How to Motivate Students to Think Critically with Ideas from Piaget and Vygotsky

How to Motivate Students to Think Critically with Piaget and Vygotsky:  Ask Doc

“Learning is more than the acquisition of the ability to think; it is the acquisition of many specialized abilities for thinking about a variety of things.”—Lev Vygotsky

“Education, for most people, means tying to lead the child to resemble the typical adult of his society, but for me, education means making creators. You have to make inventors, innovators, not conformists”—Jean Piaget

“Hey, Doc! How are you?”

“Oh, hello, Karla. I am well. You?”

“On break—I have 10 minutes. May I ask you a few questions about cognitive development?”

“Cognitive development? Sure! What’s on your mind?”

“As you know I have usually taught eleventh grade students. Some of the eleventh graders are capable of responding to abstract concepts. Many are not. This year I am teaching ninth grade students; I teach critical thinking, individualized presentations, assignment discovery; yet, it appears that most students struggle with many lessons that I deem easy. . .  Is there a type learning theory about education that you may share with me?”

“Well, Jean Piaget comes to mind. He argues that cognitive development in adolescence brings about changes that allow a transition from childhood to adult, and that children gain skills to think in abstractions and hypotheticals. Therefore, according to Piaget, you may infer that some ninth-grade students are cognitively ready to participate in conceptual learning.” thumbnail_IMG_2575

“Good! This realization explains reasons some students perform well with high levels of thinking and some do not.”

“Absolutely. Piaget believes children learn in stages at different ages, and in the operational stage, twelve years until adult, they have the capability of engaging in higher order thinking skills (HOTS).”

“How do you teach each of your students at high levels? Should you, in fact, teach every child, regardless of age, abstract thinking?”

“Again, Piaget reveals children learn in stages and some may not be ready to think abstractly if they are not of age. Since you teach ninth grade students, they should be ready for critical thinking because they fall in the category of operational stage. Because critical thinking may be a new concept to ninth graders, as teacher, you might need to repeat the lessons in different instructional settings until students understand.”

“Okay. I will do that. I believe strongly that ninth grade students should be ready for conceptual learning. . .I will continue—“

“Well, wait, not all cognitive psychologists agree with Piaget regarding students learning in stages. One noted opponent is Lev Vygotsky. He argues that children are capable of learning faster by having a mentor or a parent to motivate or push them into new challenges. Vygotsky idea, ‘Zone of Proximal,’ explains that the child is almost there in his learning yet needs a push.” This development may transpire at a young age, not necessarily during the operational stage as Piaget posits.”

“Is it okay to support both theories?”

“I certainly believe so. Both theories are plausible being that every student is a different learner—some more advanced than others.”

“I feel confident in knowing that children grow in stages, knowing their minds develop as they mature; however, I also believe it is highly likely that children learn faster when they have the inspiration and the guidelines for learning, especially when instructed by a learned person.”

“I have heard of Jean Piaget but not heard of Vygotsky.”

“Yes, Vygotsky was born in Russia in 1896 and died when only thirty-seven years old. His theory of cognitive development never reached the prominence of Piaget. Ironically, though, since his death, his work continues to come forth. Whose theory do you believe—Piaget or Vygotsky?”

“I cannot say for sure. . . I hope to read about these two psychologists and their theories about learning; yet Piaget seems to make sense to me: rethinking learning based on stages. . . it is true that people crawl before they walk—babble before they talk— and it is sensible that people, including infants, learn faster when they are aided by parents, such as a dad or mom cuddling their infant, “Say Da-Da” “Say Ma-Ma”: The infant tries to echo the sound “Da-Da /Ma-Ma.” Therefore, to me, Vygotsky makes sense, too. . . In light of what I have learned today, I will continue to teach my ninth-grade students higher order thinking skills, and I will use your suggestions to reteach concepts in different ways.”

“Good” (smile).


Gotta go! Thank you, Doc”—

You are welcome, Karla.”

Tips for Teaching Critical Thinking:

  1. Present a list of vocabulary that relates to thinking Examples: Inductive, deductive, metacognition, conceptual, abstract, thought.
  2. Explain to students the idea of critical thinking.
  3. Present analogies and examples to support critical thinking.
  4. Allow students to research critical thinking to share with class what they have learned.
  5. Allow students to work with a partner to discuss critical thinking.
  6. Ask students to explain the extent they are ready to learn on higher levels. 
  7. Assign students to discover animated images of critical thinking.
  8. Assign homework for students to research 1-2-page article about critical thinking, and ask them to comment on their research. 
  9. Continue instructing assignments that allow students to explore thinking concepts.
  10. Praise students for their learning.

Cynthia Mathews, Ed.D. (2020)

Doctor of Curriculum and Instruction

Presenter of Professional Development





Published by cynthiamathews

I'm an innovative spirit, one who seeks new and practical ways to learn about life. I enjoy exploring innovative styles to motivate people to persevere in a challenging world. Having a doctorate in Educational Leadership and Curriculum & Instruction, I am inspired to maintain a life long learning experience that will allow me to share my knowledge with others. My expertise includes detecting apathy in individuals and prescribing ways to motivate them to be their best. To initiate this endeavor, I create and conduct personal and professional development programs. I write briefs and pamphlets and instructional guides to inspire, and I speak--upon request--to those who need a reminder of their inner excellence. My blog's main focus is to document my research on motivation and curriculum instruction and to share with subscribers the understanding, the ideas, and the strategies that result from my research. I am a native of Alabama, a teacher, and an author. I look forward to learning with you.

%d bloggers like this: