ages.

However, previously-discussed research about interactive story-reading shows that some skills are developed more easily with interactive help. For example, one study involved two reading groups: one in which the parents just read to their children, and another in which parents read to their children but followed interactive reading instructions—such as asking “open-ended questions” and expanding “on their children’s responses” (2018, Bjorklund & Causey, p. 82). After one month, results found that children in the interactive-reading group were “8.5 months more advanced on a measure of verbal expression than were children in the control group” (2018, Bjorklund & Causey, p. 82). This goes to show that in some instances, interactive discourse between adult and child, or higher-skilled individual and lower-skilled individual, is extremely important.

Therefore, this debate is not so simple as to help or not help children develop. While it is obvious that some development can be done through the child’s active involvement in the environment, other development—specifically that of language and reading—can be promoted by Vygotsky’s concepts of scaffolding and mediation. Numeracy, attention, executive function and shared remembering are also all helped along in development by Vygotsky’s concept of mediation and scaffolding. When parents direct children’s attention during conversation and direct “conversation about experiences,” executive function, attention and memory increase in the child (2020, Kleinknecht). Furthermore, engaging in play with one’s child or student can help them understand how to act in real-world scenarios and develop an understanding of others’ feelings and beliefs, something difficult for younger children (2018, Bjorklund & Causey, p. 85). The debate is not so easy, then, as it depends on the type of task the child is developing in. Play, language and reading, in their early stages, can and should be helped by a more-skilled individual. And while it is not wrong to help a child develop motor skills, the child is predisposed to learn these skills in a timely manner.

One successful example of Vygotsky’s theory being applied in an educational setting is the “Tools of the Mind” pre-school curriculum (2020, Kleinknecht). The curriculum involves “[g]radual understanding of the symbolic nature of language,” “[s]hared goals via socio-dramatic play,” and “[s]hared reading” (2020, Kleinknecht). While the program is composed primarily of play—which both Piaget and Vygotsky stressed as important for early childhood development—the children have to make a plan for their play and the teacher helps support it so they can follow through (2020, Kleinknecht). Although the children are too young to accurately use language to write their play plans, they are encouraged to use pictures to draw out their plan and transition to symbols (2020, Kleinknecht). One of the other important parts of the program, shared reading, is based on research cited earlier in this paper; when children “take turns reading and listening,” with peer feedback, they are likely to perform better than if they were reading solo (2020, Kleinknecht). When comparing outcomes from the “Tools of the Mind” curriculum to that of traditional, academically-focused preschool programs, research finds that executive function and motivation increases, while externalization decreases. This is contrary to academically-focused preschool programs that decrease motivation and increase anxiety (2020, Kleinknecht).

In application, then, this research and side of the debate should not cause worry to parents, caregivers and teachers. If all development was dependent on child-adult scaffolding and mediation, there would be an immense amount of pressure on adults. However, the research cited in this article goes to show that many aspects of cognitive development—especially lower-functioning skills—are likely to be developed on behalf of the child acting on his or her environment. The types of skills that need the most scaffolding and mediation are higher-level skills, such as reading, writing, numeracy, and shared remembering. Likely, adults are scaffolding these skills already! However, by realizing the Vygotsky-defined process of scaffolding and what skills it applies to, adults are likely to make more informed decisions about educating their children. While education can occur in the home, choosing a pre-school (or, for a teacher, choosing curriculum and teaching techniques) for higher-order skills that are based on some of Vygotsky’s social principles are likely to result in faster and more full development.


Bjorklund, D., & Causey, K. (2018a). Social construction of mind. Children’s thinking: Cognitive development and individual differences (6th edition, pp. 65-91). SAGE Publishing.

Bjorklund, D., & Causey, K. (2018b). Thinking in symbols. Children’s thinking: Cognitive development and individual differences (6th edition, pp. 147-198). SAGE Publishing.

Kleinknecht, E. (2020, March 11). Cog Dev Week 7 Sp 2020 [PowerPoint Slides]. Moodle@PU.